New York architecture cheat sheet: everything you ever wanted to know 1

New York architecture cheat sheet: everything you wanted to know

New York has come a long way since it was New Amsterdam back in the mid-1600s.

Despite being a relatively young city, it’s packed to the rafters and then a hundred metres higher than that. The industrial revolution in particular brought with it the steel needed for the city to start transforming itself into the heights its known for today. Each of the five boroughs has its own identity, with only Manhattan truly insisting on the whole tallness thing.

But where to start? If you enjoyed our cheat sheet to London architecture, you’ll be pleased to see we’ve done one for New York too. We’ve stuck to a generally chronological order and the most significant styles, but NYC is known for mixing everything up regardless – we’ve tried to keep the city’s endless architectural revivals to a minimum to help stop your brain falling out.

Without further ado, here’s how to know what you’re looking at in the Big Apple and where.

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Each colonising nation in North America had their own take on architecture but the ones that are left are few and far between.

How to recognise Colonial architecture:

Everything’s made out of wood or stone, and the place is now a museum… Some features end up in revival architecture, eg. Stepped gables from Dutch Colonial.

Famous examples:

Conference House and Alice Austen House in Staten Island.




The Renaissance period was huge in the 1800s, with Classical and Greek Revival styles dominating. Seen as a golden era, the styles were later used to tint the architectural styles of the 20th century and even do so today. One of the first skyscrapers, the Park Row Building, combined the fashion for tall buildings with classical elements in 1899 at the end of the main period.

How to recognise Classical architecture:

Grandeur is the main thing, with columns and domes as standard.

Famous examples:

New York City Hall in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Borough Hall in Brooklyn Heights, the Park Row Building in the Financial District.






A major revival that influenced many churches and schools throughout NYC. Returning to a medieval aesthetic was seen as a reaction against the “sin” of industrialisation of the 19th century.

How to recognise Gothic Revival architecture:

Everything reaches for the sky – arches with pointy peaks are a massive giveaway. Lots of light-filled spaces in interiors. Gargoyles and religious imagery are always a nod to the Gothic.

Famous examples:

The Brooklyn Bridge, Sunny Slope in Hunts Point, Flatbush Town Hall, Saint Thomas Church in Manhattan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (originally Gothic revival, but over the last 130-odd years its undergone so much remodelling and extending that it’s actually more post-modern due to the clash of each period’s influence).








Popular from the 1840s to the 1870s, and seen as more appropriate for villas and townhouses than the more ornate Gothic and Greek revivals that were popular with civic and corporate buildings.

How to recognise Italianate architecture:

Flat roofs and eaves with cornices (supporting brackets) and corbels at the end of the wall, Venetian windows, light colours – basically, think Italian mansion. The peak for the Italianate style coincided with the boom in the use of brownstone and many were made using the material, particularly in Brooklyn.

Famous examples:

DUMBO Industrial District, Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park, Fulton Landing, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens Historic District.






These late 19th century whirls of fancy were odes to French architecture and wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or even Versailles.

How to recognise Second Empire architecture:

A mansard roof is the main thing to look for (like the roof of a French chateau).

Famous examples:

Gilsey House and the Grand Hotel in NoMad, William B Cronym House in Park Slope, Kings County Savings Bank in Williamsburg.     







The American interpretation of Queen Anne is popular around the US, and is often mixed in with the Colonial Revival and Federal styles.

How to recognise Queen Anne architecture:

It’s essentially classic Americana, with large wooden porches that can wrap around detached houses, and hints of mock-Tudor wooden supporting frames.

Famous examples:

Saitta House in Dyker Heights, Ditmas Park, Victorian Flatbush, Prospect Park South.





1880-1920. The next phase for civic buildings after Second Empire was a movement called City Beautiful. It put grandness into larger projects that involved city planning rather than individual buildings. The go-to style for these projects was called Beaux-Arts, and based on an a long-established school in France.

How to recognise Beaux-Arts architecture:

A form of Neo-Classicism based around ancient Greek and Roman styles that involves lots of symmetry, rusticated walls, arched windows, multiple colours, and plain old imposing decadence.

