Discover the secrets of Riverside Drive with Ephemeral New York!

May 31, 2023

Riverside Drive is one of Manhattan’s most beautiful and dramatic avenues. It’s also a place of legend and mystery, especially during the Drive’s early decades in the Gilded Age.

Which mansion built in the early 1900s has a basement tunnel leading to the Hudson River? Where can you find the remnants of an 18th century colonial farm lane? Why is the Drive the only avenue in Manhattan that branches off into small carriage roads?

Which famous American writer came to a rock outcropping in Riverside Park every day to stare across the Hudson River? Who was the rich wife and mother so disturbed by tugboat horns on the riverfront that she formed a committee to suppress “unnecessary” noise?

Join Ephemeral New York on a breezy and fun walking tour this Sunday, June 4 that explores these mysteries and many more on this former millionaire’s mile—once home to the city’s Gilded Age elite and still the site of surviving mansions and spectacular monuments.

The tour starts at 1 p.m. and operates through the New York Adventure Club. Click here for tickets! There are still tickets available for this Sunday’s tour as well as the next Riverside Drive tour on Sunday, June 25.

[Top image: MCNY, 1913, X2011.34.4400; second image: MCNY, 1905, F2011.33.73; third image: MCNY, 1910, F2011.33.67]

The stone-carved men watching you from a Williamsburg tenement

May 29, 2023

I’m not sure what to make of these two figures, affixed to the facade of 235 South Fourth Street in Williamsburg at least since the turn of the 20th century.

Clad in togas with their eyes wide and their fingers almost pointing down, they look like they are ready to launch themselves on pedestrians below—sticking their tongues out in jest.

Are they simply stone men created to give an otherwise ordinary tenement building a little flair? Or is their purpose to stare down at the people who have walked beneath them for 120 or so years and intimidate us?

Unlike many of the gargoyles and grotesques on New York City buildings, these two look a little menacing. I wonder what the builder thought when he added them to the entrance.

Once a 1903 public bathhouse, now a pricey condo in Brooklyn

May 29, 2023

In the early 1900s, New York City launched a Progressive-era mission to build public bathhouses in tenement districts in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The effort was designed to improve the hygiene and offer heat relief for the so-called “great unwashed” who dwelled in cramped walkup flats that often lacked bathing facilities.

None of these public bathhouses are in use today. Some have been renovated into recreation centers; others converted into a variety of uses, including a photo studio in the East Village, offices in Midtown East, even a church on Allen Street. One sits in ruins behind public housing on the Lower East Side.

But I never imagined that a public bathhouse would be made over into high-end apartments until I took a walk down Huron Street in Greenpoint.

The four-story building at number 139 has undergone a facelift. But its Classical Revival style—the Doric columns, the wreaths carved into terra cotta panels—gave away its original use. The early 1900s architects who designed these bathhouses wanted them to be inspiring and uplifting, very much in line with the ethos of the City Beautiful movement popular in the era.

Where once 96 shower baths, six bathtubs, and later a pool helped cool off up to thousand neighborhood residents each day, according to a 1905 article in Brooklyn’s the Daily Standard Union newspaper, there are now nine separate apartments. A beautiful penthouse recently sold for more than $3 million.

After 56 years, the Huron Street Baths closed its doors in 1960, according to the Brooklyn Public Library. (Above, the baths in 1940.) It was the last of the five public baths built in Brooklyn.

The units at Bath Haus, as the condo calls itself, are pricey. But it’s all part of the longstanding New York tradition of reusing old buildings that have outlived their original purpose. If only they kept the original “public baths” signage, seen here in a 2013 image from the Brooklyn Relics blog.

[Second image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services Tax Photo, 1940]

From posh residences to art movie theater, the many lives of two Bleecker Street houses

May 29, 2023

Near the corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place stand what remains of two houses. At almost 200 years old, time has taken its toll on these twin Greenwich Village dowagers.

Cracked ground-floor doric columns, grimy window lintels, and a strange fourth four addition have dulled the beauty of 144 and 146 Bleecker Street. But a closer look reveals bits of loveliness, like the rosettes in terra cotta panels and Flemish bond brickwork.

The story of these houses—combined into one building over a century ago and officially known as 144 Bleecker—mimics the story of the Greenwich Village neighborhood they’re part of.

