The former lives of a shabby Midtown brownstone

When you think of Madison Avenue in Midtown, brownstones don’t generally come to mind. But in the late 19th century, rows of these iconic chocolate-brown houses for the city’s upper classes lined this new residential district in the East 40s, north of posh Murray Hill.

Not many survive today; this stretch of Madison has long been subsumed by commercial buildings. (Below, in the 1920s). But the modest brownstone at number 423, between 48th and 49th Street, is still hanging on.

Madison Avenue at 48th Street, 1925

Hiding behind scaffolding and wedged between two office towers, this ghost of the Gilded Age certainly has stories to tell.

It’s not clear when it went residential to commercial, but by the 1880s it was home to J.H. Morse’s School for Boys—a hint that the neighborhood was probably still overwhelmingly residential and populated by families.

Frank Bruns’ latest delivery wagon in 1912

What kind of school was J.H, Morse’s? It sounds very similar to the prep schools of today’s New York. Run by a Harvard grad, the school’s main purpose was to “prepare boys thoroughly for the best colleges and scientific schools,” according to a 2014 New Republic article.

423 Madison Avenue in 1940, with the vertical Longchamps sign

In the early 1900s, number 423 was a grocery run by Frank Bruns. This grocer made news as an early adapter of gasoline-powered automobile for deliveries. “In 1905 he placed in service a Peerless car fitted with a delivery body, and from his own statement secured more in the way of advertising value than otherwise, though its service was by no means unsatisfactory,” stated The Horseless Age, published in 1912.

By the 1940s, the brownstone had a new life as a Longchamps, a popular Midcentury restaurant chain with several locations around Manhattan. “Named for the race track in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the first elegant Longchamps opened in 1919, and by the 1950’s there were 10 in Manhattan, most clustered around midtown,” states the New York Times FYI column in 1998.

What kind of place was Longchamps? The restaurants typically featured Art Deco style, cooked up dishes like oxtail ragout and crabmeat a la Dewey, and was a decent place to get a drink—seen above in a 1933 Daily News photo showing fashionable New Yorkers sharing a table and enjoying cocktails.

The Longchamps at 423 Madison also had an early neon sign, which went vertically down the side of the brownstone and put a crack in the cornice. Long after the chain moved out in the 1960s (Longchamps went bankrupt by the mid-1970s, according to the Times), the sign remained; Lost City has a photo of it from 2007.

Today, the sign is gone, but the cracked cornice remains. Another local restaurant chain occupies the ground floor. The brownstone’s upper floors are apartments—it’s a residence once again.

Scaffolding keeps us from seeing it all. But you can imagine its former glory as a refined Gilded Age single-family home, likely surrounded by similar brownstones. Some of these still exist in Midtown but tend to be obscured by taller buildings, as 423 is.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: New York Times 1888; fourth image: The Horseless Age; fifth and sixth images: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh image: New York Daily News, 1933]

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6 Responses to “The former lives of a shabby Midtown brownstone”

  1. Laura Wilke Says:

    Good story. I am curious if you know about the brownstone that refused to be sold and knocked down because of the construction of the Citicorp building.

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    You must mean the church that refused the Citicorp Bldg on Lex Ave? Interesting story http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2014/04/17/the_citicorp_tower_design_flaw_that_could_have_wiped_out_the_skyscraper.html

  3. Greg Says:

    Interesting survivor indeed! The brownstones directly north of it seem to have been torn down by 1940 and replaced twice over already, by comparison.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Oh for the days of a decent middle/upper-middle class restaurant that didn’t cost an arm and a leg and fed you satisfactorily….

  5. Ricky Says:

    It’s fantastic that it is still there today, but a shame that it has been stripped of all of its ornamentations.

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