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Municipal Asphalt Plant
555 East 90th Street
The Municipal Asphalt Plant was built from 1941-1944 at 555 East 90th Street in Yorkville. At full capacity, the plant produced 900 tons of asphalt per day, providing the “glue” to bind the sand and stone used for New York City streets. Designed by architects Ely Kahn and Robert Jacobs, the plant was one of the first American structures to utilize reinforced concrete. Jacobs once worked with the architect Le Corbusier in France, where he internalized modernist values and swooned over parabolic aerodromes for dirigibles in Orly. The parabolic shape he imagined for the asphalt plant predated even St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.
With its hulking concrete form, the design sparked a bitter war of words. One of the most powerful men in New York, City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses denigrated the building as “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste,” acerbically branding it the “Cathedral of Asphalt.” In direct rebuttal, the Museum of Modern Art selected the building as one of the most outstanding examples of architecture and design in the previous 12 years, praising the plan for its functionalism. Indeed, a more traditional rectangular design would’ve squandered upper level space and necessitated interior columns, hindering production efficiency.
Though Moses lost the first battle, it initially seemed like he would win the war. The Municipal Asphalt Plant became expendable in 1968 when city asphalt production became concentrated in a single facility in Queens. The conveyor system and the outer storage buildings were demolished, but for three whole weeks, the central building resisted the battering of the wrecking ball, its reinforced concrete an elite armor. Officials gave up, bowing to its power.
The lone survivor of the municipal cluster, the building was ignored until 1972 when developers eyed the site for new high rises. But a grassroots campaign to preserve the eccentric structure prevailed. A local doctor named George E. Murphy, with his wife Annette, envisioned a community athletics center, especially useful at a time when greenery and field space were scarce in Manhattan.
A structure that for years produced materials for city streets, when it had nothing left to give it provided its own interior. “We greened the asphalt,” Dr. Murphy recalled in triumph. In the end, despite Moses’ aesthetic complaints, perhaps he would’ve changed his mind about Asphalt Green. A prolific builder of parks and an avid swimmer, it is easy to imagine him won over by the outdoor recreation space and the Olympic-size pool.