The 6 Civil War-era survivors of East 78th Street

There’s beauty in symmetry, so on a walk uptown I had to stop and admire the striking row of six Civil War–era brick houses at 208-218 East 78th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.

These remnants—the survivors of an original row of 15 houses—are more than eye-catching; they’re rather unusual for their era. The elliptical windows and doorways set them apart from their rowhouse neighbors. And at a little over 13 feet across, each is more slender than most brick and brownstone houses.

There has to be a story behind them, and it starts with the opening of the Third Avenue railroad in 1852. At the time, the area was part of the Village of Yorkville. New York existed mostly below 23rd Street; few streets above 42nd Street were even graded.

But thanks to the new railroad and regular horsecar service running up and down the East Side, people living in the upper reaches of Manhattan were within commuting distance to the city center. That made land on the Upper East Side very appealing to developers.

In 1861, a speculative developer named Howard A. Martin purchased 200 feet of property deemed “common grounds” and owned by the city on the south side of the block. He also paid for the right (in the form of a fine) to have East 78th Street officially opened, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Martin was the one who subdivided the land into 15 separate 13-foot lots (probably because the smaller the lot, the more houses could be squeezed in). He in turn sold the lots to another speculator, William H. Brower, in 1862.

“Because each of the 15 lots was the same width and the same builders were responsible for the construction of all, the 15 houses in the row were probably identical in appearance even though Brower sold all of the properties to several different owners before construction was completed in 1865,” the LPC report states.

Building these modest beauties in the fashionable Italianate style took longer than usual because of the Civil War, which made materials (and perhaps men to do the work) harder to find.

The first owners of the 15 houses were a varied group of well-off but not rich New Yorkers: a dry goods businessman, a man in the varnish business, another man who worked in bags and satchels, and a widow. Some of these owners quickly resold their home. With the city expanding in the Gilded Age and the Upper East Side becoming a desirable area, they likely made a nice profit.

Over the next century and a half, owners came and went; nine of the houses were lost to the bulldozer. But amazingly, the remainders have barely been altered. Ironwork has been replaced, as have front doors. (Above, number 210 in 1940)

But the cornices remain, uniting the houses at the roofline. (Mostly; number 218’s cornice seems uneven.) And those oval doors and windows mark them as unique.

They aren’t the oldest rowhouses in the neighborhood; that honor has been given to these houses down the street at 157-165 East 78th, which were completed in 1861. Yet they might be the most charming.

[Third image: NYC Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

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6 Responses to “The 6 Civil War-era survivors of East 78th Street”

  1. Critifur Says:

    It is not just the cornice of 218 that is lower, the entire facade (the whole building is slightly lowered), actually 208 and 210 are even with each other, then the next three (212, 214, 216) are even with each other but stepped down from the previous two, and then 218 is lower than the rest. I imagine that each set of three buildings of the original fifteen, were each stepped down.

  2. Critifur Says:

    I frequently get interested in looking at more information on a place you write about, and so I looked up listings for the buildings, and very disappointingly 216’s interior has been gutted of every single architechtural detail that must have existed. It is a big empty set of sterile spaces, I can only imagine the grandeur that had to have existed when it was built. 212 has some of it’s original interior beauty. The rest of the images I could find also display stripped interiors. It’s very sad to see.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I understand the sadness. But over a century and a half, it’s inevitable. Luckily the exteriors are so lovely…slightly uneven as you point out but still in harmony!

  3. Kevin Says:

    In the 1940 pic the exterior walls look textured or covered with some material, each address looking different. Yet in the current pics they are uniformly brick. I wonder if the facades were somehow ‘modernized’ back when and then returned to their original state. They are beautiful now, especially with those marvelous stoops.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I noticed that too about the 1940 photo, but it’s a mystery. In any event, as you noted, they are beautiful now.

  4. Mallory Factor Says:

    This is so cool!

    On Sun, May 2, 2021 at 11:06 PM Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: ” There’s beauty in symmetry, so on a walk uptown > I had to stop and admire the striking row of six Civil War–era brick houses > at 208-218 East 78th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. These > remnants—the survivors of an original row of 15 houses” >

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