Stand in Bowling Green Park in New York City and look around at the park and the buildings on its perimeter. At one time or another over the centuries here, Native American tribes gathered in council, men and women bought tickets for ocean passage in a couple of the nearby buildings, and John D. Rockefeller oversaw his dominating oil company and his charitable work from an office in another. In the late 19th century thousands marching in support of workers ended their Labor Day parades in Bowling Green, and many grand ticker tape parades have started here. To get a compact experience of history, great architecture, and a peaceful respite, Bowling Green and the area adjacent to it in Lower Manhattan provide as good as any space in New York.
If you hang out in Bowling Green for even a short while, you’ll notice that scads of tourists pose for photos at the northern tip in front of the famous “Charging Bull,” Arturo Di Modica’s statue placed here in 1989. The artist created the bronze sculpture following the 1987 stock market crash as a symbol of the strength of the American people. Given the market’s dizzying decline this past year, you might want to stop here and call on the bull’s spirit again.
You also may sense, as I have, that many come and go from the statue without even looking around them at the park or its surroundings, and they’re missing a lot. In that spirit, here’s a walking tour of Bowling Green and a number of the most noteworthy buildings around it.
International Mercantile Marine Company Building, 1 Broadway
Part of the allure of the corner of Broadway and Battery Place is one of this spot’s prior lives. The first Dutch fort of Manhattan, known as Fort Amsterdam, stood just south of here, at the time that the Dutch founded their settlement in the early 1600s. This is the place where Broadway begins, and as I look northward thinking of this long avenue I have a sense of so much of the city’s aliveness and history.
The name of the building at 1 Broadway is a mouthful, but it comes from the ambitious trust company, formed in 1902, that combined a number of American and British steamship companies in hopes of dominating shipping. J.P. Morgan backed it financially, and it struggled and ultimately failed, by 1932. This company owned the Titanic, since the White Star Line was one of its subsidiaries.
The building wasn’t born to house a shipping company. It was, at one time, an 1882 red brick Queen Anne-style building with a mansard roof and a cupola, before the IMMC purchased it in 1919. For the remodeling of 1919-1921, architect Walter Chambers turned it into a stately, neoclassical building newly clad in white limestone, with rounded arches near the top and on its base, and decorative flourishes.
While this building, a designated New York City landmark, would wow very few, its details and touches speak of a time when ocean travel was important and central in many people’s lives (photo here). Turning the corner onto Battery Place, you’ll see two doorways on the first floor, which is currently a bank: One is marked “First Class” and the other “Cabin Class”; they denoted the entries to the old ticket-booking hall. From this vantage point, seeing Battery Park across the way and feeling the breeze of New York harbor, it’s easy to picture the throngs entering these doorways more than 80 years ago.
This doorway, like a companion one, tells of the days when people bought tickets for ocean voyages. This one says “Cabin Class” while another says “First Class.”
On the building’s exterior are symbols of the ocean such as waves, dolphins, starfish, ropes, tridents, and seashells. Perhaps most evocative of voyages on the building are its colorful mosaic shields representing various world ports: Gibraltar, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Genoa, Cherbourg, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, and others. Each has a different shield: Liverpool’s shield, for instance, shows a book with the phrase “Thy Word Is Truth,” a schooner, and an eagle.
Cunard Building, 25 Broadway
This is a New York building that possesses a grand past, a hoped-for glorious future, and a so-so present. I’ve kept an eye on this building for awhile and wondered if and when the public will be allowed back into its gorgeous interior Great Hall (it is apparently undergoing renovation).
Cunard, founded by Nova Scotia businessman Samuel Cunard in 1840, maintained a presence for much of the 19th century on or near Bowling Green as part of what was called “Steamship Row.” By the early 20th century, Cunard sought to build a headquarters in New York. This building (photos), designated a New York City landmark, was born at a time when going by sea, not airliners, ruled international travel, and companies constructed a crop of skyscrapers along Lower Broadway devoted to the shipping industry. In this building, designed and built from 1917-1921, passengers booked passage on Cunard-owned ocean liners such as the two Queen Elizabeth ships and the Queen Mary.
Benjamin Wistar Morris III, the architect, drew much praise for the neo-Renaissance design, a style that befitted its lofty purpose. The Broadway façade of Indiana limestone is dignified and fairly simple, with three central archways and modest carved nautical detail such as shells and compasses.
