Last updated on September 1st, 2020
If Midtown is the heart of Manhattan, then 42nd street in New York City must be its main artery. It’s only a two mile walk from the East River to the Hudson River on this historic lane, but you pass through a handful of defined neighborhoods in the process, each with its own distinctive flavor. You also pass by some of the city’s most iconic and decorative buildings, both old and new.
A crazy quilt that “Wall Street Jack” built,
If you’ve got a little time to spare,
I want to take you there.
Lyrics to “42nd Street” by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer
Even though 42nd street is only two miles long, the character of the neighborhoods changes every few blocks. On the east side of Lexington Ave. is Turtle Bay which has roots back to the 17th century Dutch Colonial times, and which feels quieter and more residential. Approaching Park and 5th Avenues, the ambiance is definitely more upscale and expensive. Then, continuing west to Broadway and 7th Ave., it is the busy, noisy and colorful Times Square area that sets the pulse for the city that never sleeps. Next comes Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District, once the grittier side of New York which is now getting gentrified and redeveloped.
For the last few years, I have been going to New York City each January to attend the New York Times Travel Show. My hotel of choice for this trip is the Yotel on 10th and 41st which has given me a chance to explore the length of 42nd street from west to east and back again. Follow along to see what I discovered as I walked from the eastern end of 42nd street and its intersection with 1st Ave and worked my way west to the banks of the Hudson River.
Experience 100 years of New York city’s architecture. Let my photos take you there.
My walk down 42nd Street in New York
The United Nations Headquarters
I started my explorations at the intersection of the East River and the eastern end of 42nd street with the main headquarters of the United Nations which was completed in 1952. The tall building in the complex is the Secretariat Building which is connected to the horizontal conference building where the General Assembly meets. Besides this building complex, the UN also has regional headquarters and specialized agencies in other locations around the globe.
The site that the UN buildings occupy is considered international land which is administered by the UN and not the US Government. You can take guided tours of the UN Headquarters Monday through Friday for an up close look inside the UN.
Across the street from the UN is the Tudor City Apartment Complex. When it was built in 1927, these Tudor Revival style buildings were the first residential skyscraper complex in New York. The complex truly is a small city onto itself. It houses about 5000 residents and many on site services such as restaurants, a hotel, a grocery, a gourmet deli, convenience stores, a hair salon, laundries and dry cleaners, as well as three garden parks and a children’s playground.
Conceivable, you could live, work and do your basic shopping without having to leave the complex. The buildings have also played a role in many TV shows and movies (Godfather III and the Spiderman movies to name a few).
Continuing my walk, between 1st and 2nd avenues I found the headquarters for the Ford Foundation, one of the largest non-profit organization in the world. The foundation, which was started by Edsel and Henry Ford during the height of the depression in 1936 with $25,000, is now worth around 12 billion dollars. The foundation’s goal is to improve human welfare by challenging inequality.
When the Ford Foundation building was completed in 1968, it pioneered the concept of an indoor green space. Two sides of the building are all glass and enclose an atrium planted with lush, tropical plants and trees. You could say it is a true concrete jungle. The atrium is open to the public during work hours – something I did not know about or I would have taken a peek inside.
New York Daily News
In the next block, between 2nd and 3rd avenues is the building that was the headquarters for the county’s first tabloid newspaper, the New York Daily News, until 1995. Built in 1929 by the same architect that also built the Rockefeller Center and the Chicago Tribune Building, this building is a another National Historic Landmark and is one of the city’s signature Art Deco designs.
The quote on the facade comes from Abraham Lincoln who said, “God must love the common man, he made so many of them“. An appropriate sentiment for a newspaper that was intended for the masses. The Daily News building was also a model for the Daily Planet in the Superman movies made in the 1980’s. Make sure to also take a peek inside the circular lobby with its huge spinning globe which was also featured in the Superman movies.
The Chrysler Building
Another block further on the corner of 42nd and Lexington, is New York’s most famous and most recognizable Art Deco architecture, the Chrysler Building. Completed in 1930, it held the title for world’s tallest building for only eleven months, until it was surpassed by the nearby Empire State Building.
The building was built by Walter Chrysler and did serve as the headquarters for the Chrysler corporation till the 1950’s. One of the things that makes the Chrysler building so unique are it’s automobile inspired architectural details such as the replica 1929 Chrysler radiator caps on the corners of the 31st floor. The 31st floor is also decorated with a frieze depicting hubcaps and fenders.
Until 1945, you could take an elevator to the 71st floor observation deck. Sadly, today only the lobby is accessible to visitors. I suppose that having to admire it from afar adds to it’s mystery and appeal. The Chrysler Building is also on the National Register of Historic places.
