Thomassons: Those Peculiar Architectural Relics That Serve No Purpose

August 28, 2014

We’ve all seen them. They’re those weird outcrops, stairs, doors and out of place architectural adornments that just have us going “Whaa?” As it turns out, these urban vestiges that serve absolutely no purpose have a name. They’re called “Thomassons.”

Inspired by the recent the Roman Mars 99% Invisible podcast which talked about the urban phenomenon, we decided to scope out some of the Thomassons around New York. What we uncovered is pretty amusing.


To give you a bit more context, the term “Thomasson” was actually coined by Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa. Back in 1972, Akasegawa came across a lone staircase that went up and then back down but had no door at the top. But then he noticed something even stranger: the railing had recently been fixed. With an eyebrow raised, the artist started seeing these oddities all over the city and started publishing them in a weekly magazine column with a few words describing what he found. Others who followed Akasegawa musings started sending him their own images, and in 1985 Akasegawa published a book of these photographs and writings, in which he called “Thomassons.” His criteria for inclusion was pretty simple. He asked: 1. Was the object at hand completely and utterly useless?; and 2. Was it being maintained?

The word “Thomasson” itself can be traced back to Gary Thomasson, an American baseball player who was traded to Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. Thomasson was paid a handsome sum for a two-year contract, but failed to perform as his managers had hoped. As a result, he was benched for most his contract; In the eyes of Akasegawa, Thomasson was both “useless” and “maintained.”

And now on to the Thomassons we found around New York….

brooklyn thomasson, new york thomasson, thomassons, architecture thomassonsImage © Matthew Fargo via Hyperart: Thomasson

Thomasson #1:

The buyers of this home managed to scoop up the entire property located in Brooklyn Heights. Rather than keeping the entryway at street level, they stripped away the stoop and used the basement as their main ingress. We personally love how they tried to hide their architectural shame with a planter, and funny enough, in an attempt to cover up the Thomasson, the door was repurposed. As Matthew Fargo, the photographer and founder of Hyperart: Thomasson, so aptly states:

…what they hadn’t realized was that, in masking over the Thomasson with a flower box, they had essentially necessitated its use all over again. You see: the flowers had to be watered. This beautiful old doorway, which had been sealed up for all eternity, now had to be opened on a regular basis, in order to water the flowers inside the box. Which means that this double-door entryway exists for the sole purpose of allowing the residents of #532 to water their flowers. And why are the flowers there in the first place? To cover up the fact that the doors are a Thomasson. It’s like a self-perpetuating Thomassonian uroboros. Like holding up a mirror in front of another mirror. And what do you see in this infinite hall of reflection? The spectre of Gary Thomasson, I suppose.

thomassons, thomassons brooklyn, thomassons bushwick, thomassons new york, bushwick architecture, weird row house in bushwickImage © Jonathan Wing

Thomasson #2:

Like the Brooklyn Heights home above, this Bushwick row house was also altered to bring the main entrance to the basement level. In this case, it was most likely done to squeeze out a few more units on the first level, and as you can see, not much was done to mask the foible.

brooklyn thomasson, new york thomasson, thomassons, architecture thomassons, queens thomasson, stairs to nowhere

Thomasson #3:

Brooklyn Imbecile spotted these stairs leading to nowhere in Long Island City, Queens. But if you think this is a head scratcher, things only got weirder. The blogger returned to the scene just weeks later only to find that a brand new handrail had been installed. Now, whoever dare take this pointless journey will at least be doing so safely.

brooklyn thomasson, new york thomasson, thomassons, architecture thomassons, queens thomasson, stairs to nowhereImages © Brooklyn Imbecile



carroll gardens tree, thomasson treeImage © Yasmin Elayat via Hyperart: Thomasson

Thomasson #4:

Once the guard of a young sapling in Carroll Gardens, today this fence has pretty much been absorbed by the tree it once defended. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the only reason why it hasn’t completely toppled over into a rusty pile of metal. Useless? Check. Maintained? Check. Classic Thomasson.

former chelsea warehouse thomasson, former chelsea warehouse, thomassons nyc, thomassons new yorkImage © Caroline Park via Hyperart: Thomasson

Thomasson #5:

This is a common sight—especially in Chelsea where old industrial buildings have been converted into commercial space for swanky boutiques. Though the warehouse space looks like it’s been adapted to accommodate a high-end dress shop, a staircase rail still remains without any stairs in sight. As for the doors, photographer Caroline Park suspects they’ve been completely sealed up and painted over to go incognito.

thomasson-bricked-over-window-fort-greeneImage © 6sqft

Thomasson #6:

Another familiar sight found across the boroughs are windows that have been all bricked up as a result of changing floor plans and designated use. The original window pediment on this Fort Greene building remains intact and appears to be pretty well kept, definitely getting a few washes of paint over the last few years.

Pier 54 archway, pier 54 demolishedThe Pier 54 archway. Image via Wiki Commons

Thomasson #7:

Do you recognize this archway on the West Side? This relic was originally part of Pier 54—one of a set of piers that made up Chelsea Piers. Pier 54’s claim to fame is its association to Pier 59, the pier that was supposed to welcome the Titanic had it survived its maiden voyage. Pier 54 was demolished in 1991 to make way for the West Side Highway, but ultimately remained an open air space that eventually became part of the Hudson River Park. The archway is the only identifiable remnant pointing to what formerly sat on the site.

gary thomasson

Want more Thomasson? You can listen to the full 99% podcast and/or learn more about Akasegawa Genpei’s book on Thomassons in the video below. And if you know of any other Thomassons in the city, holler at us in the comments and we’ll add it to our collection above!

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