WITH OUR VISITORS to New York City always pressed for time, we natives like to keep in mind a short list of special sights. Each short list is different, of course, and mine concentrates on architecture rather than on parks, plazas or boutiques. Neverthelesss, these buildings incorporate open space, shops, sometimes trees and art and restaurants, seats for weary travelers, even some public restrooms, as well as historic references that enrich the mind as well as the eye. These are special places -- ones that are hard or even impossible to duplicate in other cities, so that they make a visit to New York City especially memorable.
*Federal Hall National Memorial: Start by taking a bus south on Broadway to Wall Street, and walk one block east on Wall. There, nestling among the immense buildings nearby, stands Federal Hall National Memorial, one of America's purest Greek Revival temples. The structure, built as the United States Customhouse from 1834 to 1842, was a product of the age of Jacksonian democracy that gave such classical names as Athens, Ithaca and Troy to new American cities. The ancient names and forms showed our country's admiration of ancient Greek democracy and of the Athenian respect for the potential of the individual. The clear geometric shapes, with sturdy fluted columns clearly supporting the triangular gable above, suggested forthrightness and simplicity -- virtues people liked to contrast with the devious and tyrannical political arrangements in the Old World.
Eminent architects including Ithiel Town and A.J. Davis designed it with respect for the democratic traditions of the site, for here George Washington took his oath of office as pesident; an 1883 statue by J.Q.A. Ward commemorates that occasion. Inside, the building evokes Roman, not Greek, architecture with its succession of small rooms of varied shapes. Exhibits such as dioramas document other events associated with the site and its neighborhood, such as the meetings of the Continental Congress. A lively program of musical recitals and lectures is offered free. Many take place at lunchtime to accommodate the office workers nearby.
When you return to Broadway, notice Trinity Church, a neo-medieval Gothic-style building completed in 1846 by the architect Richard Upjohn. Made of the brownstone much used in 19th-century New York, it contrasts with the trees and monuments of its churchyard, a relic of days when land could be used for something besides profitable skyscrapers. Turn right (north) on Broadway to St. Paul's Chapel, Manhattan's oldest building (designed in 1766 by Thomas McBean). Its interior, much like that of an 18th-century New England church, contains Washington's pew.
*City Hall: A few blocks to the norht, Broadway opens into City Hall Park, where you will find it hard to ignore the declicate City Hall of 1811 by J.F. Mangin and John McComb. (You may be able to see its beautiful neoclassical chambers if a public meeting is in session.) But turn toward the soaring Woolworth Building on Broadway at Park Place. Designed by the eminent architect Cass Gilbert, it was finished in 1913 and was for almost 20 years the tallest building in the world. Its 792-foot height dwarfed nearby church spires, suggesting to some that entrepreneurs like Frank W. Woolworth found mammon more inspiring than God in the heady days before the graduated income tax and zoning laws restrained them.
Known as the Cathedral of Commerce, the building adopted Gothic style, earlier associated primarily with churches and schools. (Woolworth's white-clad tower became a world-famous symbol of the skyscraper city, replacing the church spires as the skyline's major feature.) The height and white purity suggest the owner's aspirations, and the dazzling lobby, brilliant with mosaics and sculpture, contains carved portraits of Woolworth and his associates, recalling the portraits of kings in medieval cathedrals. While it is hard to admire Woolworth's ego, it is easy to enjoy the craftsmanship and care taken in the design. The 30-story base continues the building line of Broadway, emphasizing the contrast between architecture and the open park. The base looks less heave than it is because its decoration is thin and vertical, lightening the load made by a steel-framed, terra cotta-faced structure. The building may be immense, but above the base only a slender tower rises, so that sunshine still reaches the park.
*Grand Central Terminal: The other buildings on the list are in midtown, and the quickest way to reach them is by taking the subway from the Brooklyn Bridge station at the northeast corner of the park. Your destination is 42nd Street -- Grand Central Terminal, and your subway train enters on one of three layers of subway track. Commuter and long-distance trains run on two more track levels, while car traffic outside is on ramps above streets with two bus lines. High over the Terminal is a heliport on the roof of the Pan Am Building. The coordination of all kinds of traffic is one of the many engineering marvels created there by William Wilgus in the years after 1903. When trains were electrified and no longer needed to be kept outdoors where steam could dissipate, Wilgus designed a lid over the old railroad cut, and the lid became Park Avenue.
The terminal building itself is unusually handsome, with its main hall that blends grandeur and efficiency. A vaulted ceiling decorated with zodiac signs rises above thick walls pierce by grand arched windows. The impressive architecture encloses an ingenious network of doors, ramps, stairs, signs and ticket and information windows that makes the terminal easy to enter and use.
This hub of transportation naturally attracted office buildings used by rail and subway commuters, as well as restaurants, clubs and men's shops that cater to executives. In addition, it houses such conveniences for the traveler as book, candy, flower and shoe repair shops. No wonder that Grand Central became and remains one of the city's focal points. It virtually created the modern midtown.
