Two views to New York from the countryside of Brooklyn Heights

August 12, 2022

Imagine Brooklyn Heights with a sandy beach, a smattering of spaced-apart houses, and rocky bluffs providing a peaceful, unobstructed view of the sailing ships and side-by-side buildings of booming Manhattan.

“New York From Brooklyn Heights,” by Thomas Kelah Wharton

You’d have to go all the way back to the early 19th century to experience these in Brooklyn Heights, which even then was becoming something of a suburb to New York: a residential district with laid-out streets and ferry service for commuters. Plenty of land also awaited wealthy Gothamites looking for a place to put up a summer estate.

The first painting, “New York From Brooklyn Heights,” is by English-born artist Thomas Kelah Wharton, according to Bruce Weber’s The Paintings of New York, 1800-1950. It’s not clear when Wharton completed his view from the Heights, but the engraving was done in 1834, per Weber.

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn,” by William Guy Wall

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn” was painted by William Guy Wall around 1820, estimates the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (It’s one of two watercolors Wall collaborated on with another painter, John Hill, with the other showing the view of the city from Weehawken.)

Wall, from Ireland, gives us “the eastern face of New York City from the former ‘Bergen’s Hill’ in what is now Brooklyn Heights, looking west-northwest across the East River,” according to the Met.

The population of Brooklyn came to about 11,000 in 1820—practically a country hamlet compared to New York City’s 123,000 residents. Who could have predicted at the time that Brooklyn would became a major city that rivaled New York, and that by the end of the century the two would join forces as part of one united metropolis?

The staircases left behind after the original Penn Station was demolished

August 12, 2022

It took five years to build Penn Station: millions of tons of granite, steel, stone, and bricks were transformed into a triumphant Beaux Arts monument to modern transportation that officially opened in 1910.

(Constructing Penn Station leveled several blocks and hundreds of tenements in the Tenderloin, but that’s another story.)

A half century later, it took three years to demolish what was now an underused, money-losing station. On October 28, 1963, small groups of protestors could not stop the team of wreckers who began jackhammering the exterior and carting away the rubble.

While the old station was going down, it was being replaced by an unlovely, utilitarian station under a new Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza office complex. If you’ve been there, you know what was lost.

But amazingly, bits of the original Penn Station have survived all these years, hiding in plain site below the main level. Where can you find them? Head to the LIRR sub-level of the station and look at the staircases.

On some of the tracks, you’ll see brass and wrought-iron staircase railings. Compare the staircase images: in the above black and white photo, taken by Berenice Abbott in 1935, you can see the same wrought-iron design—kind of an X in a square—in the railings of the staircases today.

I’m not sure the brass handrail is original, but the ironwork looks a little too fanciful to be part of the 1960s Penn Station—which I can’t recall having a single architectural flourish or design touch of any kind.

The staircases aren’t the only relics of the old Penn Station that managed to survive the bulldozer. A wall of beveled glass panes with iron detailing remains inside the station close to the Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street entrance.

Cut off by construction, the wall separates a waiting room from the rest of the station.

And outside on 31st Street is a curious structure known as the Penn Station Service Building. Completed two years before the station opened, this was the power center for Penn Station, supplying electricity for train engines as well as heat, refrigeration, elevator hydraulics, and compressed air.

It’s the staircase railings, however, that feel the most compelling. Imagine the rush of adrenaline millions of passengers experienced as they descended those staircases to their awaiting trains—and then on to their destinations!

[Second image: MCNY, 89.2.3.152]

Pity the tenement dwellers outside on a sweltering summer night in 1883

August 8, 2022

Take a look at this illustration, and you can feel the distress—the relentless nighttime heat that wraps you like a blanket, the airless alley stinking of garbage, and the irritability that comes with spending the night on your tenement roof surrounded by equally miserable neighbors.

Last month I posted an illustration that captured the suffering in the tenements during the heat wave of 1882. This image by illustrator W. A. Rogers, “New York: Heat Wave, 1883,” brings us the same conditions in a different tenement during a different heat wave a year later.

Studying the conditions in the illustration—and the faces, especially of the old woman on the balcony with the fan, and the young mother spread out surrounded by her children—and you’ll really appreciate having an A/C unit or a fan, at the very least!

