Our flight of fancy touches down on the west side of Manhattan where one of the city’s most prominent developers, William Zeckendorf, proposed to construct a rooftop airport roughly the size of Central Park above 144 square blocks and the Hudson River. “Zeckendorf was a huge player in the city and had a streak of futuristic ideas,” Lubell says. Rather than schlepping out to Kennedy or LaGuardia Airports, air travelers would have been able to take off right from Midtown Manhattan. Zeckendorf’s 1945 plan called for three parallel runways capable of landing 68 planes an hour on a concrete deck supported by steel columns 200 feet above street level. “Underneath there was still room for boats to dock at the piers and a road going right through it,” Lubell says. The cost of the giant landing deck, projected at a cool $3 billion even in 1945 dollars, was one reason why the plan failed along with its rejection by New York City’s master planner Robert Moses.
Coney Island Globe
Even by the entertainment standards of Coney Island, the brainchild of inventor Samuel Friede would have been something to behold. Looking like the Eiffel Tower with a giant sphere wrapped around its waistline, the Coney Island Globe was to feature 11 levels of amusements including a theater, dance hall, circus, restaurants and even a roller-skating rink. “The rendering looked like something out of science-fiction, but the reality was that it was more like fiction,” Lubell says. “For all we can tell, this was a big con.” After the cornerstone for the project, which would have required 7,000 tons of steel, was laid in May 1906 and concrete foundations poured, the project collapsed. According to newspaper reports, Fried and employees of his company tried to run off with investors’ money, and the company’s treasurer was found guilty of embezzlement.
If architect Calvin Pollard’s plan had been carried out, the city where George Washington began his presidency would have had a soaring monument to the country’s first chief executive. In the 1840s Pollard designed a granite Gothic tower with a layered spire that would have soared 425 feet high—nearly as twice as tall as any building in the city at the time—at Hamilton Square on the East Side of Manhattan. Relics from the American Revolution were to be displayed inside the monument’s pentagonal base, and a statue of Washington holding the “Declaration of Independence and surrounded by Lafayette and our other foreign allies” was to stand beneath a 100-foot-high rotunda. The monument’s cornerstone was lowered in 1847, but the project faltered. A much more humble equestrian statue of Washington was ultimately unveiled in Union Square on the Fourth of July in 1856.
Gilbert’s Elevated Railway
Rufus Henry Gilbert’s dream of transporting people around New York was a steampunk version of Elon Musk’s “hyperloop.” A former surgeon in the Union Army decorated for performing the first operation conducted under fire, the polymath Gilbert received a patent in 1870 for his Elevated Railway that would use compressed air and steam-powered fans to move passengers in oversized pneumatic tubes that were suspended from 24-foot-high wrought-iron Gothic arches. “It looked like a giant iron Erector Set in the air,” Lubell says of Gilbert’s design, which built on the work of Alfred Ely Beach, who had experimented with an underground pneumatic railway. Passing cars on Gilbert’s elevated railway, proposed to run along Sixth Avenue from Tribeca to the Harlem River, would have triggered telegraph wires that could signal arrivals and departures along the line. When the Panic of 1873 dried up money for the project, Gilbert built a more conventional elevated railway along Sixth Avenue with steam-powered trains.
After the closing of its immigration station in 1954, Ellis Island nearly became a refuge for weary New Yorkers, not huddled masses, yearning to breathe free away from the chaos of the city. After the federal government put the island out for bid, the winning company proposed a “completely self-contained city of the future” and hired architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design it. His futuristic creation, which Lubell calls a “a cross between Middle Eastern architecture and ‘Star Wars,’” included apartments for more than 7,500 people, seven candlestick-shaped towers and surrounding domes that contained hospitals, schools, restaurants and even nightclubs. “It’s a wonderful example of Wright using his talents for a holistic plan, not just an individual building,” Lubell says. It would also be the last commission the architect ever accepted before his death in 1959.
National American Indian Memorial
Lady Liberty would have been joined by an equally large statue of a Native American chief on Staten Island had the National American Indian Memorial been completed as planned. Designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French and Thomas Hastings, co-architect of the New York Public Library, plans for the memorial were dominated by a proposed 165-foot-tall statue of a warrior with a bow and arrow hanging from his left hand in surrender and his right skyward in a sign of peace atop a Beaux Arts building housing a collection of Native American artifacts. “If you were going into New York Harbor you would see it before the Statue of Liberty. It was the same scale,” Lubell says. The 1913 groundbreaking of the memorial, billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” was attended by President William Howard Taft who said, “No monument has a more conspicuous place in the world. at the gate of the New World and facing the old.” The project sputtered and became a casualty of World War I, and the location became the west footing of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
North River Bridge
A decade after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Gustav Lindenthal put the finishing touches on his design for “the most mighty engineering feat of bridge building known to the world.” The highly regarded civil engineer, who later designed both the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, proposed a massive span across the Hudson River that would carry trains on 10 tracks to provide the first direct rail link between New York and New Jersey. At 6,500 feet long and at a height of 145 feet above the water to allow for ship clearances, the world’s longest bridge was to be secured by two 17-story-tall stone anchorages, each containing 50 percent more masonry than the largest Egyptian pyramid. Ground was broken in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895, but the privately funded project derailed after a financial downturn.
Brooklyn Dodgers fans may not have had their hearts ripped out had the team’s planned replacement for Ebbets Field moved ahead. Team owner Walter O’Malley was “not interested in just building another baseball park” when he consulted in 1955 with R. Buckminster Fuller, the designer synonymous with geodesic domes. Fuller proposed—wait for it—a geodesic dome with a translucent fiberglass roof that would seat 55,000 fans, nearly double the capacity of Ebbets Field. Not to be outdone, Fuller in 1961 sketched a plan to cover Midtown Manhattan with, yes, a dome to offer protection from the elements and better climate control. O’Malley found a solution to New York’s weather by moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 when land could not be secured to build the “huge plastic bubble” and Moses refused to play ball.
Downtown Manhattan would have been Midtown had T. Kennard Thomson’s dream come true. The well-respected civil engineer, who was involved in the construction of the city’s early skyscrapers and bridges, proposed in 1911 to use landfill to extend the southern tip of Manhattan so far into New York Harbor that it would have swallowed Governors Island and nearly reached to Staten Island. “Building on landfill was something commonly done in this country and in the world, so it wasn’t a totally far-fetched idea, and Thomson wasn’t some crazy figure,” Lubell says. “He wasn’t laughed off like he might be today. This was something people took seriously.” Thomson found particular backing among business interests in lower Manhattan which saw itself losing sway as the tide of development drifted north to Midtown. Thomson tried for decades to convince the city to take the plunge into harbor, but the plan never came to fruition.
Our tour through New York’s alternate universe ends in the green heart of Manhattan, which would have looked more like the highly manicured Gardens of Versailles than the city’s verdant playpen had John Rink’s plan to improve Central Park been chosen over that of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 33-entry design competition. Rink, who worked as a gardener in the park, proposed wide promenades, formal gardens shaped like stars and spirals, topiaries and roads and entrance gates bearing the names of American presidents and patriots. Rink’s design wouldn’t have left New Yorkers much space to laze in the sun or toss around a frisbee, but they would have been able to take target practice with their revolvers in a three-level shooting gallery channeled through a rocky outcrop.