university of virginia
Downing Pier represents the significance of oysters as the conduit of time and reflection throughout history. Oysters tell the story of Thomas Downing, the owner of the most successful oyster restaurant in New York City in the mid 1800’s.
Oyster dives were very popular in African American neighborhoods in New York, therefore becoming the first Black industry in the city. Downing achieved this during the era of slavery as a former slave,
helping to rescue African Americans as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Oysters are a significant symbol of history, culture, politics, and now sustainability as they work to filter water and improve the health of marine life. The design of Downing Pier draws upon and pays respect to Thomas Downing’s story through the symbolism of its forms and
efforts to educate its visitors.
Downing Pier is a place for the New York City community and visitors to learn about this story and feel a sense of connection to the past. It is a place to engage with the waterfront and observe strategies for increasing coastal resilience, to relax, eat, meander, sit, play, entertain, and reflect.
Thomas Downing spent the first part of his life as a slave in Chincoteague Island, Virginia. He joined the army during the War of 1812 and traveled to Philadelphia, opening his first oyster dive when the war ended. Finally, Downing migrated to New York City.
Oysters were abundant and very cheap in New York City during this
era. “In the 19th century, oysters were New York’s original hot dog, a
democratic and universal food loved by people rich and poor, black and
The Thomas Downing Oyster House opened on 5 Broad St, which is now the corner of Broadway and Wall St. It was upscale, drawing many elite visitors such as politicians, lawyers, and socialites.
From 1825-1860, Thomas and his son George Downing were part of the
Underground Railroad, using their restaurant to help hide escaped slaves. Downing was very active in the abolitionist movement in NYC. When he died in 1866, the New York Chamber of Commerce closed for the day out of respect.
My approach was rooted in empathic design thinking, aiming to commemorate the remarkable life of Thomas Downing. The pier not only serves as a functional space but also as a testament to history, incorporating museum-like exhibits, an oyster cafe, an innovative oyster habitat for sustainability and coastal resilience, and interactive coastal classrooms, demonstrating commitment to a holistic and engaging design process.
Professor Elgin Cleckley