Category Archives: Architecture



Statues are part of the “built environment” of architecture; they help to define and decorate our spaces. Some statues are better known than their locations; some are so obscure you’ll only see them by accident. New York has plenty of both categories, which we will include. However, we haven’t gone on a statue-hunting expedition – these photos are incidental to other categories, so this gallery will continue to expand over time.

We’re using an arbitrary definition of statue here – a representation of a real person. Thus, we include Hans Christian Anderson but exclude Alice in Wonderland (who lives happily ever after within the Sculptures gallery).


Sculpture, like statues (see separate gallery), help define and decorate our environment; sculpture complements architecture.

What’s the difference between sculpture and statue? Completely arbitrary: For our purposes, statues are likenesses of real, identifiable people; sculptures are not. Alice In Wonderland lives happily ever after, right here with sculpture; Hans Christian Andersen is with the statues.

This is by no means a closed gallery – we’re just getting started! If there’s a particular piece that you think should be here ASAP, please let us know with a comment. Thanks!

New York City Architecture – Web Resources is intended as a recreational site – exploring the city’s buildings, parks and infrastructure just for the fun of it. But lots of people have been documenting the same subject for years, with more serious intent. So, if you want to dig deeper (metaphorically, or course) into New York City Architecture, here are some excellent Internet resources:

NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission:
If you’re interested in classic architecture, “they don’t build ‘em like this anymore” structures, here’s your shortcut to finding them. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission “is responsible for identifying and designating the City’s landmarks and the buildings in the City’s historic districts. The Commission also regulates changes to designated buildings.”
The commission has a handy Glossary of Architectural Terms – – just in case I throw out some obscure term without explaining it (shame on me!).

City Realty:
I discovered this site by fortunate accident, while researching some addresses along Riverside Drive. Typing the address or building name in Google almost always returned references to – which had detailed reports on the building in question. Architectural style, architect, year built, number of floors, famous residents, etc. Even architectural ratings and reviews!
Their secret is Carter B. Horsley, who spent 36 years as a reporter/editor covering architecture and real estate for The New York Times and The New York Post.
If you love skyscrapers, you’ll love this site! They have a huge database of skyscrapers around the world, including interactive maps, illustrations and fact sheets. And check out their store, for one-of-a-kind puzzles and posters. Check out their interactive NYC map: is aimed more at people who are in the trade – architects, contractors, realtors, etc. Includes news and progress reports for new construction in the city.
Glass Steel and Stone is another site for building trade professionals, but with a global perspective – you can check on buildings around the world.

Museum of the City of New York:
The Museum of the City of New York covers all things New York – with significant exhibitions on architecture and city planning. The museum also has lectures and tours to complement the exhibits – check and book early, they sell out quickly. contains news and reviews of historic and contemporary buildings of note, with archives by architectural style and building types (among other categories).
This is another building trades website, where you can become immersed in architecture’s state of the art – trends, best practices, etc., plus news of who’s building what, and where.
Emporis (formerly is a global buildings database company – listing 403,420 buildings in 190 countries. If you have the name and/or address of a specific structure, you’ll find not only the architects, but also the engineers, suppliers, and contractors involved; when construction started and finished; the construction type, architectural style, height, number of floors, intended use – and photos. The link above brings you to the New York City page.
This site is a Google map mashup that gives you building-by-building details for many of the city’s historic (and some not-historic) districts. Zoom in to see individual building outlines, traced around Google satellite images; click for building details, which often includes history, statistics, photos and links to the database and/or Wikipedia. Amazing site, highly recommended. The link above puts you right into the heart of the Financial District.

Columbia University – Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library:
This is a site devoted to researching New York City Buildings. For the serious architectural scholar or historian.

Painting With Bricks

Acme Brick's color selector gives architects hundreds of choices....
Acme Brick's color selector gives architects hundreds of choices….

Whether brick is used as a load-bearing structural element or merely as a decorative/protective veneer, New York architects have many creative ways to alter the appearance of a brick façade. Designers can select different types, colors, textures and sizes – and then specify different patterns for laying the courses.

Types: Common brick and facing brick are the main types; facing brick has been manufactured for its aesthetic qualities – color and surface texture. Facing brick is further typed by degree of uniformity in color and lack of chips, cracks, etc. (We’re ignoring other special types such as firebrick that don’t contribute to a building’s overall appearance.)

