New York City is home to many architectural styles that are diverse and impressive. Whatever neighborhood you’re in, you’ll come across various types, maybe even on the same block. Clients often ask me for background about the styles in each neighborhood so I have created a rundown of some of NYC’s common architectural styles.
The Georgian style was the most prevalent in the English colonies throughout the 18th century. It can be identified by its formal, classical details. St. Paul’s Chapel, on Broadway between Vesey and Fulton Streets, with its pediment, columns, quoins, Palladian window, and balustrade, is a great example. Also surviving from this era is the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem, built in 1765 and billed as Manhattan’s oldest house. Another example of the style is Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl St. It’s a 20th-century reconstruction of a house built here in 1719.
The first truly American architectural style is characterized by its clean simplicity. Usually 2–3 stories, these buildings have unornamented stone windowsills and lintels. The Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District in the South Village, designated a landmark in 1966, contains the city’s largest concentration of row houses in the Federal style (as well as a significant concentration of Greek Revival houses). There are more original Federal-style houses in the West Village, near and along Bedford Street between Christopher and Morton Streets. And, 4–10 Grove Street, just off Bedford, is another authentic group of houses built in this style.
Greek Revival (1820–60)
Characterized by symmetrical shapes, pedimented gables, heavy cornices, bold, simple moldings, and wide, plain friezes, the Greek Revival style emerged in the late 19th century when the taste for all things Greek (including furniture and interior design) was at a peak. Perhaps the city’s finest example is Federal Hall National Memorial with its Greek temple front, steep flight of steps, Doric columns, and a simple pediment, resting on a high base called a plinth. Located at 26 Wall Street, this is where George Washington took the presidential oath of office in 1789.
Gothic Revival (1830–60)
While cottages built in this style had only one or two Gothic features, most commonly a steeply pitched roof or pointed arches, the churches built at this time were usually representative of English Gothic style. Other characteristics include castle-like towers with parapets, front-facing gables with decorative incised trim and topped with finials, porches with turned posts or columns, and decorative crowns over windows and doors. One of the most celebrated Gothic structures in the US is Trinity Church, at Broadway and Wall Street. Until the late 1860s, it was the tallest building in the area.
In New York, the Italianate style was used for everything from commercial buildings to urban row houses. The facade is usually brownstone, and the buildings often include high stoops, round-headed double doors, and windows and doors that are flanked with carved scrolls or acanthus-leaf shapes. SoHo’s Cast Iron Historic District consists of 26 blocks of cast-iron buildings designed in this style. Check out Greene Street between Houston and Canal to take in the Italianate sculptural facades.
Beaux Arts (1890–1920)
This massive and grandiose style emerged from the academic neoclassical architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and it heavily influenced architecture in the US. Usually constructed with stone, Beaux Arts buildings include balustrades, balconies, columns, cornices, pilasters, large arches, triangular pediments, and lavish decorations, including swags, medallions, flowers, and shields. The New York Public Library’s main branch in Bryant Park, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, is an example of Beaux Arts. Other examples include Vanderbilt’s Grand Central and the US Customs House on Bowling Green between State and Whitehall Streets.
International Style (1920–45)
Dominant in the middle decades of the 20th century, this visually weightless style came from a desire to break from historically based ornamentation. Its structures share a stark simplicity and functionalism: rectilinear forms, surfaces stripped of decoration, and open interior spaces. Examples include the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue and Lever House at 390 Park Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, which is credited with popularizing glass curtain walls and plazas. The Secretariat building in the UN complex, at First Avenue and 46th Street, is another example. It was designed by an international committee of architects from 1947–53.
Art Deco (1925–40)
Taking its name from a Paris expo in 1925, this jazzy style embodied the idea of modernity. Also not based on historic precedents, the Art Deco style became the widely accepted design for everything from buildings, trains, and ocean liners to jewelry and household items such as lamps and cigarette lighters. Its buildings have a vertical emphasis characterized by linear, hard edges, with stylized decoration. The distinctive profile arose from the New York zoning law of the time, which required setbacks at a certain height in buildings to make sure that light and air reached the street. The most famous examples include The Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center.
Heralded by the return of “wit, ornament, and reference” to architecture, postmodernists lept onto the scene in the ‘70s, shunning the steel and glass formality of the International Style. Postmodernism reintroduced classical details into design, but in outrageous proportions. There is nothing cold about these rebellious buildings. A prime example is the distinctive Chippendale shape of the Sony Building at 550 Madison Avenue, perhaps the most well-known skyscraper of the 1980s. The Morgan Bank Headquarters at 60 Wall Street is another. The column base is a mirror of the facade of the 19th-century building across the street.
21st-Century Architecture (2000–present)
We’re only 15 years into the new century, but it’s clear that today’s curvaceous structures stand in contrast to the angular architecture of the past. Examples include the billowing curtain look at the IAC Building on West 18th Street, designed by architect Frank Gehry and the geometrically patterned Heart Tower at 300 West 57th Street by Sir Norman Foster.
If you’d like to learn more about the architectural styles in NYC, check out the teak decks of the 1920s style yachts, the Manhattan and Manhattan II, to enjoy a tour of NYC’s architectural landmarks from the water hosted by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.