Financial District’s Heavy Metal Lightens Up


Louise Nevelson’s steel sculptures guard over her namesake plaza at dusk.
Michael Moran

As the dust cleared following September 11, the poor state of the Financial District’s public spaces revealed itself to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The LMDC responded by commissioning a strategic plan for 900 acres east of the World Trade Center site from Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects (SMH), who quickly began preparing a Strategic Open Space (SOS) plan that called for rethinking a network of pedestrian spaces. The nearly decade-long process has culminated in a revamped Louise Nevelson Plaza.

By evaluating pedestrian and automobile flows, parking, and privately owned public spaces (POPS), SMH identified the small “bowtie” plaza among five public spaces with the potential to transform the increasingly residential neighborhood. “We really wanted to encourage people to go down there, because the area was dying,” said Laurie Hawkinson, a principal at SMH. “Many public spaces were being illegally closed for fear of crime and terrorism, and new residents were being squeezed out of their own city.”

Louise Nevelson Plaza.   Louise Nevelson Plaza.   Louise Nevelson Plaza.
Left to right: An eastward view through Louise Nevelson Plaza, illuminated glass benches at night, and an aerial view of the renovated plaza. [Click to enlarge.]

Renovations at Louise Nevelson Plaza were folded in with a plan to reconstruct Maiden Lane and Liberty Street, overseen by the NYC Department of Design and Construction. Hawkinson remembers that it was initially daunting to design a public space to be built by a road contractor, especially in the days before the transformative thinking of reigning DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Even though a segment of Maiden Lane could not be absorbed into the plaza as initially hoped, the end results maximize a small space with softened landscaping and delicate glass benches.

Site-specific statues by namesake sculptor Louise Nevelson remain the central focus of the space, with the largest piece at 70 feet tall situated above a shallow plinth that doubles as a stage. All seven Cor-ten steel sculptures have been refurbished and reinstalled in the exact positions Nevelson chose when the plaza opened in 1978.

Louise Nevelson Plaza.   Louise Nevelson Plaza.
Uplighting illuminated a glass bench in front of the Federal Reserve Bank’s guardhouse (left) and a westward view through the plaza (right). [Click to enlarge.]

Previously crowded with overgrown landscaping and bulky stone benches, the new design promotes dynamic use by residents with an emphasis on opening up the plaza. That spatial lightness is reinforced with an indirect lighting scheme and glass benches, which offer a foil to the heavy sculptures. Lit from beneath and supported by stainless steel trusses, the benches’ 3-inch-thick glass slabs glow gently at night. “The lighting helps to make the space playful,” said Hawkinson.

But for all its openess, the plaza is still situated in a financial capital, and the adjacent Federal Reserve bank required a guardhouse. Hawkinson sought to minimize the structure’s presence by tucking it in a stealthy black granite box on the plaza’s north side, where it would not be intrusive. “We worked really hard to make Louise Nevelson Plaza a little gem in all this craziness of Lower Manhattan.”

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