This holdout brownstone is a monument to the 1980s tenant who refused to leave

May 23, 2022

These days, the traffic-packed intersection at Lexington Avenue and 60th Street is a modern tower mecca of street-level retail shops topped by floor after floor of office space and luxury residences.

But steps away from this busy urban crossroads is a curious anachronism: a four-story brownstone. Number 134 East 60th Street has been stripped of its entrance and 19th century detailing. It sits forlorn, dark, and boxy, attached to the 31-story tower behind it and to a Sephora next door.

There’s no longer a door or first and second floor windows, so it’s unlikely anyone lives in this walkup, which used to be part of a pretty block of brownstones built in 1865. So how did it escape demolition—and why is it still here?

Think of it as a brick and mortar memorial to a woman named Jean Herman, who almost 40 years ago refused to cede her small apartment on the fourth floor to the developers of the tower.

The story begins in the early 1980s. Herman was a freelance public relations specialist who had a longtime rent-stabilized lease of $168 per month for her two-room apartment here, according to the New York Times. She liked living in the neighborhood, she told the Times in another article, and she decorated her small home with window boxes of petunias and geraniums, per an AP story.

60th Street and Lexington Avenue in 1912, with rows of 1860s brownstones

Then in 1981, a real-estate development company called Cohen Brothers “bought her building and every other on Lexington Avenue between 59th and 60th Street, across from Bloomingdale’s department store, with plans to demolish them all,” stated the AP piece.

Other tenants were evicted or bought out. Herman stayed put, and because her apartment was rent stabilized, she couldn’t be forced to leave. So the developers “offered to find her another apartment and work out an arrangement in which they would pay her rent, plus a stipend,” wrote the Times.

Jean Herman in the Daily News, 1986

Herman was shown 25 apartments in the general neighborhood, but none of them worked for her because they were not rent-stabilized. She told the Times, “if I move this time, I don’t intend to do it again.” Reports came out that she was offered six figures, even a million dollars to give up her home, but Herman insisted these numbers weren’t accurate.

By 1986, Herman was the only tenant left in her brownstone. After exhausting all avenues for getting her out of the building, the developers gave up and begin construction on the tower. When it was completed, the tower opened with Herman still living in the brownstone.

Herman didn’t occupied her apartment for much longer; she died of cancer in 1992. “Her vacancy last month came too late for the Cohens, who remain bitter over what they regard as Miss Herman’s utter folly,” the AP article stated.

To many New Yorkers, however, Herman is something of a heroine, unafraid to stand up to developers and defend herself under the threat of losing the home she was happy with. Her holdout brownstone makes a very appropriate monument.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: Tom Monaster/New York Daily News March 23, 1986]

Manhattan’s most ornate early apartment house comes back into view

May 23, 2022

In 1907, the developers behind Alwyn Court announced their plans to build this 12-story luxury apartment house on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. “It will have ornamental facades of limestone, with terra cotta trimmings,” the New-York Tribune dutifully reported.

That ho-hum description of the facade hardly did the Alwyn justice. When the aristocratic edifice opened to well-to-do tenants two years later—advertising itself as a place of “city homes for people with country houses”—the limestone and terra cotta facade proved to be one of the most ornate ever unveiled.

Alwyn Court’s exterior is an “intricate stone tapestry” of baroque scrolls, floral motifs, grotesques, angels, and crowned salamanders. The salamanders represent Francois I, the French king during the Renaissance whose style the building emulates. (The Alwyn is one of two New York buildings that feature salamanders on the facade, both by the same architects, Harde & Short.)

“This is the finest building of its type in New York City,” states the 1966 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, which designates Alwyn Court a city landmark.

Most luxury apartment buildings of the era only used terra cotta on the base of the facade and thus didn’t have excessive room or ornamentation, the LPC report explains. “Here at Alwyn Court, instead of limiting the decoration, the architects went to the other extreme, leaving hardly any surface undecorated,” states the report.

A lot has changed at the Alwyn since 1909. Originally the building had two apartments per floor with at least 14 rooms and five baths each, along with personal wine cellars for tenants and other exclusive amenities. (Remember, apartment living for the rich was still a new concept, so they tried everything to lure in residents.)