The richest woman in New York’s Gilded Age is not who you think

August 8, 2022

Caroline Astor, Alva Belmont, Alice Vanderbilt—the names of these famous and formidable women conjure images of Fifth Avenue chateaus, luxurious balls, and other trappings of the Gilded Age good life.

Hetty Green, probably around the turn of the century

While all three women flaunted their deep wealth in an era that encouraged ostentatious display, none can claim the title of the richest women in Gilded Age New York City. That honor goes to Hetty Green, a legendary figure in Gotham who was almost the polar opposite of these society doyennes.

Instead of moving into a Manhattan mansion, Hetty lived in unpretentious hotels and boardinghouses in Brooklyn and Hoboken, hoping to avoid paying high property taxes, according to Atlas Obscura. Rather than swanning around in Charles Frederick Worth gowns, she dressed in plain black clothing, reportedly donning the same garments every day. And she turned a family inheritance into a fortune equal to $3.8 billion today with shrewd, long-term investments on Wall Street and in real estate.

Young Hetty Robinson, undated

Hetty’s story isn’t a rags to riches tale. Born Henrietta Robinson in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1834 into a Quaker family that made millions in the whaling and shipping industries, she took a strong interest in business and finance as a young girl, according to the Library of Congress.

During her teenage years she became her family’s bookkeeper, and she accompanied her father to counting houses and stockbrokers. Her father’s influence was strong: “she shared his pleasure in making money,” wrote Janet Wallach, author of The Richest Woman in America.

Hetty in 1905

After attending finishing schools in New England, Hetty went to New York City to live with the family of Henry Grinnell, her mother’s cousin. Grinnell was “wealthy and well-connected,” stated Wyn Derbyshire in Hetty Green: The First Lady of Wall Street. The plan was for Grinnell, who lived on tony Bond Street, to introduce Hetty to young men suitable for marriage.

But unlike most women of her age and class, Hetty wasn’t interested. She went back to New Bedford, using much of the $1200 her father had given her to buy fashionable clothes to invest in bonds, according to Derbyshire.

Hetty at 40, in her New York Times obituary in 1916

In 1860, her mother died, and she and her father relocated to a brownstone on West 26th Street in New York City, where her father was now a partner in a shipping firm. He died five years later. How much of his roughly $6 million fortune was left to Hetty seems to be in dispute, but she was awarded at least $1 million or perhaps all of it.

In 1867, Hetty was 33 years old. With her parents gone, she married Edward Henry Green, a 44-year-old millionaire trader introduced to her by her father before his death. Hetty’s father had worried about her status as an unmarried woman, but before his passing, she and Green announced their engagement. Hetty’s father was canny enough to stipulate in his will that Edward Green would receive nothing from his estate. Hetty herself also made her new husband swear off any claims to her fortune.

“It was an odd match: Green was a wealthy silk and tea merchant who’d lived in the Philippines for 20 years,” stated the New England Historical Society. “And he liked to live large. He dressed well, enjoyed clubs, appreciated fine food and tipped generously.” Her husband’s large lifestyle left him in debt some years into their marriage. Hetty used her own money to bail him out, which led to a long estrangement whereby the couple lived apart for several years.

Hetty around 1910, on a stoop of a house she likely did not own

Now a mother of two, Hetty began building her fortune. “She developed a strategy of investing for value, which made her the richest woman in the world,” according to the New England Historical Society. “Hetty Green didn’t buy stocks on margin. She invested in real estate and bonds, railroads, and mines. She bought cheap, sold dear, and kept her head during financial panics.”

Unsurprisingly, New York newspapers began taking note of Hetty, who was so unusual for several reasons, including the fact that she was the rare woman on Wall Street. In 1885, the New York Times dubbed her “the millionaire in hoopskirts.” A few years later, she was called “the queen of Wall Street.” The nickname that stuck throughout her life was “the witch of Wall Street,” thanks in part to her black clothes and the magic she had for making money.

