The spooky spider web windows on 57th Street

September 30, 2022

The scary season is upon us, and Halloween-loving New York City residents are decorating their front stoops, windows, and terraces with witches, skeletons, and spider webs. But one East Side apartment building flaunts cast-iron spider webs across its front windows all year long.

The spider web windows are at 340 East 57th Street, a 16-story vision of prewar elegance between First and Second Avenues. Look closely at the service door above: this web has a black spider sitting in it, waiting and watching. It looks particularly Halloween-like with the orangey glow from the inside light.

The building’s architect, Rosario Candela, was one of the legendary designers of Manhattan’s most exclusive residences in the 1920s. I’ve posted about this building before, and I still don’t know if he had a hand in creating those spider web window guards.

If so, I appreciate Candela’s sense of spooky playfulness. Also playful but not quite spooky: the whimsical seahorse reliefs below the second-story windows.

This decaying building was Central Harlem’s first apartment house

September 30, 2022

Apartment living was still a strange new concept to New Yorkers in the Gilded Age. But that didn’t stop developers from turning Seventh Avenue between West 55th Street and Central Park South into Gotham’s first luxury apartment house district.

Opening their doors to elite tenants between 1879 and 1885 were spectacular residences like the Van Corlear, the Wyoming, the Navarro Flats, the Ontiora, and the Osborne. (Only the latter two are still standing, unfortunately.)

The Washington Apartments

A few miles north, Seventh Avenue (now known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) in Central Harlem was also transforming into an apartment house district in the 1880s. Rather than hoping to lure very wealthy residents, developers in Harlem were aiming for a more middle- to upper-middle class clientele.

“Between the 1870s and 1910 Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of record numbers of new single-family row houses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1993.

From 122nd Street

Much of this new housing was intended for the emerging class of professionals who desired quality homes within easy commuting distance of the city’s main business and shopping districts. With three elevated train lines extending to 129th Street, and electricity and phone service set to arrive by the end of the decade, Harlem was moving from a sparsely populated enclave to a fully urbanized part of the metropolis.

One financier who profited from this speculative development in Harlem was Edward H.W. Just. Born in Germany, Just came to New York in the 1830s and co-founded the Just Brothers Fine Shirt manufacturing company. By the 1880s and 1890s, the company had stores on Ladies’ Mile—the Gilded Age city’s premier shopping district from Broadway to Sixth Avenue between 10th and 23rd Streets.

The Washington Apartments are on the right, recognizable thanks to its pediment

Just began investing in real estate in Harlem, purchasing land on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 122nd Street. He hired Mortimer C. Merritt—an independent architect who designed Hugh O’Neill’s Sixth Avenue department store, with its signature beehive domes—to draw plans for an apartment house.

“Edward Just was concerned about providing solid middle-class housing in Harlem and was an advocate of the large apartment house, a building type which in 1883 had only recently begun to gain popularity and enough cache to be acceptable to New York’s middle class,” states the LPC report.

Washington Apartments, 1940

Construction commenced in 1883, and one year later the building was completed. A harmonious, eight-story Queen Anne creation of red and light brick, stone, and terra cotta as stunning as any Midtown apartment house, the Washington Apartments was the first apartment residence in Central Harlem.

Thirty families made the new building, with its signature triangular pediment, their home. “The occupants included doctors, lawyers, bankers, public accountants, and builders, many of whom had servants who lived with them,” per the LPC Report. “A number of residents had offices in lower Manhattan and were able to live in Harlem and conveniently commute to work because of the recently constructed elevated railroad.”

The LPC doesn’t specify the ethnic backgrounds of these middle-class residents, but one can assume these were white New Yorkers. Central Harlem’s transition into a predominantly African American district didn’t begin until the early 1900s.

“The real estate bubble burst in 1904-1905 when people realized that no one was sure when the subway line would be completed, and that too many apartment buildings had been created, and there was not enough demand—and even if there was demand the rents were too high for most people to afford,” states CUNY’s Macauley Honors College. “Thus to avoid losing the investment, some landlords allowed blacks to move into the neighborhoods and pay high rents, as was the norm for black tenants in the city.”

