The story of the hidden garden inside a Turtle Bay tenement block

East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues in Turtle Bay is a block with a backstory.

During the 17th century, this was farmland owned by Dutch settlers; in the 18th century, a stagecoach stop on Boston Post Road was established here. By the Civil War, the farms vanished, subsumed into the urban city and turned into brownstones and tenements.

But the story in this post concerns something that came to Turtle Bay in 1946: a hidden romantic garden of shady trees, decorative flower pots, stone block walls and paved walkways unseen from the street and accessed through a thin-slatted iron gate.

That courtyard, Amster Yard, was the brainchild of interior decorator James Amster (below). Two years earlier, Amster had heard that a cluster of buildings on East 49th Street were for sale. Constructed around 1870, the buildings were now dilapidated and the neighborhood not quite as desirable as it once had been, especially with the elevated train still roaring along Third Avenue.

Amster purchased these buildings, which included “a boarding house, a carpenter’s workshop and the home of an elderly woman with 35 cats,” according to a New York Times article from 2002.

He then enlisted the help of friends to “create a garden complex surrounded by offices and apartments renovated from the shells of the original buildings,” wrote Pamela Hanlon in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

The result: “a picturesque cluster of one- to four-story brick houses around an L-shaped garden courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery,” stated the New York Times in 1986.

“You go through a thin-barred iron gate down a long flagged corridor till you’re midway between the north side of 49th Street, but perhaps 40 feet short of 50th Street, and you’re in a cool, ailanthus-shaded garden restored to look much as it was, say, 150 years ago,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1953.

Amster Yard was also something of an artists’ enclave, home to interior designer Billy Baldwin and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

In the 1960s, Amster Yard became a New York City landmark, a “pleasant oasis in the heart of Manhattan” that altered the original buildings but recreated the feel of an Old New York garden. Amster himself was a presence there until he died at age 77 in 1986.

Amster Yard still exists, and it’s semi-open to the public. But while today’s Amster Yard looks like the courtyard James Amster designed, it’s actually a recreation.

In the early 2000s, Amster Yard’s new owner, the nonprofit cultural group Cervantes Institute, found that the buildings surrounding the garden were structurally dangerous. The group decided to demolish them, then built reproductions.

Wander into Amster Yard now, and you’ll experience an illusion of Amster’s buildings, which were recreations of the original dilapidated circa-1870 houses. It’s a little convoluted, but the courtyard itself is romantic and delightful, a peaceful respite that blocks the sounds of the modern city.

It’s not the only lovely garden hidden from the street in the neighborhood. Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century rowhouses restored for the elite in the 1920s, also has a secret garden…but that one is residents-only.

[Third photo: Wikipedia]

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10 Responses to “The story of the hidden garden inside a Turtle Bay tenement block”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Another sweet little spot in New York. I’m impressed that they did new low-rise construction in that area.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Apparently the historic districts folks were pretty peeved, as they weren’t notified that the old buildings would be razed and replaced. But it feels old, it’s a sweet spot as you say.

    • nhu876 Says:

      Must be a zoning quirk of that area. Low-rise in Manhattan is generally not a good business model.

  2. Greg Says:

    “In the early 2000s, Amster Yard’s new owner, the nonprofit cultural group Cervantes Institute, found that the buildings surrounding the garden were structurally dangerous. The group decided to demolish them, then built reproductions.”

    That is what they said at least. They had permits only to renovate the landmarks, and tore them down instead without notice to anyone. It turned out ok in the end from my perspective, but it set a bad precedent.

    • nhu876 Says:

      There is a loophole in the NYCDOB regulations that states if a building is demolished down to just one wall left standing, the resultant structure is considered a ‘renovation’ not a new building. Here on S.I. many owners of 1-family homes use this trick to build a new house without going through all the new house permits. All quite legal as long as the ‘new’ home adheres to the local zoning regulations.

      • countrypaul Says:

        Thank yuou for the information on the loophole. It turns out that we have that same situation here in suburban NJ. One such “renovation” came down except for about 15 feet of 2×4 framing! At least they can’t build larger than the existing footprint.

      • Bob Says:

        “The Niketown store, located at 529 Broadway at the corner of Spring Street, is scheduled to open this week inside a new six-story retail complex at the site of a completely demolished building. Despite leaving only a portion of a party wall adjoining a historic property on Spring Street, DOB treated the Niketown site as an ‘alteration’ of an existing property rather than a new building – a decision that allowed a big-box store to open along a shopping corridor already oversaturated with retail space.

        “DOB’s decision – made over the opposition of Council Member Chin, Borough President Brewer and the local community board – puts the interests of a global corporation over the safety of pedestrians forced to navigate congested sidewalks and those looking to protect the historic character of one of the City’s most iconic neighborhoods.”

        See “Electeds Rallying Against 5-Floor Niketown SoHo Opening Tomorrow on Broadway | Bowery Boogie”
        https://www.boweryboogie.com/2016/11/electeds-rallying-5-floor-niketown-soho-opening-tomorrow-broadway/

      • nhu876 Says:

        I didn’t know that the ‘alteration’ loophole applied to commercial buildings.

  3. The Hatching Cat Says:

    The first thing I noticed was the red cat in the first photo. Then I read that a woman with 35 cats once lived there. So, you know I’m going to have to do more research on this cat lady!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad someone noticed the red cat! I’d love to know more about the lady with the three dozen plus cats…looking forward to a future Hatching Cat post!

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