I’ll finish my jaunt up Hudson River Park, which got as far as 14th St. and the Meatpacking District in Part One last week. The riverfront area has seen feverish activity the past few years with two new parks, one public, one privately-owned, opening since the Covid crisis began in 2020. They’re additions to the lengthy Hudson River Park. The first is Gansevoort Peninsula, NYC’s newest park section, opened to the public in 2023. It offers athletic fields, views of the river and New Jersey, a curated salt marsh, and Manhattan’s only beach, where tanning is permitted but not swimming. 1200 lbs. of sand were trucked in, concrete and wood walkways and Adirondack chairs and picnic tables were installed with views looking south along the Hudson River toward the Statue of Liberty and Jersey City. I wondered what that thin metal pipe structure was along the beach, which I found an annoyance since it interrupted the view. I thought it was a leftover industrial structure. Instead, it’s an art installation by David Hammons called “Day’s End.” It’s an homage to a previous installation in 1975 by Gordon Matta-Clark (that I don’t recall at all).
This gate, at the head of what was Pier 54, is the last remnant of a terminal building for White Star ocean liners. Having been preserved by serendipity, it’s now part of Hudson River Park. One of the spectacular ocean liners that used this gate in their heyday would have been the Titanic, though the great liner was due to arrive at nearby Pier 58—if fate hadn’t intervened. It was there that passengers from the doomed vessel debarked after they were picked up in the icy North Atlantic Ocean by the Carpathia, operated by Cunard.
This is where the RMS Lusitania, the fastest, one of the most luxurious, and second largest liner in the world departed on its final voyage. On May 1st 1915, 1900 people departed Pier 54 for a voyage that would be implanted in the memory of people for years to come. On the 7th of May, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat, sinking in 18 minutes, and taking 1200 victims down with it.
Most of Pier 54 has been demolished, and a new island park, Little Island, opened during the pandemic. The park isn’t officially part of Hudson River Park; instead, it’s privately funded and built by Barry Diller and his wife Diane Von Furstenberg. The park is constructed on 132 golf tee-shaped pylons sunk into the Hudson River bed. The park features nature trails, hills, and a 700-seat amphitheater. The design is by Thomas Heatherwick, who also designed “The Vessel,” the climbing structure in Hudson Yards further north, now closed because it became a popular suicide venue.
From the late-1800s to the mid-20th Century things looked considerably different here, because instead of a beach, this is where commerce and hard work took place. Goods, which included comestibles such as beef and poultry arriving by ship on the Hudson River piers were sold here in what was known as West Washington Market from 1887 to the 1950s in a set of buildings arranged on a mini-grid of streets. Its proximity gave rise to the Meatpacking District on the east side of West St.
Pier 57 is a handsome steel and masonry structure at 10th Ave. and W. 15th St., constructed from 1950-54 as a headhouse for shipping lines. The structure’s supported on three T-shaped caissons in the Hudson River just off the shoreline. The Grace Line was the building’s first tenant, serving as a cargo and shipping terminal. After the shipping line relocated from the building in 1967, it became a bus depot for the Transit Authority, later the MTA, until 2003. It was subsequently a detention center for arrested protestors during the 2004 Republican national convention; many sued and won for damages and injuries received from chemical burns suffered during exposure to asbestos, motor oil and other toxic chemicals.
Recently, the building has been reborn as a retail, offices (to include Google) and concert complex as famed venue City Winery has relocated in the building. A food market was planned by Anthony Bourdain, but was scuttled by Bourdain’s suicide; dining venues are planned. Since 1954, wall bracket versions of finned “Whitestone” streetlamps have been appended to the building’s exterior. During recent renovations, the brackets received new LED pendant fixtures.
It can’t be said that I like just “old stuff,” an accusation I parried at a photo chat I gave some years ago at an Apple Store. There are a pair of innovative designs on 11th Ave. and W. 18th, across from Hudson River Park, that I enjoy.
Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry’s first major project in New York City was the Interactive Media Building, completed in 2008, its outline built to resemble a masted sailing ship. Interactive Media president, Barry Diller, and Diana Von Furstenberg, referenced above, each work in the area and have donated large contributions to the adjoining High Line project.
Unfortunately the building has been boxed in by high rises recently, and its impact is diminished from everywhere except across 11th Ave.
Colombian muralist Knox Martin‘s “Venus” was painted in 1970 on a women’s penitentiary, the Bayview Correctional Facility, on 11th Ave. and W. 19th St. “Traditionally the goddess of love and fertility, Venus represents woman, erotic and supple, but it also conveys Knox Martin’s love affair with New York. Venus is his love poem to the city where he has always lived, a place that is part of his being. The feminine, curvilinear shapes of the image are in direct contrast with the straight forms that intersect the composition. The overwhelming size of this enormous mural only intensifies the experience of female shapes, the linear aspects of the painted composition, and of the surrounding architecture. In an era when art was reaching out to the masses with pop culture, this huge mural was Knox Martin’s way of touching a public that would never venture into an art gallery.” Marilyn Kushner, Brooklyn Museum.
The Bayview Correctional Facility was a medium-security federal women’s prison located at 11th Ave. and W. 20th. It was built as sailors’ housing in the 1930s and converted to a prison in the 1970s, with a maximum of 325 prisoners. The last of the inmates were moved out as Hurricane Sandy bore down in October 2012. The future direction of the building is undetermined.
Fireboat John J. Harvey was formerly in the service of the New York City Fire Department in New York City, famed for returning to service following the 9/11 attacks. She’s among the most powerful fireboats ever built, capable of pumping up to 18,000 gallons of water a minute. The fireboat was launched in 1931 and named for marine fireman Harvey, who perished in an explosion. It has assisted in extinguishing fires caused by the burning of the ocean liner Normandie in 1942, the ammunition ship SS El Estero in 1943 and collision of the Alva Cape and Texaco Massachusetts in 1966. The Harvey was retired in 1994 and sold at auction in 1999 to a private consortium of marine preservationists. I can attest to the jets’ power, as I was caught on deck when they were turned on during a tour jaunt a number of years ago. A half hour later, I was still soaked when I made my way to the since-shuttered Half King for a post-ride drink at 10th Ave. and W. 23rd St.
Before wrapping up, I’ll pay tribute to a Jersey City structure formerly viewable across the river from the park. From 1908 to 1929, rail cars would roll through towering iron doors into this huge brick powerhouse near the Jersey City waterfront and unload coal to generate electricity for the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad linking New York and New Jersey, now known as the PATH.
Since then, however, the Romanesque Revival structure was largely abandoned amid luxury skyscrapers built more recently by Donald Trump and others on one of the richest stretches of New Jersey’s Hudson River Gold Coast. Its brick towers have been removed and its impact greatly diminished even after its surroundings are being redeveloped.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)