A glorious 1914 tower symbolizes the united city

Manhattan in the late 19th century was running out of space—government office space, to be precise.

City Hall, which had been home to New York’s officials and agencies since 1812, was bursting at the seams by the middle of the Gilded Age.

In the 1880s, it was clear that the expanding city of more than one million residents needed bigger quarters if New York’s government was going to grow and function properly.

After 30 years of planning—selecting the site at One Centre Street, holding design contests (McKim, Mead, and White won out), and then constructing the new office tower—the Manhattan Municipal Building opened for business.

Officially a skyscraper at 40 stories high, the building’s design was inspired by the 12th century Giralda Tower in Spain, with its central arch (once open to cars) borrowed from Rome’s Arch of Constantine.

There’s much to love about this triumphant work of architecture: the vaulted entrance with Guastavino ceiling tiles, the bas relief panels, and the gilded copper statue, “Civic Fame” (modeled by Audrey Munson), perched at the top of the central tower.

And amid these and other beautiful features are two hidden symbols of the recently united metropolis.

The united city theme certainly made sense. After all, in the time between the building’s conception and completion, Greater New York was born—an “Imperial City” of five boroughs that doubled Gotham’s population and increased its size sixfold on January 1, 1898.

The first is above the middle section (left), where “there are three tiered drums on top of another, flanked by four smaller pinnacle turrets, symbolizing the four boroughs joined to Manhattan,” states nyc-architecture.com.

The second is the crown Civic Fame is holding up with her left hand.

This is a “mural” crown—”a crown with five crenellations as of a city wall, representing the five boroughs of the city,” according to nyc.gov. “Also on the crown are dolphins, symbolizing New York’s maritime setting.”

Since 2015, the Manhattan Municipal Building has been renamed the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building.

No disrespect to the former mayor, but like the Queensboro Bridge becoming the Ed Koch Bridge, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

[Top photo: MCNY 1913: X2010.28.683; second photo: NYPL; third photo: MCNY 1910: X2010.11.1682; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY, 1913: 2001.37.1R

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9 Responses to “A glorious 1914 tower symbolizes the united city”

  1. mvschulze Says:

    Years ago, in suit and tie, with some time from my work to spare, I ventured into this beautiful building, and with no questions, simply kept climbing beyond the elevators, beyond the radio stations, up a beautiful but neglected wooden spiral staircase to the interior directly under the statue. No doors were locked, no one seemed to mind, and I was alone. At the top, a small door led to a balcony outside with an awesome view; and an old office chair out there, with stuffing popping out. I had a camera, but sadly only 2 film exposures left, so the images were uneventful. This was way before 9/11, and could not happen today, but it was an ephemeral experience I’ll never forget. M 🙂

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow! What an experience. Anyone who tries that today would be arrested. I miss the days before every building had metal detectors, security guards, etc.

  2. 3/27: Bronx Pot factory blaze; Union Hall fire; Revolutionary War gravesite | SpotCorner Says:

    […] A glorious 1914 tower symbolizes the United City There’s much to love about this triumphant work of architecture: the vaulted entrance with Guastavino ceiling tiles, the bas relief panels, and the gilded copper statue, “Civic Fame,” perched at the top of the central tower. (Ephemeral New York) […]

  3. Nancy Anderson Says:

    Worked in this legacy dowager of a building for many years. Still waiting the day the building envelope and systems will be brought into 21st Century condition and get energy/climate smart.

    What a landmark for modern times that would be.

    Thanks for the post.

    Regards. NA >

  4. Andrew Porter Says:

    In the novel THE SECOND DELUGE by S. Fowler Wright, a worldwide deluge brought on by a world-enveloping watery nebula (it was when nebulas were thought to be inside the Milky Way, rather than far-distant galaxies), the Municipal Building is the last structure remaining above the encroaching flood. Finally, a battleship, broken away from moorings at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, crashes into it, destroying the building and drowning the last surviving New Yorkers.

  5. Tom B Says:

    What is Civic Fame holding in her left hand?
    I can’t make out the three tiered drums.

  6. Andrew Porter Says:

    Tom B: Wikipedia says she holds in her hand a “…mural crown has five crenellations or turrets, which evoke city walls and represent the five boroughs.”

  7. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Read about Audrey Munson’s tragic personal history here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Munson

  8. Edward Says:

    Every time is see pics of the New York World and Tribune buildings (see postcard at bottom) I want to cry. Can’t believe anything so beautiful would be knocked down.

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