The ethnic makeup of the residents of the Washington Apartments, however, remained the same until the 1920s. “With all the changes occurring nearby, the Washington Apartments maintained its white, middle-class residents through the 1920s,” per the LPC report. “Interior changes made from 1915 through 1920 did, however, create smaller apartments so that the building, which had been constructed to house 30 families in 1883, was home to 63 families and a restaurant in 1932.”

Over the next decades, ownership of the Washington Apartments changed hands several times, allowing the building to fall into disrepair. In 1977, the city of New York purchased the almost 100-year-old dowager. “Rehabilitation began in the late 1980s,” the LPC report says.

No longer owned by the city these days, the Washington Apartments desperately need another rehabilitation. CBS News aired a report in early September on the building’s broken locks, nonworking security cameras, vandalism, and elevator problems, among other troubling issues. The residents of this early apartment house, which influenced the development and feel of Central Harlem and was landmarked by the city in 1993, deserve better.

[Third image: MCNY, F2011.33.1577; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collections]

The short life of the multi-family Tiffany mansion on Madison Avenue

September 26, 2022

In 1882, Charles Lewis Tiffany decided to build an enormous new residence for himself and his family.

The early years of the mansion, almost alone in the wilds of the Upper East Side

This wouldn’t be unusual for a rich, prominent merchant in Gilded Age New York City. Tiffany was that Tiffany, the man who launched a stationary and fine goods shop in 1837 that soon grew to become the internationally famous jewelry store.

What might have seemed odd was the location Tiffany chose for his family castle. Rather than gravitating toward Fifth Avenue just below Central Park, where other elite new money New Yorkers were building elegant homes, Tiffany planned his mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street—a mostly empty stretch of Manhattan that had yet to fulfill its destiny as a wealthy residential enclave.

The Tiffany mansion between 1900-1910, with more neighbors on Madison Avenue

Perhaps he had an affinity for Madison Avenue; Tiffany lived at 255 Madison near 38th Street at the time. Or it may have been an opportunity to “procure a large footprint of land on a wide cross street, ensuring not only extra light but also ample southern exposure,” wrote Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen in Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall.

Tiffany hired McKim, Mead & White to design what would be one of the largest dwelling houses in New York, even by Gilded Age standards. Working closely with Stanford White in particular was Charles Tiffany’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Louis had studied painting before becoming an innovative and acclaimed decorative artist-craftsman and starting Tiffany Studios, “renowned for pottery, jewelry, metalwork and, especially, stained glass,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times piece.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, far left; Charles Tiffany is in the center holding Louis’ kids in 1888

The mansion, completed in 1885, was a 57-room showstopper that dwarfed its few neighbors. There was another unusual aspect to it: the gigantic house was actually three separate residences for separate Tiffany family members.

“The first, on the first and second floors, was frequently said to be for Charles, but he never occupied it,” wrote Gray. “The second apartment, taking up the third floor, was for Louis’s unmarried sister, Louise; the third, on the fourth and fifth floors, was for Louis himself.”

Louis’ first wife died before the mansion was finished, and the widower moved in with his four young children from their previous residence on 26th Street. (He would soon remarry and have four more kids.) Louise stayed with her parents at 255 Madison, according to Michael Henry Adams, writing in HuffPo.

To enter the house meant walking through a huge stone arch, which led to a central courtyard. “The structure was crowned by a great tile roof—substantial enough to have covered a suburban railroad station—and by a complex assemblage of turrets, balconies, chimney stacks, oriel windows and other elements in rough-faced bluestone and mottled yellow iron-spot brick,” noted Gray.

Of course, a mansion of this size and pedigree attracted the attention of architectural critics, who either loved it or hated it. Ladies’ Home Journal dubbed it “the most artistic house in New York City,” thanks in part to detail on the facade and ornament, wrote Frelinghuysen. A detractor called it “the most conspicuous dwelling house in the city,” she added.

Louis reserved the fifth floor for his studio, which was three to four stories high and situated amid the mansion’s gables, according to Gray. Accounts from visitors suggested that the studio was a showcase for Louis’ talent and creativity, as well as his collections of exotic objects and furnishings. It also served as a “sanctuary from the daily bustle,” wrote Frelinghuysen.

