The Gothic-style Starbucks on Lexington Avenue

September 24, 2018

If you love tall city buildings with Gothic-style architectural touches, then feast your eyes on 511 Lexington Avenue.

This circa-1929 structure features a feast of cathedral-like Medieval dragons, griffins, and grotesques that appear to be ready to launch themselves off the facade and into Midtown.

Four human figures each representing a season are also on the facade, from spring to summer to winter to fall.

Head inside, and overhead you’ll see rows of gilded allegorical characters representing the human experience: one holds a palate, another reads by candlelight, another might be holding a sickle.

Sumptuous displays of Gothic ornamentation can be found all over New York. But this is the first time I’ve seen anything like it at a Starbucks, which (discreetly) occupies the ground floor of this building, the Lexington Hotel.

The 27-story Lexington (check out these cheapo 1930s room prices) was previously known for its mid-century Hawaiian Room and illustrious residents Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe lived here during their marriage in the 1950s.

Now it’s reputation could hinge on having the one Starbucks in New York that features carvings at its entrance that make you think you’re about to order your cold brew in a Normanesque church in Europe.

It’s certainly a lot different from another unusual Starbucks in Greenpoint…housed in a 1920s ex-neighborhood movie theater, complete with awning!

The little-known history of tiny Catherine Lane

September 24, 2018

Catherine Street is in Chinatown; Catherine Slip is near the South Street Seaport. But Catherine Lane? It’s easy to miss.

That’s partly because Catherine Lane only spans one block, running from Broadway to Lafayette Street above Worth Street. This slender street doesn’t seem to have any commercial buildings or residences as far as I can tell.

The other thing keeping it a secret is the construction scaffolding that obscures it from view, shrouded it in darkness for years.

Since Catherine Lane hasn’t seen the light of day in a long time and it’s unclear whether it has a future, I decided to look into this little alley’s past. There’s not too much about it, but I dug out a few tidbits.

This alley was named for Catherine Rutgers. She was a daughter in a prominent Dutch colonial family, and in 1732 she married into a similarly prominent and wealthy family (the Rutgers of Rutgers Street and Rutgers University).

It was originally known as Catherine Place, according to Valentine’s Manual of Old New York. But Catherine Lane is the name it goes by in 19th century newspaper stories, the oldest of which describes a runaway cow in 1810 at the corner of Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street).

In 1845, the New York Daily Herald reported a sale of a two-story frame house at that same corner. Price: $3000.

Catherine Lane was going downhill by the 1850s. It was listed as “filthy” in an 1857 report on “deplorable” streets, along with many neighboring roads.

By the 1890s, it was the scene of a murder at a boarding house. “There are a few old houses on [Catherine] Lane, which runs back from Elm Street, toward Broadway, between Worth and Leonard Streets. Mrs. Thompson had kept a boarding house there since 1856,” the New-York Tribune wrote.

Also in the 1890s, Catherine Lane landed in the news because of a building that went up on the corner.

The New York Life Insurance Company built their new headquarters here. The McKim, Mead, & White clock tower building is still on the corner or Catherine and Broadway today.

[Third image: Catherine Lane at Broadway, undated; MCNY. Fourth image: Evening Post, 1810]

New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

September 24, 2018

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY 90.13.4.320]

An old house and the “human comedy” around it

September 17, 2018

I wish I knew exactly where this old wood house once stood.

All I know is that it was somewhere in today’s Lower East Side, and in 1915 captured the eye of painter Jerome Myers, a Virginia native who moved to New York in the 1880s.

Myers focused his attention on the city’s worst slums, and what he called the “human comedy” that inspired and riveted him.

“Curiously enough, my contemplation of these humble lives opened to me the doors of fancy,” he wrote in 1940. “The factory clothes, the anxious faces disappeared; they came to me in gorgeous raiment of another world—a decorative world of fancy, like an abstract vision. I was led to paint pictures in which these East Side scenes are lost in a tapestry of romance. Reality faded in a vault of dreams…”

The faded cornerstone of the old police building

September 17, 2018

At the turn of the last century, when the newly consolidated New York needed a bigger, more modern police headquarters, city officials pulled out all the stops to build something glorious.

The result was a Beaux Arts beauty dominating slender Centre Street in what used to be Little Italy: a granite central pavilion and Corinthian columns topped by a gilded dome and an allegorical statue representing the five boroughs.

Completed in 1909, the new building was designed to “impress both officer and prisoner…with the majesty of the law,” according to a 1978 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The NYPD moved out of 240 Centre Street into newer, much uglier headquarters in the 1970s. But if you walked by the former police building today, you’d probably have no idea of its history.

Since 1988, 240 Centre Street has been a luxury condo, and it seems as if the developers did everything possible to erase anything relating to the police department on the facade.

Only the cornerstone, unveiled in May 1905 by Mayor George McClellan in a grand ceremony that featured a police band and mounted troops, provides a faded, chipped-away clue to the building’s former use.

[Second photo: Streeteasy]

The old-school subway signs at Chambers Street

September 17, 2018

Walking through the Chambers Street IRT station on the West Side not long ago, I noticed these tile subway signs, pointing riders in the right direction to the 1, 2, and 3 trains.

