Exploring on the sidewalks of New York

Tourist who ask about the best way to see and appreciate New York should take a walk. That's not bad advice because although the city is one of vast proportions, many of its most interesting sights are clustered in neighborhoods that can easily be covered on foot.

In the spring, summer, and fall a gamut of guided walking tours in each of the five boroughs are available for those willing to hit the pavement. At any time of year there are maps and brochures available on self-guided tours. While many of the walks encompass those popular areas that most tourists head for anyway, others venture into unlikely but nevertheless fascinating places that aren't in the guidebooks.

For examples, guidebooks don't mention Tribeca (meaning "triangle below Canal Street"), a commercial district in the shadow of City Hall and the World Trade Center, as a place for sightseeing. But to the Friends of cast-iron Architecture, who gives walks of the area each spring and fall, it is prime territory in which to explore splendid example of 19th-century cast-iron buildings.

On the Sunday afternoon last spring when I went along on the Tribeca tour, our band of walkers, each sporting a small yellow pin proclaiming us to be friends of cast-iron architecture, were almost the only traffic along the dingy, litterstrewn streets. But although our surrounding at eye level were bleak; they were grand and palatial (albeit a fadedm grand and palatial) when we glanced upward at the ornate iron facades towering above. Neglected and often in sad disrepair, the Victorian structures still retain their classic columns embellished by fanciful moldings shaped as rope, lion's heads, fleurs-de-lis, fans, eagles, and curlicues of infinite varieties.

Our guide, an architect from Connecticut, explained that most of the buildings were erected in the mid-19th century from pre-fabricated parts made at cast-iron foundries. Far cheaper than stone or marble, factory owners had the parts assembled into buildings, and then painted them in buff-colored tones to look as though they were stone or marble.One of the buildings on the tour is by the pioneer of cast-iron architecture himself -- James Bogardus who used the structure at 85 Leonard Street as his warehouse. The top of his building is a riot of detail -- twisted rope, faceted keystones, an egg-and-dart-trim, stylized water leaves, corbel blocks, and, above them all, bearded faces.

The Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, which for the past the years has been dedicated to educating the public about the value of old cast-iron buildings, don't limit their walking tours to Tribeca. During spring and fall the group also conducts walking tours of SoHo which has the world's greatest concentration of cast-iron dating from 1860 to 1890. Here the buildings are in somewhat betters shape as many have been taken over by artists who have converted them into galleries and living space.

Another of their tours is of the Ladies' Shopping Mile, an area extending from Grace Church to 23rd Street, where New York's most fashionable department stores did business from 1870 to World War I. Some of these stores, the old Lord & Taylor and B. Altman among them, are splendid examples of cast-iron erected on a grand scale. And in Central Park the group gives tours which focus on the fanciful cast-iron bridges that grace certain corners of the park.

All of the tours cost $2.50 and require no reservations. Further information is available by contacting the Friends of Cast-iron Architecture, Room 6C, 235 East 87th Street, New York, N.Y. 10028, (212) 369-6004. An excellent primer for the tours is the book "Cast-Iron Architecture in New York," by Margot gayle and Edmund V. Gillon JR. (Dover Publications, $6.95).

Walking tours that show off the history and variety of the city are given by the Museum of the City of New York during certain Sunday afternoons from May through October. The six different tours offered are of Brooklyn Heights, Murray Hill, Upper Fifth Avenue, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and Madison Square-Gramercy Park. This last is entitled "The World of Edith Wharton" and explores the author's birthplace, the church where she was married, the Stanford White-designed Players Club, and where baseball was first played. Further information about the $4 tours that require no reservations may be had the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10029, (212) 534-1672.

Those who prefer to walk at their own pace -- with a brochure as guide -- might want to try the Heritage Trail, which winds of three miles around the historic sites of lower Manhattan. Along this trail is some of the city's vintage architecture, including the Georgian-style Cith Hall, Trinity Church, and the Woolworth Building which, until 1930, was the tallest building in the world. A chunk of the trail goes through the heart of the bustling financial district where walkers can stop at the New York Stock Exchange, the Bank of New York, and the Federal Reserve Bank/Chamber of Commerce which houses a splendid portrait collection.

Con Edison, New York's supplier of electric power, has published a handy booklet called "Where They Lit Up New York" with detailed directions for a walking tour of the area surrounding 257 Pearl Street, where Thomas Edison first set up Business. The one-square-mile walk takes in many of the same sites on the Heritage Trail, but also goes by others such as Nevelson Plaza with its seven free-standing, abstract sculptures by Louise Nevelson, and Golden Hill which, on Jan. 18, 1770, was the site of a battle between British soldiers and American colonists.

Both the Heritage trail and Con Edison brochures -- as well as information on other tours -- are available from the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, 90 E. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10017. (212) 687-1300.

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