But that layout was eventually altered in favor of more apartments per floor that had fewer rooms. In the 1930s, the lobby was redone, then remade again in 1982 when an air shaft was turned into a central atrium. After a protracted battle with longtime tenants (including many senior citizens living in rent controlled units), Alwyn Court went co-op in the early 1980s.

By Berenice Abbott in 1936

Now, following a long stint behind construction scaffolding, Alwyn Court’s filigreed facade is fully on view. It looks as beautiful as it did in 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed a portion of the building for her book, Changing New York.

[Last photo: Sotheby’s]

A painter’s mystery scene on the Sixth Avenue elevated after midnight

May 19, 2022

Elevated trains were the fastest mode of mass transit in the late 19th century. Lurching and groaning high above the sidewalks along almost all of New York’s avenues, they whisked people to work, to school, to the theater, to Central Park, to department store shopping—all for a nickel per ride.

At night, the elevated invited intrigue. Everett Shinn, former newspaper illustrator best known as a member of the Ashcan School of social realism painting, captures a moment at one end of a poorly lit all-male car in his 1899 work, “Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight.”

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

Updated info on Talks and Tours From Ephemeral New York!

May 19, 2022

I’m excited to let everyone know that two more dates have been added in June for Ephemeral New York’s Gilded Age Mansions and Monuments walking tour. On the tour, we step back to the avenue’s 18th century roots in the Bloomingdale section of Manhattan, and then revisit it in the Gilded Age, when Riverside Drive was set to become New York’s newest “millionaire colony.”

The first tour is on Sunday, June 5 from 1-3 pm; tickets can be purchased here. The second tour is scheduled for Sunday, June 19 from 1-3 pm; tickets available here. These tours are in conjunction with the New York Adventure Club.

I also want to give an update on the Tea Talk originally scheduled at the Salmagundi Club for Thursday May 19. Because of the uptick in Covid cases in New York City, the talk has been postponed until fall.

[Images: NYPL]

The solitary walkers across the Depression-era Manhattan Bridge

May 16, 2022

Social realist artist Reginald Marsh has painted Coney Island burlesque performers, sailors and soldiers, forgotten men at lonely docks and Bowery dives, sideshow gawkers, subway riders, and sexily dressed men and women carousing and enjoying the playground that is 1920s and 1930s Manhattan after dark.

But “Manhattan Bridge,” from 1938, is different. It’s a portrait of a muscular bridge and the ordinary, solitary New Yorkers who walk across it—figures not with Marsh’s usual exaggerated expressions but with their backs turned toward us, unglamorous and getting to where they are going.

The visionary artist with his own museum in a Riverside Drive Art Deco masterpiece

May 16, 2022

St. Petersburg-born Nicolas Roerich was many things: an archeologist, philosopher, emigre due to the Russian Revolution, and Nobel Prize nominee many times over.

Nicholas Roerich

But it was his talent as a painter of colorful natural and mystical scenes that brought him to the United States in 1920, when a national tour of 400 of his works launched at the Kingore Gallery in New York City in December of that year.

After the tour and between treks to the Himalayas and India, the charismatic Roerich took up residence in 1920s Manhattan, working out of a 19th century mansion at 310 Riverside Drive, at 103rd Street. With financial help from a Wall Street moneyman and patron named Louis Horch, he founded the Master Institute of United Arts, a school that offered lectures by top painters like George Bellows.

The Master Apartments, Riverside Drive

The mansion also housed his own personal museum, where fans could buy copies of his art and writings and debate the merits of his talent. “Talk to his disciples and one encounters almost incoherent adoration,” wrote the Brooklyn Times Union in 1929. “That seems to be the precise word for it. Adoration. Artists are divided in their opinion of his talent.”

Roerich the artist and mystic fascinated Jazz Age New York, and his interest in Eastern philosophies found an eager audience. So when Horch proposed the idea of demolishing the old mansion and building a modern apartment tower on still fashionable Riverside Drive that would devote its lower floors to Roerich’s school, studio, and museum, the two men struck a deal.

The Master Apartments, soon after the building was completed

The Master Apartments, also known as the Master Building, (above) made its debut in 1929. It was the tallest building on Riverside Drive, which was transforming from a street of single-family and row house mansions to an avenue of elegant and more restrained apartment houses.

