Archive for the ‘Cool building names’ Category

The world’s tallest building for one year only

March 17, 2014

Opened in 1908, the slender, elegant Singer Tower, headquarters of the sewing machine company, rose more than 40 stories over Broadway and Liberty Street.

A marvel in its day, it spent one year as the tallest building in the world, only to be usurped by the Metropolitan Life Tower on 23rd Street in 1909.

Singertowerpostcard

Tourists paid 50 cents to visit its 40th floor observation deck. It was prominently featured in postcards, like this one above.

SingertowerLOCSixty years later, it met the wrecking ball.

“High above the intersection of Broadway and Liberty Street yesterday, a demolition torch blazed against the hazy sky as a steelworker cut into a beam on the tallest building ever to be demolished,” reported The New York Times on March 27, 1968.

“Yesterday the lobby looked as if a bomb had hit it. The Italian-marble surfacing and the bronze medallions with the Singer monogram were stripped from many columns and were being offered for sale.

“Holes pocked the elaborately sculptured pendentives that support the series of domes forming the ceiling. Plaster flaked onto a floor strewn with wood, shattered brick and discarded coffee cups.”

Central Park West’s most enchanting apartments

March 17, 2014

SturbantallThe wonderful thing about New York is that you can pass a building hundreds of times before discovering its magic.

Which is how, on a rainy late afternoon with just a slant of sunlight left in the sky, I discovered the beauty of the Beaux-Arts gem the St. Urban.

It’s a 12-story apartment house at 89th Street, one of many French flat–style residences built in an almost unbroken line along Central Park West at the turn of the last century.

The building’s neighbors, the Dakota and the San Remo, are perhaps more flamboyant. The St. Urban’s beauty is more understated, and it stands today as an elegant throwback—described in one book as a “splendid anachronism” of gracious, Gilded Age living.

SturbancherubFacing the park is a porte-cochere—a magnificent recessed carriage entrance—illuminated by golden globes affixed to the limestone entrance.

The St. Urban’s sloping mansard roof and dormer windows give it a castle-like feel, which is underscored by its rounded, domed tower crowned with a copper lantern.

I’m not the only one enchanted by the St. Urban. In 2001, writer Andre Aciman had this to say about the building, in a New York Times Magazine issue that focused on the specialness of New York City.

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“As with Monet’s portraits of the Rouen cathedral, does the St. Urban stir so many images that changing the season, the cast of light or time of day changes the building as well?,” wrote Aciman.

Sturbanwiki

“All I know is that something in me is forever grafted here—which is why I dare not think of the city without this building, or of me without this city, or of this building without me.”

A downtown street once called “Newspaper Row”

February 27, 2014

In the late 19th century—before media companies concentrated in Midtown and the Chelsea/Flatiron area—the short stretch of Park Row next to City Hall was New York’s media neighborhood, dubbed Newspaper Row.

Newspaperrow

Newspaper Row was home to major dailies such as the domed New York World, the New York Tribune, and the Sun (the little building between the World and the Tribune). The New York Times‘ headquarters stood on the other side of the Tribune.

Why Park Row? To be near the action at City Hall and close to NYPD Headquarters and the courts.

As the city marched northward, so did the newspaper headquarters: to new enclaves named for them, like Herald Square and Times Square.

The Rockefeller Center that never came to be

January 23, 2014

Rockefeller Center is a symbol of 20th century New York City: a 14-building Art Deco icon  that’s crawling with tourists and office workers.

Metropolitansquare1928But the complex there today wasn’t the original city within a city that John D. Rockefeller Jr. envisioned for 49th to 50th Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

In 1928, the plaza surrounded by towering buildings was to be called “Metropolitan Square” (right).

Anchoring it would be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, then located in an 1880s theater on no-longer-trendy Broadway and 39th Street.

MetoperahouseproposalurbanRockefeller offered land at the site to the Met for free; they simply had to raise the funds for a new theater. (One proposal by architect Joseph Urban is at left.)

A deal was set . . . and then the stock market collapsed in 1929. The Met backed out.

