This holdout brownstone is a monument to the 1980s tenant who refused to leave

These days, the traffic-packed intersection at Lexington Avenue and 60th Street is a modern tower mecca of street-level retail shops topped by floor after floor of office space and luxury residences.

But steps away from this busy urban crossroads is a curious anachronism: a four-story brownstone. Number 134 East 60th Street has been stripped of its entrance and 19th century detailing. It sits forlorn, dark, and boxy, attached to the 31-story tower behind it and to a Sephora next door.

There’s no longer a door or first and second floor windows, so it’s unlikely anyone lives in this walkup, which used to be part of a pretty block of brownstones built in 1865. So how did it escape demolition—and why is it still here?

Think of it as a brick and mortar memorial to a woman named Jean Herman, who almost 40 years ago refused to cede her small apartment on the fourth floor to the developers of the tower.

The story begins in the early 1980s. Herman was a freelance public relations specialist who had a longtime rent-stabilized lease of $168 per month for her two-room apartment here, according to the New York Times. She liked living in the neighborhood, she told the Times in another article, and she decorated her small home with window boxes of petunias and geraniums, per an AP story.

60th Street and Lexington Avenue in 1912, with rows of 1860s brownstones

Then in 1981, a real-estate development company called Cohen Brothers “bought her building and every other on Lexington Avenue between 59th and 60th Street, across from Bloomingdale’s department store, with plans to demolish them all,” stated the AP piece.

Other tenants were evicted or bought out. Herman stayed put, and because her apartment was rent stabilized, she couldn’t be forced to leave. So the developers “offered to find her another apartment and work out an arrangement in which they would pay her rent, plus a stipend,” wrote the Times.

Jean Herman in the Daily News, 1986

Herman was shown 25 apartments in the general neighborhood, but none of them worked for her because they were not rent-stabilized. She told the Times, “if I move this time, I don’t intend to do it again.” Reports came out that she was offered six figures, even a million dollars to give up her home, but Herman insisted these numbers weren’t accurate.

By 1986, Herman was the only tenant left in her brownstone. After exhausting all avenues for getting her out of the building, the developers gave up and begin construction on the tower. When it was completed, the tower opened with Herman still living in the brownstone.

Herman didn’t occupied her apartment for much longer; she died of cancer in 1992. “Her vacancy last month came too late for the Cohens, who remain bitter over what they regard as Miss Herman’s utter folly,” the AP article stated.

To many New Yorkers, however, Herman is something of a heroine, unafraid to stand up to developers and defend herself under the threat of losing the home she was happy with. Her holdout brownstone makes a very appropriate monument.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: Tom Monaster/New York Daily News March 23, 1986]

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17 Responses to “This holdout brownstone is a monument to the 1980s tenant who refused to leave”

  1. Ron Says:

    She was helped mightily by her attorney, Joseph Fallon.

  2. richardlowellparker Says:

    In the mid-70’s, I remember seeing this brownstone standing all alone after everything else had been demolished. I wish I had taken a photo.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Great story! Go Jean!

  4. Rob Says:

    Any idea what the building is now?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I believe it’s still owned by the developers of the tower, and it’s made to look like it’s part of the Sephora store to the east. I don’t think it’s occupied at all.

  5. John MIller Says:

    definitely a great story, definitely a New York story.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    One gathers it would cost too much to take it down and replace it woth something more consonant with the building that engulfs it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Probably right; the developers must have concluded that there’s no point to bulldozing it. Maybe the use it to store things, but it appears to be an empty husk of a former brownstone.

  7. VirginiaLB Says:

    I love this kind of story. Good for her.

  8. Jane Says:

    Good for her

  9. Trel Brock Says:

    Forgot to mention all they did to try and force her to leave, including cutting off water and power, construction beams through the building and the noise at all hours. She soldiered on.

  10. petlover1948 Says:

    My maiden name was Herman; but she is not related to me; i wish she was

  11. Sheryl H Says:

    she is an inspiration

  12. marshanewman11 Says:

    Wow, remarkable story of an old woman wielding a big stick here! Reminds me of my own Aunt Rae Jackson Gershon, who held on to her also rent stabilized apartment to her own death in 1997, unbought when it went condominium, at 210 E. 73rd St. Apt. E, 1st floor. They wanted her out also, in order to sell the apartment in this case, because of failure to buy it. My aunt refused and was only out by her passing then, in November 1997 at age 94.

  13. chas1133 Says:

    Be interesting to get inside there…

  14. Alexei Says:

    I remember passing by a few times when they were building around and I wrongly assumed the building owner was holding out, not a rent-controlled tenant. It’s good to hear she stood her ground, it was too bad she didn’t live to a much older age.

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