Colors: Bricks (and the mortar holding them together) can be ordered in hundreds of different colors. Architects can mix colors – either randomly or in distinct patterns – to create different visual textures. (The use of several colors in architecture is called “polychrome.”)


Textures: The manufacturing method and clay type determine a brick’s surface texture, which could be rough, smooth or even shiny (glazed). In addition, bricks can be given a patterned surface (like the milled edge of a quarter).

Nominal sizes: The modular brick is just one of three named sizes that are 2-2/3 inches thick (three courses = 8 inches); Norman brick is 4 x 2-2/3 x 12 inches, SCR brick is 6 x 2-2/3 x 12 inches. Two sizes are 3-1/5 inches thick (5 courses = 16 inches); engineered brick is 4 x 3-1/5 x 8 inches, Norwegian brick is 4 x 3-1/5 x 12 inches. Roman brick is 4 x 2 x 12 inches (4 courses = 8 inches). Economy* brick is 4 x 4 x 8 inches (2 courses = 8 inches). Nominal size is slightly larger than the brick’s actual physical size, to allow for the thickness of the mortar joint. Because the mortar joints are a uniform thickness, brick size affects the mortar/brick ratio – and thus, appearance.

* “Economy” because it takes less mortar and labor to use thicker bricks: For a 10-foot-tall wall, modular brick requires 45 courses, economy brick needs only 30 courses.


Orientation: There are six basic ways to lay a brick. Viewed from the face of the wall, a brick laid:

  • horizontally on its face with the edge exposed is a stretcher
  • horizontally on its face with the end exposed is a header
  • horizontally on its edge with the face exposed is a shiner or bull stretcher
  • horizontally on its edge with the end exposed is a rowlock or rollock
  • vertically on its end with the edge exposed is a soldier
  • vertically on its end with the face exposed is a sailor

And just to make things more interesting, bricks can be corbelled (projected from the wall surface) or angled (to give a toothed appearance) or gauged (shaped) to a non-rectangular profile, as in an arch.


Bond: The overlap pattern adds another element of variety. The most common pattern is running bond or stretcher bond – stretchers that overlap the course below by half. Add a course of headers after every five or six courses of stretchers and you get American bond. Alternating courses of headers and stretchers are called English bond. Alternating headers and stretchers in the same course (with headers centered on stretchers above and below) are called Flemish bond. Other bonds have more complex patterns, often accentuated by contrasting-colored bricks or by corbelling.

Architects’ artistic preferences, alas, may be shackled by accountants: Thinner bricks require more mortar and labor per foot of elevation than thick bricks; complex patterns likewise take more labor (and may take more bricks) than simple common bond or American bond.

NYC Architecture: Books has more than a thousand book titles dealing with New York City architecture, so there’s no shortage of reading material on this subject! I’ve spent a fair amount of time (and money) browsing physical and online book stores – here’s a short list of architecture books that I’ve found particularly helpful and enjoyable.

I’ve categorized the books by scope: Some are about Architecture in New York City; others are about Architecture in general; yet others are about New York City. I think you’ll find all to be interesting and useful.

Just click on the titles to see these books in (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases)


AIA Guide To New York City

Norval White and Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon | 1055 pages | Oxford University Press | 2010

If you find that the architecture bug has bitten you – beware, there is no antidote – you will need a guide. The best guide, IMHO, is “AIA Guide to New York City.” The fifth edition includes 955 pages of maps, photos and detailed block-by-block, building-by-building commentary on virtually every architecturally significant structure within the five boroughs – even noting significant demolitions! The AIA Guide has nearly 100 pages of subject and address indexes, a glossary of architectural terms, even touring and photography tips. You can use the book as a walking tour guide, as a reference book, or as a history book of sorts (read about real estate development battles, zoning law trades, etc.). The authors’ scholarship is matched by their wit, so you’ll be entertained as well as educated. The “AIA” in the title, by the way, stands for American Institute of Architects.

NY Skyscrapers

Dirk Stichweh, photos by Jörg Machirus and Scott Murphy | 192 pages | Prestel | 2016

This is a magnificent celebration of the buildings that make New York’s skyline so exciting. The large 9½ʺ x 12½ʺ format and brilliant color photography make “NY Skyscrapers” a joy to browse again and again. You’ll find the city’s classic icons, of course, but also less-photographed and under-appreciated structures such as the West Street Building, Crown Building, and Paramount Building. Half of the photos are high-angle shots – seemingly from a helicopter or nearby buildings – so even familiar landmarks seem fresh. Each of the book’s 82 buildings is described with concise architectural commentary.

