New York City Walking Tour: Midtown's Best Architecture

Posted by Fodor's Editors on May 10, 2012 at 9:31:10 AM EDT | Post a Comment
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This week, Fodor's takes you on a tour of Midtown's Best Architecture. To see other great routes through our favorite NYC neighborhoods, check out The 6 Best New York City Walking Tours Slideshow.

The best place to experience New York City's renowned architecture is in a one mile span of Midtown East. No other city features so many significant styles and buildings in such a condensed area: In the span of just a few blocks, you can witness Art Deco splendor, Moorish Revival magnificence, and quintessential glass-curtain modernism. Perhaps no other city possesses such an iconic skyline. Even if its locals don't ever seem to look up, rest assured that they are mighty proud of what surrounds them. Start your 1.3-mile tour at the New York Public Library at 455 5th Avenue, between 41st and 42nd streets. See the interactive map below below for turn-by-turn directions.

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New York Public Library

There are dozens of libraries in New York but when people refer to "the library," they are only talking about one place: The iconic building on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets. The firm behind its design, Carrère and Hastings, was relatively unknown when it won a citywide contest to design the library in 1897. That all changed after the resplendent Beaux Art-style building with its white marble façade opened its doors 14 years later. The wide steps are a time-honored meeting place for visitors and locals alike. When walking up them, say hi to "Patience" and "Fortitude", the two lion sculptures that flank the entrance; they were given their names by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia during the Great Depression. Explore on your own or take a free hour-long tour, which leave from the first floor at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Don't miss the enormous Reading Room on the top floor—it should look familiar from films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Ghostbusters. The library recently turned 100 but like a true grand dame, it barely shows its age. That's due in large part to a 3- year restoration that was completed just in time for the centennial birthday on May 23, 2011.

Address: 455 5th Avenue

Learn More: New York Public Library Website

Next Stop: Looking east from the corner of 42nd and 5th Ave., the emblematic spire of the Chrysler Building will pop into view. Walk toward it three blocks along 42nd and take a left on Lexington Ave to reach its base.

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The Chrysler Building

With its glittering tiered crown and tall, slender proportions, the Chrysler Building on the corner of 42nd and Lexington is the city's reigning beauty queen. One of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture anywhere, the graceful skyscraper also briefly held the title of world's tallest building when it was completed in 1930. Eleven months later, the Empire State Building stole the title. Walter P. Chrysler commissioned the architect William Van Alen to build this impressive headquarters for his car company. Van Alen incorporated various elements of Chrysler vehicles, including the radiator grills, winged radiator caps, and hood ornaments, into the design of the building. There is no observation deck but it's worth ducking into the lavishly decorated lobby, which fittingly includes a chromed steel trim and a huge mural depicting the golden age of motoring. If the aged structure strikes you as especially polished that's because it received a renovation by noted architect Philip Johnson in 2000.

Address: 405 Lexington Ave.

Learn More: Fodor's Chrysler Building Review

Next Stop: Cross the street to enter Grand Central Station through the Grand Central Market entrance on the right, and stroll through the colorful gourmet food market en-route to the station's main concourse.

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Grand Central Station

In all of New York, and maybe in the entire world, it's hard to name a more magnificent building that sees more foot traffic than Grand Central Station. When opened in 1913 at the behest of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the massive Beaux Arts building represented a huge achievement in urban planning. Today the structure houses magazine stands, various shops, and commuters rushing for trains to Westchester and Connecticut. But the building's mythic grandeur still persists: Just walk into the enormous main concourse and look up. Thousands of gold leaf stars twinkle across a cerulean sky like something out of a Renaissance church. French painter Paul Helleu's creation is complemented throughout the station by chandeliers made of real gold, intricate stonework, tons of Botticino marble, and two main staircases modeled after none other than the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House. Off the main concourse, the soaring space of Vanderbilt Hall often hosts public art exhibits or flashy private events. To round out the experience, slip downstairs to the Oyster Bar, a justifiably famous eatery that gets packed around lunchtime, or seek out the station's hidden Campbell Apartment bar for a martini in a super refined, old-school setting.

Address: 87 E. 42nd St.