Hetty (left) with her son and daughter, now grown

Stories circulated about her penny-pinching ways. One rumor had it that her son’s leg was amputated after an injury because Hetty wasted precious time searching for a free clinic rather than taking him to a doctor, and gangrene had set in. Another claimed she regularly ate cold oatmeal for lunch at her office at Chemical Bank, where she handled her investments. It was also said that she had no office at all; to save money on rent, she sewed pockets under her skirts and stashed documents there rather than in a desk.

What most New Yorkers didn’t know is that she was generous. Yet she kept her charitable gifts private. “She loaned money at below-market rates to at least 30 churches,” wrote the New England Historical Society. “According to her son, she secretly gave many gifts to charitable causes and supported at least 30 families with regular incomes.” She took care of her husband before he passed away in 1902. She credited her business acumen and simple, frugal lifestyle to her Quaker upbringing.

Hetty Green died in 1916 at age 82 after suffering a series of strokes. At her death, this legendary New Yorker who continues to fascinate us wasn’t just the richest woman in New York—she was the richest woman in America.

[Top image: New Bedford Guide; second image: unknown; third image: MCNY, 93.1.1.8934; fourth image: New York Times 1916; fifth image: Bain Collection/LOC; sixth image: NPS]

A Yorkville faded sign with a two-letter old phone exchange

August 5, 2022

The Little Wolf Cabinet Shop is a longtime fixture on the upper reaches of First Avenue at about 82nd Street. The shop also has another space on a nearby side street—and it’s the sign above this space that sparked my interest.

An old New York City phone exchange! The number of these pre-1970s exchanges still visible on signs and in ads is dwindling fast. I’d actually photographed this one for a 2011 ENY post, and the sign is, sadly, much more faded 11 years later.

RE stood for Regent, a Yorkville/Upper East Side exchange. I still haven’t figured out what Regent was though, and why the name was used. Could Regent have been a nearby hotel or theater?

Questions about the city’s old phone exchanges always generate insightful comments. This link will take you to some of the older posts delving into the mysteries of these two-letter exchanges.

New York’s most perfectly preserved Gilded Age mansion is in Murray Hill

August 5, 2022

Murray Hill has always had an aristocratic edge. In the 18th century, it was the site of the country estate of shipping magnate Robert Murray and his wife Mary Lindley Murray—about 30 acres of steep terrain with a mansion standing at today’s Park Avenue and 36th Street.

James F.D. Lanier Residence, perfectly preserved from the Gilded Age

In 1847, with the former Murray estate divided into land lots and sold for development, the “Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement” went into effect for lots between 34th and 38th Streets and Madison to Lexington Avenues. “The agreement provided that the lots could be used for residential purposes only, barring businesses and commerce from the neighborhood,” stated Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, by Joyce and Alfred Pommer.

Lanier mansion in 1916

With such an elitist covenant in place, it’s no surprise that Murray Hill became New York’s millionaire colony through the 19th century.

Quiet, well-tended streets of charming brownstones and row houses went up. These tidy rows were occasionally interrupted by marble or stone mansions owned by old and new money characters like Caroline Astor, John Jacob Astor III, department store baron A.T. Stewart, and financier J.P. Morgan.

Lanier knocked down two brownstones exactly like the brownstone on the right so he had a big enough lot.

So at the turn of the century, when banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier decided to build his own residential palace for his family, he chose 35th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. The spot he wanted already had two matching brownstones on it, but brownstones were dour and out of fashion. Lanier had them knocked down to create the 33-foot lot for the showstopper he had in mind.

His five-story Beaux-Arts beauty at 123 East 35th Street was completed in 1903. It was a breathtaking sight like nothing else on the block, with its Ionic pilasters, arched windows and entryway, carved wood doors, iron railing, and copper mansard roof. “The total composition is both elegant and dignified, one that could be at home in Paris as well as New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report in 1979.

Lanier was no stranger to society. An avid sportsman and member of the Knickerbocker Club, he made it on Ward McAllister’s list of the 400 most socially prominent people in New York City. His family founded the banking house where he worked, and he certainly had enough money and clout to build his mansion anywhere he wanted.

