Available lectures

Non-profit cultural organizations: Most of these lectures are available to you thanks to the Speakers in the Humanities Program of the New York Council for the Humanities. Click here for eligibility information, and here for the listing of lectures by Anthony Robins available through the Council.

100 Years of a New York Landmark

On February 1st, 1913, the brand-new Grand Central Terminal opened its doors to an admiring public. On February 1st, 2013, the beautifully restored Terminal – rescued from destruction by a seminal 1978 Supreme Court decision – celebrates its Centennial, accompanied by exhibitions, events, and a new book: Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark.

The Terminal’s creation combined engineering bravado (sinking two train yards below ground), technological wizardry (electrifying the trains to eliminate steam and enable their underground functioning), and real-estate savvy (replacing the original street-level train yard with 16 blocks of newly prime Midtown Manhattan real-estate, whose development paid for it all) with innovative planning (interior ramps and looping tracks) and Paris-inspired Beaux-Arts design. This illustrated lecture brings the Terminal to life – its remarkable history, stunning architecture, and central role in creating midtown Manhattan.

Remembering the World Trade Center

Now that more than a decade has passed since the disaster of September 11th, 2001, and a new World Trade Center rises on the site, we can begin to remember what the original was like — “a city-within-a-city” that housed 50,000 employees, and welcomed 80,000 to 100,000 visitors every day to its Twin Towers, briefly the tallest structures in the world.

Based on the book Classics of American Architecture: The World Trade Center, this lecture reviews the story of its creation, post-World War II Downtown redevelopment, the origins of the Trade Center concept, the search for an architect, the evolution of the design, the urge to build the world’s tallest buildings, the engineering feats required for the towers’ construction, and the critical response. It is offered as a reminder of a more innocent time, when the Center stood as a symbol, certainly, of hubris, wealth and power, but also of the conviction that in New York, Americans could do anything to which they set their minds.

The World’s Tallest Buildings and the World Trade Center

Since the ill-fated Tower of Babel, mankind has been powerfully attracted to the idea of buildings rising into the clouds. The Empire State Building and the Sears Tower still rank among the world’s tallest and most famous buildings, while the latest contenders for the “world’s tallest” title rise close to a quarter mile into the sky. In the 20th century, it was the American skyscrapers of New York and Chicago that regularly pushed the limit — the pre-World- War-I Singer Building, Metropolitan Life Tower, and Woolworth Building; the 1920s battles culminating in the Chrysler and the Empire State Building; and the post-World War II World Trade Center and Sears Tower, along with a dozen or more also-rans.

The destruction of the World Trade Center, and plans for its replacement, have focused worldwide attention on such monuments, raising the question: why so high? Was it strictly dollars and cents? Or was something more at play? The development of steel-cage construction and elevators, rising real-estate values, and the economics of proximity, all helped create the skyscraper — but none of these factors seem to have required the vast heights reached by the most famous. How could a strict, hard-nosed business proposition like constructing an office building produce skyscrapers too tall to make economic sense?

This illustrated journey across a century and a half of the race to the top pays special attention to the design and construction of the Trade Center, and reports on the latest thinking about the future of its site.

How New Yorkers Learned to Love Their Landmarks 

New York City, the modern metropolis, is in the eyes of New Yorkers and foreigners alike a perennially modern city — with what Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman described as a “tear-it-down-and-build-it-up-again” spirit. Yet it is also over 350 years old, among the oldest large North American cities. Attempts to preserve something of the city’s history and built environment go back to its earliest days. From the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, the only way to protect historic sites was by purchase: wealthy patriotic organizations bought Colonial houses to use as museums. That changed in 1965 when, following the demolition of Penn Station, the City created the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

This lecture traces the evolution of historic preservation efforts in New York City from earliest times through today’s Landmarks Commission, and examines the great range of historic buildings existing today throughout the city, from the Dutch colonial houses of the 1650s to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum of the 1950s. Houses, skyscrapers, theaters, bridges, 19th-century street-clocks, 20th-century carnival rides at Coney island, churches, synagogues, cemeteries — historic districts of Victorian brownstone row houses, cast-iron fronted stores, and planned suburbs; these are among the artifacts and environments that make New York one of the country’s greatest and most historic cities.

The Whiz-Bang Buildings of Modern New York

The Chrysler Building, the Waldorf-Astoria, Rockefeller Center– these are among the hundreds of Art Deco monuments that during the 1920s and ‘30s helped create the image of New York City as the world’s Modern Metropolis. Coined in the 1960s to describe a style of French decorative arts, “Art Deco” now refers to almost anything from saltcellars to skyscrapers, produced anywhere in the world during the early decades of this century, using abstract, stylized floral, geometric, or streamlined design. In New York, Art Deco evolved through a series of Manhattan skyscrapers into the city’s chief architectural language. Following a massive reawakening of interest in them during the 1970s, New York’s Deco buildings today survive as prized remnants of a distant yet modern past that still help define the city’s visual identity.

The lecture covers the great skyscrapers of architects Raymond Hood, William Van Alen, Ely Jacques Kahn and Ralph Walker, including the Daily News, Empire State, Irving Trust, General Electric, American Radiator, Barclay-Vesey and RCA Buildings. It then traces the adaptation of this “skyscraper style” through apartment buildings on the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, airport terminals at LaGuardia, the Central Park West residential skyline, automated midtown parking garages, diners, hotels, department stores, banks, and theaters like Radio City Music Hall.

The Fabulous Broadway Theaters

Visitors to New York invariably find their way to the Broadway theater, drawn by long-running musicals, showy imports, and occasional straight plays. What many never realize is that Broadway offers another artistic and historical resource that is unique to New York City: the theaters themselves. With three-quarters of a century of history behind them, the forty surviving theaters are largely intact, and stand as stunning works of art in themselves, as well as monuments to the lively history of American theater.

Many of the finest theaters were built as lavish headquarters for Broadway’s great impresarios, who spared no expense in their decor. The Belasco Theater on 44th Street was designed to the specifications of the extravagant David Belasco, the self-styled “Bishop of Broadway” who, among other eccentricities, wore a clerical collar. Serving as Belasco’s showcase, the theater boasts Tiffany glass, paneled wooden ceilings, and murals by the New York Ash-Can School artist Everett Shinn.

The Little Theater, built for aristocratic New England producer Winthrop Ames, originally sat a tiny audience of 300. Ames, pioneering the “little theater” movement of intimate drama, had his theater designed to match: its precious Georgian style facade looks less like a typical Broadway theater than a Colonial New England manor house, into the intimate drawing room of which Ames cordially invited his audience (at the then outrageously expensive price of $2.50 per seat). Other great Broadway houses include the recreation of the Petit Trianon in Versailles built for producer John Cort; the exotic Moorish fantasy built for vaudeville king Martin Beck; the pseudo-Florentine palace built for the Theater Guild, and the delicately sculpted Music Box built by Irving Berlin for his Music Box Revues.