“A forest of ironwork, brasses and decorative glassware suspended from the ceiling made the atmosphere even more obscure and mysterious,” added Gray. “Near the center was a four-hearth fireplace, feeding into one sinuous chimney made of concrete. It rose from the floor like an Art Nouveau tree trunk.” Makes sense; Louis took his inspiration from nature.

An 1886 sketch of the house, dwarfing the two men on the sidewalk

In 1905, after the elder Tiffany passed away, Louis built a country estate near Oyster Bay, Long Island called Laurelton Hall. As the decades went on, he began spending more time there, moving some of the furnishings and objects from his Madison Avenue to his estate house.

He died in the Madison Avenue mansion in 1933 at the age of 84; the house met the wrecking ball three years later. The spectacular mansion, designed as a family compound of sorts that most of the family never actually lived in, was replaced by a stately apartment building.

[First and second images: NYPL; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY; fifth image: Google Arts and Culture; sixth image: NYPL]

Capturing the magic of rainy nights in New York City

September 26, 2022

Hard rainy days in New York City can bring on a sense of melancholy—the grayness, the streets relatively empty of people, the steady pounding against windows.

But rain at night can hit the senses differently. Skies glow and obscure the skyline, and pavement slick with water almost twinkles under the lights of the city. There’s a painterly magic to it (if you’re not wrestling with an umbrella or trying to catch a cab, that is).

Few artists have captured this magic of a rainy New York night like Charles Hoffbauer. Born in France in 1875, Hoffbauer came to Gotham in the early 1900s, and with his Impressionist style painted many nocturnes of Manhattan under the spell of the rain.

These three Hoffbauer paintings are new discoveries for me. The exact date of each isn’t clear, but with both automobiles and horse-pulled carriages on the streets, I’d say the 1920s.

What part of New York is Hoffbauer showing us? Street signs and marquees are obscured, so it’s hard to know for sure. My guess is the theater district centered around Times Square.

Country houses left behind on Riverside Drive

September 23, 2022

After the first section of Riverside Drive—from 72nd to 126th Street—opened in 1880, this winding avenue that followed the gentle slope of Riverside Park became a study in contrasts.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Up and down the Drive, wealthy New Yorkers and the developers who catered to them spent the next decades building well-appointed row houses, mansions, and early luxury apartment buildings. Yet on the fringes of this new millionaire’s colony stood crudely built shanties and shacks like the one in the photo above, homes to those whose fortunes didn’t rise during the Gilded Age and were forced to the margins.

Another type of dwelling also held out here and there on Riverside Drive: country houses. These wood-frame houses with clapboard shutters and welcoming front porches may have been typical family homes in the early to mid-19th century, when the Upper West Side of today was a sparsely populated collection of small farming villages.

Development encroaches on this house, at Riverside Drive and 111th Street, in 1909

That changed after Central Park was completed and the new elevated trains made the West End much more accessible. As the 20th century continued, Riverside Drive was extended into Upper Manhattan—threatening the handful of country houses that predated the Drive but were now in its way.

A pretty house at Riverside Drive and 86th Street, 1896

None of these country homes pictured here survive today. Riverside Drive, with its unbroken lines of elegant apartment houses, doesn’t seem to miss them. Like so many early New York City houses, the stories of these anachronisms seem to be lost to the ages.

Join Ephemeral New York on Sunday, September 25 at 1 p.m. on a walking tour of Riverside Drive, which delves into the backstory of the country estates, mansions, and monuments of New York’s most beautiful avenue.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; second, third, and fourth photos: New-York Historical Society]

The story of how the Bronx got its name

September 23, 2022

Manhattan is a corruption of the Native American word Mannahatta; Staten Island derives from Staaten Eylandt, named by the Dutch. Brooklyn is the anglicization of the Dutch village of Breukelen, and Queens comes from English Queen Catherine of Braganza, who happened to be on the throne in the 1680s, when England was divvying up the former New Netherland.

But the origin of the name for New York City’s northernmost borough, the Bronx? That’s a longer story of an immigrant and his prosperous farm in the wilderness of the New World.

