What do two of the most magnificent mansions that ever graced Manhattan, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Empire State Building all have in common? The question occurred to me the other day after reading a blog post on the News Sentinel’s website. The post, part of Josh Flory’s Property Scope blog, solicited reader suggestions for “Knoxville’s Best Building.” I didn’t respond, but the question did get me thinking. Add in a recent Secret History column where Jack Neely pondered Knoxville’s preference for surface parking and the result was the question I opened this piece with.
The answer, by the way, is that they all stand, or stood, on the same site. Virgin land as late as 1799, the chunk of midtown that today hosts Manhattan’s tallest building was still farmland as late as 1827, when William Backhouse Astor—second son of furrier/real estate financier John Jacob Astor Sr.—bought it as an investment. (Land-banking, you may be surprised to learn, has been around a long time.) In 1859, he sold a lot at the corner of 33rd Street and soon-to-be-fashionable Fifth Avenue to his older brother, John Jr., who built the first mansion. Three years later, Willie built himself a second, equally sumptuous house next door. Fast forward to 1893 and Junior’s son William Waldorf Astor, angry with his aunt (Willie’s wife and arbiter of New York society) tore down his mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel, primarily to piss the old lady off. Four years later, his Aunt cried uncle. Her house was torn down and a second hotel (the Astoria) was added to the Waldorf. By 1929, however, the hyphenated hotels—Victorian New York’s finest—seemed downright frumpy. Barely 30 years old, both were demolished and the Empire State Building soared skyward in their place.
While obviously a long way from Knoxville, the Empire State Building popped up as I was compiling a mental list of local favorites. Several, as it turns out, are on sites that were previously occupied by other buildings, buildings that—if standing today—people such as myself would probably try to save. Ayres Hall, for instance, stands atop UT’s original trio of buildings: Old, East, and West College. Across Cumberland Avenue, the magnificent Victorian gothic home of hardware magnate W.W. Woodruff was leveled to make way for Hoskins Library, perhaps my favorite building on campus. In downtown proper, there’s the Old Post Office, Medical Arts Building, and Andrew Johnson Hotel—fine buildings, all and all, on the site of earlier mansions that, while not exactly up to Astor standards, were certainly impressive enough for Knoxville. (Last I checked, one still stands on Speedway Circle, where it was moved to make way for the A.J.)
Situations such as these put a preservationist like me in something of a quandary. But, as Jack’s piece on surface parking pointed out, it’s a relatively rare scenario in Knoxville. For years, the city tended to push buildings over for nothing more than a handful of surface parking spaces. And if something did get built back, the result was typically a tough-to-love modernist glass-and-steel box or bunker-esque example of Brutalism (yes, that’s actually an architectural style). Indeed, of late, some of downtown’s better example’s of modernism—such as Home Federal or the Crystal Building—have themselves been remuddled out of existence.
My point? It’s simple: Maybe preservationists like me wouldn’t bitch about buildings being torn down so much if what we got back was, well, better.
Oh, and the Empire State Building wasn’t exactly the end of the Waldorf-Astoria, either. Rebuilt on Park Avenue in 1931, the 47-story Art Deco structure remains a New York landmark. Not sure what was torn down to build it and, honestly, not sure that I care. m