That Lanier decided to build in Murray Hill is interesting, considering that some of the neighborhood’s wealthy residents had already decamped to the northern reaches of Fifth Avenue—like Mrs. Astor, who moved to a new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street. There were also challenges to the restrictive agreement, plus encroaching businesses. Neither of these annoyances pleased the rich who remained, per a 1914 New York Times article. “How long can the Murray Hill restriction be preserved?” the article asked.

Lanier mansion in 1976

Rather than relocating to more fashionable Upper Fifth Avenue like some of his contemporaries, Lanier lived in his Murray Hill mansion until his death in 1928. When his wife, Harriet, died three years later, the mansion went to his only surviving child, son Reginald Bishop Lanier.

Incredibly, as parts of Murray Hill became increasingly commercial—and the feel of the neighborhood transformed from new money rich to more upper middle class—Reginald Lanier retained ownership of the house for the next 50 years. “Reginald’s wife would frequently host tea and cocktail parties until the 1950s, and according to the LPC designation report, the Laniers would retain ownership of the house until at least 1979,” wrote Curbed in a 2013 article.

With the mansion under such a long stewardship by the family that built it, it’s no wonder 123 East 35th Street retains so much of its original Gilded Age loveliness, including the ornamental urns that greet visitors on the sidewalk in front of the entrance.

The best part of this perfectly preserved Parisian-inspired home is that it’s currently for sale. The nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, parlors, a butler’s pantry, and a servant’s wing can be yours for $33 million.

Christie’s has lots of eye-popping interior photos to pour over. Imagine the grand social events and intimate family life in this time capsule of a mansion!

[Second and fifth photos: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

Join a Walking Tour of Gilded Age Riverside Drive With Ephemeral New York!

August 4, 2022

This month, I’ll be leading two more fun, insightful walking tours through the New York Adventure Club: “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansions and Memorials of Riverside Drive.”

The tours start at 83rd Street and end at 108th Street. In between we’ll stroll up winding, lovely Riverside Drive and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, when the Drive became a second “mansion row” and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.”

The tours will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive, as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball. We’ll also take a look at at the wide variety of people who made Riverside Drive their home, from wealthy industrialists and rich business barons to actresses, artists, and writers.

Though the tour covers a lot of territory, we go at a breezy, conversational pace, with a few dips into Riverside Park and then back again on the shady side of the Drive. It’s a wonderful way to experience the history of New York City. All are welcome!

Tickets remain for the Riverside Drive tour for Sunday, August 7—tickets can be purchased here.

Tickets are also available for Sunday, August 21—here’s the link for this date.

Hope to see a great turnout on either of these quiet end-of-summer days!

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Ebay; third image: NY Adventure Club]

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

The blissful Upper West Side garden hiding on top of a condo garage

August 1, 2022

Neighborhood gardens planted on vacant lots and between buildings are magical places. Walking around the city, I’ve stumbled upon many of these, each with their own enchanting landscape and walkways, sitting areas, and koi ponds.

The Lotus Garden, on 97th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue on the Upper West Side, has these delights as well. What sets this lovely green space apart, however, is that you can’t really stumble upon it from the sidewalk.

This tranquil garden is up a tall staircase and spread out over the garage roof of a luxury condo residence, the Columbia. If you’re not looking for it, you might walk right past—which strangely makes the Lotus Garden more appealing, as if it’s a secret only a few insiders know about.

So how did a 7,000 square foot garden end up on top of the garage? Before the condo and garage were built, volunteer neighborhood gardeners had turned what was an empty lot (once home to two historic movie theaters torn down in the 1970s) into a community garden.

In 1981, developer William Zeckendorf bought the vacant lot, according to a 1984 New York Times piece. His intention was to build a luxury condominium, which met with some neighborhood opposition. After meeting with the local gardeners, he went ahead with his plans and also agreed to spread soil on top of the garage and provide drainage.

Volunteer gardeners then took over. They built “winding paths, installed two fish ponds, and planted fruit trees and flowering shrubs,” the garden’s website states. “At last in the spring of 1983, a group of local residents, including new residents of the Columbia, began to plant flowers and herbs beneath the north facing windows of the Columbia’s tower.”  

The Lotus Garden was born—a hiding-in-plain-site respite from the scorched streets of the Upper West Side in the summer.

