I walk through an open door, past a sleepy security guard, and find myself in an antique banking hall big enough to host an NBA game. I stand dumbstruck, gaping at Corinthian columns and an ornate dome seven stories high. It's an astounding space—especially because it is, at the moment, completely empty but for a haze of plaster dust. Two speakers, blasting opera, dangle like cheap earrings from the elegant coffered ceiling.
I feel like I am in a Wim Wenders movie.
It's hard to believe such a space exists. After all, Manhattan is not exactly terra incognita: every square foot on this skinny island has been discovered and rediscovered 10 times over. It doesn't seem possible that a room this monumental could just be sitting here, a block down Wall Street from the stock exchange.
Designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1907—built atop an 1842 Greek Revival building—the 12,000-square-foot hall bears an eerie resemblance to the waiting room of New York's old Pennsylvania Station (by the same architects), demolished in 1965. In only a few months this imposing space will become the banquet hall of the Regent Wall Street, the first luxury hotel in a part of town where the few existing lodgings are more like dormitories for itinerant stockbrokers.
The Financial District today is a lost world in the process of being reclaimed. The southern tip of Manhattan is full of architecture embodying the excesses (or what Alan Greenspan would call the "irrational exuberance") of another era—buildings that are, one by one, being retrofitted to accommodate the excesses of today. Walk through a door, one that in the past might have been closed to the public, and there's no telling what you'll find.
Think 'Wall Street' and the names that come to mind are J. P. Morgan and Michael Milken. But there's another Wall Street, a newer Wall Street, and the person I associate with it is Carol Willis. Carol isn't a broker or a trader. She's a curly-haired, bicycle-riding intellectual, an architectural historian who teaches at Columbia. She's also the founder of the Skyscraper Museum, currently located at 16 Wall. Carol is one of those people who, seduced by the neighborhood's remarkable mise-en-scène and its surplus of square footage, have gravitated toward the southern end of Manhattan, diversifying and livening up what was once a dreary, gray-flannel ghetto.
The Financial District used to be visited by no one who wasn't obliged to be there. It was—and still is—the turf of stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers, and the hordes of clerical help upon whom the Masters of the Universe depend. Cultural homesteaders like Carol are a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the last few years has the area acquired places to eat besides seedy delis and exclusive men's enclaves with names like City Midday Drug & Chemical Club. And only in the last few months have hotels opened that aren't just for businesspeople. Tourists are coming, even on weekends, when the streets are otherwise empty. Now T-shirt vendors have set up shop on J. P. Morgan's doorstep.
The southern end of Manhattan Island is, of course, where the city began. The little town that started out in 1623 as a not-especially-profitable trading outpost of the Dutch West India Co. grew northward from the Battery; the Financial District's narrow, crooked streets are among the few holdovers from New Amsterdam. Remnants of colonial New York tend to be less than authentic: Bowling Green, for example, at the foot of Broadway, has been a public park since 1733, but the pleasant European-style landscape you see today is a 1978 reconstruction.
It is the history of the 20th century, however, that is most prominently on display here. Lower Manhattan was the preeminent laboratory for the design and perfection of the skyscraper. And, with the exception of the Singer Tower, torn down in 1969 and replaced by the monolithic U.S. Steel Building, those early skyscrapers are still in use. Anyone can just walk into the lobby of the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway—the world's tallest when it was erected in 1913—and gawk. Architect Cass Gilbert modeled the lobby after a Latin cross, just like a church, and encrusted the ceiling with an elaborately patterned mosaic. Peering from the corners are gargoyles representing Frank Woolworth, doling out nickels and dimes, and Gilbert himself, gazing lovingly at his building.
On a summer afternoon, Carol Willis and I are having lunch in what was once J. P. Morgan's 31st-floor pied-À-terre. The restaurant 14 Wall, which opened in October 1997, is a perfect example of how engaging the new Wall Street can be. It's an airy suite of rooms, decorated with mirrored panels, antique sideboards, and the occasional fireplace. The main attraction, however, is the view. We're practically nose to nose with the faux-copper pyramid of 40 Wall Street, the 1929 tower that lost out to the Chrysler Building in the competition to be, for a moment, the world's tallest.
Over tuna carpaccio and crab cakes, Carol talks eagerly about the Skyscraper Museum exhibition "Big Buildings," which opens this month. "It's really cool," she gushes, sounding more like a teenager than an academic. "Big Buildings" will examine the phenomenon of extremely large-scale architecture and engineering, Carol tells me. Included in the show will be towers that were, at one time or another, the world's tallest, as well as "jumbos," buildings that contained twice the square footage of the average building of their day, and "super jumbos," which are twice again as big.
After lunch the indulgent staff lets us roam through the restaurant to take in all the views. We climb a small flight of stairs to the wood-paneled Breakfast Room, the best vantage point, where windows face in three directions. Carol is delighted by the panorama studded with jumbos and super jumbos—the World Trade Center, the U.S. Steel and Equitable buildings. I'm knocked out by the Art Deco-meets-Gothic spire of the 1920's office tower at 1 Wall Street, as well as the afternoon light. I make a note to return to 14 Wall for a drink at sunset.