Get out your Palm Pilots and Seinfeld DVDs—it’s time to start appreciating the 1990s. Time travelers can start their pre-Millennial studies by visiting the Skyscraper Museum’s new exhibition, Millennium: Lower Manhattan in the 1990s.
The show, which runs through April, explores civic plans, architectural schemes, and urban legislation that proliferated in this time of simultaneous optimism and anxiety for Manhattan’s southern tip. As the Financial District recovered from recession, and reckoned with a building stock and location that were becoming less desirable, the area was in need of new ideas and policies to enact them.
In the museum’s mirrored galleries visitors come face to face with urban prescriptions, some successful, some not. Those that came to be included the J.M. Kaplan Foundation’s Heritage Trails, walking tours guided by colorful signpost sharing the stories and significance of local buildings and sites. Most no longer stand, but thanks to the museum, you can now view them all online. There’s also a massive model of Battery Park City, which added half a dozen buildings as well as significant new public space—like Machado Silvetti’s Wagner Park.
Failed plans included SOM’s proposal for a revamped New York Stock Exchange, with a 51-story office building above, and Smith-Miller+Hawkinson’s Museum of Women—The Leadership Center, a nine-story institution just up the block from the Skyscraper Museum.
Visitors should also take a look at James Sanders + Associates project for Liberty Plaza, now Zuccotti Park. Commissioned by Heritage Trails New York, the scheme was intended to inject the frenetic activity of the area’s financial markets into its relatively sleepy urbanscape, with undulating stock tickers, interactive charts, full color LCD TV displays (a new technology at the time), learning kiosks, and even a beacon sending a beam of light high into the air; an early precursor to the Tribute in Light.
The show methodically pinpoints other vital 1990s benchmarks: the crafting of a new neighborhood plan, the landmarking of dozens of buildings, the establishment of the Downtown Alliance, the first bombing of the World Trade Center (1994), the founding of the Skyscraper Museum itself, and the birth of a residential boom in the area thanks to residential conversions and financial incentives. It clearly paints a picture of how pivotal this period was in establishing contemporary New York, and how radically the area, and the country have changed since, as downtown has—for better and worse—morphed under the effects of global capital, real estate, and terrorism perhaps more profoundly than anywhere in the world.