55 Water Street, 1972/2005

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Water Street has Lower Manhattan’s largest concentration of mid-20th century modern office buildings. Developed following passage of the 1961-zoning ordinance, most of these projects gained valuable floorspace by providing various types of public space, often referred to as “bonus plazas”. Among these buildings, 55 Water Street was particularly ambitious. A late example of the style called Brutalism, the 1969-72 office complex stretches several blocks along the East River, from Coenties Slip to Old Slip. Designed by Emery Roth & Sons for the prolific commercial developer Uris Brothers, this super-block contains two interconnected structures which, when counted as one, create the largest privately-owned office building in New York City. The complex has three distinct bonus plazas: an arcade facing Water Street, a south plaza that expands the adjoining Vietnam Veterans Plaza, and the upper plaza, now aptly called the Elevated Acre. Hidden behind two bulky office structures and sited on top of a multi-level parking garage, this privately-owned public space is raised about 30 feet above the sidewalk.

Though the plaza’s original design by M. Paul Friedberg & Associates had handsome qualities and was home to the Whitney Museum’s first branch from 1973 to 1983, it was hardly visited except by couples seeking privacy and an occasional falcon. Following an abandoned proposal to develop the site into an office building, a competition was held in 2002 to transform the plaza. Sponsored by the owner and the Municipal Art Society, 75 firms entered, of which six finalists participated. The commission was ultimately awarded to Rogers Marvel Architects, in collaboration with Ken Smith Landscape Architect, who was also responsible in part for designing the current East River Esplanade.

Construction of the Elevated Acre was completed in 2005. Whereas the original design was mainly brownish brick‚ like the pavers found in Vietnam Veterans Plaza‚ the present design is softer and exhibits a park-like atmosphere. There is a dune-like garden planted with honey locust trees and sea grass, a wood-planked boardwalk, and a low-maintenance synthetic lawn. These environments invite all types of lingering; there are movable chairs and tables, benches with and without arm rests, and tiered concrete seating that forms an L-shaped amphitheater. As part of an agreement with the New York City Department of Planning the owner hosts frequent public events.

The architects also raised the plaza’s ground plane to create a gentle slope. This subtle change is arguably the most significant new feature; not only does it create drama by concealing the panoramic view until you reach the top of a curved concrete pathway but it mutes the constant hum of passing cars on the nearby FDR Drive. Once you reach the summit’s wide boardwalk, be sure to grab a bench and enjoy the memorable vistas of the East River and Brooklyn.

– Matthew A. Postal