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Before Bryant Park, There Was NYC's Doomed First Skyscraper

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This little-known piece of old New York was the city's very first skyscraper. Exactly 160 years ago this summer, the so-called Crystal Palace opened to awed crowds. Its footprint took up nearly one square block on Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 41st Streets, with a cross-shaped floorplan and a central dome that soared so gracefully it seemed it were destined for a Parisian train station rather than a temporary exhibition space. An octagonal tower built at the side of the main hall, called the Latting Observatory, was somewhere between 300 and 315 feet tall, depending on who you asked, unseating the previous record-holder, Trinity Church, whose spire reached a mere 290. It was inaugurated on July 14, 1853, with President Franklin Pierce presiding and an abundance of fireworks and general pizzazz. Inspired by a structure in London, New York would not be outdid. According to the Times, "for a time, no visitor to New York or from neighboring cities or suburban districts considered his life complete without a visit." In a manner of speaking, it symbolized the irrepressible antebellum feeling of American exceptionalism. "It was a thing to be seen once in a lifetime," wrote Horace Greeley, "As we grow in wealth and strength, we may build a much greater Crystal Palace."

Because photography was still in its infancy at the time, most of the documentation of the short-lived architectural marvel has survived in sketches, watercolors, or oil paintings, a selection of which is displayed above. Funny, isn't it, how the perspective of many of the works is such that the humans?and the rest of the cityscape?look infinitesimal while this architectural manifestation of national and local pride looms large. Walt Whitman, who was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle at the time, wrote of the grand spectacle in Leaves of Grass:

Around a place, loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet,
Earth's modern wonder, history's seven outstripping,
High and rising tier on tier with glass and iron facades,
Gladdening the sun and sky, enhued in cheerfullest hues,
Bronze, lilac, robin's egg, marine and crimson,
Over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath they banner Freedom,
The banners of the States and flags of every land,
A brood of lofty, fair, but lesser palaces shall cluster.
Somewhere within their walls shall all that forwards perfect human
Life be started,
Tried, taught, advanced, visibly exhibited.

Not only all the world of works, trade, products,
But all the workmen of the world here to be represented.

Now we know Bryant Park, as it stands now, ain't too shabby, but it all sort of makes you wish the Crystal Palace were still around, eh?
· History: Bryant Park [official]
· An Early Skyscraper [NYT; third item]
· The Lost 1853 Crystal Palace [Daytonian in Manhattan]
?Photos via Museum of the City Of New York and the New York Public Library