Wing frieze adorned the overhead exterior facade of the West Side Highway.
Beginning in 1931, NYC’s engineer general, Robert Moses, ushered in the era of elevated expressways with the innovative and, for its time, extraordinarily convenient West Side Highway. The highway (for the first time, the term made literal sense) was dubbed the Miller Elevated Highway in honor of Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller. By 1936 the expressway was complete from the Battery north to West 72nd Street, where it joined another Mosesian project, the Henry Hudson Parkway.
In many ways the Miller looked back at what had come before it, while pointing the way forward to the expressway era that was to follow. As a nod to the Art Deco era in which it was built, it had many distinctive features, including decorative guardrails, lampposts, and friezes above all the cross streets.
At first, the West Side Highway benefited from undiluted praise.
Moses had promised that the new road would “eliminate” the west Side’s north-south traffic jams. He announced that the trip from Canal Street to the city line, which had previously required sixty-eight minutes, would henceforth only take twenty-six. And none of the journalists had the slightest doubt that Moses was correct. “It is a veritable motorist’s dream,” said the Journal-American. The Times marveled that “the gleaming new concrete ribbon” would not only “afford immediate and measurable relief to traffic congestion on Riverside Drive” but would enable motorists to drive all the way from Canal Street “nearly to Poughkeepsie without having to stop for a traffic light or slow up for an intersection.” –Robert Caro, The Power Broker
The Miller, as the first elevated expressway, maintained many ‘archaisms’ until its demise in the 1970s. It had very narrow on-ramps, extremely tight turns, and a Belgian-blocked surface that was only intermittently blacktopped until demolition. Poor drainage, combined with the stony surface, made the West Side Highway an adventure during rainstorms.
The Miller, as carefully constructed and brilliantly innovative as it was for its time, was beginning to become outdated in the 1950s, and on top of that, it was never painted or maintained regularly; so it embarked on a slow death, unnoticeable at first. But on December 16, 1973, an entire section of the Miller collapsed, swallowing a tractor trailer. The city immediately closed the Miller along most of its length. And just as the city failed to maintain the West Side Highway, it took its time demolishing it: only in 1987 did the last Miller pillars fall.
Since that time, grand plans to replace the Miller that would have included depressing the expressway in a tunnel while building a park atop it were proposed, tied up in court, and disposed (the Westway fiasco). In the mid-1990s the entire stretch of the Miller was prettied up with repaving, new bicycle paths and a river view, and a new name: The Joe DiMaggio; but all that did not solve the question of air and noise pollution, as well as the stop-start nature of surface roadways. For the West Side, a tunnel or an elevated expressway is the best choice. The compromise surface road is hardly satisfactory. From a practical standpoint, however, it’s probably the best that could be done (see the cost and time overruns regarding Boston’s attempt to bury a midtown expressway in the Big Dig).
When the viaduct pillars were removed at Canal Street, the Miller was placed on a viaduct.
Unusually, the Miller’s entrance and exit ramps were built in the center of the viaduct. Several stretches still had Belgian block pavement until the road’s closure along much of its length in December 1973.
The Miller’s distinctive lampposts tapered toward the top, meant to evoke stepped-back skyscrapers (the same effect was employed on Tribough Bridge posts from the same era).
In 1978, Forgotten Fan Doug Douglass snapped some photographs of the Miller’s demolition. We’ll show them here, as well as show how the west side has changed in the quarter century since the Miller was the king of the roads, NYC-wise…
1978: West Street looking south toward Jane Street. A traffic cutoff has been built from Jane to Horatio Streets to allow for easy flow of traffic without actually having to get onto the busy DiMaggio. Note the new foliage that was just recently planted.
Same scene, 2001
1978: 13th Street and 10th Avenue. The large building at the left of the 1978 view is the entrance to Pier 56. A sister building served Pier 54, just out of view to the left. Both Piers 54 and 56 served the Cunard / White Star lines, whose most famous, or infamous, vessel was the Titanic, which was scheduled to berth at Pier 54 in April 1912, but never made it. In the center of the picture, another section of the Miller awaits demolition. Belgian blocks adorn the roadway.
By 2001 only the triangular building at 10th & 11th Avenues and 14th Street is still there from the foreground. It’s the Liberty Motel, as it was in ’78.
1978: 14th Street and 10th Avenue, under the awning of the motel.
The building at the center, operated by the Port Authority, remains from 1978.
17th Street and 11th Avenue. The building that housed the Merchants Refrigerating Company is still there, but is now used, in part, by Manhattan Mini Storage. In the background photo right you can see not only the Empire State Building (which is visible anywhere in the five boroughs and at least as far east as Port Washington in Nassau County) but the old New York Central High Line, which was in operation from 1935 to 1980.
18th Street and 11th Avenue. There was an Art Deco frieze like this on every cross street under the West Side Highway. Note that the pier numbers are displayed much more prominently than the cross streets: the West Side piers were a cacophony of shipping activity until the 1960s.
Harrison Street. Most of the Miller friezes are gone, but the West Side Highway overpass over Harrison Street has been preserved in Independence Plaza.
Forgotten Fan Arthur Finn: When the city got around to tearing down the highway they were going to throw away all the medallions. One of the people who had bought one of the federal houses on Harrison Street heard about it and worked hard to be given permission to buy it. He did and was able to persuade them to put it on the overpass. His name is Dan McCarthy.
19th Street and 11th Avenue, showing one of the incredibly narrow West Side Highway on-ramps. The brick building at right remains today, as does the 1930 Starrett Lehigh Building in the background, with its thousands of windows. It’s said that the building’s windows would stretch 9 miles if laid end to end.
21st Street and 11th Avenue, looking north. The building at right remains, although the Eagle bar is long gone. The Chelsea Piers athletic complex now dominates the waterfront between 18th and 24th Street.
21st Street and 11th Avenue, looking south. New buildings line 11th Avenue on each side, including the massive Chelsea Piers complex.
Though the last of the Miller came down in 1987, there are still vestigial remnants scattered over the west side:
A pair of the distinctive spired West Side Highway lampposts remain on a still-standing stub just north of West 72nd Street. Note the three spires at the shaft of the post, imitating ziggurated Manhattan skyscrapers. Some of the Miller lamps found their way to a lamppost exhibit at the Helmsley Palace Urban Center in 1989, photo right.
This section of the old Miller viaduct (why-a no chicken?) remains north of 72nd street in the newly opeened section of Riverside Park, Hopefully, it’ll continue to be preserved.
A pair of the Miller’s Art Deco wing sculptures,which adorned the viaduct at some cross streets, now guard the Greenwich and Chambers Street entrance of Washington Market Park.
This ramp to nowhere, on West Street near the point where the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel funnels onto it, once led onto the West Side Highway.
For more on the West-Side Highway you can’t afford to miss Steve Anderson’s in-depth page on nycroads.com.
The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books, 1974
BUY this book at Amazon.COM
Thanks to Doug Douglass for help with the preparation of this page.
6/16/2001, rev. 2012