Immortalized through photographs, drawings, and stories, buildings that have been demolished or completely renovated exist in the realm known as “lost architecture.” Either for economic or aesthetic reasons, the old gets torn down for the new, often to the disdain of community members and architects. But demolished buildings tell a story about the ever-changing politics of preservation—and often, they tell it far better than buildings that were actually preserved ever could. As the architectural landscape continues to change around us, it is important to recognize our past, even if its traces have been eliminated from the physical world.
Pennsylvania Station (1910 – 1963)
The 1963 demolition of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the most contested in history. The Beaux Arts building, designed in 1910 by McKim, Mead, and White, was the railroad station that provided the first point of entry into the international city for many visitors. It featured high ceilings, classical columns, and pink granite. Though parts of the underground infrastructure were preserved, the exterior was torn down to make way for Madison Square Garden and Two Penn Plaza. The unprecedented international outrage spurred by the demolition energized architectural preservation efforts in the city. Just two years later, the New York Landmarks Law passed, saving many buildings from a similar fate.
New York World Building (1890 – 1955)
At the height of the influence of the newspaper, the New York World building was erected in 1890 to house the publication of the same name. Designed by George B. Post and commissioned by newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, the building became the tallest in the city by surpassing the spire of the Trinity Church. But the building was demolished in 1955 to accommodate the expanded car ramp entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. The most iconic remnant from the building is a stained glass window designed by Otto Heinigke that currently hangs in the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Netherlands Dance Theater (1987 – 2015)
As the first major project built by Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA in 1987, the Netherlands Dance Theater in The Hague was a testament to his imaginative design approach. Most notable was the structural innovation of the curved roof and the acoustics of the auditorium. Built for 8 million dollars, the project was also lauded for its frugality—though the qualities that allowed it to be so cheap ultimately led to public dissatisfaction and demolition in 2015. The site where the postmodern building once stood will soon be home to a new cultural center with a performing arts complex.
The Call Building (1898–)
Though not completely demolished, San Francisco’s 1898 Call Building underwent massive facade renovations in the 1930s that left it unrecognizable. Its distinguishing ornamentation such as decoratives friezes and arched windows was replaced in favor of an unadorned concrete tower. Even the dome at the top of the building was removed. The remodeling of the building, originally designed by James and Merritt Reid, was done in an effort to modernize the building for the twentieth century.
Jorba Laboratories (1970 – 1999)
Oftentimes referred to as “The Pagoda” because of its visual similarities to the classic Asian building form, the Jorba Laboratories were an example of Miguel Fisac’s rationalist design principles. Designed in 1970 and located outside of Madrid, the campus was most known for its tower that featured offset, square shaped floors. The overlapping created a building that had multiple readings depending on the quality of light. In 1999, developers decided it would be in their best economic interest to erect a larger building on the site and the original was demolished. The public overwhelmingly came out in defense of the building, which was remarkable for such a contemporary work, but unfortunately this was not enough to change its fate.
Vanderbilt Houses (1870s – 1920s)
Some of the most superior examples of Beaux-Arts architecture were the residences of the famous Vanderbilt family located on New York’s Fifth Avenue. In the late 1870s the family commissioned architects such as Richard Morris Hunt to design their massive mansions. As the Gilded Age came and went, many of the houses were demolished to make room for the commercial buildings and skyscrapers seen on Fifth Avenue today.
Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975 – 2013)
Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital was an innovative moment in both structural technology and the architecture of patient care. The nine-story concrete tower cantilevered on top of a five-story rectangular base that held the research and surgical programs of the building. The hospital’s four-sided cloverleaf tower responded to Goldberg’s sociologically-inspired plan to have a central nursing station that provided easy access to the radiating patient rooms. However, after Northwestern University’s request for a new biomedical lab on the site and a lengthy public debate, it was torn down in 2013.
Garrick Theater (1891 – 1961)
Lauded as one of the greatest works by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the 1891 Garrick Theater Building (originally known as the Schiller Theater), featured a 1300-seat performance space that hosted some of Chicago’s most important cultural events. One of the tallest buildings in the city at the time, the theater was also adorned with the unique style of ornamentation Sullivan pioneered. As live theater lost popularity, the building was reincarnated as a movie theater and later a television studio. Despite substantial public efforts to preserve the building, it was torn down and replaced with a parking lot in 1961.
Sutro Baths (1894 – 1964)
Located by the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco, the 1894 Sutro Baths offered a massive swimming facility to city inhabitants. The glass enclosure that held the public bathhouse featured seven pools at different temperatures. Due to financial woes from the Great Depression, the owners sought other options for the site such as an ice-skating rink and high-rise apartments, but in 1964 the building was destroyed and the site was left barren. The ruins of the Sutro Baths are included as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Imperial Institute (1893 – 1957)
Opened in 1893 by Queen Victoria in London, the Imperial Institute was designed to house the assets from across the Empire. Completed in the late Victorian style, architect Thomas Collcutt aimed to create a building that would represent the influence of the country. Over the years, the use of the building proved inefficient and it was demolished in 1965 to be replaced by the Commonwealth Institute building (which is now home to the Design Museum) located elsewhere in London. Today, the Imperial Institute’s main tower still survives as part of the campus of Imperial College London.
Erie County Savings Bank (1893 – 1968)
The Erie County Savings Bank was an 1893 Romanesque Revival building located in Buffalo, New York. The bank, designed by George B. Post, was finished in a red and pink granite facade. Most notable about the building was Thomas Edison’s involvement in its electrical installation. As part of an urban renewal project in 1968, the building was demolished and replaced by the Main Place Tower.
The Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel (1902 – 1978)
Located in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel is remembered as one of the first hotels to be built using the Hennebique system of reinforced concrete in 1902. The architect Will Price took Spanish and Moorish references for the hotel’s design and ornamentation. Though its rotunda portion that protrudes onto the boardwalk was saved through preservation efforts, the rest was torn down in 1978.
Pruitt-Igoe (1954 – 1972)
First occupied in 1954, Pruitt-Igoe was a 33-building social housing complex designed to accommodate a large amount of low-income families in a healthy environment. The 11-story buildings included features designed to promote community interaction such as elevators that only stopped at every third floor. Soon after its inhabitation, it became synonymous with social degradation, racial tension, and crime. Though many point to its architecture as the origin of its failures, others blame larger systemic issues, creating a touchpoint for a debate that has defined architecture for decades. The destruction of these buildings in 1972, infamously labeled the day that “Modern architecture died” by historian Charles Jencks, represented a shift in cultural attitudes to social housing and architecture.