Learn More: Fodor's Grand Central Review

Next Stop: To exit Grand Central Station, take the escalators leading to the exit labeled "The MetLife Building 45 Street" on the north side of the main concourse. This will land you in the lobby of the MetLife Building, which was the largest commercial office building in the world when it opened in 1963. Walk all the way through the towering lobby to the escalators at the far end. As you descend toward the exit, you can glimpse the tunnels and ornate detailing of the Helmsley Building through the windows ahead. Upon exiting the MetLife Building on 45th street, cross the street and enter the Helmsley East/Park Avenue East pedestrian tunnels.

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Helmsley Building

Just north of Grand Central, the Helmsley Building literally straddles Park Avenue—at its base several tunnels allow car and pedestrian traffic to zip right underneath. The ingenious way the tunnels steer traffic around Grand Central via a series of viaducts is one of the building's most notable features. Another is its pyramid top capped by an ornate gold cupola. Warren & Wetmore built the Helmsley Building as the headquarters of the New York Central Railroad Company in 1929, and it was originally known as the New York Central Building. The grandiosity of the lobby, with its travertine marble, swirling rococo detail, and gilded chandeliers, signal the prominence it once enjoyed. Some people consider it a bit ostentatious and overdone—you can walk inside to decide for yourself.

Address: 230 Park Ave.

Learn More: Fodor's Helmsley Building Review

Next Stop: Walk north three blocks from the Helmsley on the east side of Park Avenue, to reach the Waldorf-Astoria at the corner of 49th Street.

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Waldorf-Astoria

You're now treading the fabled sidewalks of Park Avenue, a name that's synonymous the world over with wealth and elegance. One of the avenue's most famous fixtures is the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Originally located on 34th Street, it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. This second iteration was completed in 1931 by the firm Shultze & Weaver. Upon completion, the hotel was the largest in the world, encompassing an entire city block. Many notable guests have stayed at and lived in its brick-and- limestone towers, ranging from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe. The Waldorf has also long been the hotel of choice for U.S. Presidents—every single one of them has stayed here since 1931. Today, the four-story ballroom still hosts grand events like the annual International Debutante Ball. Wander through the lobby to savor its grandeur and Art Deco flourishes. And if you're hungry, stop by the Peacock Alley restaurant to sample a Waldorf salad at its birthplace.

Address: 301 Park Ave.

Learn More: Fodor's Waldolf-Astoria Hotel Review

Next Stop: Walk north across 50th St to reach St. Bartholomew's Church.

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St. Bartholomew's Church

With its low-slung structure, ornate Byzantine details, warm pink brick, wide-open terrace, and multihued gold dome, the magnificent St. Bartholomew's church is a welcomed anomaly among Park Avenue's gleaming towers. Before going inside this Episcopal church, take a minute to study the entrance portico with its three arches and heavy bronze doors. If its design strikes you as a bit incongruous, that's because it was created by a different architect for another church. Indeed, while Bertham Goodhue is credited with designing St. Bart's, which opened here in 1919, the portico dates from 1903, and was created by Stanford White for the church's previous Madison Avenue location. If you happen to be visiting on a Sunday, tag along on an 11 A.M. tour that covers both the church's architecture and its rich collection of classic and contemporary artwork. Or just explore on your own, keeping an eye out for the glittering gold ceiling mosaics above the entrance foyer. The congregation also boasts a famous music program with frequent concerts. On pleasant days, the lovely outdoor terrace café is a wonderful respite from the bustling city.

Address: 325 Park Ave.

Learn More: St. Bartholomew's Church Website

Next Stop: Walk north on Park Avenue to reach the Seagram Building located on Park Avenue, between 52nd and 52rd streets.

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Seagram Building

At first glance, the sleek, black Seagram Building designed for the Seagram liquor company looks just like any other modern skyscraper—and that's exactly why it's so significant today. Created in 1958 by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, it became the model for corporate skyscrapers to come. Story has it that Seagram's CEO, Samuel Bronfman, was persuaded by his daughter to hire the two architects when she was an architecture student at Vassar. With its curtain-wall façade, internally supported floors, public plaza, and uniform details—right down to the lettering on the mailboxes—the Seagram became a symbol of America's Modernist era as it entered the 1960s. At noontime, you'll glimpse Manhattan's power players brokering deals over lunch at the famed Four Seasons restaurant, which is entered via the south side of the building.

