Show Us Your Roof: The Municipal Building

For the past 12 years, I’ve lived in an apartment with a view of the (David N. Dinkins Manhattan) Municipal Building, wondering what it’d be like to be up there. Now I know! Fortunately, I didn’t have to bite anyone: I was able to score two tickets to Open House New York‘s tours of the building’s cupola.

Adam and I arrived a few minutes early for our 2 p.m. reservation, but we had to wait 15-20 minutes on the 19th floor, where Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s offices are. (We can thank her, I believe, for getting the cupola opened.) There was an art show and a video that I think was about the building. I don’t like waiting, but I did find it amusing to watch people without reservations try to New Yorker their way to the cupola. Once our group was called, we waited another 10 minutes on the 24th floor. Finally, eight of us rode the Tower Elevator to what I assume was the 36th floor, because the elevator had a sign saying “25-36 floors” and I can’t see how there was anywhere higher for it to go.

The elevator more or less opens right to the outside. OHNY calls this area the cupola, but the part we got to explore is really a round portico. The narrow path around the perimeter affords striking 360-degree views through the columns. For me, the most satisfying part of the experience was physically being inside a space that I had been able to imagine from afar.

That said, for a fairly rococo building, at least at its top, there weren’t a lot of architectural details to linger on. (Just as well, since we only got half of the 15 minutes we all thought we’d be getting.)

The columns’ capitals and the Guastavino ceiling were easily the highlights.

And those of us distressed about the lighting of the building were interested to see the lights are all around the portico. For whatever reason, the “Civic Fame” statue atop the building is usually only lit from one side.

As for the views, they were spectacular, although I’ve been extremely spoiled for views in recent months. Looking west and southwest…. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

The “one rule” was not to lean over the fence, but lean a little I did. I wanted a better look at the doodads in the below photo.

Now back to the Woolworth Building. Had you noticed that the top has been unsheathed?

Looking south….

And then around to the east….

I also leaned a little to better glimpse the rooftop of the northern wing. The compressors are a pet peeve of mine. If you go back to the photo at the top—the one with the arrow—you’ll see a metallic carbuncle on the northern roof. How was that allowed on of one of the city’s landmark buildings?

And if you only enlarge one photo, let it be this one, of the view to the north.

Thanks again to Open House New York and Gale Brewer! Let’s hope the cupola will be on next year’s OHNY slate.

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  1. Re: “you’ll see a metallic carbuncle on the northern roof. How was that allowed on of one of the city’s landmark buildings?”

    – It is mechanical equipment
    – It does not damage a significant architectural feature of the building
    – It is not visible or minimally visible from any public street, park, or path

    See the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Rules:

    63 RCNY §2‐19  Proposed Construction of Rooftop Additions.

    (a)  Definitions. As used in this section, the following terms shall have the following meanings: […]

    Mechanical equipment. “Mechanical Equipment” shall include, but not be limited to, heating, venting and air conditioning equipment, alternative or distributed energy equipment, such as solar panels, wind turbines or micro‐turbines; watertanks and their supporting structures; stair and elevator bulkheads; screens, dunnages, baffles and other accessory installations; and satellite dishes, but shall not include telecommunication equipment and conventional television antennas. For the purpose of this rule, mechanical equipment shall also
    include unenclosed decks, garden trellises, or associated railings.

    Minimally visible. “Minimally visible” shall refer to any rooftop addition which when viewed from any public thoroughfare, projects into the maximum line of sight from such public thoroughfare by not more than 12 inches in height, or, due to its placement and size does not call attention to itself nor detract from any significant architectural features. […]

    (b) “CNE” shall mean Certificate of No Effect as defined by §25 306 of the Landmarks Law. […]

    Public thoroughfare. “Public thoroughfare” shall mean any publicly accessible right of way including, but not limited to a street, sidewalk, public park, and path. […]
    Rooftop addition. “Rooftop addition” shall mean a construction or an installation of mechanical equipment and/or occupiable space situated on any structure’s roof.

    Significant architectural feature. “Significant architectural feature” shall mean an architectural component of a building that contributes to its special historic, cultural and aesthetic character, or that in the case of an historic district reinforces the special characteristics for which the district was designated. […]

    (2) The Landmarks Preservation Commission shall issue a CNE for any rooftop addition to be constructed on a structure which is an individual landmark of seven stories or greater in height which:
    (i) consists solely of mechanical equipment; and
    (ii) does not result in damage to, or demolition of, a significant architectural feature of the roof of the structure on which such rooftop addition is to be constructed; and
    (iii) is either not visible from a public thoroughfare or is only minimally visible from a public thoroughfare

    • It’s definitely visible from the street (Chambers and Broadway), more so when the leaves have fallen from the trees in City Hall Park.

  2. I think you know how envious I am at this moment ;)

    Also, good work on the phrase “New Yorker their way to the cupola”. Accurate and fun to witness for sure.

  3. OMG, so awesome. I bow before your greatness. You stand tall among New Yorkers, having achieved the virtually unachievable. You have truly gone where (almost) no person has gone before. Amazing. Thanks for taking us along.

  4. Just wondering…does Gale Brewer go out there to munch a sandwich every day or so at lunchtime? If you’re a big name City elected official, can you just go out there whenever you please? I certainly wouldn’t hold it against her. A lovely fantasy.

  5. Erik, thanks so much for taking this tour and sharing it with us! Great photos and writing!

  6. I live on Broadway too looking over at the lovely Municipal Building. It’s like a castle in a storybook I had as a child.
    Love the photo looking west over the park towards our buildings. Thanks.