In 1906, the dashing and amply-mustachioed Stanford White was shot dead by one Harry Kendall Thaw during a show at the Madison Square Roof Garden. Thaw was the jealous husband of one of White’s old flames, and the press dubbed the resulting court appearance “The Trial of the Century.” A century later, the lurid details of the trial are largely forgotten—but what is notable about the incident is that the victim, one of the most famous New Yorkers of the day, was an architect; it was White, in fact, who designed the old Madison Square Garden.
There are not many cities in the world where the death of an architect, whatever the circumstances, would trigger the Trial of the Century. But New York has always held architects in high regard. Perhaps no other metropolis is as synonymous with fantastic, innovative architecture as New York. But while many appreciate the grandeur of an edifice like Grand Central Station or the Chrysler Building, residential architecture - the buildings in which real New Yorkers actually reside—often gets short shrift.
We Live Here
It may not feel like it, but Manhattan is of course an island. Its 23 square miles include Central Park and other public green spaces, the jutted rock of upper Inwood, and countless miles of asphalt roads and sidewalks. When you subtract all of that, and take away the office buildings and municipal buildings and the Chelsea Piers and the Boat Basin and all those other areas of the island where people do not live, you’re left with a relatively tiny area in which to house some 1.5 million human beings.
“Manhattan,” as Luc Sante writes in his fascinating 1991 book Low Life: the Lures and Snares of Old New York, “is a finite space that cannot be expanded but only continually resurfaced and reconfigured. Manhattan is a wonderland of real estate speculation, a hot center whose temperature cannot but increase as population increases and desirability remains several paces ahead of capacity.”
Originally, only the lower tip of the island was an urban area. The streets and avenues that now form the city’s distinctive grid began as rural farm land. When Cornelius Vanderbilt built Grand Central Station, the name was scoffed at; the place was far uptown, neither grand nor central to anything.