Iconic buildings that were demolished

Written by:
July 15, 2019
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Iconic buildings that were demolished

From Notre Dame to the Taj Mahal, many of the world's most iconic buildings seem so perennially full of tourists and so universally beloved as to run no risk of ever being sold and demolished.

But is this always the case? Stacker took a look at 20 buildings around the world that were designed by some of the most important architects of their day and played host to many significant personalities and historical events. And yet, each of these was nonetheless eventually demolished.

Significant wealth proved no bulwark against the potential for a wrecking ball to hit a building. The famous American industrialist family the Vanderbilts demolished multiple buildings themselves on the famous Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to make way for their own mansion in the late 19th century. But when the family finally sold the building to a developer several decades later, the developer wasted no time knocking the mansion into the ground just like the Vanderbilts had once done.

Historical status proved no sure indicator of a building's longevity, either. To wit, the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood was once one of Los Angeles' most famous eateries and served as a famous meeting spot for the celebrities the city is so well known for. But despite the hordes that still clamored to catch a glimpse of their favorite movie stars inside the restaurant, it shuttered abruptly in 1980. Brown Derby's legions of fans hoped for a re-opening that never came.

Which isn't to say beloved buildings are laid to waste without a fight. From striking housewives in New York City to protests by famous architects, the fans of many famous buildings fight for years to save the structures from destruction. But as the ruins of the following 20 buildings show, protests, historic status, and superfans are no sure thing when it comes to the relentless tide of modernity and the appetite of real estate developers.

You may also like: 30 beautiful structures from the mind of Frank Lloyd Wright

Penn Station: NYC

It may surprise visitors of today's rather drab Penn Station, but the bustling train depot was once a grand and imposing turn of the 20th-century building designed by prestigious architects McKim, Mead & White. Replete with travertine quarry from Italy and 138-foot ceilings, the old Penn Station was a "beautiful Beaux Arts fortress," as one architect put it. By the 1950s, competition from planes and cars had lost the station too much money to stay afloat; in the 1960s, a plan was devised to move the train station belowground to make room for a sports arena—Madison Square Garden—aboveground. Today's Penn Station handles more than three times the number of travelers it was designed to, and many of them likely wish they were walking the halls of the old station.

Singer Building: NYC

Upon its completion in 1908, downtown Manhattan's Singer building was the tallest in the world and was also one of New York City's first skyscrapers to be lit at night. The building was headquarters to the Singer Sewing Company and was designed to harmonize and recede slightly from Manhattan's narrow streets. When the Singer company decided to move uptown in the 1960s, the relative lack of square footage because of its smaller footprint made it too difficult to sell for inhabitation. The buyer, United States Steel, purchased the building simply to destroy it. Demolition began in 1967 and set a less auspicious record: the tallest building in the world to be peacefully demolished, to the regret of historic preservationists ever since.

Hippodrome: NYC

When the Hippodrome Theatre opened in New York City in 1905, it could seat more than 5,000 patrons and played host to everything from live theater and vaudeville to movies. Over the ensuing decades, the space served as a place to hold rallies, circuses, and even a basketball court. But by the end of the 1930s, real estate prices on Sixth Avenue had increased to the point where the Hippodrome could no longer afford its rent. It closed in August 1939 and was demolished the same year.

Prentice Women's Pavillion: Chicago

When the Prentice Women's Pavillion opened in 1975 in Chicago, it was a prime example of mid-century modern architecture, designed by Bertrand Goldberg. The hospital's design inspired fierce devotion in the architecture and broader community; but after failing to attain landmark status, it was demolished in 2013 to make way for a new medical research center for Northwestern University. Among those publicly opposed to the demolition was Frank Gehry, perhaps the world's most famous living architect at the time.

Savoy Plaza Hotel: NYC

The grand Savoy Plaza Hotel opened during the roaring 1920s overlooking New York City's famous Central Park. The Beaux Arts building was considered such an iconic emblem of the city's jazz age heritage that when the hotel was sold to General Motors in the 1960s so the car company could demolish it and put up a building of its own, significant demonstrations sprung up. Among the protestors' lines of attack? A boycott of General Motors, led by some of New York's wealthiest women, and a "Funeral Week" for the hotel led by architecture schools.

Sutro Baths: San Francisco

When a self-made millionaire opened the Sutro Baths outside of San Francisco in 1894, his idea was to give the city's residents an ocean pool aquarium in a rocky cliff with an accompanying bathhouse that would be accessible (for a low fee) for cooling off, relaxing, and getting into nature. Sutro Baths was wildly popular for years—but during the Great Depression, funds for leisure dried up, public transportation to the baths suffered, and new public health codes made running the baths more difficult. The baths never really recovered their fiscal footing and were destroyed in a fire before they could be demolished to make way for high-rise apartments.

Vanderbilt Houses: NYC

When Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife Alice demolished three brownstones on Fifth Avenue in New York City in the 1870s, the mansion they built on the land became the largest single-family home in the city's history. As the years went on, Cornelius purchased even more brownstones to demolish and make way for additions to his property, stating that his goal was to rival the nearby Plaza Hotel. Alice finally sold the mansion—by all accounts a chilly place—to a developer in 1927. That developer wasted no time in demolishing the mansion to make way for new buildings (Bergdorf Goodman now stands at the original mansion's address). You can still find remnants of the mansion throughout New York City: the mansion's main gates are Central Park, two of its six sculptural reliefs are still installed in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, and its entrance hall fireplace (along with various artwork) is on display at Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Brown Derby: Los Angeles

Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant was once a major haunt of the city's legions of actors, producers, and artists, and lays claim to a heritage that includes a marriage proposal by Clark Gable to Carole Lombard. Designed in the shape of a hat—hence the name—the restaurant was a legendary and central meeting spot for the powerful and the famous for generations. But in 1980, the restaurant shuttered abruptly; despite the protests of preservationists and film buffs, Brown Derby demolished. Memorabilia salvaged from the demolition circulated for decades at auctions around the country.