It all starts in 17th century Europe with a man named Jonas Bronck. The consensus seems to be that Bronck was Danish, though some historians believe he was from Sweden. Others contend he was from a Dutch Mennonite family driven to Denmark by religious persecution.

A 1639 map of New Netherlands, the year Jonas Bronck arrived

Whatever his native country was, Bronck made his way to Holland. With his wife and a group of other immigrants, he boarded a ship to New Amsterdam in 1639. “The ship also carried implements and cattle for commencing a plantation on a large scale,” states the 1916 text Scandinavian Immigrants in New York, 1630-1674.

Upon arrival, Bronck purchased 500 acres from local Native Americans (or from Dutch leaders; sources differ) in today’s Morrisania or Mott Haven neighborhood, on the other side of the Harlem River. He cleared the land and built a stone house “covered with tiles,” a barn, several tobacco houses, and barracks for his servants, per Scandinavian Immigrants in New York.

The view from Broncksland a century after Jonas Bronck’s death

“The purchase price was two guns, two kettles, two adzes [a tool similar to an axe], two shirts, a barrel of cider, and six coins,” states a New Yorker piece from 1939. “His house stood where the N.Y. Central 138th St. station is now, just north of Harlem River.”

In sparsely settled New Netherland, Bronck grew tobacco, wheat, and corn. He also raised cattle and hogs, in “numbers unknown running in the woods,” according to a 1903 edition of the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden.

In 1908, John Ward Dunsmore portrayed the signing of the peace treaty at Bronck’s house

His farm must have been a success. The Broncks furnished their house with fine bed linens, table cloths, alabaster plates, silverware, and a library of religious and historical books in both Danish and German. It was inside this finely furnished house in 1642 where a peace treaty was signed between Native Americans and Dutch colonists (which didn’t last very long, needless to say).

Bronck’s time in his namesake borough was short. He died in 1643, and his wife quickly remarried and moved upstate. Despite his demise, the land where he built his farm was already known as Bronck’s Land, and the river north of his property was referred to as the Broncks’ River.

The South Bronx in the 19th century, with the High Bridge in the distance

Eventually, the entire borough—annexed into the city of New York in stages in the 19th century—became the Bronx at the time of consolidation in 1898. What’s with “the” in the borough’s name? “The” is a simply a holdover from when Broncks meant the river.

[Top image: MCNY, F2011.33.687; second image: Library of Congress via Wikipedia; third image: University of Michigan Library Digital Collections; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old Broadway stars once worshipped

September 23, 2022

When it was founded in 1917 by local Jewish shop owners on West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the congregation was known as Ezrath Israel.

Actors who frequented the Theater District and Times Square were decidedly not welcome. In the early 20th century, they were looked down upon for their supposed loose morals and the sometimes shady venues where they plied their trade.

But in the mid-1920s, a new synagogue for this small congregation had been constructed—a beige brick building that stood out thanks to its majestic stained glass center window.

A new rabbi also took the helm, and he “realized that he could increase the membership by welcoming actors from nearby Broadway,” wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times in 2011. That rabbi, Bernard Birstein, reversed the previous no-performer policy, according to David Dunlop’s 2014 book, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

Drawing from all the theaters, cabarets, and nightclubs in this hopping part of Jazz Age Manhattan, the congregation attracted showbiz hopefuls as well as the already famous. Performers like Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny came to services, and Ezrath Israel became known as the Actors’ Temple.

“Some members and congregants, many of whom were born into poor, hardworking immigrant families, included Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Eddie Cantor, Burt Lahr, George Jessel, and countless other lesser-known actors, comedians, singers, playwrights, composers, musicians, writers, dancers and theatrical agents, along with sports figures like Sandy Koufax, Barney Ross, and Jake Pitler,” states the temple’s website.

Rabbi Bernard Birstein, center

Two of the Three Stooges were congregation members (Mo and Curly Howard, to be precise), and “Academy Award–winner Shelley Winters kept the High Holy Days in our sanctuary,” the website says.

One of the highlights of the congregation was an annual benefit to raise funds for the synagogue’s upkeep. On December 9, 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about the “stars of stage, screen, and radio” who were scheduled to perform, including Danny Kaye, Jack Durant, and Joe E. Louis.

