That Time New York City Wanted to Put Highways on Top of its Skyscrapers

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Some might say New Yorkers had more money than sense in the Roaring Twenties. Somewhat profoundly, John K. Hencken's idea to build highways on top of skyscrapers in Manhattan required both. Bummer about that stock market crash – otherwise these elevated boulevards might have happened! Emphasis on the 'might have'.

The plans to build a 16-mile-long "elevated speedway" along the Hudson River hit the pages of Popular Science back in 1927. At that point in time, the United States' wealth had almost doubled since the start of the decade, and much of that seemingly endless stream of cash was being poured into construction across the country. In New York City, this meant new skyscrapers, and the foundations for a number of historically ambitious projects, like the Chrysler Tower to the Empire State Building, would be poured in the coming months and years.

But before those ideas became icons, city planners considered a number of even more progressive ideas, like Hencken's skyscraper-borne speedways. This design envisioned a New York City that America would ultimately only experience through science fiction novels. >Popular Science reports:

[The proposed system] calls for a series of buildings of uniform twelve-story height extending from the lower tip of Manhattan Island to Yonkers, connected by bridges at all cross streets.

Sub-basements would contain four railroad tracks for freight service, as well as conduits and sewers. The first floor, arcaded to form a ten-foot sidewalk would be devoted to stores and shops.

Aside from the highways on the roof, that all sounds pretty feasible. After all, skybridges were becoming increasingly common at the time. Then things get outright bonkers:

Through the second or main floors, continuous moving platforms for free passenger service would run at graduated speeds ranging from three to twenty miles an hour. These platforms also would be carried on bridges over cross streets…

You read that right. Hencken — who'd already invented some pretty crazy shit — wanted to build a moving pavement the length of Manhattan that topped out at 20-miles-per-hour. He'd even patented a conveyor system.

But wait! There's more:

North-bound and south-bound boulevards on the roof-tops would be separated by a protected parkway, reached by elevators. Other elevators, in every block, would carry motor cars from the street to the elevated boulevards.

Honestly, the design shouldn't come as a shock if you consider it in the context of that wildly optimistic and excessive era in American history. Movie buffs will recall that Fritz Lang's legendary dystopian film Metropolis also came out in 1927. The movie depicted a fictional city of towering skyscrapers that were linked together by skyways of all sizes. Lang would later name New York City's skyline as his inspiration.

Despite Popular Science's claim that its design "had been approved by a number of eminent engineers and city planners," the elevated speedway was never built. The plans have been filed away with countless numbers of blueprints that envision a New York City that will never be. That said, the New York City that actually was built in the past century is still pretty incredible.

Image via Popular Science