Bowling Green, a surviving fragment of New York’s earliest days, was totally transformed in the decades around 1900. What had been a low-scale square of houses and small offices became a skyscraper-ringed urban canyon, a spectacle of corporate and state power. That spectacle resulted from a scenographic approach to architecture in which designers orchestrated buildings and spaces together as an ensemble for dramatic visual and experiential effects. Architects who worked at Bowling Green were committed to the traditional urban streetscape, but their designs also gave form to the imperatives and values of the emerging corporate-capitalist economy. That meant skyscrapers. At Bowling Green, skyscrapers and the new Custom House together reshaped the historic square, providing visible, material proof of the intensity and speed of the economy’s corporate transformation.
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Absorbed in the whirl and stir of the To-day, occupied with vast schemes and enterprises for the To-morrow, overswept by a constant influx of new life and new elements, it [New York] seems to have no individual identity. It does not hold fast its old traditions, its past associations….
[But] there is no piece of land on Manhattan Island which has retained for a longer period its distinctive name, and at the same time fulfilled more thoroughly the purposes of its creation, than the small park at the extreme southern end of Broadway, known as Bowling Green. It is the one historic spot which has never lost its identity or been from public use since the foundation of the city.
Closely linked to the Battery and the harbor, the square has long been a vital point in the city’s spatial-geographical structure and civic landscape.
“The Plaine,” later the “bowling-green,” was the largest common space in Dutch New Amsterdam, formed in the 17th century as a clearing next to the city’s fort (which determined the twisted triangular shape of the square’s plan). After the fort’s removal in 1789, Government House was built there -— “plac’d upon an handsome elevation” -— as the president’s residence at the moment when New York was being considered for the national capital.
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Gilbert’s Custom House design, with its thick circuit of masonry walls and heavy rustication, further developed the continuous wall of stone around Bowling Green. The use of the classical orders also had an urbanistic function. While the side colonnades recede into the blocky mass of the building, forming lines of columns that dramatize the oblique vistas down Whitehall Street and from within Battery Park and the harbor, the front colonnade projects forward, dramatizing the terminating vista from Broadway. According to Gilbert, the front facade with its colonnade and sculptural embellishments was designed to be “so impressive by reason of the majesty of its composition, rather than by its actual size, that it should be truly a monument.”
Two final buildings, designed and built after World War I, augmented and completed the scenography of Bowling Green: the Cunard Building (Benjamin Wistar Morris, 1918-21) and Standard Oil Building (Carrère and Hastings, 1920-28) astride Broadway at the northern edges of the square. Together these two large buildings completed the continuous street wall modality of Bowling Green. They increased the length of the stony embrace around the space, and they completed the corporate reconstruction of the square.
The two buildings resulted from changes in the real estate market and the fortunes of corporate business in the years immediately following World War I. According to a report in the Times, the rebuilding promised to “create a whole new city below Wall Street.” “Creative destruction,” that ever-present accompaniment to capitalist development in New York, was working its machinery to transform whole districts throughout the city. The building up and densifying of lower Manhattan, which turned it into a corporate cityscape of large office buildings to the exclusion of almost everything else, was a dramatic rendering of this process.
The Bowling Green Offices next door suggested the general treatment of the Cunard’s tripartite massing. But Morris’ design is articulated by large-scale elements while the Bowling Green Offices has deep window reveals that cut up the facade into a cell-like grid pattern. The Cunard’s windows, set close to the face of the wall and unornamented, create a “towering mass of plain wall surface” that gives a sheer vertical effect. As art critic Royal Cortissoz described it, “There are no teasing details to disturb the calm of these noble walls. The arched base, like the pillared stage it carries, is refined very nearly to the point of austerity. As the facade soars to its height there are no decorative littlenesses to mar the broad and powerful sweep of the design.” The composition—unified, streamlined, and massive—imparts a “living quality.” “Gone,” says Cortissoz, “is the deadness, the inertia, the banality, of the skyscraper…. Gone is the empty gesture of adventitious ornament…. The facade holds you by its beauty and at the same time it persuades you that it is the outward, visible sign of an inward interest, a good plan.”
The ability of the building to “hold” the viewer is most clear in early views of the Cunard from Whitehall Street. It is a captivating sight, framed by the large-scale columns and arches of the Custom House to the left and the Produce Exchange to the right. Hugh Ferriss’s small sketch emphasizes the building’s sheer mass, representing it as a stony cliff pierced by colonnades and arcades at the top and bottom, creating a play of light and shadow. The building terminates the Whitehall Street vista but also presents itself almost in the guise of a seat, perhaps even an urban throne, on which the viewer can imagine sitting and becoming immersed in the bodily experience of the square’s powerful scenography. In this way, it “holds the viewer.”
The Standard Oil Building’s architect, Thomas Hastings, held an ambivalent attitude to the skyscraper that was typical of his fellow architects. He recognized that the “originality and modernity of these monstrous palaces of industry” had transformed city streets “into canyons of human habitation.” But he contributed to the canyon effect with his tall buildings, especially the Standard Oil, evidence of both the conflicted attitude of architects and the economic realities of professional work. Buildings such as the Standard Oil and Cunard, although tall, deemphasized height as the primary expressive value in an effort to temper the scale-less effects of skyscraper development and provide an alternative way of constructing coherent urban space. At Bowling Green, concern for height only came after concern for street-level scenography.
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Paul A. Ranogajec is an architectural and art historian. He recently earned a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY.
 Olivier Zunz, Making America Corporate, 1870-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 8.
 Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
 The phrase is from Carol Willis, Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995).
 Spencer Trask, “Bowling Green,” in Historic New York: Being the Second Series of the Half Moon Papers, ed. Maud Wilder Goodwin, et al. (New York: Putnam’s, 1899), 165-66.
 John Drayton (1793) quoted in ibid., 198.
 On these changes, see David M. Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).
 See Barr Ferree, “The High Building and Its Art,” Scribner’s Magazine, Mar. 1894, 311.
 “The Bowling Green Building,” Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, May 15, 1897, 826.
 See Lois A. Craig, The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978); and Robert A. M. Stern, et al., New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915 (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), 74.
 “Petition Concerning Site of Proposed New Custom House,” in Report of the New York Produce Exchange from July 1, 1896, to July 1, 1897 (New York: Jones Printing Company, 1897), 44-6.
 Cass Gilbert, quoted in “Custom House Architect,” New York Times, Nov. 4, 1899.
 Gilbert, quoted in “Cass Gilbert’s New York Customhouse Design,” Inland Architect and News Record, Feb. 1900, 6.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 92.
 “World’s Greatest Custom House Will Soon Be Completed,” New York Times, Jan. 14, 1906.
 Charles de Kay, “The New York Custom-House,” Century Magazine, Mar. 1906, 735
 “Many Lower Manhattan Landmarks Doomed When Building Era Begins,” New York Times, Nov. 23, 1919.
 For this process at work, see Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
 Benjamin Wistar Morris, quoted in “The Cunard Building, New York,” Architecture and Building, Aug. 1921, 62.
 Royal Cortissoz, “The Cunard Building: A Great Achievement in New York, by Benjamin Wistar Morris,” Architectural Forum, July 1921, 4.
 Ibid., 8, 1.
 Thomas Hastings, “The New York Sky Line,” in Thomas Hastings, Architect: Collected Writings, Together with a Memoir, ed. David Gray (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), 222.