Shy lonely brownstones hiding in the cityscape

New York is a city where buildings proudly announce themselves—with bright, windowed lobbies, or large logos, or architectural bells and whistles that convey something grand or self-important about the space.

16 East 58th Street

Then there are the lone, faded brownstones and row houses that tend to go unnoticed.

Once flanked by identical houses on pretty, exclusive streets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these solo dowagers are usually stepped back from the sidewalk and wedged between commercial buildings, their facades altered in the contemporary city.

58 East 56th Street

Houses like these, sometimes found in a pair (above), can be seen in pockets all over Gotham.

Number 58, still part of a pretty row in 1939-1941

But quite a few seem to be in Midtown closer to the East Side, the remnants of a rush of Gilded Age residential development centered near Central Park when every Shoddyite (aka, nouveau riche New Yorker) wanted their own brownstone.

127 and 129 East 60th Street

But New York has what Walt Whitman called the city’s “tear-it-down-and-build-it-up-again spirit.” Commercial development crept northward. Within a generation or two—or at least by midcentury—many of these residential blocks met the wrecking ball, replaced by loft buildings or office towers dedicated to business.

Same buildings, altered in 1939-1941

And the remaining brownstones? Abandoned as single-family homes and carved up into apartments with ground-floor store space, they faded quietly into the background, often hidden behind a store sign or years of construction scaffolding.

Lexington Ave and 58th Street

They’re holdout buildings of sorts, but perhaps more by accident than the result of a stubborn owner. Once you notice one, it’s hard not to wonder about its former life as an elegant or expensive residence: who lived there, what was the neighborhood like before it became a commercial corridor?

I’ve found a few earlier photos to give an idea of what they looked like around 1940, when they were still part of a residential block but with commercialism creeping up. Consider these remaining brownstones the phantoms of an earlier layer of city history.

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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5 Responses to “Shy lonely brownstones hiding in the cityscape”

  1. carolynquinn Says:

    So glad they weren’t torn down!

  2. courtship1Bobby Costa Says:

    Seen the evolution of a Great City

  3. Andrew Alpern Says:

    I wrote a book about holdouts such as these. Its third edition is titled “HOLDOUTS! The Buildings That Got In The Way.” — Andrew Alpern

  4. velovixen Says:

    When I see such “holdouts,” I have hope.

    Andrew–I’m going to look for your book. It’d be interesting to find out how those buildings escaped the wrecker’s ball.

    • Andrew Alpern Says:

      Thank you, VeloVixen. My book shows that the reality of holdout battles is complicated, and it’s not always the developer who is Goliath with the little brownstone as David. Often the David thinks himself Goliath and demands an unrealistic price. Sometimes he is frightened or merely unreasonably stubborn. And sometime he is merely nuts. If you like holdouts, I think you will find my book entertaining and perhaps enlightening as well. I ceertainly hope so.
      — Andrew

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