Imperial Hotel: Tokyo

Starchitect Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was more than just a stunning example of his famous style, it was also something of a survivor. Standing from the 1920s to the 1960s, the building managed to outlast the 1923 earthquake that rocked Tokyo and destroyed many of its buildings. The hotel was sinking into the mud a few decades later, and was taken down in spite of objections from architectural devotees and historic preservationists. The central lobby and reflecting pool were preserved, and can now be seen in the Meiji-mura museum in Inuyama.

Euston Station: London

London's old Euston Station had an illustrious history, including serving as a shelter during the German bombing of London during World War II, not to mention surviving both World Wars. But the building couldn't survive the relentless march of modernity. In the 1960s, most of the beautiful old building—replete with Doric columns—was bulldozed to make way for "the rail station of the future." Patrons of the re-imagined version today will find little in common with the idyllic vision of the mid-century renderings.

La Maison de Peuple: Belgium

La Maison de Peuple in Brussels was once a magnificent political office, home to the Belgian Workers Party beginning at the end of the 19th century and for several subsequent generations. The building was made of glass and steel and could fit more than 300 people into its four floors of shops, meeting rooms, and cafes. By 1964, the building had fallen into irrevocable disrepair and was condemned. It was demolished the following year to make way for a construction company's office.

Ebbets Field: Brooklyn

Beloved Ebberts Field was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team from 1913 to 1960. The iconic ballpark was home to many significant moments in sports history, but perhaps none so famous as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball in 1947 by suiting up to play for the Dodgers. Ironically, it was the team's very success that necessitated the destruction of its stadium: Ebberts Field's 35,000 seat capacity simply wasn't enough for all the fans. The team was moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and Ebberts Field demolished three years later with a wrecking ball that was painted like a baseball.

Church of the Archangel Michael: Warsaw

The Church of the Archangel Michael in Warsaw, Poland, was constructed during the reign of Czar Nicholas II in Russia, who during the 1890s was overseeing an expansion of church-building throughout the Russian empire, including Poland. The magnificent Orthodox church was meant to serve troops stationed in the region, and its elaborate nature was due to the elite unit it was meant to cater to. Once Russian troops left Poland in 1915, the church fell into disuse and disrepair and was demolished in 1923 as a vestige of what was seen as Russian occupation.

Okura Hotel: Tokyo

Tokyo's iconic mid-century Okura Hotel played host to a revolving cast of the world's diplomats, power brokers, and politicians (including Barack Obama) for decades following its 1962 opening. It, therefore, came as a surprise when the hotel's owners announced in 2016 that it would be demolished to make way for a rebuilt tower that would expand capacity by another 102 units. Following a public outcry, the owners announced they would preserve the original south wing of the structure and model the new lobby mezzanine and bar after the old.

Rose Pauson House: Phoenix

The Rose Pauson House in Phoenix was designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939 and constructed in 1942. The owner was able to live in the masterpiece for only a year before tragedy struck. In 1943, one of the living room's drapes blew into an open fireplace and the building burned to the ground. The house's lore lived on for decades, with the charred remains becoming a popular hangout for area teenagers throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel: Atlantic City

The Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel was an Atlantic City, New Jersey, resort built between 1902 and 1906 and based on the Blenheim Palace, the historic home of the family of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The reinforced-concrete nature of the building was meant to resist fires and became the largest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time. In 1916, Churchill himself was a guest of the hotel. But the hotel's illustrious history could not save it from the transformation of Atlantic City into a casino haven; the building was demolished in 1977 to make way for a casino.

Chicago Federal Building: Chicago

The Chicago Federal Building opened up in the midwestern city in 1905 and represented a major part of Chicago's functional government life. The huge building took up an entire city block on each side and was the epicenter of the city administration, including courts and the post office. The famous gangster Al Capone was even sentenced in one of its courtrooms. In 1965, the Chicago Federal Building was demolished to make way for a more modernist government building.

Imperial Institute: London

London's Imperial Institute was constructed in 1887, at the height of the once-formidable British Empire. The campus building contained a cinema, laboratories, classrooms, exhibition spaces, and more. The enormous building was almost impossible to keep up from the outset, and by the turn of the 20th century had been taken over by the government, who helped keep the building going by leasing out space. But when the building's demolition was announced in the 1950s, preservationists were appalled, and a compromise was brokered. The "Queen's Tower" remains today among the more modern buildings that replaced the rest of the building after demolition.

Federal Coffee Palace: Melbourne

The Federal Coffee Palace in Melbourne, Australia, is no common ode to coffee. Constructed in 1888 to serve as a "temperance hotel" with more than 400 bedrooms, coffee was meant to replace alcohol as its inhabitants' beverage of choice. However, the temperance craze soon receded. To stay in business, the Coffee Palace acquired a liquor license. In 1973, it was demolished to make way for an office building.

Royal Panopticon of Science and Art: London

The Royal Panopticon of Science and Art in London was constructed in 1851 as a building meant to showcase achievements in science and art. In its heyday, it attracted more than 1,000 visitors each day. But over time, its attractions became less popular, and it became a circus and a theatre in the ensuing decades before lack of any further use paved way for its demolition in 1936. The site is now home to the Odeon Leicester Square, a movie theater. 

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