*The Chrysler Building: Among the buildings connected by tunnels to the terminal is the Chrysler Building, many people's idea of the ultimate in skyscraper design. Decorated to attract the eye and to attract tenants as a result, the Chrysler Building, opened in 1930, was meant to replace the Woolworth Building as the tallest skyscraper. But the Chrysler's metal tower top was not quite tall enough to surpass the Empire State Building's dirigible morring mast, which was built hurriedly to make that one the higher tower.
Most observers enjoy the Chrysler Building's design more, for the architect, William Van Alen, planned massive black portals contrasting with shining metal trim, creating impressive entrances at the base of set-back blocks and a high tower of white brick. The setbacks were mandated by the 1916 Zoning Resolution, a city requirement that buildings allow some light and air to reach business districts. Partly inspired by the Woolworth tower, the resolution permitted the tall, slim towers of many skyscrapers that were built after 1916. Van Alen brought his to a particulary harmonius conclusion by slipping from a rectangular shaft to graceful curves and finally to a spire that really seems to scrape the sky. Farther down, he added decorations that amuse passer-by at street level, including a frieze of Chrysler cars, and corner "gargoyles" n the shapes of winged radiator caps. He also designed a lobby unlike any other, with marble and murals and moldings in colorful profusion.
*The New York Public Library: Turn west to Fifth Avenue, to another of the city's great buildings, the New York Public Library, opened in 1911 to the design of Carrere and Hastings. For anyone who is not thoroughly at home in the Library of Congress, a visit to the Public Library offers a surprising taste of one of the world's great resources. If citizens could choose just one building to the city to save from disaster, they ought to choose this one.
Grand Roman arches, columns, cornices, and inscriptions mark it as a near contemporary of Grand Central Terminal. As you ascend the library's gently graded steps to the high portals that llead to the vaulted lobby, you are meant to feel the majesty of learning, just as the vast terminal implied the power of technology and the great adventure of travel. this is one of the few outstanding research libraries that are open to anyone. No need for a letter of introduction, reader's card or fee. Access to millions of books, original paintings and prints, first editions, original manuscripts, magazines, maps, clipping files, and microfilms is yours for the asking. the second and third floors house most of the reading rooms, and lining their corridors are outstanding free exhibitions of photographs, prints and rare documents.
You can ask for directions at an information desk in the lobby, or you can meet a volunteer escort who offers free tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. several days eaach week. A small shop allows you to take some library treasures home in the form of stationery and greeting cards.
*Rockefeller Center: More souvenirs of your visit, but of a different kind, can be found at Rockefeller Center, six blocks north on Fifth Avenue, between 48th and 51st streets. This complex of limestone-faced office buildings and theaters also contains about a hundred shops offering everything from toy skyscrapers to beautiful clothing, with a number of the city's largest bookshops clustered nearby.
For 50 years, Rockefeller Center has been the popular heart of the city. It wrested that position away from Grand Central by creating a collection of buildings and public spaces that is irresistibly attractive and beautifully maintained. Built during the Depression, it had to lure tenants with fine design and materials. Here one can enjoy the contrast between low quadruplet buildings along Fifth Avenue and the dizzying height of the focal RCA Building, which slices a swath of sky behind the outdoor skating rink. Hardly any pavements are as clean as these, and the well-tended outdoor plantings are changed eight times a year. Nowhere else is there as much fine bronze framing shop windows, or such dignified lettering to identify the owners.
It is a natural part of New York life to discuss Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree, or to meet a friend under the huge statue of Atlas. One of childhood's best treats is a spin on the ice rink, and every spring, families enjoy the "Glory of Easter" pageant at Radio City Music Hall, one of America's most spectacular interiros. There, 6,200 people can hear the tremendous organ, or watch an entire orchetra disappear under the stage. In rainy weather New Yorkers walk between almost two dozen buildings in the center's two miles of underground streets that are liined with shops and restaurants.
Just as Grand Central exemplifies the multilevel traffic center that generates business activity (think of Place Ville Marie in Montreal), Rockefeller Center inspired many handsome office and shopping complexes (for example, Embarcadero Center in San Francisco). But all six of the sites on my list are impressive examples of the ingredients of America's most commercial cities -- imagination, money, the egotism of Woolworths and Chryslers and Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, technology, artistry, advertisement and civic pride.
A nativeis likely to advise you to reflect on these matters over a drink or dinner in the RCA Building's Rainbow Room, more than 60 stories above the ice rink. Thee, in a glamorous setting hardly changed in almost 50 years, you may find the perfect setting for thinking about tradition and architecture.
Carol Herselle Krinsky is a professor of fine arts at New York University's Washington Square College, where she is also the director of the urban design studies program. She is the author of "Rockefeller Center," published in 1978 by the Oxford University Press.