The station itself opened in 1918, and the signs look a lot newer than that. It’s kind of nice that the old-school spelling of uptown and downtown remain—with both words broken into two, so the signs read “up town trains” and “down town trains.”

They’re charming touches that take you back in time to a different New York as you make your way to your train. Luckily, other examples of vintage subway signage can be found in and outside various stations through the city.

A “glorious natural scene” along the East River

September 10, 2018

Ashcan School artist Robert Henri painted many scenes of New York at the turn of the last century. Like other social realists, Henri’s focus was the gritty reality of urban life—but he also depicted the beauty of the cityscape in quieter, gentler moments.

In his 1901-1902 painting, “Cumulus Clouds, East River,” we get Henri’s gentler Manhattan. Here he “transforms the industrial landscape of the riverside into a glorious natural scene, the boats dotted on the shining expanse of the water suggesting freedom and pleasure rather than commerce and labor,” states A Companion to Art.

Henri had a particularly intimate view of the river. At the time, he lived in a brownstone at 512 East 58th Street, which would have been in the middle of the industrial waterfront. It’s long since been replaced by a luxury coop on rebranded Sutton Place.

The most beautiful block of row houses in Harlem

September 10, 2018

With their wood porches, front yards, and Victorian touches, the 28 red brick houses on the south side of West 130th Street look like they belong in a Southern city like Savannah.

Instead, Astor Row, as this stretch is called, is located in uptown Manhattan between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. Though not all are in top shape, their singular loveliness arguably makes this block the most beautiful in Harlem.

Astor Row was built by an Astor, of course: William Backhouse Astor (below), who between 1880 and 1883 used land owned by his grandfather, John Jacob Astor, to build these speculative houses—among the first speculative residences in the sparsely populated village of Harlem.

“Numbers 8-22 were built in freestanding pairs, while the remaining twenty houses are linked at their rear sections,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.

Going for $1,100 a year, the homes were so popular, potential renters had to put their name on a waiting list. This was in an era when wealthy New Yorkers insisted on living in a single-family house, and apartment living had not caught on yet with the rich.

Astor Row was owned entirely by the Astor family (who owned huge amounts of land in the city, and many of the houses built on it) until 1911, when some parcels were sold off.

The new owners soon defaulted at about the time Harlem’s population went from white to black—and so did the tenants of Astor Row.

As the 20th century went on, the block remained one of Harlem’s elite enclaves, positioned between the new apartment houses to the north and west in Sugar Hill and the brownstone-lined streets near Marcus Garvey Park.

Over the decades, though, Astor Row slipped into disrepair. Through a combination of private and public funds, an effort (led in part by Brooke Astor) was made in the 1990s to restore them to their original beauty and rebuild many of the wood porches.

Today they’re a striking stretch of residences opposite some extraordinary row houses on the block’s northern side.

But imagine them in the 1880s when Harlem was untamed and unurbanized—and renters here could relax in their front gardens and on their porches and take in the open space!

The sign behind the sign at a Grand Street store

September 10, 2018

I’m not sure exactly when 229 Grand Street was built in the late 19th century. But as far as Lower East Side walk-ups go, it’s a cut above its neighbors.

That’s mainly because of the Gothic-inspired upper windows and the decorative accents on the ground-floor storefront.

And the checkerboard pattern at the entrance to the building—another wonderful old-school touch.

M. Kessler Hardware has occupied 229 Grand Street for decades. (It’s never open when I walk by late in the evening, but I assume it still operates.)

The shop has been there for so long, you can even see the Kessler name in flaked, faded paint on the window behind the more prominent hand-painted “M. Kessler Hardware” sign.

But look closely on the glass above the entrance door at the left. It looks like another layer of faded paint spells out “jeweler.”

Did Kessler share the space with a jeweler or jewelry store—or did a jeweler set up shop here between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery before Kessler Hardware came along?

A clue emerges in the New York Times archive. A January 1927 story describes the trial of a man accused of a “gem holdup” at a pawnshop at 229 Grand Street; $47,000 in jewelry was stolen at gunpoint from the Schwartz Brothers pawnbrokers.

With a haul like that, it sounds like this pawnshop had an extensive jewelry collection and may have advertised that on the store window.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

For fans of Stanford White’s Gilded Age New York

September 7, 2018

UPDATE POST for everyone who gave me their name for the Stanford White event: all names (Susan Spector got the last seat) have been added to the list and confirmed by Landmark West, an event co-sponsor. For more information, go to this link.

If you’re fascinated by the architecture and excitement of New York’s Gilded Age, then this is for you.

On September 12, the The National Arts Club and Landmark West are hosting an hour-long program called “Temples of Power, Temples of Pleasure: Stanford White’s Manhattan.”

Author Paula Uruburu will offer insight into White’s creative genius and scandalous love life. The program and a Q and A take place at the beautiful National Arts Club building at 15 Gramercy Park South.

If any Ephemeral New York readers would like to attend, please message me and I can add your name to a list; admission will be free.

Landmark West has more info here.