From brownstones to business: 3 centuries on a West 57th Street block

New York City developers went on a brownstone-building frenzy from the 1860s and 1880s. Block upon uptown block began teeming with these iconic row houses that first symbolized luxury but eventually were derided for their mud-brown monotony.

West 57th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenue was one such brownstone block. Here it is around 1890, about the time when this fashionable stretch south of Central Park was home to wealthy residents with names like Roosevelt, Auchincloss, and Sloane, according to Edward B. Watson in New York Then and Now.

Interrupting the low-rise block are church spires. “The church with the tall spire between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is the Calvary Baptist Church, built in 1883,” wrote Watson. Beyond the Sixth Avenue El is the 11-story Osborn apartment building, constructed in 1885, and the faint spire of the wonderfully named Church of the Strangers.

What’s not in the photo on the right at the corner of Fifth Avenue extending all the way to 58th Street is the Alice Vanderbilt mansion—where the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II lived until the 137-room Gilded Age relic was torn down in 1927 (above, in 1894, with brownstones looming on the left).

Fast forward 85 years to the 1970s. In the 1975 photo of the same block (below), West 57th’s days as a stylish residential enclave were mostly over.

Brownstones were bulldozed in favor of tall commercial buildings, including the curved reflective glass tower at Number 9 (completed in 1973, per Watson). The Sixth Avenue El is just a memory.

And though luxury residences like the Osborn survived (visible at the way far left, I believe, if you really squint), few brownstones made it. One in the photo to the right of the reflective glass tower is 7 West 57th Street. This is the former home of financier and philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn, according to Watson, though the facade has undergone a redesign.

Lewisohn might best be remembered as the man who funded CUNY’s Lewisohn Stadium between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues from 136th to 138th Streets, which met the bulldozer in 1973.

Here’s the same stretch of West 57th Street today, with traffic, glassy towers, and many empty spaces where brownstones and other lower-rise buildings used to be.

Bergorf-Goodman has long since taken the place of the Vanderbilt mansion at the corner of Fifth, Lewisohn’s home is either swathed in black glass or gone altogether, and supertall luxury condos stretch higher than the ambitious builders of the Osborn could have imagined.

[Top photo: New York Then and Now; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: Edmund V. Gillon, Jr/New York Then and Now]

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12 Responses to “From brownstones to business: 3 centuries on a West 57th Street block”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    Is the original Henri Bendel building still there? If I recall, that was a brownstone.

  2. W. Barry Thomson Says:

    Each week I look forward to receiving your fascinating Ephemeral New York postings. I would like to suggest a topic for you to consider. It concerns architect Percy Griffin (1865-1921) whose clients included Edward Clark (of Singer Sewing Machine Co. fame), for whom Griffin designed the beautiful row of 18 brick and limestone neo-Georgian townhouses on West 74th Street just off Central Park West. Griffin is also an interesting character for his wife, the artists’ model, Mary Elizabeth Clark, better known as Minnie Clark, who posed for such painters as William Merritt Chase, J. Carroll Beckwith, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Charles Dana Gibson, and sculptor Daniel Chester French. Chase wrote about her and Beckwith hosted the Griffin-Clark wedding reception at his cottage in the Onteora Club artists’ colony in the Catskills. I came to learn about Percy Griffin and Minnie Clark (who was no relation to Edward Clark) when doing research for a mansion, Alnwick Hall, Griffin designed in Morristown, NJ. Alnwick Hall (also known in more recent years and The Abbey) served as the 2017 Mansion in May, a designer showhouse fund-raising event run by the Womens Association for Morristown Medical Center, I can provide you with images and more details about Griffin and Clark if you are interested in this topic. The Griffin-designed townhouses on West 74th are extant, as you no doubt know. — W. Barry Thomson (wbthomson@mac.com)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks so much for this suggestion W. Barry—I love delving into the backstory of brownstone and town house rows, and you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity.

  3. Ginny Poleman Says:

    I believe Alice was married to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, not III.

  4. velovixen Says:

    To think that 57th Street once looked like Park Slope. Now it’s a sterile necropolis of concrete and glass.

  5. Ricky Says:

    Bendels was at 10 West 57th Street. That puts it on the south side of the street, not the north side shown in the photos.

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