Both rose in the early 19th century, fell out of favor among elite New Yorkers in the late 1800s, only to find a place in the city’s cultural and artistic landscape as the 20th century progressed.

The two houses got their start in 1831, built by a developer named Thomas E. Davis. Also the developer of the then-fashionable St. Marks Place on the East Side, this canny real estate operator understood that it wasn’t enough to build a high-class dwelling house.

To appeal to posh buyers, the house needed an address that matched the pedigree of potential owners.

So Davis built 15 Federal-style row houses on each side of up-and-coming Bleecker Street between Laurens Street (now LaGuardia Place) and Thompson Street, then rechristened the block “Carroll Place” (above, in an 1834 map) after Charles Carroll, a Maryland senator and the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

What did numbers 5 and 7 Carroll Place—as the houses were known at the time—look like when they made their debut? Imagine high stoops, peaked roofs, and dormer windows, according to the South Village Historic District Designation Report from 2013.

These architectural features are similar to most Federal-style houses remaining in Lower Manhattan. Another Carroll Place survivor, 145 Bleecker Street across the street, still has its dormers.

Early advertisements for the Carroll Place houses made the interiors sound quite appealing. “The elegant three-story brick house No. 10 Carroll Place (Bleecker St.) is a first rate building, having every convenience for the accommodation of a large family, being finished in the first style, with bath room,” read an ad in the Evening Post in April 1833.

Wealthy families took up residence on Carroll Place in the 1830s and 1840s, as they did along other stretches of fashionable Bleecker Street. But by the 1860s, the rich were moving uptown to the newly stylish neighborhoods of Madison Square and Murray Hill.

Carroll Street was losing its cache, especially with an elevated train running just to the east of the houses. Parlor floors were being turned into commercial space, as large parts of Greenwich Village were transforming from a residential area New Yorkers flocked to as an escape from urban life to an urbanized area with factories and tenements.

In 1883, 144 Bleecker became a restaurant. Placido Mori, an Italian immigrant, took over the building, spending the next 34 years several devoted himself to a restaurant the New York Times in 1927 described as a “picturesque resort.”

In 1920, Mori’s devotion to his restaurant included combining it with 146 Bleecker, then asking architect Raymond Hood to give the facade a new look. The result, according to the Historic District Report, featured a row of doric columns outside the ground floor and a fourth floor studio space where Hood ended up living.

Mori’s captured the Italian immigrant and Bohemian air of late 19th and early 20th century Greenwich Village. It also captured the eye of photographer Berenice Abbott, who took the 1935 photo of Mori included in this post.

“Mori’s attracted various literati and Walter H. Killum, in a biography of Hood, relates that the Friday ‘Four Hour Lunch Club’ included Hood, Joseph Urban, Ely Jacques Kahn and visitors like Ralph Walker and Frank Lloyd Wright,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1990 New York Times piece.

By 1937, Mori’s and its bohemian atmosphere had shuttered. The building remained vacant until 1944. “The first telephone listing after Mori’s appeared in 1944 for Free World House and a consortium of other organizations with names that suggest an anti-Fascist or pro-labor character,” wrote Gray.

A small theater was the next occupant of these once-elite row houses, then a French restaurant. By 1959 it was owned by New York University, until it was transformed in 1962 into the Bleecker Street Cinema, a beloved arthouse and revival movie theater that reflected the Village’s identity as Manhattan’s cultural hub for the arts.

The movie theater made it to 1990 before closing its doors. “In recent weeks a rent hike and partnership dispute were blamed for the closing of Greenwich Village’s Bleecker Street Cinema, which has reopened under new management as the Bleecker Twin Theater, showing gay pornographic films,” wrote Newsday in October 1990.

Since then, these two survivors have served as a a postcard shop and a Duane Reade. It looks like a stationery store occupies the space now, but it also feels like a building in flux—not unlike Greenwich Village, which seems to be redefining itself as an elite enclave once again.

[Second image: 1835 Map by Henry Schenk Tanner, via; third image: Evening Post; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collections; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: MCNY, Edmund Vincent Gillon, 1977 2013.3.1.211]

The stories of 4 holdout buildings that refused to bow to the wrecking ball

May 22, 2023

It’s hard not to cheer on a New York City holdout building.

