Two manuscript plans for a visionary extension of Manhattan Island

T[homas] Kennard Thomson, Consulting Engineer [Extract of a U.S. Geological Survey map of New York City, with manuscript additions delineating a proposed extension of Manhattan into New York Harbor]. New York, March 22, 1911. Map printed in colors with additions in ms, 11 ¼”h x 29 ¼”w at sheet edge, mounted on board. Accompanied by early exhibition label.
[with:] --, CITY OF NEW MANHATTAN, PROPOSED MAY 1911, REVISED MAY 1930. New York, May 1930. Ms in ink on surveyor’s linen, 28 ½”h x 24 ½”w at sheet edge. Minor dampstaining, else excellent.

Two visionary manuscript maps by T. Kennard Thomson (1864-1952), an architect and engineer whose work helped shape early 20th-century American urban landscapes. These maps, created in 1911 and 1930, delineate Thomson’s proposal for “New Manhattan”, an ambitious landfill project to extend Manhattan Island eight miles into New York Harbor.

The first map represents Thomson’s preliminary vision for New Manhattan and is dated March 22, 1911–predating the public announcement of his proposal in May of that year. To create it, Thomson repurposed an extract from a U.S. Geological Survey map of the city, outlining a huge extension of Lower Manhattan by landfill, incorporating Governor’s Island and linked to Staten Island by an “8 track tunnel” at its southern end. The map also proposes a revolutionary public transportation overhaul, featuring two 4-track subway lines encircling Manhattan, New Manhattan, and Staten Island, re-centering New York City’s urban core to the newly-made land.

The second map is rendered in manuscript on surveyor’s linen and dated May 1930, making it the  last known iteration of Thomson’s vision. It depicts an even more aggressive extension of lower Manhattan into the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. It is also adapted to the Automobile Age, shifting from the subway lines of the 1911 plan to an infrastructure dominated by multi-level highways and tunnels (Thomson labels one of these highways a “three deck boulevard”. Indeed, in 1927 he produced plans for elevating New York’s streets to create levels dedicated to–from top to bottom–pedestrians, buses and cars, local and express trains, and commercial vehicles.) This shift was likely influenced by the automobile-centric views of contemporaries like Robert Moses, the hugely-powerful and -effective Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, with whom Thomson would have been well acquainted.

Though versions of Thomson’s plans appeared on and off in the contemporary press over two decades, I know of no other examples in private or institutional collections.

Mad as it might seem to us today, “New Manhattan” was not merely a theoretical exercise, but was viewed a feasible solution to the challenges of limited space, high real estate values, and overpopulation in Manhattan. Thomson himself had impeccable credentials as an experienced architect with hundreds of major projects under his belt, and the United States of the era was infused with a brawny self confidence, perhaps best represented by Theodore Roosevelt and the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Further, there was fairly recent precedent for large-scale urban landfill projects, including the East River reclamation and Boston’s Back Bay. So plausible was the idea that as recently as January 14, 2022 Rutgers urban economist Jason Barr proposed a similar “New Mannahatta” Bar in a New York Times op-ed.

Despite garnering attention from national media and support from influential figures such as Thomas Edison, “New Manhattan” struggled to move beyond the planning stages. Promoted as a private initiative needing public approval, it became entangled in political maneuvering and public skepticism, exacerbated by the economic strains of the Great Depression. Thomson’s insistence on a private development model, aimed at keeping the project out of municipal control, eventually contributed to its downfall amidst accusations of potential corruption and elitism.

T. Kennard Thomson
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1864, Thomas Kennard Thomson was an eminent civil engineer whose professional life spanned the transformative early decades of the 20th century in New York City. His father was William Alexander Thomson, a Canadian MP, railroad executive, and avid promoter of western expansion. The younger Thomson pursued his higher education at the University of Toronto, eventually gaining a degree in Civil Engineering and a Doctorate of Science.

Thomson’s early career unfolded in Canada, where he contributed to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and later worked for the Dominion Bridge Company in Montreal. In 1889, he relocated to Brooklyn, New York, starting his American career with the Pencoyd Bridge Company of Pennsylvania. His tenure there was brief, as he soon departed to attend the Paris Exhibition with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Upon returning, Thomson embarked on a prolific career in civil engineering, contributing to the construction of over 50 skyscrapers and 200 bridges. His work in New York City is particularly notable, including projects like the Singer Building at 149 Broadway, the now-demolished Commercial Cable Building at 22-24 Broad Street Extension, the Government Assay Building at 40 Wall Street, the Mutual Life Building, and the Manhattan Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street. From 1914 to 1915 he served as one of five consulting engineers for the New York Barge Canal project, around which time he developed an ambitious proposal for a dam in the Whirlpool Rapids of Niagara Falls. Later in his career, he served as the chief engineer for Arthur Mullin, a contractor involved in several early Manhattan skyscrapers. He worked as a consulting engineer for New York City until a week before his death by stroke on July 1, 1952 at the age of 88.

In all two unique artifacts of an audacious early-20th century vision to remake New York City. Though the vision went unrealized, their historical value is considerable, not least for their reflection of the social, economic, and political complexities of early 20th-century New York.

Offered in partnership with Geographicus Antique Maps.