BMCR 2021.11.17

Antiquity in Gotham: the ancient architecture of New York City

, Antiquity in Gotham: the ancient architecture of New York City. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780823293841 $39.95.


This book, written by a well-informed scholar, provides an overview, as well as details, of many of the buildings and architectural elements of New York City with ancient features, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or ancient Near Eastern. The book follows on Macaulay-Lewis’ coedited volume (with Matthew McGowan), Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham (2018), with essays by eight scholars. By far the largest number of structures inspired by antiquity in the city have classical features, but Egyptian influences are also found quite often. Far less in evidence are Assyrian or other Near Eastern motifs.

The author uses the term Neo-Antique to refer to what is often a mix of these four inspirations, rather than Neoclassical, which would necessarily exclude Egypt and the Ancient Near East. Buildings in the city have been inspired not only by antiquity, but also by medieval or Renaissance sources, sometimes in concert with each other. A good example is the United States Courthouse (now named for Thurgood Marshall), which is a remarkable mix of styles, including a classical colonnade, the campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

These influences of Neo-Antique can be found in all five boroughs of New York, and it is partly because of the richness of the author’s knowledge of some of the more obscure buildings and monuments in areas not so well traveled by many of her potential readers that this book makes a huge contribution to our knowledge. Examples of places that might not be familiar to many would be the beautiful Gould Memorial Library at Bronx Community College (formerly part of NYU), the classical buildings constructed to house retired sailors at Snug Harbor on Staten Island, or the Brooklyn Borough Hall. Other buildings that may not be well known are those that are no longer standing, such as the US Custom House, or the First and Second Merchants’ Exchanges, all in Manhattan.

A frequent theme in the book is “The City Beautiful,” a movement that was promulgated in a book by Charles Mulford Robinson, Modern Civic Art; or, The City Made Beautiful (1903). Architects and designers believed that this movement would lift the spirit and improve the lives of the citizens by placing around them classically inspired architecture and decoration. They thought too that fine urban design and open spaces, such as Foley Square, would inspire people to feel good about their surroundings.

The author immediately captures the reader’s attention with her intriguing example of the American Museum of Natural History’s façade, decorated in a relief copied after the Arch of Constantine. Macaulay-Lewis shows throughout the book that the architectural borrowings regularly carried with them a political message, whether alluding to the democracies of Greece or Rome, or the enduring stability and longevity of Egypt (especially chosen for tomb architecture). She shows how classicizing bank buildings (such as the Knickerbocker Trust, Manhattan) made people feel confident in the security of the bank itself.

The range of structures discussed starts around the time of the Revolutionary War and lasts until the early 20th century. Her choice  is wide, starting with buildings related to the city’s infrastructure. Especially interesting to this reviewer was the explanation of the Croton aqueduct (compared at the time to Roman aqueducts) that carried water over 40 miles from the dammed reservoir at Croton-on-Hudson to the  one that was built on the highest rise in central Manhattan: the Murray Hill distributing reservoir. (I remember the telephone exchange, Murray Hill, but never knew where that originated.) This monumental structure was decorated with Egyptian pylons that sloped inward and gave the impression of a pharaonic building. Other discussions in the book addressing the city’s infrastructure highlight the bridges, and especially the Grand Central and Pennsylvania train stations.

Also discussed are public municipal buildings, including prisons, specifically The Tombs; and financial structures, including banks, the Stock Exchange, and skyscrapers. The author then proceeds to museums, zoos, and universities; to domestic architecture, from the homes of the wealthy to apartment buildings; to restaurants, such as the “lobster palaces,” and the Café de l’Opera, with its mix of decoration from Khorsabad, Persepolis, and elsewhere; and to tombs, especially in the rural cemeteries of Woodlawn in the Bronx and Green-Wood in Brooklyn, both influenced by Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Jules S. Bache mausoleum closely mirrors the so-called Kiosk of Trajan at Philae, while the tomb of F. W. Woolworth, modeled closely on the Temple of Dendur, inspired many other mausoleums throughout the country.

The author also discusses monuments to heroes, such as the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, and, in Manhattan, the Washington Square Arch and the column to Columbus at Columbus Circle. Finally she treats such places as churches, bathing establishments, and theaters.

Macaulay-Lewis states in the Introduction that each chapter is meant to stand alone, and admits that this will call for a certain amount of repetition. Unfortunately, this repetition becomes somewhat tedious for anyone who actually reads the whole book. One example is the constant referral throughout the volume to the fact that the taste of builders moved from borrowings from Greece early on, until Rome supplanted Greece in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Another is that sometimes the same point is repeated even within the same paragraph.

The book is well illustrated with historic photographs (including postcards), and with fine images taken by the author herself. Most of them are interesting and well chosen, but a few were printed so small as to be of little use. Illustrations of ancient structures are included judiciously for those who may not be familiar with them. The book claims to be about architecture, but the author fortunately also discusses the sculpture on some of the buildings, bridges, and monuments. It would have been good if more illustrations could have been included to illustrate her descriptions, e.g., images of the bison on the arch of Manhattan Bridge or details of the sculpture at Grand Central Station.

Unfortunately, nowhere does Macaulay-Lewis actually explain “Gotham,” used prominently in the title of the book. The term comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for “Goat’s Town,” and originally referred to a “village of simple-minded fools” (New York Public Library). Washington Irving resurrected the term in 1807, when it was used in an unflattering light; but it was enthusiastically adopted by New Yorkers as a name for their city.

To round out the observations here: it is a pity that the publisher apparently wanted to save space by bringing the text right out to the margins, thus making each line of text exceptionally wide. At least for this reviewer, it made the text more difficult to read. Misspellings should have been caught, such as Wedgewood instead of Wedgwood, or Villa di Papyri instead of Villa dei Papiri. But despite these minor quibbles, this is a valuable book that serves to document the influence of antiquity on many buildings of New York City, and that is accessible reading for students as well as seasoned scholars.