Address: 375 Park Ave.

Learn More: Fodor's Seagram Building Review

Next Stop: Cross to the other side of Park Avenue at 53rd Street.

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Lever House

Built by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the Lever Brothers soap company, this all-glass structure resembles many of its neighbors today, but was nothing short of revolutionary when it opened here in 1952. Its crisp, bright design incorporates two perpendicular glass slabs and shares a similar structure to the Seagram Building across the street, which was completed six years later. These days, Lever House is better known for the public art displayed in its lobby and plaza. Featured artists have included Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Tom Sachs.

Address: 390 Park Ave.

Next Stop: Walk north on Park Avenue to 55th Street, then a block east to Lexington Avenue.

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Central Synagogue

In the midst of blaring horns and cheap nail salons sits Central Synagogue, a religious structure that looks like it was transported directly from southern Spain and plopped down in Midtown East. The building is considered New York's finest example of Moorish-Islamic Revival architecture; notice its arched doorways and windows and towers topped with bright-green, onion-shaped copper domes. In continuous use since 1870, the synagogue was designed by Henry Fernbach, America's first prominent Jewish architect, and the man behind some of Soho's best-known cast-iron buildings. A massive fire wreaked havoc on the synagogue in 1998, but a careful restoration, completed in 2001, added new dynamism to the sanctuary. Indeed, step inside, and you'll see 5,000 brightly colored wall stencils done up in 69 colors. Free tours are available every Wednesday at 12:45pm.

Address: 652 Lexington Ave.

Learn More: Central Synagogue Website

Next Stop: Walk back to Park Avenue, then two blocks north to 57th Street.

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Ritz Tower

Like the Lever House and Seagram Building, the Ritz Tower now blends in with its neighbors, but was extremely influential when it opened on this stretch of Park Avenue in the mid-1920s. At the time, Fifth Avenue high society was just beginning to relocate to Park Avenue, and the Ritz quickly became the only address worth having. In addition to its stately appearance and prime location, the building soared an audacious 41 stories high, making it the tallest residential building in New York. Indeed, its top-floor tenants had unobstructed views for 25 miles in every direction. Curiously, none of the apartments had kitchens—instead, meals were prepared in a central kitchen and delivered by dumb waiter to each floor. The absence of kitchens meant the Ritz was exempt from typical apartment regulations, thus allowing developer Arthur Brisbane to increase the height of the building. On the lower floors, it operated as a hotel; Brisbane hired the Ritz-Carlton Company to manage the building and adopted its posh name.

Thomas Hastings, the surviving partner of the firm Carrère & Hastings, who also designed New York's Public Library, co-designed the Ritz with Emery Roth, and you'll notice similar classical elements on the building's exterior. The white limestone base is bedecked with Renaissance flair and sculptural ornaments like garlands, cherubs, and stone urns. The most unique aspect, however, is best viewed from across the street. Here, you can look up and see numerous setbacks cut into the tower as it grows higher and thinner. Atop each of these is a terrace. The outdoor terrace, an essential perk of the finest apartments today, was a completely novel concept at the time. Details like these wowed everyone. As one critic wrote, "Even the 'professional' New Yorker, who has ceased to be awed by the wonders of the present building age, stops to view and contemplate the actual arrival of 'the home 500 feet high.'" Though the views aren't quite the same today, the Ritz is still a highly covetable address and many of Manhattan's elite call it home.

Address: 465 Park Ave.


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Photo Credits: Midtown East: Midtown East via Shutterstock.com; New York Public Library: The New York Public Library via Shutterstock.com; The Chrysler Building: Chrysler Building by vtravelled.com Attribution-NonCommercial License; Grand Central Station: Stuart Monk/iStockphoto/Thinkstock; Helmsley Building: Cristian Baitg/iStockphoto; Waldorf-Astoria: SeanPavonePhoto/iStockphoto; St. Bartholomew’s Church: Courtesy of St. Bartholomew's Church; Seagram Building: Seagram Building by Tom Ravenscrodt Attribution-NonCommercial License; Lever House: Lever House by David Shankbone Attribution-NonCommercial License; Central Synagogue: Courtesy of Central Synagogue; Ritz Tower: New York City, Nov 29, 2008 by Jazz Guy Attribution-NonCommercial License

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