Across the street from the Chrysler building is the relatively smaller 45 story Mobile Building which was built in 1954 in the modern style. The upper facade is interesting in that the building is covered with 7000 embossed stainless steel panels which apparently saved quite a bit of weight as compared to a brick front.
Kitty corner from the Chrysler building is the Chanin Building, one of the first buildings in the city to be inspired by the French Arte Decoratifs movement. This skyscraper, named after its architect, Irwin Chanin, was built just before the Chrysler building and was completed in 1929. It is also on the National Register of Historic landmarks.
I was attracted by the beautiful carved details that run the length of the lower facade. One frieze depicts the theory of evolution showing the progression of animals from the amoeba to jellyfish to fish and finally geese.
Another bas-relief shows intricate stylized leaves and flowers.
The interior lobby also has numerous Art Deco details which I will definitely have to check out the next time I am in New York.
In the next block, between Lexington and Park avenues is the Bowers Building, an elaborate structure built for the Bowery Savings Bank in 1923. The bank is long gone, but the space is now used as an upscale entertainment venue and restaurant by Cipriani.
The highly decorated front entry has figures that were supposed to be “symbols with specific references to moral duty and to encourage the thrifty”. If you are lucky, you’ll be invited to an exclusive party inside which is the only way you can experience the purported luxurious and soaring interior.
Grand Central Terminal
These days it seems like the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal has more tourists than actual travelers passing through it – over 22 million visitors each year. The real record setter however is the fact that it has the most platforms of any train station in the world – 44 of them (I wonder if there is a platform 9 3/4?).
Sitting at 42nd Street and Park Ave., the current version of Grand Central Terminal was built between 1903 and 1913. Its construction spurred a host of upscale development in the neighborhood in the 1920’s, including the Chrysler building down the street. At the height of train travel in 1947, 65 million people passed through Grand Central Terminal – the equivalent of 40% of the US population at that time. But as train travel declined in the US, so did the fate of Grand Central Terminal, and the neighborhood around it.
In 1970, it declared bankruptcy. Eventually the neighborhood and Grand Central Terminal underwent a revitalization so that over the past 20 years, various aspects of the building have been renovated and restored to their former glory. As with the other decorative buildings in the area, Grand Central Terminal is also a National Historic Landmark.
A few interesting and lesser known facts about Grand Central Terminal: there is a sports club with a tennis court in the building; there are passageways behind the big windows in the main concourse which are used by employees of the terminal; each of the clocks is set by the atomic clock at the Naval Observatory in Bethesda, MD and is accurate to 1 second every 20 billion years.
Today, Grand Central Terminal is a destination in and of itself. For more in depth information about this historic landmark, take one of the available guided or audio tours.
With 60 shops and 35 restaurants, including the Michelin starred Scandinavian inspired Agersn, there is something for every culinary taste. Make sure to also check out The Campbell Bar, one of the oldest in the city and try one of their classic Manhattans, what else. The Grand Central Terminal Market is also a great stop for a large variety of international inspired food purchases.
Main Branch of the New York Public Library
This National Historic Landmark that takes up two blocks of valuable real estate in midtown Manhattan is the flagship of the New York Public Library system, both figuratively and physically. Even if you have no intention of perusing one of its 4 million volumes, it’s worth a long peek inside this, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, to see the wonderful details of this historic architecture.
The main entrance is actually around the corner on 5th Ave. and is flanked by two large stone lions so that you can “read between the lions”. Their names are Patience and Fortitude and, in their honor, the library has adopted them as the mascot and symbol for their trademark.
As impressive as this 1911 Beaux-Art building is on the outside, the details inside are equally stunning. For expert information about this, the fourth largest library building in the world, take one of the official tours. Then marvel at all the marble, the enormous vaulted ceilings, the intricate wood carvings and the painted murals. Grand staircases lead up and up to an even more impressive space.
The centerpiece here is the massive Rose Reading Room which is almost the size of a football field. Its huge size is actually driven by function and can seat 624 people. To paraphrase the Eagles’ song, the rule here is “you check out any thing you like but it can never leave”. This is a research library, not a lending library and all books and materials need to be viewed and read on site.
My favorite part though is in the Children’s Center where you can see the authentic stuffed Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga. These are the original stuffed animals that the author A. A. Milne gave his son Christopher Robin in 1921 and which became the subjects of his famous bedtime stories (sadly Roo was lost in an apple orchard on a family trip) .
Adjacent to the library and also sitting on top of it between 5th and 6th Ave. is Bryant Park. Underneath the park is the part of the library that houses the stacks with all its millions of volumes.