“Although the Rockefellers were also hit by ‘Black Tuesday,’ losing half their fortune, the 54-year-old heir managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans,” stated the website for PBS’s American Experience.

“In the absence of an opera building, [Rockefeller] envisioned a commercial development for the site. . . . Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers.”

[Below, what the neighborhood looked like before it was torn down and replaced by glitzy skyscrapers and office space, from the MCNY]

Rockefellercenterbefore1930

By 1939, construction finished on the last building. “The vertical thrust of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies,” explained PBS’ American Experience.

The elegant artist studios overlooking Bryant Park

January 9, 2014

Artists have always had a tough time finding bright, generous, inexpensive studio and exhibition space in New York.

Bryantparkstudiobuilding2013So in the flourishing city of the late 19th century—with the population bursting and Manhattan filling up in every direction—studio buildings that were specifically designed for artists began appearing.

One 12-story studio building constructed in 1900-1901 still stands on Sixth Avenue and 40th Street, at the southwest corner of the recently renamed Bryant Park (until the 1880s, it had been known as Reservoir Square).

The Bryant Park Studios Building is a lovely structure where Edward Steichen, Fernand Leger, Irving Penn, and other painters and sculptors took advantage of double-height windows and northern light.

BryantparkstudiobuildingearlyToday, it’s hard to imagine traffic-choked midtown Manhattan as an artists’ neighborhood.

But the light a century ago was uninterrupted, and new studio buildings had also gone up on West 57th Street—making it an “artistic center,” notes this 1988 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

Who had the money to fund such a lovely building? A Paris-trained American artist named A.A. Anderson, who had married into wealth. He explained why he constructed the studio building in his autobiography, excerpted in the NPC report:

“My business friends said it was a foolish thing to erect so expensive a studio building in what was then the ‘Tenderloin District,’” he wrote.

Bryantparkstudiobuilding70s“‘But I wanted the best, since it is usually the best or the poorest who pays.’”

By the middle of the 20th century, the building was repurposed for fashion industry showrooms, though one artist hung on to space she had first occupied decades earlier and had it at least into the 1990s.

[Middle photo: an early photo of the building, with nothing in its way and the gritty Sixth Avenue El on the right.]

[Bottom photo: It looks like this was taken in the 1970s; the Bryant Park Studio Building is still lovely, but boxed in from the side and behind.]

A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street

December 16, 2013

HenryphippsTurn of the century New York had many millionaires. Some built Fifth Avenue palaces for themselves, while others invested part of their fortune in better housing for others.

Henry Phipps did both. A steel magnate with a Fifth Avenue mansion, Phipps constructed model tenements—cleaner, more livable multi-family residences than the typical city tenement, which was a hastily constructed firetrap packing many people in airless rooms.

“I shall like the buildings to have all the light and air possible; to have them fire-proof and thoroughly sanitary, and so far as possible, to have spaces around them in which the children could play,” he said, according to a 1905 New York Times article.

Phippshousesmcny2

This wasn’t a charity; Phipps put up the money hoping for at least a minimal return on his million-dollar investment, which he planned to use to build more tenements.

The first Phipps model tenement went up two years later at 325 to 335 East 31st Street. About 150 apartments housed 800 residents, who enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside (rather than a filthy air shaft).

PhippsbrochurenyplBy 1912, two more Phipps buildings were built on West 63rd and West 64th Streets; they were occupied mostly by black New Yorkers in what was then an African-American neighborhood called San Juan Hill.

Why only three Phipps houses in Manhattan, especially when two out of three residents lived in a traditional tenement, and better housing was desperately needed?

Perhaps because the market-rate rents ended up attracting middle-class residents, and working-class and poor people were priced out—one reason other model tenements didn’t last long either

The two West Side Phipps tenements still stand, but the 31st Street complex was demolished decades ago.

