New York City has been in a constant state of construction since the very beginning. Throughout its history, the city has evolved into an architectural destination. With the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding right around the corner, it’s the perfect time to explore the buildings that make up the Big Apple’s iconic skyline, as well as the lesser known structures you won’t find in guidebooks. In the forthcoming new book A History of New York in 27 Buildings (Bloomsbury, October 22), New York Times correspondent Sam Roberts tells the stories of the city’s most important architectural works and the people who made them possible.
But the book isn’t simply construction stories. Rather, Roberts delves into the events that occurred within the walls of these buildings to explain why they hold such an important place in the city’s history. From a monument to 19th-century corruption to the site of the first meeting of the United Nations (which just so happens to be a gymnasium in the Bronx), these 27 buildings are part of what makes New York such a fascinating place. Roberts spoke with AD about choosing which buildings would make the cut, the things he was surprised to learn, and what facet of the city he plans to tackle next.
Architectural Digest: You note that there are more than 700,000 buildings in New York City. How do you even start the research process for a book like this?
Sam Roberts: First, the 27 represent my list, not the list. The point of this book, like my earlier 101 Objects, is to be evocative, to make people who take for granted what’s within their purview every day think about history in new ways. I solicited suggestions from architectural historians, curators, and architects; mined invaluable sources like Stokes’s Iconography of Manhattan Island and other 19th- and 20th-century books; and consulted my own voluminous records from covering New York for more than 50 years. That brought the number down to about 10,000.
AD: As you narrowed down the list, what qualifications did you use for the final selection? What made these 27 feel worthy of inclusion?
SR: I began with several criteria: The buildings had to still exist, so people could see or visit them. Except for a few icons that have become global symbols of the city, I looked for quirky, singular structures (some loosely defined as “buildings”) that you wouldn’t find in typical tourist guidebooks or displayed on picture postcards. Instead, they needed to be transformative in some way or emblematic of a metamorphic era or event in the city’s history.