The two holdout houses that forced Rockefeller Center to be built around them

August 1, 2022

In the early 1800s, the bucolic site that eventually became 48th to 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues hosted the nation’s first botanical garden. Through the 19th century, the property was owned and developed by Columbia University.

The 19th century holdout building at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street

By the 1920s, what had been transformed into an elite neighborhood following the Civil War was now a downtrodden collection of shabby low-rise houses, eateries, and retail shops (plus some speakeasies and brothels) made even more undesirable by the hulking steel elevated train tracks above Sixth Avenue.

So when the Metropolitan Opera began looking for a site to build a new opera house that would replace its current home at Broadway and 39th Street, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (son of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., head of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men in the world) envisioned these Midtown blocks to be an ideal location not only for the opera but for a gleaming new skyscraper business and entertainment district in the shadow of his own nine-story mansion on West 54th Street.

On the other side of 30 Rock, a three-story holdout at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street

After the stock market crashed in 1929, the Metropolitan Opera dropped out of the project. Still, Rockefeller went ahead with plans for an 11-acre mini-city mix of retail, theater, and office space. He leased the land from Columbia, then brought in architects and builders. Between 1932 and 1939, Rockefeller City’s 14 original Art Deco buildings opened.

Before construction commenced, however, Rockefeller had to buy out (or wait out) the leases for 203 different lots, and then raze 208 of the old low-rise buildings, according to Daniel Okrent’s 2004 book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.

Money talked in the Depression, and owners and lease holders almost always took the cash offered to them. But Rockefeller didn’t buy out everyone. Cases in point: the two 19th century walkup buildings flanking 30 Rockefeller Plaza. One of these holdouts is on the corner of Sixth and 49th Street, and the other stands at the corner of Sixth and 50th Street.

How did they survive the Rockefeller bulldozer? Let’s start with the gray holdout on the 49th Street side, with the charming late 19th century cornice.

This survivor, which the Rockefeller Center website describes as “a pebble surrounded by boulders,” dates back to the 1870s. In 1892, the little building became an Irish pub called Hurley’s, run by brothers John and Daniel Hurley and a bartender, Patrick Daly.

Hurley’s already had to deal with Prohibition in the 1920s, when they turned the “front of their pub into a flower shop, among other ventures, and the upstairs into a speakeasy accessible through an unmarked side entrance,” the Rockefeller Center website noted.

Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street: these might be the holdout buildings on each corner

In 1930, Rockefeller began buying out leases and demolishing buildings. Turns out the Hurleys had a lease that ran until 1942 that “barred demolition,” explained Sam Roberts in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings: “They demanded $250,000 (about $3.7 million in today’s dollars), which the Rockefellers refused to pay. After Prohibition was repealed, the brothers reopened their bar.”

Not long after Rockefeller was forced to build his skyscrapers around the stubborn bar, Hurley’s became a watering hole that attracted media professionals working at the neighborhood’s big network and newspaper headquarters. According to Liz Trencha’s 1994 book, Fighting for Air: In the Trenches With Television News, a man identified as “Old Man Hurley” reportedly said, “I’ve seen sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers come and sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers go and no sonofabitchin’ Rockefeller’s gonna tear down my bar.”

1258 Sixth Avenue at 50th Street in 1939-1941

Hurley’s closed up shop in the 1970s. The saloon reopened with the same name under new owners before going out of business for good in 1999, according to a New York Times article. Today, Magnolia Bakery occupies the ground floor space. A new pub, called Pebble Bar, has recently opened as well.

How the building on the 50th Street side of 30 Rock became a holdout is less clear. According to a 1962 Daily News article, the building was owned by a grocer named John F. Boronowsky, who simply refused to sell his three-story store. Rockefeller built around his grocery as well, which now houses a Warby Parker eyeglass store.

Today, it almost looks like Rockefeller planned to keep two walkups on either side of flagship 30 Rock. The little buildings balance out the Art Deco tower; they look like charming 19th century bookends for a mighty 20th century skyscraper. But the truth is, because of their age and prime location, they may be the most famous holdout buildings in New York City history.

[Third, fourth, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collection; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]