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NYC from the Water: An Architectural Tour Around Manhattan

Hudson Yards

By Marian Betancourt

Photos by Bridget McFall

Most of the curious crowds visiting the repurposed Hudson Yards are on land, strolling along a foundation built over rail yards, but this newly created West Side neighborhood makes an impressive addition to the Manhattan skyline when viewed from the water. The fittingly named art piece, “Vessel,” a staircase to the endless imagination, sits at center stage in an open space near the waterfront surrounded by new skyscrapers. New York has always been a city in progress and the skyline changes periodically, so it’s a good idea, even for natives, to take a water cruise around the city to get the lay of the land so to speak.

Manhattan II

An excellent way to go is a three-hour circumnavigation of Manhattan island on a Classic Harbor Line yacht guided and narrated by an architect from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Manhattan II is reminiscent of yachts used by the barons of the Gilded Age to get around town. It seats about 100 passengers comfortably and has wide windows and skylights, for unobstructed views. A complimentary glass of wine and an elegant light buffet are included, and an open bar is available with credit cards.

Heading south from Chelsea Piers to the tip of Manhattan, the yacht offers superb views of Battery Park City, an earlier re-invented neighborhood. Cruising close by familiar landmarks of Ellis Island, Governor’s Island and Lady Liberty, the Manhattan II heads into the East River where we see close up a wonderful example of modern architecture of an earlier age at 120 Wall Street. Known as the Wedding Cake building, it was built in 1930.

Wedding Cake Building

New York has always been a work in progress but recent architectural design and construction detours from previous centuries. On the opposite shore from the Wedding Cake building, is the newly revitalized industrial neighborhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Brooklyn Bridge) where an old 1860s sugar factory is being transformed into offices and fittingly named the Sugar Crystal Building.

Sugar Crystal Building

There were many sugar refineries in New York and a large Domino Sugar factory on the Williamsburg shore is being transformed into what is known as the Donut Building, a skyscraper on stilts. Also in Williamsburg, considered by the young as one of the hippest neighborhoods in the city, is a complex of several blue glass cubes on Kent Avenue that provides residential as well as commercial space.

Blue Cubes Complex

According to our guide, John Arbuckle, an architect who has been leading these tours for five years, glass is being used more often in building construction. He pointed out that energy-efficient glass curtain walls allow the construction of slimmer and taller buildings. Some are even leaning over. Frankly, I get dizzy just thinking about venturing into one of those towers, never mind working or living in it.  On the East Side at 35th Street and First Avenue, two new American Copper Buildings are joined by a three-story sky bridge. The buildings themselves are 41 and 48 stories.

American Copper Buildings

Earlier buildings tended to be symmetrical and arranged in orderly laid out grids, such as the United Nation Headquarters, completed in 1957 on land once occupied by slaughterhouses.  The simple, modern design seems quite elegant to me, but perhaps old fashioned to a younger generation.

John Arbuckle on the tour

Heading up river, it is always a thrill to pass under or alongside the mighty spans that connect the boroughs, especially the graceful Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge and the shorter Hell Gate Bridge that forms an arc over that infamous tidal estuary between Queens and the Bronx that caused so many shipwrecks in earlier centuries.

The River Park Towers, completed in 1975 and at the time the tallest buildings in the Bronx, illustrate one of the more attractive examples of the Mitchell Llama housing program that encouraged subsidized housing in the city for middle and lower-income residents.

River Park Towers

Around the northern tip of Manhattan, through the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge gate and under the George Washington Bridge, we see the Little Red Lighthouse, a landmark made famous in a children’s book. Cruising south on the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, we pass the uniform buildings of Riverside South, an earlier redevelopment project built on the site of a former new York Central railroad yards along the river from 59th to 72nd Streets. A plan of commercial and municipal interests, which began in 1970s, didn’t finally come to fruition until the 1990s. It includes Trump Place residential towers and Riverside Center.

Riverside South

The new tall and skinny glass towers for office and living have been increasing and 57th Street now has so many that it is known as Billionaires Row. The height advantage allegedly allows the new moguls to park their helicopters on the roof for easy takeoff and landing.

Under contruction on 57th Street

The formerly industrial west side has undergone considerable change in the past decade. Arbuckle pointed out the Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano at the southern end of the High Line, a park built on the elevated railroad tracks, which has now been copied by cities all over the world. After the Museum moved from its longtime home on the Upper East Side to the meatpacking district, something unthinkable years ago, it now attracts three times as many visitors, he told us.

As our three-hour tour comes to an end, we pass by Hudson Yards and head into Chelsea Piers, once occupied by the great transatlantic steamships, and now used for recreational activities. Before you leave, take a walk along the back of the pier buildings and look at the movie poster-sized historic photos of the early history of Chelsea Piers.

Classic Harbor Line operates yacht and schooner tours in New York, Boston, Newport, and Key West featuring a variety of themes.  The New York Times called the architectural cruise in New York “one of the country’s top day cruises worth the trip,” and Trip Advisor gives it 5 stars.

Back on land you may find yourself looking up at the city’s buildings more often. Even the slanted ones.


Marian Betancourt is a contributor to Everett Potter’s Travel Report and the author of Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port (Globe Pequot Press).


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