“NY Skyscrapers” provides context three ways: The volume begins with a history of skyscrapers in New York City; downtown and midtown skyscrapers are grouped, with maps; and numerous aerial group photos show the buildings’ relationship to their neighborhoods.

While any book on this subject is soon out of date, “NY Skyscrapers” includes renderings and descriptions of eight under-construction buildings scheduled to be completed by 2020.

Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture

John Hill | 303 pages | W. W. Norton & Company | 2011

A colorful and informative compendium of 200 buildings built in New York City since 2000. Overall, an exciting collection of structures, very well photographed and explained so that you understand how a building’s design evolved.

It’s intriguing to see the contrasts between this book’s author, John Hill, and AIA Guide’s Norval White and Elliot Willensky. White and Willensky are classical purists; Hill appears to be more pragmatic and concerned with technical aspects of architecture. Hearst Tower for example, “…suddenly erupt[s] Alien-like in triangular facets of glass and steel… …about as strange and abrupt as one could imagine in a single building…” according to White and Willensky. But as Hill sees it, “…the design recalls the structural inventiveness of R. Buckminster Fuller, whom [architect Norman] Foster worked with in the 1970s…” Now you’ll just have to go see the building and decide for yourself!

The book thoughtfully includes subway directions to each structure.

Five Hundred Buildings of New York

Jorg Brockmann, Bill Harris | 640 pages | Black Dog & Leventhal | 2002

Photographer Jorg Brockmann terms his photos “portraits,” and it’s an apt term: Like classical black and white portraits these photos reveal their subjects’ character and personality, not merely their shape and size. Frankly, I wish I had consulted this book before taking my own pictures of many of these buildings – Jorg has found just the right angle, just the right viewpoint, just the right light and just the right moment to capture his subjects.

Jorg took pains to photograph each building free of distractions such as traffic and pedestrians; the book’s designer honored that artistic commitment by placing the text in a separate section. Minimalist captions give the building’s name, location, year of construction and architect’s name.

The author, Bill Harris, has given each building one paragraph of commentary combining history and architectural critique. It’s not easy to write just a single paragraph – even if that paragraph is sometimes a quarter of a page long – when there’s usually so much to say. My hat’s off to Bill for all the research – and focus.

The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building

Andrew Alpern, Christopher S. Gray, Kenneth G. Grant | 192 pages | Princeton Architectural Press | 2015

The Dakota – and indeed NYC apartment life – is beautifully illuminated by Andrew Alpern’s new “History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building.” The noted architectural historian presents the most comprehensive history of The Dakota imaginable! Mr. Alpern documents the building, its builder (and family!), the architect, the neighborhood, the architectural and historical context, and even the Dakota’s residents. Fascinating reading that illuminates not only The Dakota, but also the world of apartment living in New York City.

I’m deeply honored by Mr. Alpern’s use of my photography (from the Dakota Apartments gallery) in this volume.


Why Buildings Stand Up

Mario Salvadori | 328 pages | W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition | 2002

Truth in advertising time: This is an old book, originally released in 1980, which explains references to Sears Tower in Chicago as the world’s tallest building, and 9 W 57th Street being called the Avon Building. But those slips of time aside, Mario Salvadori’s book is a wonderful illustrated layman’s guide to the art and science of architecture. You’ll discover secrets of the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge and many more landmarks. Mario Salvadori uses the landmarks as settings for lessons in the materials, forms and techniques of construction.

So you’ll learn not only how a Gothic arch differs from a Romanesque arch, but also why it is different, and why Gothic arches found their way into cathedrals.

Why Buildings Fall Down

Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori | 336 pages | W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition | 2002

Like its prequel, “Why Buildings Stand Up,” this was written years ago. But this book has been updated to include the most (in)famous building failures – the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Like “Why Buildings Stand Up,” the book uses famous landmarks to explain, in layman’s terms, the science of architecture. But in this case, the science of architectural failures, whether caused by earthquakes, storms, metal fatigue, overloading, etc.

What Style Is It?

John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr. | 152 pages | John Wiley & Sons | 2003

Architects and architectural writers toss around style classifications like confetti. The “AIA Guide to New York City Architecture” lists 10 main style groups, most of which have two to four sub-types. It’s easy to get lost.

