The one immutable truth about New York City is that it is always changing. Institutions rise and fall, businesses come and go, skyscrapers are built up and knocked down to make way for newer, taller ones. But amid all this flux, some buildings endure—even if their original occupants have long since vanished. Here’s a list of edifices with long and varied histories, some victims of gentrification, others saved by preservationists, and some merely evolving with the times. Because for every beloved concert venue that turns into a bank, there’s a Gothic courthouse that became a library; and the city grinds on.Read More
The hidden histories of 10 enduring NYC buildings
From CBGB's former headquarters to a Gothic library, these buildings have served many purposes
Built: 1884When this ten-story Queen Anne-style structure first went up — on the spot where George Washington's headquarters once resided — it was one of the tallest buildings in New York. In 1919, the International Mercantile Marine Company moved in — J.P. Morgan's shipping trust that owned the White Star Line (who built a little ship called the R.M.S. Titanic). The building was renovated with a nautical theme to attract steamship travelers, with seashells and compass designs, murals of shipping routes and an opulent marble interior. Today it's a Citibank — but the decor remains, accessed through entrances marked "First Class" and "Cabin Class."
Anthology Film Archives
Built: 1917–1919Today it houses the Anthology Film Archives, but this red brick building in the East Village was once the Third District Magistrates Court. Designed by Alfred Hopkins, who is responsible for many courthouses and penitentiaries throughout the Northeast and Midwest, the building served as both a courthouse and a prison. It was operational until 1946, witnessing the trials of several notorious gangsters in the Prohibition era. It had fallen into disrepair when Anthology bought the building in 1979, when its interior was remodeled for use as a cinema, library, and film preservation center.
Built: 1878This East Village locale began life as a tenement before it was combined with the building next door to become the Palace Hotel, the biggest flophouse on the Bowery; at its height, it housed hundreds of homeless men per night. In 1973, rock impresario Hilly Kristal turned the ground floor bar into CBGB, the bar that would launch the careers of punk and new wave legends including the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television and Blondie. The club and its infamously scuzzy bathrooms reigned supreme until 2006, when CBGB was evicted over a rent dispute. Kristal died of cancer complications shortly thereafter, and in 2008 the space reemerged as a John Varvatos boutique. Talk about the death of punk.
The Public Theater
Built: 1854Back before the New York Public Library system existed, millionaire investor John Jacob Astor made plans to establish a public library of his own. He collaborated with book collector Joseph Green Cogswell on the project, and the completed library opened a few years after Astor's death in a two-story building designed by Alexander Saeltzer. The building expanded over the years and eventually merged with the newly founded NYPL. The building was vacated in 1911, and faced imminent demolition in 1965. Thankfully, the Landmarks Preservation Commission saved the building and sold it to Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, which had been producing Shakespeare in the Park. Papp established the building on Lafayette Street as the home of the Public Theater. But the memory of the building's original use lives on in the name of the theater's cocktail bar: The Library.
NYU Brown Building
Built: 1901Now a part of New York University, this locale just east of Washington Square Park witnessed one of the greatest industrial tragedies in history. The top three floors of what was then called the Asch Building were the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a blaze that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers who either were caught in the fire or fell to their deaths in 1911. The disaster shone a spotlight on the deplorable safety conditions of urban factories and led to sweeping labor reform. Today it's the Brown Building of Science, housing laboratories used by NYU biology and chemistry students.
105 Second Avenue
Built: 1926Back in the 1920s, a stretch of Second Avenue earned the nickname "The Yiddish Rialto" for the variety of Jewish vaudeville on offer in the neighborhood. Into this came architect Harrison G. Wiseman's Commodore Theatre, which hosted Yiddish shows until Loews took over the space and turned it into a movie house. The theater was in rough shape in 1968, when rock promoter Bill Graham transformed it into the Fillmore East, the NYC version of his music venue in San Francisco. The rock club hosted legendary gigs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Miles Davis, and the Allman Brothers Band, many of which live on in live recordings. The Fillmore closed its doors after only three years in business, but not before leaving an indelible mark. Today, it's an Apple Bank for Savings. Womp womp.
Jefferson Market LIbrary
Built: 1875–1877With its Victorian Gothic facade and imposing clock tower, the Jefferson Market Library may be the city's most visually striking library. It began life as a courthouse designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, on a spot that once hosted a smaller courthouse, a fire lookout tower, and an open-air market. Cases tried at this court included the trial of Harry K. Thaw for the murder of architect Stanford White in 1906, which at the time was known as the "Trial of the Century." The building fell into disuse in 1945, at which point a preservationist group that included the poet E.E. Cummings campaigned to have it converted into a library. It's been a branch of the NYPL since 1967, its clock tower still looming over Greenwich Village.
33 Union Square West
Built: 1893With its ornate Venetian and Islamic-inflected facade, the tall, narrow Decker Building stands out in Union Square. Designed by architect and anarchist John H. Edelmann, it originally housed the Decker Brothers Piano Company. But it's best known as the site of Andy Warhol's Factory from 1968 through 1974, after the artist relocated his scene-y studio from Midtown. Much of Warhol's filmmaking took place here, and it was also where, in 1968, writer Valerie Solanas shot and wounded Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya. Now the ground floor is home to a Dylan's Candy Bar, a decidedly less cool type of factory.
Church of the Holy Communion
Built: 1846Few structures in Manhattan have enjoyed a more varied life than this Gothic Revival church, designed by American Institute of Architects founder Richard Upjohn. An Episcopal church until 1976, this landmarked building was briefly a rehab center until party promoter Peter Gatien reopened the space as the Limelight nightclub in 1983, with an opening shindig hosted by none other than Andy Warhol. The club closed its doors in 2001 after numerous drug busts. These days, the building houses a David Barton Gym with an offshoot of Brooklyn pizza fave Grimaldi's on the ground floor. History is weird.
597 Fifth Avenue
Built: 1913This Beaux Arts beauty, designed by Ernest Flagg, is the only landmark building in the city that was originally built as a bookshop. It was the location of Scribner's Bookstore, a gorgeously appointed three-story lit lover's dream with an elegant glass front. (A young Patti Smith worked here in the late 1960s, a memory that she detailed in her memoir Just Kids.) The exterior achieved landmark status in 1982, but that didn't stop the bookstore from getting kicked to the curb in 1988 when the rent skyrocketed. These days it's the site of a Sephora, the elegantly arched ceilings now presiding over shelves of high-end cosmetics rather than leather-bound tomes.