This 29-floor Art Deco masterpiece was designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett, who himself belonged to the Roerich Society. With more than 300 income-generating apartments plus a theater, “the building’s distinctive Art Deco detailing, terraced setbacks, and stupa are easily identified from Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway,” states the building’s own website. “Its corner windows are reputed to be the first in Manhattan.”

“Guests From Overseas,” 1901

According to Anthony Robbins in New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture, the Master Apartments “rise to a single, tapered pinnacle, more like a Midtown skyscraper…. [Corbett’s] design relies on geometric patterns, angles, and colors.”

After Wall Street collapsed in 1929, however, fortunes quickly changed for Roerich and his Art Deco tower. “Roerich’s star in America plummeted,” wrote John Strausbaugh in the Observer in 2014. “The Master Building was hit hard by the Depression and went into receivership. Horch renounced Roerich and sued for $200,000 in unpaid loans. The IRS went after Roerich for tax fraud. By 1938 Horch had control of the skyscraper, shoved Roerich’s paintings in the basement and ousted his followers.”

The Roerich Museum was then replaced by the Riverside Museum, which was devoted to contemporary art until the 1970s, when the collection was absorbed by Brandeis University. A new space for Roerich’s artwork was found in 1949 in a brownstone at 319 West 107th Street. Roerich passed away in 1947, but the Nicholas Roerich Museum still exhibits his works today and may be the only museum in New York devoted to one artist.

The Master Apartments went co-op in 1988. The many studio apartments have been combined into larger units, the lobby has been restored, and it remains the tallest building with the most recognizable Art Deco design touches on Riverside Drive.

Cornerstone, with the R and M

Two remnants of its earlier incarnations remain: a cornerstone bearing the initials R and M (for Roerich Museum, it seems) and the words “Riverside Museum” in small letters above the entrance.

Come see the Master Apartments and other mansions and monuments on Ephemeral New York’s Riverside Drive walking tour June 5 and June 19!

[Third photo: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.348]

This Art Deco skyscraper on 57th Street rightfully celebrates itself

May 9, 2022

The Fuller Building, on Madison Avenue and 57th Street, has racked up some impressive accomplishments.

Topping out at 40 floors, this 1929 masterpiece was one of New York’ first “mixed use” buildings, with the lower floors boasting high ceilings and a distinct design to attract galleries to 57th Street’s active Jazz Age art scene, according to The City Review.

Art is outside the building as well. Above the entrance is a sculpture of workmen framed around a clock and a relief of the cityscape. Construction themes are reflected on the elevators, and the upper floors feature geometric patterns on the facade.

With so much to boast about, why shouldn’t the Fuller Building have large mosaic medallions of itself embossed in the lobby?

Sure “AD 1929” sounds like the owners expect the tower to be in a museum someday. But this icon has every reason to honor itself and decorate the lobby floor with love letters to its own greatness.

[Second image: structurae.net]

The amazing survival story of the last 3 single-family row houses on Central Park West

May 9, 2022

If you find yourself facing the corner of Central Park West at 85th Street, you’ll see three stunning row houses, each with different Queen Anne-style touches. They’re charming, confection-like holdouts from the Gilded Age, dwarfed (but not outshined) by their Art Deco apartment tower neighbor.

247-249 Central Park West

But before 1930, these three beauties were part of a row of nine spanning the entire block. While their sister buildings met the wrecking ball, they managed to survive—and now are thought to be the last remaining single-family row houses on all of Central Park West.

Their story begins with the Dakota. When this Gothic-inspired apartment building several blocks south was completed in 1884, Gilded Age real estate developers began to imagine Central Park West as a parkside avenue of similarly grand, luxurious apartment buildings.

One builder who apparently didn’t share that vision was a speculative developer of other properties on today’s Upper West Side named William Noble. In 1887, Noble hired architect Edward L. Angell to construct nine single-family row houses between 84th and 85th Streets along what until 1883 had been known as Eighth Avenue.