Fortunately, this slim volume describes and amply illustrates 25 architectural styles, so you can quickly tell the difference between Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival. The one thing that I found odd is that the authors seemed to go out of their way to avoid showing any New York City-based examples of any style, even when New York has the most and best examples of that style. Oh well.

A Visual Dictionary of Architecture

Francis D. K. Ching | 328 pages | John Wiley & Sons | 2012

What a find! “A Visual Dictionary of Architecture” is a large-format (9- by 12-inch) book profusely illustrated with black-and-white line drawings – illustrations that reveal with astonishing clarity the object, material, technique or concept being defined. The accompanying text has equal clarity and brevity. As a result, this is a “dictionary” that you’ll read cover-to-cover.

When you’ve finished, you’ll have a much better understanding of a building’s components – and probably a much richer appreciation for the work of architects.

As it happens, Francis (Frank) D. K. Ching is as prolific as he is skilled: If you like “A Visual Dictionary of Architecture,” you can go on to “Architecture: Form, Space and Order” or any of the dozen or so other volumes about architecture, interior design, construction, and technical illustration and drawing.

The Annotated Arch – A Crash Course in the History of Architecture

Carol Strickland, Ph.D. | 178 pages | Andrews McMeel Publishing | 2001

Architecture has come a long way since 10,000 B.C.E.: “The Annotated Arch” chronicles the path through time and geography, and in fewer than 200 pages! For the reader, the journey is easy: Hundreds of photos and drawings show rather than tell significant forms and styles; side-by-side comparisons make it easy to distinguish differences among styles and forms (e.g., Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic). Doctor Strickland’s text is as lively as the book’s visual presentation, enlivened by anecdotes, historical quotes and wordplay (e.g., headings such as “Escorial: The Reign in Spain,” “Going for Baroque”).

The Heights – Anatomy of a Skyscraper

Kate Ascher | 208 pages | Penguin Books | 2011

Skyscrapers are almost synonymous with New York City: Here is a clear, layman’s explanation of what goes into a skyscraper, and why. You’ll learn all about foundations, frameworks, windows, facades, elevators, plumbing and wiring. You’ll see how an office building is different from a residential or hotel tower, and the tricks designers use to combine the three in “mixed use” buildings.

“The Heights,” like Kate Ascher’s earlier “The Works” (see below), has a simple, logical organization: Five sections – Introduction (history), Building It (design, foundations, structure, the skin, construction), Living In It (elevators, power, air, and water), Supporting It (life safety, maintenance, sustainability), and Dreaming It (the future).

Excellent diagrams, charts and photos illustrate terms and concepts; specific cases bring the theories and abstract ideas to life. And, although skyscrapers are an American invention, the book takes a world view. You’ll see how the American invention has been embraced and even improved and enlarged throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East.


The Works – Anatomy of a City

Kate Ascher | 228 pages | Penguin Books | 2005

New York City is a complex organism – composed of concrete and steel, but a living, breathing creature just the same. Under its asphalt skin, the city has arteries and capillaries to deliver electricity, water, gas and steam; a nervous system of phone and data lines; digestive tracts to remove liquid and solid waste. “The Works” explains and illustrates all of this, and more, in five chapters: Moving People, Moving Freight, Power, Communications, and Keeping It Clean. A sixth chapter, The Future, discusses challenges and possible solutions for the preceding five sections.

While the book’s subtitle “Anatomy of a City” seems generic, make no mistake: “a City” is New York City.

I found the book to be both entertaining and informative. Each topic is revealed layer-by-layer and discusses the history, planning, construction, operation, and maintenance involved. So “Streets,” for example, is a 24-page section of the Moving People chapter that includes overall stats (20,000 miles of streets and highways within the five boroughs) and history (the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 established Manhattan’s Grid Plan), then moves on to regional traffic planning, monitoring, and signaling, street construction and maintenance, parking, signage – even trees.

Manhattan Block By Block – A Street Atlas

John Tauranac | 176 pages | Tauranac Maps | 2008

The concept of “Manhattan Block By Block” is simple and logical: Slice the island into 15 strips, south to north; then dice each strip into two to four maps, west to east – for a total of 47 two-page maps. The map scale is large enough to show the names of individual buildings and landmarks, but the total package is small enough to be portable: it will fit (snugly) into a number 10 business envelope.

