Blackwell (Roosevelt) Island as NYC's Civic Center

By Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin

The notion of a civic center–a focus of the city’s public energies and an expression of its governmental purposes–was much discussed at the turn of the twentieth century. Daniel Burnham’s White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, and Charles Mulford Robinson’s City Beautiful designs led a new generation to think about how to build modern-day equivalents of the Acropolis in ancient Greece. In the March 1902 edition of Municipal Affairs, ex-Congressman and lawyer John De Witt Warner declaimed, “New York’s greatest material lack... [of] one or more great civic centres... effectively grouped... public or quasipublic structures that are, as it were, the vital organs upon which its vigor and character must so largely depend.”


This is the second in a series of posts drawn from the authors'recent work Never Built New York, published courtesy of Metropolis Books.

The Municipal Art Society deemed City Hall Park the natural center, as did most of the leading planners of the day. The young architect Thomas J. George, however, demurred. He had his own plan, which he sent to the New York City Improvement Commission, and then published in the July 1904 issue of House & Garden. In “A Suggestion for Utilizing Blackwell’s Island, N.Y., as a Site for Municipal Buildings,” George argued that the island, known today as Roosevelt Island, was much closer to the city’s true commercial center. New York would grow to the east, he said, and the new bridges and tunnels crossing the East River, were “already having [their] effect.”

George contemplated the construction of two new bridges to cross Blackwell’s–one of them passing through the dome of his new municipal building. Esplanades at either end of the island would be mirrored by grand promenades stretching along the riverfronts of Manhattan and Long Island City. The municipal building itself would be seven blocks long, with a central tower 600 feet high. The huge capitol structure would be a perpetual landmark, since it would be impossible to hem it in with yet taller buildings–the fate of City Hall in Lower Manhattan. An essential element of George’s enormous scheme was the opening of broad diagonal streets, emanating from such landmarks as Penn Station, the public library at Bryant Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Grand Central Terminal, and from the north end of Central Park. Thus, the new city hall would be framed by vistas across Manhattan.

As House & Garden duly noted, “Necessarily, Mr. George... submits his plan as an idealistic suggestion.” And it was–although George did go on to build tall, famously as a key designer of the 952-foot City Services Building, an Art Deco masterpiece now called 70 Pine.

Sam Lubell is a Staff Writer at Wired and a Contributing Editor at the Architect’s Newspaper. He has written seven books about architecture, published widely, and curated Never Built Los Angeles and Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. Greg Goldin was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine from 1999 to 2011, and co-curator, and co-author, of Never Built Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper, and Zocalo, among many others.