You know holdouts: smaller walkup buildings, usually one-time residences, that somehow managed to remain intact over the past century or so in a city filled with developers who would love to get their hands on them—or at least the land they occupy.

Some holdouts are in beautiful shape, a testament to former and current owners who had the means and the will to maintain their original loveliness. This French Renaissance-style holdout, at 612 West 116th Street, began its life in 1906 as the Delta Phi fraternity house for the Columbia University chapter, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission report for the Morningside Heights Historic District.

Today, it’s part of the Columbia campus and houses Casa Hispanica.

In somewhat shabbier shape is this handsome holdout (second image) at 18 East 33rd Street. Today the ground floor is occupied by a bar and restaurant; it’s surrounded by a new glass tower and an early 1900s loft building in a decidedly commercial Murray Hill.

Back in the 1870s, however, it was part of an elite residential row in stylish Murray Hill, home to New York’s upper echelon and steps from Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. It might be in this photo from 1885 showing President Grant’s funeral procession.

A New York Daily Herald ad from 1874 describes it as a “first class four story brown stone house, well arranged and in good order.” If only the ad told us what it was selling for!

On Riverside Drive between 75th and 76th Streets stand two eclectic row houses. Both Number 35 and 36 were completed in 1889 by the architectural firm Lamb & Rich, according to the LPC report for the West End-Collegiate Historic District.

These two fanciful homes would have housed one family in each; they were early arrivals on the new “millionaire’s row” of Riverside Drive, which was supposed to overtake Fifth Avenue as the city’s wealthiest avenue. Originally there were four row houses, but only two remain, replaced by the 1922 tower next door.

Another Queen Anne-style stunner between Park and Madison Avenues also went up in the 1880s. Number 72 East 86th Street changed hands often during the first decades of its existence.

Built as a single-family home, it was increasingly crowded out by the new elegant apartment towers going up on the Upper East Side. Perhaps the trend toward apartment living was what prompted its owners in the early 1920s to convert it into apartments.

Two rooms and a bath for $75 a month? That was pricey in 1922, when this ad appeared in the New York Herald!

[Third photo: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: New York Herald]

How a student’s senseless death led to a New York behind scaffolding

May 22, 2023

Manhattan these days is swathed in scaffolding. Every block or two, building facades disappear behind wooden planks and metal poles, and pedestrians are often rerouted through boarded sidewalk sheds that are more like tunnels.

While scaffolding can go up (and stay up, sometimes for years) for a variety of reasons, one is something called Local Law 11—which mandates that any building more than six stories tall undergo an inspection of the facade every five years. Landlords or boards are then tasked with fixing damages.

Scaffolding is unsightly, and after dark it’s a little unnerving. But Local Law 11 and the scaffolding it requires exist for a powerful reason: a terrible tragedy in 1979 that resulted in the death of a 17-year-old college student walking in Morningside Heights.

The student was Grace Gold. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a graduate of John Dewey High School, Gold had been finishing up her freshmen year at Barnard College and living in a dorm at 616 West 116th Street, according to a New York Times article from May 17 of that year.

Out for a walk the night before around 8:20 p.m., Gold was talking to a friend in front of the vestibule of an 11-story apartment building at 601 West 115th Street (below) owned by Columbia University. Suddenly a block of cement from an upper-floor window lintel broke off and struck her in the head, killing her.

“It just came straight down and hit her,” a witness told the New York Daily News.

That could have been the end of the story—a terrible tragic death, described as a “10 million to one possibility” by a police detective quoted in the Times article.

Instead, city officials proposed legislation. In 1980, Local Law 10 was passed; the law “required building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to perform regular inspections and repairs of facades,” states a 2019 Habitat magazine piece.

“The law later morphed into Local Law 11 and is now known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program,” continues Habitat. “It explains the ubiquitous sidewalk sheds throughout the city, which are designed to protect passersby and prevent tragic deaths like Grace Gold’s when workers perform mandated facade inspections and repairs.”

Lori Gold, Grace’s sister, lobbied the city to change the law’s name to the Grace Gold Law. The city didn’t make the change—but they did give the corner of Broadway and 115th Street an honorary name: Grace Gold Way.