Neighborhoods are color-coded, typefaces are very legible, icons are (mostly) easy to follow. Street-level detail includes subway and bus routes, and traffic flow. (Subway and bus routes change, so those details are helpful but not totally reliable.)

Street and subject indexes both use combination page and map coordinates, so it’s a snap to locate landmarks this way. Visitors should read (and even New Yorkers will enjoy and learn from) the introductory section, which explains Manhattan’s layout, house numbering, neighborhoods, transit and more.

Note: This was out of stock at Amazon at this writing, but is worth tracking down at bookstores.

All Around The Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities (Second Edition)

Patrick Bunyan | 417 pages | Empire State Editions | 2011

New York City is, of course, much more than buildings and geography: It is also the people and events within its facades and borders. While there are scores, if not hundreds of New York City history books, “All Around The Town” stands out by being an historical atlas, organized by Manhattan neighborhood and street rather than by chronology. The people and events are revealed in fast-moving snippets, rather than in essays. A sample:

172 Bleecker Street * Author, playwright and critic James Agee lived on the top floor of this building from 1941 to 1951. It was here that he wrote the screenplay for The African Queen.

Architectural Style: Picturesque

Although there are hundreds of thousands of buildings in New York City, designed over the course of 400 years by thousands of architects, there are relatively few architectural style categories. The “AIA Guide to New York City” lists just 10 style categories, including “The Picturesque,” which in turn includes the sub-categories Romanesque Revival, Stick, Shingle, and Queen Anne.

Romanesque Revival, according to AIA Guide, is more common in Chicago. It is based on medieval bold arch and vault construction. (You may also see this style referred to as Rundbogenstil or Round Arch Style.)

Stick style makes its wood skeleton visible, as in half-timbered construction.

Queen Anne style is marked by strong vertical emphasis (tall windows, high-peaked roofs, etc.) and elaborate ornamentation. Queen Anne style buildings frequently include turrets.

Shingle style grew out of Queen Anne style, using wood shingles as its protective/decorative veneer. Originated in New England.

AIA Guide: p. xii.

What Style Is It?

John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr. | 152 pages | John Wiley & Sons | 2003

Architects and architectural writers toss around style classifications like confetti. The “AIA Guide to New York City Architecture” lists 10 main style groups, most of which have two to four sub-types. It’s easy to get lost.

Fortunately, this slim volume describes and amply illustrates 25 architectural styles, so you can quickly tell the difference between Romanesque Revival and Gothic Revival. The one thing that I found odd is that the authors seemed to go out of their way to avoid showing any New York City-based examples of any style, even when New York has the most and best examples of that style. Oh well.

Windows – The Eyes of the Building

Whoever said it first said it right: Windows are the eyes of the building. What’s more, it’s true whether you’re standing inside or outside.

From the outside, windows reveal a building’s purpose, character and personality. In many cases you can even predict the mood of its occupants. From the inside, windows shape the view and invite – or exclude – the sun. “When you are designing a window,” said Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, “imagine your girlfriend sitting inside looking out.” (From the book “100 Ideas that Changed Architecture” by Richard Weston.)

Windows were even considered an indication of wealth: England’s King William III had a “window tax” (derided as “daylight robbery”) that was a royal attempt at a progressive property tax. The more windows in your house, the more tax you paid.

Philosophical and political points aside, what started out as a rough hole covered by animal hide has become one of the most important aspects of a building’s architectural style, as well as a component of the architectural system. New York is blessed with examples of dozens of traditional and modern window types and styles. Some people have even made a hobby of “collecting” windows, photographically – just search,, or for fun!

Windows in the classical Greek style had formal embellishments: pediments, architraves, and cornices. Both Greek (post-and-lintel) and Romanesque (round arch) styles often grew columns or pilasters. Gothic (pointed arch) styles could become quite complex, with arches wrapped in more arches, sometimes combined with circular windows.

The earliest windows were casement windows: the moving frame swung out to permit ventilation. Sliding sash windows are a more recent development. Stationary windows are a byproduct of air conditioning.

The size and shape of windows were limited by engineering considerations. A building’s exterior wall was a structural element – too many windows and the building falls down! But as iron, steel and concrete replaced brick and stone, these stronger structural materials allowed bigger windows. Finally, frame construction shifted all of the structural load from the wall to systems of columns. This gave us “ribbon windows” (one Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of a New Architecture”) and all-glass curtain walls.

