Manhattan’s Civic Center Plan, 1964

While selecting architectural plans of buildings in lower Manhattan for a display in connection with the recent Open House New York event, City archivists came across an over-size multi-page set of detailed plans and elevations for a “Manhattan Civic Center,” circa 1964. If implemented, this grand scheme would have demolished 31 Chambers Street (home of the Municipal Archives) and radically transformed City Hall Park and the blocks between Broadway and Lafayette Street, from Chambers Street north to Worth Street. The plan called for a 54-story office building that anchored a three-level landscaped platform with reflecting pool, restaurants, shops, and two levels of underground parking for 1,400 cars. Only the City Hall and Municipal Building remained; every other extant building would have vanished to accommodate this grand vision. But it never happened. Why? For answers we turned again to the always rewarding Municipal Library vertical files and publications, and Municipal Archives collections.

City Hall Park, City Hall, Municipal Building, Surrogate’s Courthouse, high view from Park Row, 1950. Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Proposals to increase the capacity of New York City’s City Hall were promulgated almost as soon as the building was finished in 1811. Mayor Hugh Grant in 1889, and Mayor Thomas Gilroy in 1893, even went so far as to advocate demolishing and replacing City Hall, widely admired and beloved as an architectural “jewel box.” After creation of the Greater City of New York in 1898, and the concurrent expansion of municipal government, the need for office space became acute. Although construction of the Municipal Building, opening in 1914, took the pressure off City Hall, calls for an improvement in the overall civic center area—charitably called a “hodgepodge” of buildings and traffic—continued unabated through the early years of the 20th century.

New York Civic Center plan, 1964. NYC Municipal Archives.

The post-World War II era brought new opportunities to act on the desire for a civic center appropriate to a world metropolis. In 1949, the City Planning Commission proposed a “Master Plan for the Civic Center” that resulted in some modest changes—a new Civil Court and improvement to the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. But it was not until November 1961, when Mayor Robert Wagner budgeted $3 million for a new office building on the site of the Tweed Courthouse that any comprehensive planning would take place. Wagner’s proposal met with a storm of protest from civic organizations who decried desecration of City Hall Park. In response, Wagner launched an in-depth study for a Civic Center plan, which would take into consideration building functions, traffic patterns, parking, pedestrians, transit and future expansion. Wagner appointed a Civic Center Committee that subsequently hired architectural and traffic consultants to carry out the study.

On December 7, 1962, the Civic Center Master Plan was released with a full-scale press conference covered by newspapers, radio, television, national magazines and technical journals. It was lucky they chose that day; the next day all of the New York City newspapers embarked on a strike that lasted 114 days.

They offered an ambitious plan, and initially, it received good reviews. The New York Herald Tribune described the new Civic Center as “…a sort of Rockefeller Center downtown, only much more so in expanse and open welcome to the pedestrian.”

But there were obstacles ahead. Among them was the already-underway Federal government plan to construct an office building adjacent to Foley Square that complicated the City’s new scheme. On January 2, 1963, Mayor Wagner wrote to President Kennedy: “We respectfully urge that you …take the necessary steps to bring the new Federal Building into harmony with the great Civic Center which we hope to realize in New York City.” Kennedy replied via his Administrator of the General Services Administration, saying, essentially, it was too late.

Local business owners in the area whose properties would have been seized for the Civic Center also objected to the plan. Notable among this group was Henry Modell, proprietor of the sporting-goods chain, a long-time tenant at 280 Broadway. A greater and more tenacious obstacle came from the architecture and design community. In a letter to Mayor Wagner, dated February 4, 1964, Jack Kaplan, writing on behalf of thirteen prominent architects, including Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and I.M. Pei, offered his foundation’s (The J. M. Kaplan Fund) support to Mayor Wagner if he would open the plan “…to conduct an international competition for the purpose of securing a better design for the proposed Civic Center.”

