A Manhattan Birthday Boat

Today was my birthday. I decided to take the two adventurers closest to me and go on the high seas. An oceanographic architectural tour of Manhattan launches most days from Pier 62, on the island’s west side, and the fact that it was the hottest day of the year made a liquid frolic all the more appealing.

Pier 62, part of the Chelsea Piers sports complex, has some offerings for while you’re waiting for your boat to launch. You can watch hundreds of elementary-age gymnasts and soccer buffs perform in the air-conditioned splendor of a huge indoor gym. Watch deckhands spiff up the many yachts tied to the dock. Check out the picturesque marine ropes stashed at the end of the pier.

ship rope

Wonder about a Marcel du Champs-style composition of dining fork and some kind of bulbous ship hitch.

ship thing

Note the gallery of oversize photographs celebrating Chelsea Piers, including one of the Lusitania sailing out on its final, doomed voyage, with horse carriages stacked up watching it depart.


Our boat was Manhattan, built in 2006 to resemble a 1920s riverboat, all light and gleaming wood panelling.

the manhattan

The cruise traveled south on the Hudson River to the Upper Bay, curtseyed to the Statue of Liberty, continued down around the Battery, up the East River, then retraced its steps, west again, all the way up to 125th Street, where it circled back to the starting point.

Austin, the captain, introduced the incredibly savvy architects Arthur Platt and Scott Cook, who would be narrating our journey. We wouldn’t be able to tour the very top of the island, said Austin, because of the heat: the steel of the swing bridge at Spuyten Duyvil had reached 95 degrees. If they swung it open, its expansion would make it impossible to close. On a brighter note, Hannah and Heather would be manning the bar, serving up ice-cold beverages for the next three hours, even champagne.

Maud, please, will you have some champagne for my birthday, I implored my daughter, since I myself refrain from alcohol and someone should raise a toast.

No, Mom, she said, the breeze ruffling her hair as we pulled out past Battered Bull of Georgetown, motoring into the channel. Water, she said. I want water.

Good thought. You could sit inside on this trip, in the climate-controlled saloon, and see the sights through glass. Or you could sit at the bow, on a bench outside in the red-hot sun, the New York harbor wind whipping your face. Where do you think we sat?

I learned. I learned so much. And then I forgot so much. The architects knew everything in the world about New York. And something about New Jersey too.

Like that the Erie Lackawanna rail terminal in Hoboken, for example, was built in 1909, and its dull brown color represents the hue of copper before it oxidizes – like the color of the Statue of Liberty originally. I never knew that.

That was a refrain that ran through my sunburned skull all day: I never knew that.


Or the fact that Ellis Island sits on the site of one of the harbor’s four original “oyster islands,” barely visible at high tide, and that Ellis Island, where so many American immigrants were “processed” was built first of wood and burned in 1897.


That the Statue of Liberty’s skin is two pennies thin, and the torch is covered in 24 carat gold. Her sandals are upturned because Liberty is “always on the move.”


I never knew that either.

Or the following interesting things, absorbed between cooling draughts of water.

On Governor’s Island – we talked a lot about the future of New York, not only the past — the biggest demolition project ever planned in New York, of old Coast Guard buildings, will create hills eighty feet high from which to view the Statue and Manhattan.

On the Brooklyn Waterfront, the site of Wallabout Bay, you can now take a bike tour of the Navy Yard.

We passed Williamsburg, Greenpoint – it’s “your last opportunity to look at this industrial waterfront,” said the architectural commentary. Brooklyn is developing so fast. “Bloomberg’s administration has upzoned more acreage in the history of New York than any other.” But even Bloomberg might be stymied by what was described as the “black mayonnaise” sediment of the oil-contaminated Newtown Creek.


On Roosevelt Island stands a monument, a shrine to FDR, designed by the architect Louis Kahn, who passed away in Pennsylvania Station and  “it took a while to identify him.” I certainly never knew that about Louis Kahn. In fact, I could barely believe it.

In Harlem you find the concept of “the tower in the park”, when public housing units stand solo, without a connection to the larger community.

It was 1790 when Archibald Gracie built a house in what was then the countryside outside of New York City, never dreaming that his domicile would one day be the home of mayors (current mayor excluded, as he already has eleven homes).


And it was at this point that I put aside some of my adventuring spirit and stumbled inside to an air-conditioned seat. I was having fun — yet I wondered if the seasickness that has plagued me throughout my life had come back to haunt me. Then the music of fact revived me. That and the fizz of a diet Coke.

In 1909 the Metropolitan Life building with its elegant cupola was the highest in the world.


One difference between public and private high rises is that the private ones have balconies.

The Woolworth Building is just now having its centennial.

Gulp. Water. Is this boat rocking or is it me?

There is a very famous, ultra-cool architectural firm called SHoP. Never knew it.

One of the newer fancy buildings, of the many, many fancy buildings in New York, features an indoor dog walking court and built in nanny-cams.

Goldman Sachs employees take a private ferry every day from Manhattan to the firm’s offices in Jersey City.

The “exploded Malibu Barbie house” of artist Julian Schnabel was built on top of a stable.


Fireboat 343, docked at Pier 40, was named for the 343 firefighters killed on 9/11.


Maybe if I were to go outside, get a breeze? Another Coke? Would my queasiness subside?

Frank Gehry’s sumptuous IAC building of smoky glass was made by “cold warping” the panels on site.


There is now such a thing as a permanent window washing crane stationed atop several skyscrapers. It’s controversial, if that matters to you.

We passed a trio of kayakers at Pier 76, bobbing, no doubt very hot, but feeling very chill there in the waters of Manhattan.

And finally what the architect Scott called his favorite structure – his favorite, after all these hundreds? – the Lehigh Building. The “architects held back vertical elements at the façade,” he said, praising its “no nonsense” lines, its wraparound windows.

favorite bldg

We stumbled off the gangplank, our brains sunstruck, saturated and several pounds heavier. We collapsed.

gr after

Even youth faded in the heat.

mr after

But we revived with some time in a restaurant in an old boat called the Frying Pan.

frying pan

And taking the place of birthday cake, an ice cream sandwich with red velvet wafers and cream cheese ice cream.

red velvet

Home to dry land and cool, fragrant birthday flowers, from Maud.

birthday flowers


Filed under Cooking, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Photography

4 responses to “A Manhattan Birthday Boat

  1. Jay Gatsby would have been comfortable yesterday.


    And, oh MY… I’ve just read about your Gatsby-style *riverboat*…
    Yacht Manhattan

    “Step aboard this Classic Style Yacht! Manhattan is inspired by the famous (and infamous) commuter yachts of the Roaring Twenties! These boats were commonplace in NY Harbor – owned by the ultra rich on the shores of Long Island Sound – Oil Barons and Wall Street tycoons outfitted long narrow boats with the ever-so-popular combustion engine.”


    All those factoids that even YOU never knew? Wow! You seem to have enjoyed your birthday despite the queasy moments, I’m glad for that, (is that a comma splice?) and thanks for the factoids. Because I’ve always believed that Mothers should be congratulated on their kids’ birthdays, I congratulated your mother today, too… And your father… In an e-mail after we’d passed in the hall.

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