Famous examples:

Columbia University in Morningside Heights, the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Heights, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in University Heights, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library in Midtown, Manhattan Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan, the Bronx Borough Courthouse in Melrose.

Special mention:

The Flatiron Building, finished in 1902, was a groundbreaking use of Beaux-Arts in unusually tight space restrictions. The dimensions forced a unique skyscraper shape instead of the usual broad civic buildings associated with the style.






The Art Deco style was pioneered during the 1920s in New York mainly thanks to the 1916 Zoning Law. It demanded that all these tall buildings popping up had to taper and reduce at the top to allow more sunlight to reach the pavements below. Although the law was instigated for practical reasons in Manhattan, roofs with setbacks were copied elsewhere because it became fashionable, eg. the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower in Brooklyn.

How to recognise Art Deco:

streamline edges, geometric shapes, technology motifs and machine elements, sunbursts, highly contrasting colours, use of gold and silver accents. Most of NYC’s Art Deco can be seen around Midtown because it was the centre of a building boom during the 1920s.

Famous examples of Art Deco:

Chrysler Building, GE building (also known as 30 Rock), 500 Fifth Avenue, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (famous for their salad!), the old McGraw-Hill Building






Modernism arrived around 1900. The archetypal image of the skyscraper in your mind is probably Modern in style, but the first skyscrapers were built before it entered the architectural mindset. The two things gravitated towards each other because of their mutual emphasis on function over form.

How to recognise Modern architecture:

minimal ornamentation and mostly just simple horizontal and vertical lines. The form always follows the function, eg. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim looks so strange because it’s supposed to enable people to walk through the gallery unfettered by things like stairs.

Famous examples:

Guggenheim Museum, UN Building





Seen as a glossier, more aesthetic form of Modernist architecture that revels in global influences. Brought to the fore by a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

How to recognise International architecture:

Develops upon the Modernist ethos by adding balance and volume, and totally removing ornaments. Slick and corporate – think Gordon Gecko in Wall Street.

Famous examples:

the Seagram Building (where Bill Murray worked in Scrooged), the McGraw-Hill Building on Sixth Avenue, Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle





New York had previously enjoyed the mixing of styles in Art Deco buildings which featured Gothic parts, eg. the Woolworth Building, the General Electric Building or 40 Wall Street (The Trump Building). Starting around the early 1980s however, Post-Modernism took it to surreal extremes, with architects creating confounding juxtapositions seemingly for fun. The form over function ethos mixed with the outlandish even resulted in danger – when the Citigroup Center appeared, its base of stilts was structurally unsound and had to be fixed.

How to recognise Post-Modern architecture:

If something looks Modernist at first but then you realise there’s something really weird and out of place about it, then there’s a good bet it’s Post-Modern. It might even look like two buildings mashed together, eg. 461 Fifth Avenue.

Famous examples:

Sony Tower, Citigroup Center, 461 Fifth Avenue








Formalised by a 1988 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (that place has a lot to answer for), Deconstructivism is about showing what’s hidden beneath the veneer of Modernism… apparently. Household-name architects like Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind are known for their ventures into its weirdness

How to recognise Deconstructivist architecture:

when a building looks so fragmented it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow there’s control in the chaos. Usually made to look like construction materials, with large steel edifices or walls of misshapen glass.

Famous examples:

8 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan, the New Museum in Bowery.  






Climate change isn’t going away but NYC’s skyscrapers keep getting bigger and more energy-hungry. Inevitably, architects started to think about how to save both money and the planet. A natural progression for Modernism’s form over function.

How to recognise Green Design:

visually like a hippy version of High-Tech. A Green Design building is likely to look a bit awkward but you’ll keep hearing people say how marvellous it is.

Famous examples:

Conde Nast Building in Midtown, Hearst Tower near Columbus Circle.  




2015 will see the addition of four super-tall skyscrapers. Midtown will get the first, 432 Park Avenue, which has a higher roof than the current tallest building in NYC, the One World Trade Centre. Other eerie monoliths will materialise from the ether at 225 West 57th Street, 111 West 57th Street, and 125 Greenwich Street. At this rate, Manhattan will surely need to update the 1916 Zoning Resolution as soon as possible – in about 100 years, nobody in the borough will be able to see the sun without crossing a bridge.  


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