High above New York City’s bustling sidewalks, a quiet revolution is taking place largely out of view.
Residences, offices, bars, warehouses, schools – even a women’s prison in Chelsea – have been transforming their rooftops into platforms for socializing, exercising, screening movies, exhibiting art, even bee-keeping and farming.
“It’s as big as it’s ever been and the trend is growing more and more,” said Roberta Amon, who wrote a new book, “Rooftop Gardens,” on the blossoming scene.
It wasn’t always this way.
Although New York City has a “long and storied tradition” of using its rooftops, the practice was predominantly niche and informal, said Michael Kriegh, lead architect at the Pratt Center.
In the days of tenements, people would use their rooftops to hang laundry or escape sweltering heat.
“That or young people would go up there to get away from their parents because there was no privacy,” explained Suzanne Wasserman, of the Gotham Center for NYC History.
There were of course, famed rooftop gardens in the pre-air conditioned era, such as the now demolished Hotel Astor in Times Square and Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden.
Wealthier blocks in Manhattan have had impressive rooftop gardens for decades while neighborhoods in Brooklyn, such as Brownsville, have a history of rooftop coops housing pigeons.
But while cities like Paris reacted against the congested urban environment in the early 20th century by creating functional flat roofs and rooftop gardens, New York never fully embraced the idea, said architect John Coogan of OCV Architects.
All that is changing.
Manhattan now offers an array of rooftop bars, like the trendy Standard Hotel Rooftop. Office buildings increasingly boast rooftop spaces, such as the landscaped garden crafted in the 2007 conversion of a Meatpacking District heritage building for clothing designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s headquarters.
A convergence of influences is driving the movement.
As more neighborhoods gentrify, homeowners and building developers have the spending power and desire to offer
terraces and balconies - widely seen as a symbol of cool.
Meanwhile, businesses and cultural providers seeking to maximize space and be innovative have also embraced the concept. That’s helped by eco-conscious
city-dwellers eager to use roofs in environmentally friendly ways, encouraged by government incentives such as tax breaks.
David Smiley, assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at Barnard College, believes it is a natural consequence of the city’s changing nature.
“With more rowhouses becoming single family across the city in the past decade or two, the more folks use their roofs,” he explained.
“[And] for recreational uses for offices or hotels, one might say that it is a rediscovery of the outdoors after years of being locked up inside sealed, air conditioned buildings,” he added.
David Graves was one early convert. He has been using city rooftops to keep bees – and produce honey that he sells at farmers’ markets – for more than a decade.
Graves uses about 12 Manhattan rooftops, from Harlem to the East Village, to store hives. Most are atop friends’ residential buildings.
Standing eight floors above the hum of lower Manhattan, Graves gazed out over the rooftops and added wistfully: “Wouldn’t it be great if one day you flew over New York City and it was all blue with lavender? The bees would love that.”
Notable city rooftops
Rooftop Films has been screening films on roofs and other outdoor spaces since founder Mark Elijah Rosenberg projected film footage against a white sheet for some friends atop of his E. 14th St. building in 1997 – and was subsequently evicted. This year’s season, which kicked off on May 13, will screen on four different rooftops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and many other outdoor venues.
The Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop garden overlooking Central Park was created as an outside exhibition space in 1987, with countless artists’ innovations displayed in six-month intervals ever since. It is currently hosting sculptures by Anthony Caro through October
Ava Garden, the penthouse bar at the Dream Hotel on W 55th St. is a
good rooftop drinking option. 230Fifth is a classic Midtown rooftop bar; its searing skyline views have won it numerous awards. Meanwhile, the cool crowd gathers 18 floors up at The Standard Hotel Rooftop on Washington St. in the Meatpacking District.
Tribeca Rooftop, on Desbrosses Street, is a landscaped rooftop garden with Hudson River views that has been rented out for large-scale events like weddings for the past 15 years.
Eagle Street Rooftop Farms - a 6,000 square foot organic vegetable farm on a warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn - was founded by Annie Novak and Ben Flanner in 2009. The Farms operate a small community supported agriculture program and an onsite farm market, and also caters to area restaurants. This summer it will hold free talks on the roof every Sunday. In 2010, Flanner opened Brooklyn Grange, on Northern Boulevard, in Long Island City, Queens. The goal of this commercial organic farm is to connect city people more closely to farms and food production, and to make urban farming a viable enterprise and livelihood. It aims to put more farms on roofs throughout the city and beyond in the future.
New York boasts some of the most spectacular rooftop spaces in the world:
At Park Avenue in the East 60s sits a 3,200–square-foot rooftop modeled on the gardens of Versailles, with separate dining and cocktail terraces and room for 100 guests.
The Silver Residence, on the 76th floor of a Time Warner Center tower, is the highest private rooftop terrace in New York. It’s so high up the considerable amount of furniture, sculptures and plants must be bolted down
Gotham's roofs going green
Fears of climate change and the search for solutions to the city’s problems with excessive stormwater run-off are combining with the desire of non-profits and the Bloomberg Administration to promote environmentally friendly rooftop use, argues John Coogan of OCV Architects.
Greenroofs - a system of plants growing on a waterproof membrane atop of buildings – are the leading area. OCV designed its first greenroof in 2004 and has completed a dozen more since then.
“It will keep growing because the cost is coming down and the manufacturers of roofs are getting into the game,” said Coogan.
New York City currently lags behind countries like Germany, and other U.S. cities like Chicago, in this innovation. But it is beginning to catch up thanks to tax breaks, grants and ground-level enthusiasm among developers and home-owners, Dwaine Lee, a green infrastructure professional, recently told an audience of affordable housing managers and developers.
Well-known examples are commercial urban farms like Eagle Street, which began on a warehouse roof in Greenpoint in 2009, and Brooklyn Grange, which followed a year later in Long Island City. But alongside this, numerous smaller individual rooftop operations have sprung into life.
“We’re slammed,” said Marni Majorelle, who founded Brooklyn-based Alive Structures in 2007 to help people convert their rooftops into usable spaces.
“There’s a growing demand for green roofs from home-owners and developers,” she said. “I see it as part of people’s plans – so many architects now include it. It’s a new chapter for New York.”