Posts Tagged ‘New York tenements’

Holdout tenements dwarfed by towering giants

October 24, 2013

Holdoutbuildings22ndst

Every so often on New York City streets you come across a faded old walkup or tenement that’s holding its own beside a gleaming tower or tall office building.

It’s hard not to be charmed by these little underdogs, whose owners likely turned down a hefty buyout offer for the property.

I love these two buddy tenements on Third Avenue and 22nd Street, once probably part of a late 19th century row of tenements that looked just like them.

New York is all about change, and lovely buildings are always being torn down to make way for something new.

Yet there’s something strangely satisfying about a massive 20-story co-op being forced to build around these two stragglers.

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On East 59th Street sits the well-maintained walkup below—squeezed between handsome 1920s residences that are at least six times the little building’s height.

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Also in the East 50s is this little guy—a fire-engine red old-school walkup wedged against a 20+ story apartment building, with other apartment residences casting cold shadows over it on its right and from behind.

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What’s it like to live in an architectural relic—left behind from an older, smaller-scale New York—that refused to budge as the city marched forward?

Mysterious male names over tenement doorways

May 13, 2013

Ever notice that when a tenement building has a name, it tends to be female? Bertha, Florence, Rose, Sylvia—names popular at the turn of the last century, when so many tenements were built, are etched above doorways all over the city.

But a handful of tenements buck the trend and appear to be named for a man. Is it the developer himself, or just a random name that happen to appeal to circa-1900 ears?

Jerometenementname

I wonder if that’s the case with Jerome. It’s the name of a tenement in Morningside Heights, perhaps a nod to Leonard Jerome, a flashy 19th century financier whose name still graces a park and thoroughfare in the Bronx? He’s also the grandfather of Winston Churchill.

Theodoretenementname

Theodore, on the Upper East Side, could be a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt. Or the builder’s son or brother?

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The Roger, on 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in Washington Heights, is named for Roger Morris, a British army colonel who fought in the French and Indian War.

In the 1760s, he retired to an Upper Manhattan estate (now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion) that still stands today.

Edgarcourttenementname

I don’t know who Edgar was or why a tenement on West 125th Street was named for him. But instead of the name being carved above the door, it’s laid in tile on the floor.

The cross streets carved into tenement corners

December 3, 2012

Hiding in plain sight in the city’s tenement districts are the names of streets that intersect at certain corners.

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Chiseled into a cement plate, they’re the 19th and early 20th century solution to figuring out where you were a 100 or so years before the GPS on your phone could do it for you.

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Not always in the best condition, like this East Harlem example above, these corner carvings are charming and fun to come across.

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The best neighborhoods to find them: the Lower East Side, East Village, Hell’s Kitchen, East Harlem, and the brownstone enclaves of Brooklyn.

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Sometimes you only find one street name—Like Mott Street here at Broome Street, with a tiny T that looks like it was added by hand!

Street names carved into neigborhood corners

August 9, 2012

This street address in Hell’s Kitchen, on a traditional turn-of-the-century tenement building, looks like it was meant to last.

Over in Brooklyn Heights though, this one is faded and weathered; you can barely make out the T at the end of the “ST” on both sides.

It too is on a red brick building, but this one was probably a private home for a well-to-do family.

Many old city neighborhoods still have these street name carvings, like the East Village, the Lower East Side, and this beauty in Tribeca.

Faded street signage of an older Manhattan

May 24, 2012

On a rundown tenement in Harlem, this street address affixed to the building as kind of a scroll is a bit of random loveliness and a reminder of a more fanciful city.

The other corner should have one that says “Fourth Avenue,” the old name for Park Avenue, where this residence is located.

It’s awfully hard to see this faded cross street carving, found on the Soho-Tribeca border. Look closely and you can make out “Greenwich S.” and “Spring S.”

The curious case of two neighboring tenements

May 24, 2012

Did these two buildings, on Third Avenue near 57th Street, start out as twins?

They’re about the same size and width, and it makes sense that both began their life a hundred years ago or so as typical five-story walkup tenements, the kind New York is famous for.

Unfortunately at some point—the 1950s? 1960s?—the one on the left underwent a serious facelift and had its lovely windows and ground-floor space modernized and uglified.

The only old photo I could find captures the building on the right—a classic Berenice Abbott shot from 1936, when the ground level of this now-restored beauty housed an antique shop.

[Photo link courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery]

The solitary view “From Williamsburg Bridge”

November 21, 2011

“‘From Williamsburg Bridge’ is a city scene without noise or motion,” explains a page devoted to this 1928 Edward Hopper painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

It looks like the Delancey Street approach to the bridge, a row of tenement tops that may still be there today.

“The light on the buildings is bright and steady, and the only person visible is a woman sitting in profile in a top-floor window,” states the Met site.

“The broad format of this painting implies the continuation of the scene beyond the limits of the canvas: we can imagine the street, the girders of the nearby bridge, and perhaps other, identical brownstone buildings with solitary tenants lost in reverie.”

Scary posters aimed at 1930s tenement dwellers

November 9, 2011

The 1930s and 1940s seem to be the dawn of the public-health poster—those often corny and over-the-top reminders to wash your hands, eat healthier meals, stop spitting, learn to swim, even get tested for gonorrhea and syphilis.

Created by Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project artists between 1936 and 1943, they’re little gems offering insight into the urban health issues that preoccupied the era.

One common target for department of health bureaucrats was the overcrowded, airless tenement apartments still home to so many New Yorkers.

These two posters drive the point home pretty well. Clutter and trash on fire escapes contributed to fire, and unsanitary conditions helped spread disease and contribute to infant mortality.

Check out more New York City WPA posters at this Library of Congress link.

The strange and scary faces of Chelsea

June 15, 2011

Every city neighborhood has its share of fascinating figures and faces carved into buildings.

But the ones staring out from the 19th century tenements of Chelsea have got to be some of the oddest.

On some blocks, it seems like every other residence has a few—like this woman at left, on 21st Street off Seventh Avenue, with vacant eyes and fruit around her neck.

This mustached man (top right) peers down from a doorway on 22nd Street off Seventh Avenue.

The grayish-blue head (at right) is also from the same stretch of 22nd Street. His wide eyes and open mouth give the impression that he’s frozen in fear.

I love the helmet-clad soldier who looks to at his head-scarfed partner across the facade of a 22nd Street building. They’ve been meeting each other’s eyes for probably a century.

New York’s distinctive tenement tiles

July 2, 2008

The city is filled with them: 6-story walkup “new-law” tenement buildings, usually four or six apartments per floor with the stairwell in the middle. Built in the early years of the 20th century after the 1901 Tenement House Act was passed, they were a vast improvement over the “old-law” tenements that didn’t always have ventilation, water, or indoor toilets.

They all seem to have one decorative feature in common: colored tile patterns in the lobby and on each stairwell landing. I’ve lived in a few of these buildings, and I often wonder if the patterns are symbols of some kind. Probably not; perhaps the builders simply wanted to give these solid, no-nonsense structures a small, ornamental touch.

 

A tenement lobby on Bank Street, above, and a 5th-floor landing on 13th Street. What do these similar-yet-slightly-different patterns mean?

 


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