The nice thing about visiting in January was that I could still experience the annual winter village and ice skating rink. It was a good spot for a break and a hot chocolate as I watched locals and tourists glide around the rink.
The intersections of 42nd, Broadway and 7th Ave is the corner that never stops. I’ve reached one end of Times Square, which is on the must see list for every first time visitor to New York. This area is busy and noisy and colorful and boisterous. Huge digital billboards fight for your attention and hawkers vie for what little is in your wallet. Though Time Square has become the symbol of New York, I’ll be honest, I can’t take this much stimulation on all my senses for a very long.
Technically this is not really a square, but rather a series of triangles as Broadway cuts a diagonal through the otherwise orderly grid pattern of streets that male up Midtown Manhattan. Looking at all this steel, concrete and technology, it is hard to imagine that 200 years ago this was all undeveloped farmland and grazing pastures.
The area gets its name from the Times Building, the home of the New York Times newspaper from 1904 until 1961. While the publication no longer has offices there, the building, now known as One Times Square, is still famous for the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop and for the huge billboards that rise up the front of the skinny facade.
I think that a more interesting historical tidbit is that the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street is the beginning of the Lincoln Highway. Dedicated in 1913, this was one of the first routes to cross the country from the East Coast to the West Coast, crossing 13 states to its terminus in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.
For me though, the most important thing in Times Square is the TKTS office (which is actually at the northern end of Times Square on 47th and Broadway). It is here that I get same day discounted tickets for Broadway shows.
Port Authority Bus Terminal
After walking quickly through the crowds in Times Square, I moved on into the next block to explore the Port Authority Bus Terminal located at 42nd and 8th Ave. Though not built on the grand scale of its rail counterpart down the street, this bus terminal is the busiest in the world when measured by the volume of traffic as more than 65 million people pass through here each year.
Unlike its grand and ornate neighbor, the architecture here is stark concrete, steel and glass. I learned that this design, which was built in 1950, follows the International Style which “uses lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials, rejects all ornament and color, uses repetitive modular forms and flat surfaces which are typically alternating with areas of glass”.
While the outside may be devoid of any artistic flair, there is plenty of art to be found within. It starts with a sculpture outside the south entrance which celebrates the city’s most famous bus driver, Ralph Cramden (as played by the actor Jackie Gleason on the TV sitcom The Honeymooners).
Some of the other permanent art on site is a sculpture called The Commuters and 42nd Street Ballroom, a perpetual motion machine that is fascinating to watch for both the young and old.
Holy Cross Church
Changing gears from the new and modern to the oldest building on 42nd Street, I took a quick peek inside Holy Cross Church, across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This church was completed in 1868 and has mosaics and stained glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The church was established for the ever growing Irish immigrant population that made Hell’s Kitchen their home. And even though modern high rise buildings are growing up as the area gets more gentrified, you can still feel the working class roots of this neighborhood.
In the next block you can see a different kind of history in action. By the mid 1970’s, this part of 42nd street had become famous as an adult entertainment district. Starting in 1977 with the aid of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis, the street began to be redeveloped with off Broadway theaters. Today you’ll find a large number of small theaters here that add to the city’s extensive selection of stage productions.
Sky Luxury Apartment Building
My last stop before the Hudson river was the Sky Apartment building at the corner of 42nd and 11th Ave. I did not stop because of the architecture or history of this building – rents and condo prices may be exorbitant, but architecturally it’s a typical modern, glass enclosed high rise.
What I really wanted to see was the sculpture in front of the building – an 8 foot tall metal pumpkin sculpture by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Despite having a diverse and varied artistic career, Yayoi has become known for and associated with polka-dots, especially polka dotted pumpkin sculptures and art installations. I did not get a chance to see her work on the island of Naoshima in Japan, so I was happy to be able to see one version here in New York.
A pumpkin is such an unusual subject for a sculpture, especially an oversized pumpkin with spots. You can’t help but smile when you see one.
I crossed the final street, 12th Ave., and looked back toward where I had come. Over the course of two miles and 13 blocks I had strolled past 100 years of history, art and architecture and a cross section of New York’s social and economic culture.
Circle Line Cruise
The Hudson River bookend to 42 Street is the Circle Line Cruise company. I finished my day with a late afternoon cruise that took me downriver past the Statue of Liberty, up the East River and then back again.
After spending a day exploring just one street in this Big Apple, the cruise reminded me how much more I can explore on my next visits to New York City. Whether its finding the unique street art of the Bushwick Collective or walking all of 42nd street, I love to discover the in depth details of this uniquely American destination.
Thanks for visiting.