The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street

The end of East 72nd Street is a lovely, almost secret spot. It’s a quiet cul-de-sac straight out of the Village or Brooklyn Heights with wide sidewalks, old school lampposts, and a pretty terrace overlooking the East River.

It’s also the site of four modest yet charming walk-up buildings known for decades as the “black and whites.”

With an illustrious name like that, you know these homes have an intriguing backstory.

Built in 1894 as eight separate tenements from 527 to 541 East 72nd Street between York Avenue and the East River, they were similar to other low-rise tenements in this once-gritty stretch of Lenox Hill.

At the time, this was a working-class neighborhood of waterfront industry and factories, plus rows of humble tenements for the people who toiled in them.

(The 1930 photo below shows East 72nd Street looking east from York Avenue; it’s unclear if they are the tenements from 527-541, but they give you an idea of what the street looked like.)

By the 1920s, living along the river on the East Side became very fashionable. The newly named and revamped Sutton Place had attracted wealthy residents, and Beekman Place and East End Avenue did as well.

This might have been the reason fashion doyenne Carmel Snow and her real-estate investor husband decided to buy these rundown tenements in 1938.

Snow was the rich and well-connected editor in chief of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Something of an Anna Wintour of her day, Snow’s social circle included artists and writers, as well as bankers and society people.

Later that year, Snow brought in a team of architects. They “designed an alteration that gutted and combined the eight tenements into four buildings with two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments of simple finish, many with wood-burning fireplaces,” stated a 1997 New York Times article.

Whether Snow had them painted in black with white trim or the tenements were originally black and white isn’t clear. But at some point the color scheme gave them their nickname.

“The Snows themselves left their apartment in the Ritz Tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue and moved to the easternmost building, facing the river. Five of the nine recorded tenants in 1939 were in the Social Register; this was a new building type, the Social Register tenement.”

Carmel Snow and her husband moved out in the 1950s; George Plimpton moved in, to Number 541, and he used the ground floor as the office for the Paris Review for the next four decades.

By that time, the black and whites had become co-ops. They also apparently survived the threat of being swallowed up by enormous office towers, according to this 1982 New York article.

Today, the black and whites feel like a wonderful New York secret, a surprise bit of beauty and history at the river’s edge. Walk east along 72nd Street; your spirits will lift when you stumble upon them.

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7 Responses to “The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street”

  1. The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] Today, the black and whites feel like a wonderful New York secret, a surprise bit of beauty and history at the river’s edge. Walk east along 72nd Street; your spirits will lift when you stumble upon them. Source link […]

  2. Bob Says:

    In my opinion the Christopher Gray NYT article is pretty clear about the 1938 origins of the paint scheme.

    ” after considering stripping off the Snows’ fashionable paint job, the co-op is repainting the complex its original black and white. […]

    “On Sutton Place between 55th and 56th Streets, the Phipps Estate hired the decorator Dorothy Draper to redo some old tenements, and Draper had the idea to paint the outside black with white trim, an instant mark of chic. […] There is no evidence of a separate designer or stylist in the project — perhaps Mrs. Snow simply adopted the black-and-white treatment herself.”

    Further, the circumstances are also consistent with the notice that Snow was the one who introduced the paint job.

    First, even if one contractor constructed these buildings for “several different owners” using a standard construction scheme for a set price, it seems doubtful (I) that several different owners–as opposed to a single decision maker–would have agreed to this unusual color scheme in 1894 and (II) that they used it without any record of it 30 years before noted decorator Dorothy Draper innovated it.

    “In 1894 several different owners built a row of eight walkup apartment houses at 527 to 541 East 72d Street, in the midst of an area of malt houses and cigar factories.”

    Second, no attempt in 1938 was made to match the original and uniform common brick of the facades likely because Snow intended to paint over the buildings’ facades either for fashion or because matching the brick was an added cost and effort especially during bad economic times.

    “In the 1938 reconstruction, extensive masonry patching was done without any attempt to match the brickwork, and the areas that have been stripped show a real clash between the 1894 grayish brown and the 1938 bright buff.”

    • Bob Says:

      FYI according to the book “A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life In Fashion, Art, and Letters” by Penelope Rowlands, in an article titled “The Amazing Career of Dorothy Draper” (Harper’s Bazaar, January 1941, pp.89-90) Dorothy Draper’s own use of the black-and-white paint scheme was called her “smart idea” for “repackaging shabby brown-stones [sic]”.

      • Bob Says:

        Snow was editor-in-chief of the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958, which includes when that 1941 Draper article was published in that magazine. That to me is compelling evidence that Snow was aware of Draper’s paint scheme, at least 3 years after the 1938 renovation and likely before.

        That said, the Snow book states: “Although Carmel was credited with having influenced the building’s look, there is no evidence that she was very involved. Perhaps it was she, who with her great awareness of design, brought the Draper structures to the attention of her husband, who then adopted their distinctive color scheme for his own venture.”

  3. petey Says:

    been down there a few times. you can get to the back and stroll there too, iirc. the tenants in residence in 1938 will.have been displaced, though. the buildings are charming today, but it was gentrification then.

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    Fascinating…glad they were preserved.

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