By the time of his death in 1959, Rabbi Birstein had boosted membership to 1,000, according to a 2002 New York Daily News article. But the number of congregants began to dwindle steadily through the decade—a trend experienced by other small synagogues in Manhattan’s unglamorous business districts, like the Garment District Synagogue and the Millinery Center Synagogue.

Today, the Actors’ Temple is still holding fundraisers and offers services for the high holidays. I’m not sure if any A-listers belong to the congregation, but members “take great pride in carrying on our Jewish show business tradition by being a place of acceptance, spirituality, creativity, and love,” per the website.

[Third image:]

The Feast of San Gennaro festival, painted by a Little Italy artist

September 19, 2022

Born in 1914 in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Ralph Fasanella became a union organizer, a gas station owner, and a self-taught painter of colorful, carnival-like panoramas depicting New York City at work and at play.

“San Gennaro,” is his 1976 take on the annual festival held every September on Mulberry Street since 1926. (The festival is going on in New York right now, through September 26.)

Fasanella’s work is a folk art-inspired, social realist vision of the crowds, vendors, food, games, and patron saint of Naples himself in the center of the canvas, surrounded by Little Italy’s tenements and the tenement dwellers who inhabit them. It’s also currently up for auction; 1stdibs has the info.


The roses in the window guards outside an East 51st Street townhouse

September 19, 2022

Sometimes you come across a New York row house with enchanting, floral-inspired window guards and railings, like the Art Nouveau iron grilles outside this Riverside Drive townhouse.

There’s also the iron blooms on the balconies of the Chelsea Hotel, and the tangle of vines that make up the iron railings outside the front windows of J.P. Morgan’s former mansion in Murray Hill.

But equally beautiful are the wrought-iron roses and rose leafs decorating the oval window guards on the ground floor of 331 East 51st Street (above, top)—a five-story elegant townhouse between First and Second Avenues in Turtle Bay.

The second floor window railings also feature iron roses, and so does the fence around the property. It’s all the more lovely to see actual red and yellow roses growing alongside their iron counterparts.

Walking by this turn-of-the-century townhouse and seeing all the roses—real and decorative—makes this passerby wish summer would never end.

This empty shell on Delancey Street was once a movie palace

September 19, 2022

It’s a forbidding warehouse of a building, with its ground floor carved up decades ago into unattractive (and since the pandemic, often empty) commercial outlets.

But a closer look at this mystery space on the corner of Delancey and Suffolk Streets offers clues about what it used to be in its glory days: the few strangely spaced windows (now filled with concrete), the Art Deco-style ribbon of ornamentation near the roofline that hints at something imaginative and exciting.

The grim fortress at 140-146 Delancey Street is the remains of Loew’s Delancey Street Theater—a vaudeville theater and then movie house opened in 1912 that was “a cornerstone of life on New York’s Lower East Side,” according to Cinema Treasures, a website that tracks defunct theaters across the U.S.

The Loew’s Delancey in 1936

The Loew’s Delancey, with about 1,700 seats, occupied the block with another legendary business: Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, per Cinema Treasures. It was one of over 40 Loews theaters in the New York area at the time, states the 2007 book Jews and American Popular Culture.

In its earliest days, the theater reportedly booked vaudeville acts and showed short films between them; a 1929 Brooklyn Eagle article notes an act that took first prize on amateur night. But by the 1930s, the Delancey was exclusively a movie house, as images of the the old-school marquee attests (My American Wife!).

Another view of that magical sign and marquee, 1939-1941

The end of the Delancey echos the end of so many popular, thriving businesses on the Lower East Side after the first half of the 20th century—with a mass exodus of people to the suburbs following World War II, then the decline of the surrounding neighborhood, explains Cinema Treasures.

By 1977, the theater was closed. Though a sign on the facade says that “corner stores and upper floors” are available for rent, the space remains empty—the interior likely gutted of any old movie house magic.

The end of the Delancey, 1978

A new theater has opened across Delancey called the Regal Essex Crossing. Too bad it lacks the enchantment of the former Delancey, with its three-story vertical sign and blazing marquee inviting the public inside to watch a “picture,” as they called it, that you could only see on the big screen.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY, 2013.3.2.2183]