The interior – also protected as a New York-designated landmark – is where the building’s glory lies, in its vestibule and Great Hall, where passengers booked travel. Unfortunately, these great spaces were closed off on the day I visited, and I had a sort of “peephole” experience through a door slot and dirty window. I could see only parts of the frescoes and vaults that make up one of the most sumptuous inner spaces in New York. The lobby has nautical ceiling sculpture carved by sculptor Carl Jennewein and painted by muralist Ezra Winter, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks. The Great Hall, intended to match the luxury of some of the finest spaces of a Cunard liner, is a complex space of vaults and niches. It has ornate ceiling frescoes by Winter displaying shipping themes and elaborate marble and travertine detailing.
Bowling Green Park
Imagine this small, tidily kept patch of green not as a place where office workers eat their lunch salads or tourists take photos but where some early 18th century city dwellers bowled or local citizens in the 1770s destroyed a statue of King George III. I like to walk its oblong circle and consider just how much has happened here.
This place (photos) has had many lives and hosted many activities. When you see business types rushing around it in suits, consider that it was part of the Dutch hog and cattle market, from 1638 to 1647, according to The WPA Guide to New York City. The Dutch also used it as a meeting place and as a parade ground for the militia.
Bowling Green recently passed its 276th birthday as New York City’s first and oldest public park. During the early 18th century, the English fenced in and leased this green plot to several citizens for use as a “bowling green,” charging them a rent of one peppercorn a year. (Imagine paying your landlord in peppercorns today.) In sealing the deal on March 12, 1733, New York’s common council designated Bowling Green, above the old fort on Lower Broadway, as a park for the “recreation & delight” of the city’s inhabitants.
Today’s iron fence around the park dates from before the Revolutionary War (and the fence itself is a designated New York City landmark). Such public places became centers of patriotic fervor when the colonialists sought to throw off English rule. In Bowling Green, they not only pulled down and destroyed a gilded lead statue of King George in the park but ripped off the small crowns decorating the fence posts so that what survives is sans the emblems of royal rule.
Like other public parks, Bowling Green has had better and worse days. At one point, it contained what the AIA Guide to New York City called an “atrocious `1950s Modern’ glassed-in, flat-topped subway entrance,” which the city removed during a 1978 reconstruction. Thank goodness. Today, Bowling Green is a well-tended, peaceful little oasis from which to take in the sight of the buildings around it and the openness to the harbor in the distance.
Standard Oil Building, 26 Broadway
When I look at this imposing, interesting, and uniquely designed Beaux Arts building, I say to myself, “So this is what some of the old oil money built!” Built from 1920-1928 and designated as a New York City landmark, it was the headquarters of John D. Rockefeller’s powerful Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
The skyscraper is actually an expansion of Standard Oil’s earlier headquarters, located at 26 Broadway since 1885. At one time, Rockefeller and his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. each had offices at this address. Thomas Hastings of the firm Carrère & Hastings, which designed many landmarked buildings in New York, was the principal architect, and the firm of Shreve, Lamb, & Blake was associate architect.
The first thing to notice is how its 16-story base tower curves along Broadway, as if someone shaped it like icing. It helped solve the issue of building on an irregular pentagonal plot (photos). But its 27-story top is skewed at an angle so that it aligns with the uptown grid, and it’s topped with a Corinthian colonnade and stepped pyramid. At the top of the pyramidal crown, the architect designed a metal brazier surrounded by torches (meant to symbolize the burning of the company’s product), which would be clearly visible to travelers on New York Harbor, especially at night.
On the Broadway exterior are Renaissance-inspired elements, such as lamps and torches in carved limestone and wrought iron, and the Standard Oil’s interwoven “SO” initials. Above the revolving-door entrance is a wrought iron fixture with signs of the zodiac.
A peek of the building’s lobby, where I had not been before, revealed a space that feels like a Renaissance courtyard. It’s lined with pilasters and columns with carved ornamentation at the top. The names of Rockefeller and other company directors are engraved in a frieze around the room. Toward the lobby’s back is a gorgeous mosaic clock with Roman numerals and zodiac figures, in gold, turquoise, and other vivid colors.
Some, such as architecture critic Henry Hope Reed, have called this building one of the finest classical buildings in New York City. Whether one looks at it up-close at ground level, at its lobby, or from the distance of northern Battery Park, this building is not only impressive but ingenious.
Note: The National Museum of the American Indian, at One Bowling Green, is worth its own column so was not included in this walking tour. Mindfulwalker.com plans to do a separate visit on the museum in the near future.