New York Architecture Images- Gone / Demolished / Destroyed

Wolfe Building


Henry Hardenbergh


on the east side of William Street from Maiden Lane to Liberty Street.




Historicist Skyscrapers


steel frame, masonry cladding


Office Building



The 13-story John Wolfe Building, built in 1895 on the east side of William Street from Maiden Lane to Liberty Street. This narrow and stepped building in the Flemish style, considered to be an innovative way to solve various problems of the early skyscraper, was demolished in 1974 for an ill-conceived street widening plan. The site is now part of a glorified traffic island called Louise Nevelson Plaza.

Mighty Buildings That Were No Match for Automobiles

The Wolfe Building at Maiden Lane at William Street, as it looked in 1897. Like the insurance building, it was demolished in the 1970s.

Q. We recently redesigned the Louise Nevelson Plaza at the intersection of Maiden Lane and Liberty and William Streets. What happened to the buildings that were there before the plaza was created? ... Henry Smith-Miller, Smith-Miller & Hawkinson Architects, Manhattan

A. What happened? Well, as my doctor sometimes says, this may hurt just a little bit. There were two magnificent structures there, the fantastical Wolfe Building of 1896, by Henry Hardenbergh, along William Street, and the triangular German-American Insurance Company Building of 1907, by Hill & Stout, at the narrow end of the block.

The Wolfe Building was put up by the estate of John Wolfe, one of the great hardware merchants of New York. The architect, Henry J. Hardenbergh, was often trusted by estates and family building operations, like that of the Rhinelanders.

Hardenbergh’s 12-story building was a tour de force of early skyscraper design, in rich red brick trimmed with light-colored stone and terra cotta in patterns of the Flemish and Dutch Renaissance.

Tall building design was an emerging and controversial field, and in 1896 the critic Montgomery Schuyler said Hardenbergh’s design proved that the skyscraper was “artistically tractable.” He praised the skyline of the Wolfe Building, particularly the angled facade on Maiden Lane, which gradually diminished, through complicated angles and recessions, into a spectacular gable perhaps 200 feet above the street.

The Wolfe Building was soon hard to see, hemmed in by other structures, but the insurance building went up at the pointy end of the block, its angled bow giving it a shiplike presence, slicing through the chop of the older buildings. Frederick Hill, the architect, discussed it in the journal Architecture in 1908, noting “the omission of any form of cornice and the use of penetrated vaulting in its place,” referring to the polychrome terra-cotta elements at the top.

Hill remarked that with the new crop of high buildings, the idea of making a traditional cornice, with intricate architectural patterns, “appears to us entirely wrong” and indeed “part of the problem over which we are all working.” Architects were rethinking almost every element of design as buildings got higher and higher. The new “A.I.A. Guide to New York City,” by Norval White, Elliot Willensky and Fran Leadon, calls the insurance building “magnificently corniced, wonderfully proportioned.”

Both were demolished in the mid-1970s by Our Fair City to widen the streets and improve traffic flow to the new World Trade Center. Kent Barwick and Brendan Gill, both of the Municipal Art Society, protested, Mr. Barwick calling demolition “needless” in The New York Times in 1974.

Although obvious candidates for landmark designation today, at the time such second-tier commercial buildings were considered interesting but not designation-worthy. Thus traffic won out, and the leftover land has for years been a favorite lunch spot, Louise Nevelson Plaza. The plaza does open up the view to the palazzolike 1924 Federal Reserve Bank, at the William Street end of the block, although that is scant consolation.


The garish Freytag Building in the Sim City video game is a shortened version of Henry J. Hardenbergh's 12-story John Wolfe Building, a Flemish-styled historic New York City gem demolished in the 1970s. Considering how striking it often looks in game, perhaps the taller version would have been too conspicuous.