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A Mind-Expanding Cruise of Manhattan’s Architecture

Eleanor Berman - NY City Woman
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A Mind-Expanding Cruise of Manhattan’s Architecture

On our intimate 3-hour cruise we saw stunning new architecture that is changing the skyline.

As a veteran New Yorker who has written several guidebooks about the city, I thought I knew every detail about the island, but after taking a three-hour cruise around Manhattan that focused on the city’s architectural wonders, I’ve gained a whole new perspective. Standing on city sidewalks, you are too close to see the detail of buildings or the full impact of their height, nor do you have the distance to see how each blends into the city’s dazzling mosaic. From the river, with an architectural expert aboard to guide you, all of this becomes wonderfully clear.

Anyone can share this enlightening experience by signing up for a Classic Harbor Line Around Manhattan cruise with a guide provided by the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Unlike the crowded Circle Line cruises, Classic Harbor Line ships sail from Chelsea Piers several times a week carrying a maximum of 56 passengers, a captain, two cheerful crew members and a knowledgeable guide. This is an intimate, enjoyable and mind-expanding excursion. From the decks or generous cabin windows of the Manhattan, an 80-foot vessel built in 2006 to resemble a 1920s motor yacht, everyone can see buildings easily and also follow the course with an illustrated souvenir folder that contains a map and 156 thumbnail photos of the sites in store. 

Blessed with a sunny day in July, my friend and I enjoyed the breezes as we sat on deck benches with a glass of champagne in hand and viewed the changing shoreline, not only in Manhattan, but in the boroughs across the rivers where parks and shiny new neighborhoods are rising. During the 35-mile circumnavigation, our excellent guide, John Kriskiewicz, professor of Architecture and City Planning at Parsons and FIT, told us about the buildings we were passing, as well as the historic bridges that connect the city (all 18 of them) and some of the hidden infrastructure that keeps the city running. 

We had hardly set out from Chelsea Piers when two great buildings provided an example of my widened view. Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters and Jean Noevel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue are a block apart and can’t be seen together from land. But from the river we could compare how two talented architects created entirely different façades using glass. Gehry’s curving lines look for all the world like billowing sails while Noevel has designed an intriguing mosaic of rectangular boxes at unexpected angles, almost like a puzzle. 

Traveling south on the Hudson, we sailed by the burgeoning skyline and viewed the High Line’s modern marvels, including the Standard Hotel that actually straddles the walkway, and Richard Meir’s triple Perry Street Towers in Greenwich Village. It was a thrill to round the tip of Manhattan and see how the Freedom Tower has altered the skyline above its neighbors. Before we were done, I had discovered several buildings that were new to me—the striking stair-step façade of the Mercedes House, Frank Gehry’s undulating tower at 8 Spruce Street, now the city’s tallest residential building, and architect Rafael Vinoly’s 1,398 foot condo tower on Park Avenue that will steal that title when it’s completed in 2015. 

Kayakers enjoying the river and bikers in the parkland above the highway were welcome reminders of how well the Hudson has been cleaned up and utilized. 

We learned lots of interesting tidbits as we sailed. I didn’t know that Pier 59 at Chelsea Piers was to have been the final destination of the Titanic, or that the city’s oldest bridge, the 1848 High Bridge between upper Manhattan and the Bronx, was originally designed to resemble a Roman aqueduct as it brought water into the city. And who would have suspected that the handsome towers on the Normandy Apartments on Riverside Drive were built to hide the wooden water towers that supply many of the city’s buildings? 

Cameras clicked madly as we came up close to the Statue of Liberty. “You’d have to stand in line for hours for another boat that comes this close,” John reminded us.

Heading north on the East River, we sailed beneath the city’s mighty bridges—the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Robert Kennedy (previously the Triboro) with a chance to see the differences in construction that aren’t as obvious from land. The changing fortunes of city neighborhoods were unmistakable as the Manhattan traveled past the action on the Brooklyn waterfront, where rotting piers are being transformed into parkland, and luxury towers are rising in once-gritty North Williamsburg. More cranes and construction marked the recent popularity of Long Island City, and as we cruised past the South Bronx, the new towers being built were evidence that this is the latest hot spot for artists and the residential development that is following them.

As the East River turned into the Harlem River, the water narrowed and we came upon a string of bridges leading to the Bronx—many of them foot bridges like the 135th Street Bridge that once led from Yankee Stadium to the Polo Grounds. The 1895 Macombs Dam Bridge will be familiar to those who have seen it in an Edward Hopper painting. 

As we approached the end of the island, Manhattan’s topography changed dramatically from the flat mid-town that I know. Here we were passing cliffs, the 500 million-year-old bedrock known as Manhattan Schist and the dense greenery of Inwood Hill Park, the last vestiges of Manhattan’s primeval forest.

We saw some of the infrastructure sites almost unnoticed most of the time, like the handsome building decorated with sails near Dyckman Street that is actually an electrical transformer station. After passing through the Spuyten Duyvil, one of the several swing bridges that rotate 90 degrees on a turn-table to let ships pass by, we rounded the top of Manhattan and turned south again, the Hudson stretching ahead seeming as wide as an ocean. 

I was awed by the dramatic sight of the 28 green acres of Riverbank State Park on the Hudson, built atop what our guide described as the “Versailles of Waste Treatment Plants.” I had been in that park, completely unaware of what was underneath.

Knowing that John Kriskiewicz is always the guide for specialized Saturday cruises devoted entirely to bridges, tunnels and infrastructure, I signed on for another of his colorful narrations. Even though it turned out to be a rainy Saturday in late July when we sailed, I found it quite enlightening; even staying inside the cabin turned out to be a cozy experience with more opportunity to enjoy the gracious drinks, fruit and cheese and cakes provided.  I had been too busy snapping photos on deck to take full advantage of snacks the first time around. (When the weather is poor, passengers are limited to 44 to insure that everyone has an indoor seat.) 

Whichever cruise you choose, I guarantee you’ll have a delightful afternoon and come back to shore knowing a lot more about New York City.