Although modern windows are simpler visually – pilasters and pediments are quite unlikely – they have become complex from a manufacturing standpoint. Glass is a poor insulator, and in an energy-conscious world designers have created window systems of two or even three plates of glass locked in a sealed frame. The glass may be tinted or coated to reduce transmission of infrared rays – or for aesthetic effects.

Here’s a modest captioned photo gallery of interesting windows I’ve collected around New York – see if they don’t make you look at (and though) windows in a new way. Windex is optional.

Windows Recommended Reading:

The Wright Stuff: Frank Lloyd Wright in NYC

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of America’s most famous and prolific architects,* but New York City has only three projects to remember him by – and two were transplanted from the Midwest.

The landmark Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue (between 88th and 89th Streets) is instantly recognizable for its helical shape – decades ahead of its time when completed in 1959. Just a few blocks away, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Frank Lloyd Wright Room (gallery 745 on the first floor of the American Wing) preserves the living room from a 1914 home originally built in Wayzata, Minnesota for Frances W. Little. But you’ll have to trek to Staten Island to see the third project: The “Crimson Beech,” aka the William and Catherine Cass House, on Lighthouse Hill. [Note: This is a private home, please respect their privacy. You can see and photograph the front of the house from the road, but don’t trespass or expect a tour.] The house was actually prefabricated in the Midwest and shipped to Staten Island; it was completed in 1959, shortly after Wright’s death.

Frank Lloyd Wright Suggested Reading

Visiting Crimson Beech by public transit is challenging. Weekdays: From the ferry terminal on Staten Island, take Staten Island Railway to Great Kills; transfer to the S54 bus toward West New Brighton – get off where the bus turns from Arthur Kill Road onto Richmond Road (about 10 minute ride). On weekends, take the S74 bus from the ferry terminal instead of the rail/bus combo (the S54 does not run on weekends). From the intersection of Arthur Kill Road and Richmond Road, walk uphill on Arthur Kill Road to Edinboro Road. This is a steep, winding route with no sidewalks and narrow shoulders – exercise caution. Oh, a little extra challenge: Edinboro Road has no street sign. Look on the right for a white sign for La Tourette Golf Course, turn right (east) there and follow the road (keep to the right) until it comes out on Rigby Avenue; turn right 1 block to Manor Court; on Manor Court, Crimson Beech will be the second house on the right, #48.**

Print the Google Map.

*In 1991 the American Institute of Architects declared Frank Lloyd Wright “the greatest American architect of all time.” In his 70-year career he designed 1,000 structures and completed 500. And what other architect has a song? (Simon and Garfunkle’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”)

**If you’ve made it all the way to Crimson Beech, you deserve a bonus: Go back up to Edinboro Road and walk east about a block to see the Staten Island Lighthouse (aka Richmond Light, aka Staten Island Range Lighthouse).

Spires, Crowns & Cupolas

Landmark skyscrapers are often topped by elaborate cornices, spires, crowns and cupolas.

It’s always fascinated me that architects put so much design up where most people won’t – or can’t – see it. Why not impress at street level?

There are at least three reasons, it turns out.

First, as buildings got taller it became less practical – and less affordable – to decorate an entire building’s facade. Decorative elements, whether simple brick patterns or terra cotta or carved marble, cost money to design, manufacture and install. So this “problem” of tall buildings was solved by equating the building with a classical column: base, shaft and crown. The shaft is undecorated, the base and crown contain the flourishes.

Second, architects and owners want their creations to stand out at a distance – to be a recognizable part of the skyline. A plain roof, no matter how lofty, is rather anonymous. The Donald would not approve.

Third, tall buildings need water tanks, elevator and ventilation machinery on the roof; all are ugly enough to warrant hiding behind a decorative screen.

In some cases, the crowns might also be designed to alleviate aerodynamic stresses. Wind speed increases with height, so turbulence can be a factor.

A few spires have practical functions – even if the idea is ultimately found impractical. The Empire State Building’s mast was designed for mooring dirigibles, before it was proved unworkable (and dirigibles became extinct). Now the mast is used to mount television broadcast antennas.

And in more than one case, a spire or cupola has been added simply to increase the building’s height, for “tallest” bragging rights. The Chrysler Building’s spire was designed that way.

Here are a few of my favorite spires, crowns and cupolas. Enjoy!