Fascinating Vintage Photos of Beautiful Buildings Being Demolished


Richard Nickel, a heroic architectural photographer and historian lost his life recording Chicago’s grand design legacy before it succumbed to the devastating destruction of private developers making way for — in their eyes — progress and a new way of life. As he famously said, “great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”

What we destroy often says more about our society than what we create, and in the middle of the last century, after the end of WWII, we were a nation desperately needing to move on. These days what’s old is new again and thanks to a decidedly different approach to urban renewal, we now cherish all things salvaged, reclaimed and re-purposed. From New York City’s original Penn Station to Louis Sullivan’s landmark theater in Chicago that was tragically replaced by a parking structure, click through to remember some of our nation’s great lost buildings.

Pennsylvania Station – New York, New York

Image via New York Architecture; Landmarks45

On July 14, 1966, under the headline, “A Vision of Rome Dies: Shorn of Its Proud Eagles, Last Facade of Penn Station Yielding to Modernity,” the great Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote the following “obituary” in The New York Times: “Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress this week at the age of 56, after a lingering decline. The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall. It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares. The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark. It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear. It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for esthetic ends.”

Garrick Theater, formerly the Schiller Theatre Building – Chicago, Illinois

Image via Chuckman’s Collection; Richard Nickel Committee and Archive via m. gerwing architects

The story of Adler & Sullivan’s landmark Garrick Theater is the sad tale of the architectural preservation movement in Chicago in the middle of the 20th century. After a hard fought battle, the building was demolished in 1960 — a mere 68 years after it was built — and replaced with a parking structure.

Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex – St. Louis, Missouri

Image credit: State Historic Society of Missouri via Architectural Record

Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki, St. Louis’ 33-building Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex opened in 1954, and was demolished less than 20 years later. The project was seen as a massive Modernist failure, but many viewed “the death of Pruitt-Igoe as the death of Modernism.” Director Chad Freidrichs challenges the housing development’s failure in a fascinating documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth that explores the massive impact of the national urban renewal program of the 1950s and ’60s, which prompted the process of mass suburbanization and emptied American cities of their residents, businesses, and industries.

US Post Office – Boston, Massachusetts

Image credit: Leslie Jones via Boston Public Library

This grand post office was erected in 1870 and demolished half a decade later in 1935. The big question being: why?

Biltmore Hotel – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Image credit: edition of one

One of the largest buildings to fall during the Urban Renewal era, the explosion that took down the 26-story, 600-room Biltmore Hotel in 1977 was televised across the country and often credited for playing a significant role in souring public support for the Urban Renewal program, which stalled out a few years later.

The Wabash Terminal – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Image via The Digs

The demolition of the Wabash Terminal began in October, 1953. The Pittsburgh Press wrote, “With roof off, the workmen swarmed in and out of offices. Using crowbars and sledge hammers they pried and smashed.” A flatiron train station built in 1904, the Wabash was part of robber baron Jay Gould’s attempt to build a transcontinental railroad empire. It was torn down to make way for a Gateway Center office building. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, the city’s urban redevelopment policy “swallowed more than 1,000 acres of land, razed more than 3,700 buildings, relocated more than 1,500 businesses, and uprooted more than 5,000 families.”

The Walker Art Center – Minneapolis, Minnesota

Image credit: The Walker Art Center

Louise Walker McCannel, granddaughter of Walker founder Thomas Barlow Walker, films the 1969 demolition of the Walker Art Center building, which made way for the 1971 building designed by Edward Larabee Barnes.

Tank Building – New York, New York

Image via vintage everyday

At one time owned by Aaron Burr, this tank building — as reported by The New York Times in 1887 — allowed the famed politician to secure a multimillion dollar charter to provide the city with clean water.

Astor House – New York, New York

Image via vintage everyday

Built in 1836, Astor House was at one time the most famous hotel in America, frequented by, among others, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Abraham Lincoln. It was demolished in 1926 after being deemed old-fashioned to make way for the towering art deco Transportation Building.

The Portland Public Market – Portland, Oregon

Image credit: Jim D. via Vintage Portland

Designed by William G. Holford, the Portland Public Market was built for a reported cost of $1 million in 1933, and then demolished in 1969. Apparently the “novelty” building was unable to retain many tenants, but it was home to The Oregon Journal for 13 years.

City Hall – Detroit, Michigan

Image via Old Detroit

Built mostly in stone, Detroit’s Old City Hall took Alexander Chapoton a decade to complete. It was demolished 100 years later, in 1961.