If there is a plaque commemorating the location of the entrance to Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic railway, built in secret below 265 Broadway, in lower Manhattan, the writer Sam Lubell and I did not find it on a ninety-degree day in August. Once upon a time, the basement of this building across from New York’s City Hall was frescoed and furnished with a piano, a plashing fountain, and goldfish tanks. Admission to the subway, which ran along a two-hundred-and-ninety-four-foot tunnel for three years, from 1870 to 1873, was twenty-five cents. Today, there is only an emptied-out bank branch, its basement piled with garbage and large rat traps. Such is the afterlife of transportation dreams, this one squelched by Tammany Hall’s support for the rival Central Underground Railway’s Broadway line, or perhaps the opposition of merchants who didn’t want the street in front of their shops torn up for a decade.
I met Lubell in lower Manhattan because the area proved to be central to his research. He and his co-author, Greg Goldin, have completed “Never Built New York,” a lushly illustrated compendium of almost two hundred utopian, dystopian, gargantuan, high-flying, and low-lying plans that never made it. As in their previous collaboration, “Never Built Los Angeles,” the authors have pulled images from scores of archives, adding concise histories of each project. The design of the book highlights the stories that boosters use to sell such schemes, with magazine-style pull quotes demonstrating how superlatives have always been part of the architecture game. “Casual, inspired living, minus the usual big-city clamor,” Frank Lloyd Wright said, of his “last dream” to turn Ellis Island into an experimental, self-contained city with glass domes holding theatres, hospitals, churches, schools, a sports arena, and a library. If anything, and for once, Wright was too modest in describing his ambitions.