All the terra cotta beauty of an early uptown apartment building

Sometimes you come across a building so rich with decoration, it knocks you out. That was my reaction when I found myself at 45 Tiemann Place, near the corner of Broadway and just below 125th Street.

The building appears to be just another early 1900s apartment residence in the slightly askew neighborhood of Manhattanville—where the grid plan doesn’t necessarily hold and streets tend to have names based on early people and places in the area, not just numbers.

But see the doorway and first floor level: both are decorated with rich, blue-green terra cotta leaves interspersed with lion heads. On the second floor, geometric shapes between and above the windows give the building almost an Aztec or Mayan feel.

The ornamentation doesn’t end with the facade. Inside the front doorway are what look like terra cotta panels of great sailing ships and seagulls flying between them.

What’s with all the artistic trimmings? It might simply come from the imagination of the architect. The building was designed by Emery Roth, the man behind so many distinguished New York apartment buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Beresford and the San Remo on Central Park West and 2 Sutton Place.

Roth designed the building early in his career in 1909. When it opened that year, the six-story dwelling was called the Whitestone, and the address was 609 West 127th Street, per a newspaper advertisement reprinted in Eric K. Washington’s book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.

The ad described the Whitestone as “one of the richest ornaments to a neighborhood full of fine, high-class apartment houses.”

I wonder if the Whitestone’s colorful entryway with the ship images was inspired by the terra cotta plaques installed in many of the new subway stations of the decade.

Sailing ships were (and still are) a popular motif: the Columbus Circle stop features plaques of the Santa Maria; the Fulton Street Station downtown depicts Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont. The South Ferry station also has sailing ship plaques.

The plaques in the entryway likely made sense in 1909 (above, when the building opened). That’s the year the entire city turned out for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, honoring the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon navigating the river that bears his name, as well as the 100th anniversary of Fulton’s steamboat.

There’s another feature at the entrance that deserves a closer look: the two lantern-like lights flanking the front door. Why are they significant? It has to do with Daniel Tiemann (below), the Manhattanville industrialist this two-block street is named for.

Tiemann served as New York’s mayor from 1858 to 1860. Since Dutch colonial days, tradition had it that twin lanterns would be installed outside the front door of the mayor’s home.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Roth may have installed the lamps as a tribute to Tiemann and to a tradition kept up in the early 20th century—until Gracie Mansion became the official mayor’s residence in the 1940s.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, X2010.28.211; sixth photo: NYPL]

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5 Responses to “All the terra cotta beauty of an early uptown apartment building”

  1. Jim Ninos Says:

    I live in a small village in western New York where terra cotta was manufactured. It has become our brand. Alfred New York where the New York State School of Ceramics calla home. The factory burned in 1909 but the beauty lives on.

  2. RICHARD ROTH JR Says:

    Who knew. Amazing history . Questions I wished I had asked my grandfather or father. Thank you Andrew.

  3. Robert Melik Finkle Says:

    I believe those tiles in the lobby depicting ships are Rookwood Pottery which would make them quite valuable.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    I went to Juilliard Prep when it was where Manhattan School of Music is now, and used to walk past (and sometimes up) Tiemann Place on long lunch hour excursions to 125th Street and Bobby Robinson’s Record Shop (and others); it was tough to find deeper doo-wop out in subuerban New Rochelle in those days. (Of course, there were also subway runs down to Times Square Records!) I wish I’d been paying more attention to the architecture; this building is quite interesting. The city has so many treasures hiding in plain sight that would be landmarks in lesser cities but are just “part of the scenery” here.

  5. Tagging-the-Past Says:

    Thanks for mentioning my Manhattanville book, which will be 20 on April 1. Those lampposts were just stumps during the twelve years I lived in The Whitestone from 1984 to 1996 (then I moved two buildings west until 2002), but I always suggested they were possibly Emery Roth’s knowing nod to the historic “Mayor’s lamps,” for the building sits in the path of the old carriage drive to Mayor Tiemann’s house (which gave way to Tiemann Hall, the building I’d moved to). The Whitestone’s embossed number “45” in your photos swapped out the original “609” address only fairly recently, and apparently with loving care.

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