New York Civic Center plan, showing view of the sunken plaza behind City Hall. NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1963, the City had started to address concerns like these by commissioning noted architect Edward Durell Stone, along with architects Eggers & Higgins, to coordinate the actual design of the Civic Center. Released to the public in April 1964, Stone’s new proposal followed the basic recommendations of the earlier studies, but combined two office buildings into one 54-story skyscraper. Reporting on the new building, New York Times architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable commented that its façade of “…slender panels of white marble aggregate, with gently cured surfaces, alternating with gray glass … is meant to lessen the impact of its size in relationship to the diminutive 19th-century City Hall.”

In replying to the Kaplan letter on February 17, 1964, Mayor Wagner expressed hope that the Stone proposal “… will interpret the intention of the overall plan with enough latitude to produce a distinguished architectural concept.” Based on the correspondence found in Mayor Wagner’s “Civic Center” subject file in the Archives, it was clear that the architecture and planning community did not agree with Wagner’s hope. They continued to protest, right up to the last days of his administration in December 1965. And with that it looked like the clock may have run out on the vision of a great new Civic Center.

Phase One of the New York Civic Center, after the destruction of the Sun Building, The Emigrant Savings Bank, and the Tweed Courthouse. NYC Municipal Archives.

Final phase of the Civic Center Plan, with the removal of the Surrogate’s Court Building at 31 Chambers Street. NYC Municipal Archives.

It did live on for a while, though. The “Civic Center” subject file in Mayor John Lindsay’s papers is thin; perhaps reflecting different priorities for the new administration or the realities of a city facing a variety of urban ills. In 1966, Lindsay designated William C. Mattison, his Public Works Commissioner, as the “coordinator of all phases of the planning and construction of the Manhattan Civic Center…” In 1967, he replaced Mattison with Richard H. Buford, the Director of the Office of Lower Manhattan Development. The only other correspondence in the file is a letter from Buford to Mr. Herbert Epstein, President of the Architects Council of New York City, explaining that the Civic Center plan needed to be “approached from a fresh viewpoint and brought in line with the Lower Manhattan Plan of 1966.”

Mayor Lindsay’s successor, Abraham D. Beame tried to keep the plan alive with Executive Order (No. 13) issued on March 28, 1974, calling for “Establishment of the Manhattan Civic Center Task force.” Like the predecessor committees and task forces this new group would: “…expedite and coordinate the planning, design, property acquisition, construction and development needed to provide a modern City Hall annex and otherwise improve the Manhattan Civic Center area as required to achieve more efficient conduct of the City government, consistent with the aesthetic setting of the existing City Hall.”

No other documentation has been discovered in the Beame administration archive to shed light on the work of the task force. Interestingly, a few weeks after promulgating the Executive Order, Beame sent out a press release announcing “…a Special Task Force…created to determine the feasibility of preserving the old Tweed Court House and modernizing its interior, or replacing it with a new structure, as a City Hall Annex.” Again, documentation of this task force’s work has yet to be discovered, but in this case, the end of the story is evident. Tweed survived; was designated a landmark in 1984 and in the late 1990s underwent a spectacular rehabilitation. It currently serves as the home of the Department of Education.

“Civic Center” as a subject does not appear in the records of Mayor Koch (1977-1989). By then, several buildings originally slated for demolition had been designated landmarks: Surrogate’s Court in 1966; Tweed in 1984; the Emigrant Industrial Saving Bank (51 Chambers Street) in 1985; and the Sun Building (280 Broadway) in 1986. This rendered implementation of the plan as it was envisioned in 1964 effectively impossible. And if that wasn’t enough, construction of the second federal office building, on the block between Reade and Duane Streets, beginning in 1989 led to the discovery of what would now is known as the African Burial Ground, making any further construction in this neighborhood a perilous undertaking.

Concourse, New York Civic Center. Edward Durrell Stone, Eggers and Higgins Associated Architects. NYC Municipal Archives.

Since the demise of the grand modern civic center, the City has settled for incremental changes—City Hall Park received a long-overdue restoration in the late 1990s; developers have purchased the Emigrant Savings Bank for a luxury residential conversion; and government agencies are being dispersed throughout the Boroughs—as the saga of the ever-changing New York City landscape continues.

Additional information and images of the Civic Center can be viewed in the Archives’ exhibit gallery: