A crowded workday street scene in the 1950 city

January 18, 2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania.

But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a truncated Grand Central Terminal/42nd Street and Park Avenue Viaduct?

See the image closeup here; with such rich details, it’s easy to get lost in it.

[1stdibs.com]

An 1887 example of apartment living in Yorkville

January 18, 2021

The Upper East Side’s Yorkville neighborhood is dense with brownstones, tenements, and high-rise residences.

But hiding in the middle of all that stone and glass is one of New York City’s first-ever apartment buildings—an 1887 red-brick dowager with a combined name that harkens back to the German immigrants who began populating Yorkville in the late 19th century.

This early residence containing individual apartments is actually two buildings at Second Avenue and 89th Street, according to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. (The official address: 1716 and 1720 Second Ave.) The name of the two: the Kaiser and the Rhine.

“The Romanesque Revival buildings were named to evoke German nobility, and appeal to Yorkville’s middle class German residents,” stated the Friends in a 2020 newsletter.

The name also served as an homage to the Rhinelanders, the old New York family who developed the apartments. The Rhinelander family bought land in Yorkville in the early 19th century, and generations later cashed in when the enclave lost its rural feel and filled with people during the Gilded Age.

1929 map of the block between Second and First Avenues and 89th and 90th Streets, with the Kaiser and the Rhine on the lower left.

Their calculated attempt to appeal to German immigrants was crucial to making the apartments a success. Prior to the early 20th century, apartment living was a hard sell. Any New Yorker who could resided in their own single-family house, and only the poor or working class dwelled in separate units under one roof.

But by branding them “French” or “Parisian” flats and hiring prominent architects to design spacious, stately units, apartment buildings slowly began to catch on.

The first, The Stuyvesant Apartments, was designed in 1870 by Richard Morris Hunt on 18th Street near Gramercy Park. By the 1880s, a French Gothic apartment building had gone up on East 17th Street. The Dakota on the West Side, The Osborne on 57th Street, and the spectacular Navarro Flats on 59th Street were also filling up with tenants.

The Kaiser and the Rhine boasted refined architectural touches like large arched windows and balconies (plus a shared courtyard behind the building), but compared to the bells and whistles of the Navarro Flats, these apartments are relatively low-key.

It was the Rhinelander family’s second French Flats building in Yorkville; the first was the Queen Anne-style Manhattan, which still exists on Second Avenue and 86th Street.

With 134 years on this corner (and one disastrous fire in 1904, where firemen were credited with saving 40 women and children from a “flat house fire”), the combined Kaiser and Rhine is still a rental and blends into the neighborhood.

Empty storefronts on the first floor provide something of a ghostly feel, and it’s easy to walk past these apartments without noticing some of the 19th century architectural touches. But behind its exterior just might be the kind of large, light, airy homes New Yorkers always dream of inhabiting.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The violin over the door of a Turtle Bay mansion

January 18, 2021

Old New York City houses hold the most interesting clues—like this bas relief of an angel and horns. It sits over the doorway of 225-227 East 49th Street in Turtle Bay, a mostly brownstone block with the exception of this unusual Tudor-style building.

Now a carved up rental, it was once a single-family mansion…and the hint about its most famous occupant is inside this bas relief.

See the violin and musical notes? This is the former home of Efrem Zimbalist, the Russian-born violinist whose career spanned much of the 20th century. (If you aren’t familiar with him, you might have heard of his actor son, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., or his actress granddaughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.)

Zimbalist the musician moved into the house in 1926 with his wife, Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck. The letters under the bas relief confirm this: “Erected in the year 1926.”

Designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, “the 20-room house with its distinctive casement windows had fireplaces in almost every room, 11 bathrooms, stained glass door panels, and an Italian garden out back,” states Pamela Hanlon in her book Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“On the second floor a large music room featured dark wood floor-to-ceiling paneling, an ornately carved fireplace, and parquet floors.”

Interestingly, after Zimbalist moved out, the mansion actually served as the 17th precinct house for three years in the 1950s before the police got their own new building on East 51st Street, wrote Hanlon.

The NYPD didn’t remove the violin, and luckily, subsequent landlords have left it up as well—a tantalizing tipoff about the history of an unusual house. (At right, in 1927)

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.3278]

An early image of ice skaters in Central Park

January 11, 2021

The building of Central Park began in 1858. Later that year, the first section opened to the public: the “skating pond,” aka the Lake.

You’ve probably seen paintings and illustrations of 19th century New Yorkers ice skating in Central Park and on the ponds of Brooklyn. But this Currier & Ives lithograph (after a painting by Charles Parsons) might be the earliest.

In “Central-Park Winter, the Skating Pond,” it’s 1862, the middle of the Civil War. Yet the frozen pond is a scene of pure joy: couples in fancy skating outfits (yep, they were a thing) glided together, a rare opportunity for socially acceptable coed mingling.

Kids play, adults fall, a dog is getting in on the fun, and everyone is enthralled by the magic of the ice under Bow Bridge.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

For rent on the Upper West Side in the 1930s

January 11, 2021

Finding a relatively affordable apartment in a pricey Upper West Side building is no easy feat. But things appeared different in the late 1930s, as a peek at the real estate pages of the New York Times reveals.

The “for rent” section of the paper in August 1938 features dozens of oversize ads dripping with adjectives and images designed to lure tenants—and the vast majority of these ads are for elite Upper West Side addresses.

A combination of factors apparently led to a late 1930s glut of unrented units in the buildings constructed during the Upper West Side boom years of the early 20th century. The Depression must have been a factor, leading to an oversupply of luxury apartments developers were desperate to fill.

Taking a closer look at some of the ads offers an idea of what people were looking for from a New York City apartment in the 1930s—and it also proves that certain amenities never go out of style.

The Master Apartment Hotel ad (top image) is aimed at potential renters who want to “live in a home of art and culture,” with free “lectures and recitals.” One amenity is telling: “silent refrigeration.” Refrigerators became more common in homes in the 1930s, but maybe they sounded like jet engines?

This ad for both 450 West End Avenue and 5 Riverside Drive (second image) is designed for families with kids, and the real estate copy about the great schools is exactly what you’d find in an ad today. But about that second building overlooking the spectacular Schwab Mansion? Well, the mansion was torn down a decade later, so the view would have been of a demolition pit and construction site until a replacement went up.

I like the third ad, which covers five of the poshest buildings along the Central Park West of today. “Each building occupies an entire block and enjoys cool breezes and day-long sunshine,” the ad tells us. Clearly this is before air conditioning, and the cool breezes were a real selling point.

370 Riverside Drive was built in 1922, and the list of features—two and three baths, spacious closets, well managed—still have strong appeal. My favorite amenity is the “fine type tenants.” No riffraff here!

Twenty-plus blocks down Riverside Drive was number 100. Dropped living rooms, Venetian blinds, stall showers, concealed radiators, Kentile kitchen floors…and radio outlets!

Each of these buildings is still standing, and most (if not all) have been converted to co-ops and are part of protected historic districts. About the prices listed: unless otherwise indicated, I believe they cover an entire year.

[All ads are from the August 14, 1938 edition of the New York Times]

Old Penn Station’s women-only waiting room

January 4, 2021

The original Penn Station, opened in November 1910, had many things: a beautiful, spacious building, arcades for high-end stores, 21 tracks for arriving and departing trains…and separate waiting rooms for men and women.

Huh? I’d never come across this until I found this postcard of the women’s waiting room, via the NYPL Digital Collection. It sounds very strange to contemporary sensibilities, but apparently single-sex options for travelers existed.

“In addition to the main waiting room, there were separate waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and a smoking room off the men’s,” stated Jay Maeder in his 1999 book, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic 1898-1998.

This diagram of the original station shows the upper part of each single-sex waiting room. No word on when these were phased out, if ever, before the old station was torn down in 1963.

Interestingly, the city considered something similar around the same time as Penn Station opened: single-sex subway cars, so women didn’t have to be subjected to “brutes,” as this 1909 New York Times article about the possibility of female-only subway cars called them. That idea was ultimately abandoned.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia]

Fierce tigers and eagles on a 58th Street co-op

January 4, 2021

Midtown East is the land of elegant 1920s-era apartment houses: handsome buildings of 10, 11, maybe 12 stories that usually feature understated brick and limestone facades.

But 339 East 58th Street has something else going on: fierce creatures in cast stone above Medieval columns and decorative Romanesque arches.

Adorning this co-op, built in either 1920 or 1929 depending on the source (I’m betting on 1929), are two eagle figures standing ramrod straight like soldiers high above the canopied entrance.

Between these avian sentries are two tiger heads emerging from the brickwork just beneath the second floor windows.

I couldn’t find much information about the building and the backstory of the figures as well as the columns and arches surrounding the entrance.

Perhaps there’s no more significance than an architect tasked with creating yet another standard New York City apartment building while dreaming of Medieval Europe’s soaring cathedrals and castles and taking inspiration from illuminated manuscript pages.

Looking for traces of Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay

January 4, 2021

Imagine Manhattan Island in the late 1700s. Before it was divided into farms and estates, and before those farms and estates were bricked in and paved over by the end of the 19th century, it was mostly a place of untamed beauty—with woods, swamps, meadows, and streams.

Sunfish Pond illustration, via Patch

Tompkins Square Park was swampland, for example; Collect Pond near City Hall provided drinking water. A trout-filled brook called Minetta flowed through the Village until development diverted it underground. (Evidence of the brook can be seen beneath the lobby of the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue.)

And at today’s Park Avenue South and 31st Street was a blob-shaped body of water called Sunfish Pond, which older New Yorkers recalled in turn-of-the-century memoirs.

Sunfish Pond, lower right, on an 1867 map of the Ogden Farm

Sunfish Pond was “bounded by 31st and 33rd Streets and Madison and Lexington Avenues, fed by a stream rising between Sixth and Seventh Avenues at 44th Street, and flowing into the East River between 33rd and 34th Streets,” wrote Charles Haynes Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian.

Haswell noted that Sunfish Pond “was a favorite resort for skating,” well beyond the boundaries of the city when he was a boy in the early 19th century.

The stream from Kip’s Bay that fed Sunfish Pond in an 1840 map

Rufus Rockwell, author New York, Old and New, published in 1902, quotes a source who described Sunfish Pond as “famous for its eels, as well as sunfish and flounder.”

The source added that “the brook which fed it was almost dry in summer, but in times of freshet overflowed its banks and spread from the northern line of the present Madison Square to Murray Hill, more than once compelling those who lived along its lower course to resort to boats as the only means of reaching the avenue.”

Inclenberg, aka the Murray Estate

Sunfish Pond would have been located near Inclenberg, the estate owned by Robert Murray and Mary Lindley Murray (whose name now graces the neighborhood of Murray Hill). When the British invaded Manhattan at Kip’s Bay, soldiers may have stopped to drink from this spring-fed pond.

And when the road to the east, Eastern Post Road, became a route for stages running in and out of the city, travelers were known to break here for a rest, wrote Sergey Kadinsky in his 2016 book, Hidden Waters of New York City.

Peter Cooper, namesake of Cooper Union, Peter Cooper Village, and Cooper Square

The beginning of the end of Sunfish Pond was sparked by industry. Peter Cooper, who lived nearby, opened a glue factory on the edge of the pond, “amid clover fields and buttonwood trees,” according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

Cooper was a brilliant innovator and inventor in mid-19th century New York. “He also became a pioneer polluter: his factory so fouled the pond’s waters that it had to be drained and filled in 1839,” states Gotham. After that, it was a storage site for streetcars before becoming valuable real estate in an elite neighborhood.

Looking down Park Avenue toward what would have been Sunfish Pond two centuries ago.

Today, no trace of Sunfish Pond exists anywhere in Manhattan…except in century-old books published by memoirists and historians. But that shouldn’t stop you from standing at Park Avenue South and 31st Street and imaging skaters, fishers, farmers, travelers, and boats ferrying flooded New Yorkers across what was once a placid and peaceful body of water.

[Top image: via Patch; second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia]

A cigar box label’s charming New Year’s greeting

December 28, 2020

When I first saw this Happy New Year greeting, I thought Schumacher & Ettlinger must be a cigar company, with offices on 19th Street and Fourth Avenue, as the image states.

Instead, Schumacher & Ettlinger appear to be a lithography company that produced labels for cigar boxes. Makes sense based on their address; Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South today, of course) was in the city’s publishing and booksellers’ district…close to what became known as Booksellers’ Row in the 20th century.

The first box label carries the date 1893, and the second one doesn’t appear to have a copyright date. Whenever they were produced, I’m sure the person gifted with a box of cigars for the New Year was quite charmed.

[First image: MCNY 40.70.487; second image: MCNY 40.70.486]

The Lenox Hill carriage houses from a fairytale

December 28, 2020

There’s nothing like walking through Manhattan during Christmastime and coming upon a row of elfin former carriage houses that look like they were made out of gingerbread and belong in a holiday fairytale.

This “stable row,” as it was known in the late 19th century, is on East 69th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.

The north side of the street is home to several conjoined carriage houses of different architectural styles and sizes—but all with the traditional arched entryway to fit not just horses but the tall carriages they pulled.

It’s not Lenox Hill’s only row of carriage houses. As Upper Fifth Avenue became the city’s new millionaire mile during the Gilded Age, these new rich New Yorkers built not only resplendent mansions for themselves but decorative stables for their equipage and the workers who took care of them.

These wealthy owners wanted their stables nearby—but not so near that they had to smell and hear their horses. Other stable rows are on East 73rd Street and East 66th Street, and they tend to be east of Lexington Avenue (and thus closer to the tenements and elevated trains, not to mention on the other side of Park Avenue, where the New York Central Railroad had its tracks).

Number 147, the first in the row closest to Lexington, was built by a banker named Herbert Bishop in 1880, according to Christopher Gray a 2014 New York Times article, which delves into the backstories of some of the carriage houses on the block. Bishop lived on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street.

A dye company owner, Adolph Kuttroff, built numbers 153-157 a few years later, according to Gray. John Sloane, of the department family Sloanes (owners of the W.J. Sloane rug and furnishings store on Broadway and 19th Street), parked his vehicle and horses at 159.

“In 1896 came the most remarkable stable on the Upper East Side, when the streetcar millionaire Charles T. Yerkes, whose large house was at 69th and Fifth, had the otherwise little-known Frank Drischler design a three-story-high stable with a broad, double-height arch, gabled front at No. 149,” wrote Gray.

Number 161 has the initials “BB” in the keystone, notes the AIA Guide to New York City. Those initials are for William Bruce-Brown, brother of wealthy sportsman David Loney Bruce-Brown. His obituary says Bruce-Brown resided at 13 East 70th Street, but the Upper East Side Historical District Designation Report from 1981 says he lived in the upper floors of the stable.

George G. Heye, collector and founder of the Museum of the American Indian, owned number 167 (described as “plodding eclectic” by the AIA).

Horses and carriages (and their grooms and drivers) didn’t occupy these stables for much longer. By the teens, they started getting converted into garages for automobiles, then remade into living quarters for people—including Mark Rothko, who lived and had his studio in 157 until his death by suicide in 1970.

Lately, these Victorian, Georgian, and Romanesque stables have changed hands for big money. Art dealer Larry Gagosian sold number 147 for $18 million, according to 6sqfeet.

They’re remodeled, restored, and really, really pricey. But from the street you can imagine them as part of a fairy tale village, or the kind of delightful structures you find in a snow globe—very appropriate for the holiday season.

[Fourth photo: MCNY 1976 2013.3.2.716]