A professional group I belong to recently asked us to list on the discussion board what, in our opinion, were the ten most significant historic sites in New York City. We could decide what “significant” meant, so I decided to make a list of ten “personally significant” sites—places that for one reason or another meant the most to me. I’m glad they asked, because in making my list, I realized how incredibly rich the city is in material connections to the past. For tourists, they are attractions to visit; for New Yorkers, they are part of the fabric of our daily lives. Here are my picks—with my reasons.
Grand Central Terminal tops the list because of its significance in establishing the constitutionality of Landmarks Legislation, without which I am certain that many of the historic sites I cherish would have been demolished or defaced. And for me Grand Central is a gateway to family who live up the river.
The Merchant’s House in the oldest existing photo. Today the adjacent buildings are gone, but the Merchant’s House is still there! It is like a second home to me. For seventeen years this month, I have been helping visitors access the past through this unique historic house. Built in 1832 it remains virtually unchanged with original furnishings and personal belongings of the family who lived there for almost 100 years. You can read more about it on the “about” page.
The New York Research Library is one of the world’s great research libraries. This magnificent Beaux Arts building is a place where I have spent many satisfying hours reading about the 19th century and I account it a very great privilege.
Rockefeller Center with its art deco style evokes inchoate memories of my childhood when art deco was fashionable and exciting. My exposure to this aesthetic must have been through the movies—I saw lots of movies in those days. Rockefeller Center even today strikes me as the ultimate in sophisticated and grown up.
Washington Square North is a unique example of an extant streetscape of the era. This is where the fictional characters of Henry James’ novel Washington Square lived in 1843. I loved the book as well as the two movies and the Broadway revival of the The Heiress, the play based on the novel. And another Broadway revival is coming soon to Broadway!
City Hall makes the list because I find it so amazing that a building over two hundred years old still serves the same function it was originally intended for. Very satisfying.
St. Paul’s is the oldest building in continuous use in New York City. George Washington prayed here! For this reason alone it deserves a place on my list. I chose it also for the care and comfort it gave so many in the difficult days following September 11, 2001.
The Soldiers’and Sailors’ Monument, which I pass almost daily and has been known to move me to tears. It honors the Union soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. One day as I sat nearby, I heard a fragment of a conversation between a young mother pushing a stroller and her five-year old who was walking alongside. Apparently he had just asked what that was? Her reply, “It helps us think about. . .” I can’t think of a better explanation of why monuments are important.
Central Park, particularly Bethesda Terrace, is my favorite place in all of New York City.The Terrace, in my mind, is a perfect public space. A photograph cannot convey the wonderful way It uplifts the spirit and at the same time enfolds and soothes.
The Lincoln Building serves as a shortcut to my dentist. I still call it the Lincoln Building, although the Daniel Chester French model for the seated Lincoln has been banished to the law library in the retail corridor that branches off the lobby and the building has been renamed. Still, with its polished marble, satiny brass and exquisite coffered ceiling it is so lovely that it almost makes up for the dentist.
I could go on, but that’s ten. If you’re a New Yorker, make your list and share it with us in the comments section. (You don’t have to give reasons unless you want to). If you’re not a New Yorker, come visit and see some of our favorites, particularly the Merchant’s House, where I guarantee you’ll receive a warm welcome.
Those of you who grew up in New York may have on your list one of the beautiful historic school buildings designed by C.B.J. Snyder, featured this month in The Landmarks Conservancy Tourist in Your Own Town series.