Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham

By: Julianna Scofield 

When you think of famous New York City landmarks, do Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center come to mind, or maybe The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Greek and Roman statues? How about landmarks and artwork from Ancient Rome and Greece? The Colosseum and Parthenon, perhaps? The New York City institutions that define the landscape of the city deemed the “Capital of the World” are heavily influenced by the once fantastic empire of Rome and Ancient Greece, more so than one might believe.

Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham is a collection of essays compiled by Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Matthew M. McGowan, the latter of whom is an associate professor and chair of the classics department at Fordham University. Throughout the nine essays contained in this volume, readers begin to unpeel the first of many layers of Roman and Greek influences on New York City architecture. This volume takes great care to include essays from a variety of fields, such as history, archaeology, and classics, to describe specific aspects of the city in great detail. The editors have created a work that allows a novice in classics and urban history to understand the intricacies of New York City, though some essays become extremely technical in their terminology. To help with the terminology, there is a glossary provided. The essays may be read in order or individually, though reading all the essays in order provides a more holistic view of the Roman and Greek influences in New York City. Reading this volume in order allows a reader to recognize how certain architects, financiers, and other public figures played an important role in the development of the city’s architecture. The volume’s editors also took great care to recognize that there are “two broad categories of studies seem to emerge” with either a focus on why buildings tend to reference different styles of architecture, even if they are built in the same time period, or how art and performance contribute to the understanding of these New York institutions (7). To fully appreciate the volume, both perspectives are important in developing the narrative of New York City’s ancient influences.

A common theme throughout all of the essays is how the greatness of Ancient Rome is memorialized in the facades of some of New York City’s most famous landmarks. Many empires wished to emulate the power of Ancient Rome and Greece by borrowing elements of their architecture. The first essay by Francis Morrone describes the building of the Custom House, now known as Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street, during the period known as the “Greek Revival” during the 1830s and 1840s in New York City. The general sentiment I gleaned from this essay is that Ancient Greece denoted a sort of power, one most often displayed through the building of domes reminiscent of the Parthenon. The need for America to cement itself as a world power and empire became apparent through its preferred architectural style and entertainment options in the 1830s and beyond. The Roman Empire is associated with power and fame; American foreign and domestic policies of the mid-to-late 1800s echoed these sentiments. In arguably the most important essay of the volume, “The Imperial Metropolis,” author Margaret Malamud draws comparisons between the Roman Empire and New York City. The latter’s desire to be the best was exemplified in expositions like the Chicago World’s Fair and the creation of the Dewey Arch in New York City, which celebrated the victory of Admiral Dewey and the emerging military prowess of the United States Navy in international waters. This essay draws clear connections between the power of Ancient Rome and the hunger that New York City had for that same power. This desire to emulate Rome through architecture and action became New York City’s way of declaring to the world that they, and America as a whole, would emerge as an imperial power in the decades to come (57). 

The Ancient Baths of Caracalla, a known place for politics and pandering, influenced the architecture of the old Pennsylvania Station as Maryl B. Gensheimer’s essay describes. Everyone now knows Penn Station to be decrepit and disgusting, but the original Pennsylvania Station was quite stately. The style and architecture of the Baths were beautiful in Roman times, and  the replication of this style was equally as breathtaking while the old station existed. In Gensheimer’s essay, she describes how the sheer scale of Pennsylvania Station “juxtaposed superhuman scale while facilitating human routine and celebrated tradition while introducing new solutions for urban living” (170). It is clear to see how the architects built these buildings and landmarks as symbols of New York’s power as an urban center, recalling the power of Ancient Rome in a more modern era. Gensheimer’s essay describes the necessity of having a such an opulent station in a city that was growing to become a world power.

While many essays in the volume were quite fascinating and easy to digest, the essays with more technical terminology and an architectural focus, like the first essay on the Custom House and the fourth essay on the Gould Memorial Library in the Bronx, were a bit denser and more difficult to read. I personally have an interest in history, especially Ancient Rome and Greece, and love to learn the origins of my surroundings in the context of history. The longest essays in the text, chapters four and eight, were twenty-nine pages and took about thirty to forty minutes to read, perfect for someone who would like to digest a text slowly, or as a reading for a class assignment. Although necessary for providing context on how Roman and Greek architecture influenced New York City architects and developers, the first and fourth essays slightly detracted from the overall readability of the volume. As a student who has only taken an introductory course in urbanism, the architectural terminology used in chapters one and four are above my level of understanding. The glossary at the back of the text did help with most of the terms in the text, though there were a few that I still needed to look up. These two essays seemed disjointed in comparison to the other essays in the volume, which easily blended architecture and history or classics studies.

This text provided a great introduction to architectural and historical influences in New York City. For anyone interested in history, architecture, or classics, this book is a must-read. The editors have compiled essays that provide unique perspectives on some of the most memorable New York City landmarks while keeping the reader engaged. Despite the technical terminology or seemingly challenging content matter, the essays are accessible to even the most casual reader.

Macaulay-Lewis, Elizabeth and Matthew M. McGowan, eds. Classical New York: Discovering Greece and Rome in Gotham. New York: Empire State Editions, 2018.

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