The “Noble houses,” as numbers 241-249 Central Park West were later called, spanned the entire block, which Noble outfitted with six ornamental lampposts. The fairy tale-like Queen Anne style served as an antidote to the cookie-cutter brownstones lining so many Gilded Age Manhattan streets.

The original nine Noble houses are in the background, 1925

“Not only did [Angell] vary his designs for the houses, but he varied the materials too, from red brick to buff-colored brick, from brownstone to carved limestone,” wrote Margot Gayle in 1979 in the New York Daily News.

“The corner houses were the most elegant, each having two exposures, windows with panels of stained glass and a bay-windowed tower terminating in a peaked roof.” Though each row house had different architectural bells and whistles, the gables and chimneys of all the houses reflect the design of the Dakota, the article pointed out.

By 1928, streetcars were long gone from Central Park West

Central Park West as a luxury thoroughfare was in its infancy, and a horsecar line ran up and down the avenue. Still, the Noble houses were pricey. “The houses were at the upper end of the market—they cost $37,000 each in construction alone, exclusive of decoration—and the first occupants were all prosperous,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

Among the first occupants was William Noble; he took number 247 for himself, per a 2014 New York Times article. His neighbor at number 248, a wealthy colonel named Richard Lathers, made news by arranging a reception in his home where relatives of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant were invited to bring “North and South together in an informal and quiet way,” according to a biography.

Number 248’s beautiful detailing

As the decades went on, the Noble houses changed hands. Meanwhile, Central Park West’s fortunes boomed. Stylish, modern Art Deco apartment buildings that scaled new heights and commanded high prices lined the avenue.

The 1920s marked the beginning of the end for six of the Noble houses. “In 1925, Sam Minskoff, a builder, sued to break the private house restrictions so he could build what was ultimately erected in 1930 as the tall apartment house that replaced 241-246 Central Park West,” wrote Gray.

Number 247 stained glass loveliness

Why didn’t the entire row of Noble houses get demolished? Thank the strong-minded holdout owner of number 249. “Probably all would have been taken down had not the owner of the northernmost of the remaining houses stubbornly refuse to sell,” wrote Gayle. “A neighbor recalls him as a man who knew his own mind, liked to view the park from his windows, wore a bowler, and walked a poodle twice a day.”

This stubborn neighbor was identified in Gray’s article as W. Gedney Beatty, an “architect-scholar.” As a result, “247, 248 and 249 have since survived in the shadow of their taller neighbor,” he wrote.

The 3 remaining Noble houses in 1975

They were expensive when they were new, and the prices of the remaining Noble houses in today’s real estate market are mind-blowing.

In 2014, number 247—beautifully restored and with its own lap pool—sold for $22 million. Number 248, also renovated to its original beauty, just set an Upper West Side real estate record earlier this year by finding a buyer at $26 million, according to Ilovetheupperwestside.com.

Number 249 Central Park West

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: NYPL; seventh image: MCNY 2013.3.1.34]

Upcoming Talks and Walking Tours with Ephemeral New York!

May 6, 2022

I want to let everyone know about three events happening this month, May 2022, featuring Ephemeral New York. All are open to the public, and it would be great to meet readers of this site!

Photo: Salmagundi Club

On Thursday May 19 at 3:30 pm, I’ll be speaking at the Salmagundi Club as part of their Afternoon Tea Talks monthly series. Inside this art and social organization’s beautiful brownstone parlor at 47 Fifth Avenue, host Carl Raymond and I will be talking about Gilded Age New York City, as well as how Ephemeral New York got its start, insider info about the site, and more.

After the talk, tea, sandwiches, and cookies will be available to cap off this casual and fun event. Many of you probably know Carl through his popular podcast, The Gilded Gentleman, plus his historical talks and tours exploring Gotham. Click the link for tickets!

Image: New York Adventure Club

On Sunday May 15 at 1 p.m. and again on Sunday May 22 at 1 p.m., I’ll be leading a walking tour through the New York Adventure Club, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive.” The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 107th Street. In between we’ll walk up Riverside and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, which became a second “mansion row” and was set to rival Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.” The tour will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball.

Tickets for May 15 can be bought here, and tickets for May 22 at this link. Hope to see a great turnout on a lovely May day!

[First image: Salmagundi Club; second image: New York Adventure Club]