It took Gold’s senseless death to get the city to pass laws requiring owners to maintain building facades. The law hasn’t put a stop to building debris falling on pedestrians, and scaffolding abandoned and left in limbo by owners poses its own risks.

But Gold’s legacy has been to make city streets a little safer, and it’s something to think about next time we collectively groan at all the scaffolding surrounding us.

[Second image: New York Daily News; third image: Google]

A Brooklyn coal hole cover with an ironworker’s name leads to a life story

May 15, 2023

If you’re a walker in the city, then you’ve seen coal hole covers. These iron lids can still be found in the pavement in front of some old houses. Sometimes plain but often decorative, they cover the chutes leading to underground coal storage spaces, which were crucial back when coal was routinely used to heat residences.

Coal hole covers at one time were purely functional. Today, I like to think of them as historical markers that tell stories. Case in point is this one above, spotted in front of 1107 Lorimer Street in Brooklyn.

The cover carries a name: A. Fluegel. Who was A. Fluegel, and what was his life like? Bits and pieces of his story have emerged.

Anton Fluegel was born in Germany in 1842, according to his 1880 passport application. He came to the United States in 1867 at the age of 23 and earned his citizenship in 1872. Most of his time in the U.S. was spent as a resident of Brooklyn.

His passport application offers a physical description: He described himself as standing five foot, six inches and having brown hair, brown eyes, a large nose, and a dark complexion. (These descriptions apparently stood in for photos in an era before passport photos were routine.)

For profession, he wrote: “iron railing maker.” Perhaps he worked for another company then, but in 1887, he erected a “two-story frame shop” at 219-221 Cook Street in Brooklyn. Here he operated his modest ironworks company, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Fluegel passed away in April 1902 of “cerebral apoplexy”—or a stroke, in today’s parlance. By this time he had moved to Maspeth, Queens. His son, Anton Fluegel, Jr., took over this father’s ironworks, per Walter Grutchfield, who researched Fluegel on his eponymous website.

It’s really just the barest outline of a life. But Fluegel’s 19th century story—immigrating to America, settling in Brooklyn, and building a family and a business—is similar to that of so many other New Yorkers. His life journey doesn’t sound extraordinary, but it is, and a century later his name survives on a Brooklyn coal hole cover.

The long search for a site to build Manhattan’s most glorious war memorial

May 15, 2023

The unveiling took place on Decoration Day in 1902. That late May morning began with a parade of thousands of “grizzled men,” as one Brooklyn newspaper called the old veterans.

The marchers made their way from Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, passing hastily constructed viewing stands filled with proud spectators, to a gentle bend at Riverside Drive and 89th Street.

There, on the park side of the Drive with the Hudson River visible through the treetops, Manhattan’s newest and grandest war memorial—the Soldiers and Sailors Monument—was dedicated to the men who fought for the Union. The daylong ceremony featured school kids, city dignitaries, and men who 40 years earlier served with courage and valor.

Decoration Day, 1902

More than 120 years later, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument continues to stand at Riverside Drive and 89th Street. Modeled after a Greek temple, it’s a 100-foot tall, Corinthian-columned memorial set in a plaza and surrounded by stone plinths engraved with the names of important generals and decisive battles.

Considering the monument’s beauty and significance (below image, still under construction in 1902), you’d never think that a frustrating battle of a different kind ensued back in the early 1890s: a long fight to find a place to build it.

The story begins in 1893, when New York City officially commissioned a memorial that would honor veterans of the War Between the States. With the war long over and the emotions surrounding it dulled with time, Gotham was in the grip of a wave of Civil War nostalgia. The time was right to honor the veterans.

Once a memorial was commissioned, a site had to be selected. Officials “proposed a triumphal arch at Grand Army Plaza, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, one of New York’s most prominent open spaces,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York. Times in 2002.

But not everyone wanted a monument on this prime corner of real estate. A newly formed group called the Fine Arts Federation campaigned against it, claiming that the entrance to Central Park “must be kept free from large and striking constructions,” according to an 1895 article in the New York Sun.

The Fine Arts Association proposed Riverside Drive and 72nd Street for the monument. Having a memorial at the very beginning of the Drive would make a fine bookend for Grant’s Tomb, they reasoned, which was going up at the other end at 122nd Street, per an 1896 New York Times piece.