[Middle photo: Museum of the City of New York; bottom: NYPL Digital Collection]

New York’s most spectacular apartment building

December 7, 2013

Incredible, right? Called the Navarro Flats, this massive fortress of Gilded-Age extravagance was built on Central Park South at Seventh Avenue in the mid-1880s.

Navarronypl

Twice the size of the Dakota, the Navarro Flats was also early example of apartment-style living. At the time, most New Yorkers of means still preferred living in a single brownstone or townhouse.

But “French Flats” were catching on, and the developer, Jose Francisco de Navarro, expected to make a mint selling luxury apartments to new-money New Yorkers.

Navarroapartments

He spared no expense. The seven-bedroom duplexes had as much as 7,000 square feet of floor space, including a drawing room, library, and billiards room (but only two bathrooms per apartment).

Navarroflats2Each $20,000 duplex was part of one of eight townhouses within the complex, an arrangement thought to make the idea of apartment life more palatable, reports Nathan Silver’s Lost New York.

So why isn’t such a spectacular mishmash of Queen Anne and Gothic architecture there anymore?

Some apartments sold, but mostly, New Yorkers didn’t bite. In 1888, de Navarro was fending off lawsuits from mortgage holders, and the enormous complex met with foreclosure.

By the 1920s, it was gone–replaced by newer luxury residences the Hampshire House and Essex House.

[Middle Photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

Two top 1930s attractions at Rockefeller Center

December 7, 2013

RockcenteroysterbarNo no no, not the Christmas tree, ice skating rink, or the observation deck.

According to this vintage matchbook cover, visitors should check out the tobacco shop as well as the Gateway Restaurant Oyster bar and Cafe.

Both are in the RCA Building—not the GE Building, as it’s called today. The matches look like they date to the 1940s.

A New York Times article from 1934, not long after RCA Building first opened in 1933, reports that the restaurant would have “a forty-foot oyster bar” occupying two shops on the ground floor and the basement.

Rockcentermatchbook

Matchbook covers were once fantastic venues for advertising. Check out these holiday-themed beauties from 1930s New York restaurants.

The most beautiful Duane Reade in New York City

October 14, 2013

Duanereade30springstreet2A Duane Reade store originally designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert?

It’s hard to believe. Gilbert is the genius who gave New York the Woolworth Building, the New York Life Tower, and other spectacular structures from the dawn of the skyscraper age.

But it exists, at the corner of Spring and Lafayette Streets, inside a repurposed East River Savings Bank building Gilbert designed in 1927.

The interior space is stunning, especially if you’re used to Duane Reade’s usual bad lighting and low ceilings.

Eastriversavingsbank3

Here are detailed ceilings, vintage chandeliers, a lovely old clock above the door, and a brass staircase to the lower level.

Eastriversavingsbankclock

References to the building’s past as a financial institution are mostly wiped away, with the exception of the stenciling on the exterior, between the front door and the subway entrance on Spring Street.

Eastriversavingsbankstairs

The lettering is faint, but you can just make out “cassette di sicurezza.”

Eastriversavingsbanklettering

Google translate tells me this means “safety deposit boxes” in Italian—the first language of many neighborhood residents, as Spring and Lafayette Streets would have been squarely in Little Italy territory.

Check out some other old city buildings whose original tenants departed—and now are occupied by very different businesses.

Garment District ghosts on New York buildings

October 3, 2013

From 19th century seamstresses sewing piecemeal to factory floors with rows of sewing machines mass producing clothes, New York’s garment industry has had a huge impact on the city’s culture and finances.

Spinningwheelbuildingsign

And its ghosts pop up even outside the midtown boundaries of the Garment District—like the Spinning Wheel Building on West 22nd Street.

“This splendid structure was erected between fifteen and twenty years ago by Jas. McCutcheon & Co., the well known linen retail concern. . . .” a 1917 guidebook tells us.

Americanthreadcosign

There’s also the American Thread Company building, an 11-story loft on West Broadway in Tribeca converted to co-ops in the 1980s.

Lovely, right? Originally it was the headquarters for the Wool Exchange Building, opened in 1896 before undergoing is name change in 1907.


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