For the next few years, more sites were suggested—but no one could agree on a location.

“More than 20 meetings were held in 1896 and 1897 to try to choose a site, and other solutions were proposed, among them the triangle between 22nd and 23rd Streets and Broadway and Fifth Avenue,” wrote Gray. “Naval officers did not like the Grand Army Plaza idea because it was not within sight of water, a matter of little importance to Army veterans, who preferred the Fifth Avenue location.”

Eventually, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street was out of the running. Then Sherman Square, Abingdon Square, Union Square, the Battery and the northeast corner of Central Park were all proposed, stated Gray.

By 1899, officials were also seriously considering Mount Tom, a rocky outcropping off 83rd Street in Riverside Park made famous by Edgar Allan Poe, who liked to sit there with the son of his landlord at the time, Tom Brennan. But developers constructing new houses across the Drive protested, as did people who didn’t approve of “building on top of a natural feature,” as Gray put it.

At the end of the year, however, the site for the monument was finally agreed upon: the prominence on Riverside Drive and 89th Street. Architects were commissioned, a design chosen, and ground broken in 1900.

The building of the monument had finally commenced. But actually, there was one final snag.

During construction, a wealthy widow named Elizabeth Clark—who lived in a fine colonial mansion across the Drive and was the daughter-in-law of the man who built The Dakota—”got a temporary injunction against the monument, claiming in court papers that it would ‘interfere with the flow of light and air and obstruct the view’ and that it was ”unsightly and inartistic,'” wrote Gray.

“She lost the case in mid-1900, and work went ahead,” added Gray. Two years later, the completed monument—visible on land as well as by sea, to please both Army and Navy veterans—was a must-see site in Manhattan’s new center of wealth, Riverside Drive.

Now honoring veterans of all wars, it’s still a dignified beauty. But sadly, it’s deteriorating and behind fencing for several years now, its fate is unsure.

To find out more about the Soldiers and Sailors monument, sign up for Ephemeral New York’s Gilded Age Riverside Drive tour! Tours are currently scheduled for Sunday, June 4 and Sunday, June 25, both from 1-3 pm.

[Second, third, and fourth images: New-York Historical Society; fifth image MCNY, F2011.33.90]

An unusual boot scraper in front of a Chelsea brownstone

May 8, 2023

Ephemeral New York readers know that this site has a fascination with boot scrapers—those iron blades on front stoops that allowed gentlemen to scrape the mud and dirt off their shoes before they entered a well-tended home.

New York City’s thousands of brownstones and townhouses often still have these sanitary necessities inside the wrought-iron railing or front-yard iron decorative fence. Sometimes they’re embellished; typically they are simple, functional, and meant to be discreet.

But while walking down a street of mid-19th century brownstones in Chelsea recently, I came across a boot scraper that wasn’t part of a fence or railing. It sat somewhat orphaned a bit away from the stoop and in front of a wrought-iron fence.

The boot scraper looked more weathered than the fence and stoop railing, and it doesn’t match either one the way most boot scraper do.

Could it predate the house it currently sits in front of and instead belong to an older home long vanished from Chelsea’s streetscape? I wish there was a way to know how long this boot scraper has been scraping the boots of New Yorkers.

Vintage subway signs that point the way to Queens

May 8, 2023

The richly colored tiles, the old-school lettering, the slender arrow that tells you exactly which way to go if you’re seriously confused—these features make coming across vintage subway signs such a treat.

But some vintage signs point the way with a little more detail. Case in point: the mosaic signs inside Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Avenue station on the G train, which opened in 1933.

The G train is the former IND crosstown line traveling through Brooklyn and Queens. If you’re headed deeper into Brooklyn, the sign is simple: It points the way to Brooklyn.

For Queens, however, it gives direction not to Queens itself but to Long Island City and Jamaica. Calling out these two locations on different ends of Queens County harkens back to a time when Queens was less a united borough like Brooklyn and Manhattan and more a collection of towns, each with its own identity.

It’s a small but charming experience to see these directionals and thank the subway gods that the MTA hasn’t done away with them in favor of the standardized black and white signs adorning most stations across the city.