The stories of 4 holdout buildings that refused to bow to the wrecking ball

It’s hard not to cheer on a New York City holdout building.

You know holdouts: smaller walkup buildings, usually one-time residences, that somehow managed to remain intact over the past century or so in a city filled with developers who would love to get their hands on them—or at least the land they occupy.

Some holdouts are in beautiful shape, a testament to former and current owners who had the means and the will to maintain their original loveliness. This French Renaissance-style holdout, at 612 West 116th Street, began its life in 1906 as the Delta Phi fraternity house for the Columbia University chapter, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission report for the Morningside Heights Historic District.

Today, it’s part of the Columbia campus and houses Casa Hispanica.

In somewhat shabbier shape is this handsome holdout (second image) at 18 East 33rd Street. Today the ground floor is occupied by a bar and restaurant; it’s surrounded by a new glass tower and an early 1900s loft building in a decidedly commercial Murray Hill.

Back in the 1870s, however, it was part of an elite residential row in stylish Murray Hill, home to New York’s upper echelon and steps from Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. It might be in this photo from 1885 showing President Grant’s funeral procession.

A New York Daily Herald ad from 1874 describes it as a “first class four story brown stone house, well arranged and in good order.” If only the ad told us what it was selling for!

On Riverside Drive between 75th and 76th Streets stand two eclectic row houses. Both Number 35 and 36 were completed in 1889 by the architectural firm Lamb & Rich, according to the LPC report for the West End-Collegiate Historic District.

These two fanciful homes would have housed one family in each; they were early arrivals on the new “millionaire’s row” of Riverside Drive, which was supposed to overtake Fifth Avenue as the city’s wealthiest avenue. Originally there were four row houses, but only two remain, replaced by the 1922 tower next door.

Another Queen Anne-style stunner between Park and Madison Avenues also went up in the 1880s. Number 72 East 86th Street changed hands often during the first decades of its existence.

Built as a single-family home, it was increasingly crowded out by the new elegant apartment towers going up on the Upper East Side. Perhaps the trend toward apartment living was what prompted its owners in the early 1920s to convert it into apartments.

Two rooms and a bath for $75 a month? That was pricey in 1922, when this ad appeared in the New York Herald!

[Third photo: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: New York Herald]

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19 Responses to “The stories of 4 holdout buildings that refused to bow to the wrecking ball”

  1. Laura Says:

    I think there was one under the Citibank building, which prompted the design of the building. I don’t know if it is still there. It was on the side street.

  2. andrewalpern Says:

    The knee-jerk reaction to holdouts is to root for them and cheer them on. That’s because sometimes the new building replacing the old one is a bad piece of architecture. That doesn’t make the holdout good. Far more often, the holdout is very bad, and often quite pathetic. Holdouts come in several varieties, all of which arrive in little boxes as shown in your photographs. Some are frightened or hiding secrets. Some are merely stubborn contrarians. Some are very little people who have never before felt they could have any effect on the world, so they hold out merely to assert themselves. But by far the largest category of holdouts is the one with wildly unrealistic ideas about the value of their property to the developer. They demand such an unreasonable price that the site for the new building perforce avoids their property. For the holdout, it’s a lost opportunity, because once the developer decides to do without the holdout, the chance of a large profit is gone. And if the new development never happens because of the holdout, there may be many losers who might have benefited from that development. It is not just building owners who gain an advantage from a new building. The people who might live in it, the shopkeepers on the ground floor, the restaurants in the neighborhood who would enjoy the custom of those new residents. And the city’s coffers that would benefit from the increased taxes. Holdouts are not ipso facto good.

    • Shayne Davidson Says:

      American cities are obsessed with “progress.” I say hurray for the holdouts! Cities like Paris and London are full of them. They attract tourists, and this also increases the tax coffers.

  3. Kelly Says:

    I love these! More than anything we get a look at what has been ripped from out history and a look at the streets of NY of another era. How wonderful! Thank G*d for the Landmarks Preservation Committee or else Grand Central and so many other magnificent buildings would have been torn down.

    You left out PJ Clarks. If I remember correctly, the owner owned the restaurant as well and simply did not want to sell his building.
    Then there is the very true tale of the elderly tenant on 60th and Lexington who refused to move so the brownstone stayed while the rest of the block of brownstones/walk-ups were torn down and that ugly building replaced them. She had lived there many years and did not want to move.

    This isn’t about a hold-out but something that tugs at my heart. There used to be a vegetable stand on 9th avenue and 41st street “Stiles Market” and the Big Apple Meat Market right next door. I think Big Apple owned the building and he eventually sold to developers. So now we have “progress” by way of another non-descript monstrosity that blocks the sun and has added to the ugly homogenized bland NYC and added to the destruction of what was once such a wonderful, dynamic and truly NY neighborhood. Both stores catered to the poor in the area offering affordable food but NYC does like to get rid of it’s poor by pricing them out (or paying them to leave as Bloomberg did).

    A life is made of memories and those memories also include the things you pass everyday without incident. A building, a vegetable stand, the cultural heritage you see and you miss them when they are gone.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, I remember the Ninth Avenue vegetable stand and the Big Apple Market. It was on the other side of the Port Authority, not the loveliest area but a thriving strip of small shops serving the community. As for the brownstone holdout on Lexington and 60th Street, that was Jean Herman:

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

      • Kelly Says:

        No, not the loveliest areas but it was the NYC I knew and loved. It is/was (developers are trying to change the name) Hell’s Kitchen, a very distinct neighborhood and it had not yet been gentrified and all manner of a dynamic life destroyed. Now, every neighborhood in NYC is the same. No character, no personality, no history. You walk down the streets today and it’s not so farfetched to think NY (especially Manhattan) came in to existence only a few years ago and everyone that lives here is of the same race and financial background.
        Have you read “The Alienist”? It was written by the historian Caleb Carr and it takes you through the streets of late 1800’s Manhattan. I suppose I wish I could still see some of that with my own eyes. 🙂
        Love your site!

      • countrypaul Says:

        A brief rumination….

        My in-laws lived in Arizona, most recently in metro Phoenix sprawl amist the senior stereotypes we currently associate with the place. Everytrhing looks the same there – the unified “architrecture” of faux-Spanish shopping center moderne, the six-lane boulevards every mile, etc. The lost Phoenix for me is heard in the “desert rock” of Lee Hazlewood productions, including Duane Eddy, Sanford Clark, Donnie Owens, etc, a countrry-tinged almost-lonesome and somewhat haunted cowboy sound. That WAS Phoenix in the 1950s amd early 1960s, I’m told, but it got paved over. I fear the multi-character New York, especially in Manhattan, is undergoing the same fate. Do we declare it “progress,” especially as Manhattan’s sinking into the ocean has been accelerated by all the overweight buildings (which all look similar) piled on top of it? Even the famous schist comes with a load limit warning, although no one sought to figure out what it was. I know the Manhattan of my youth – that “so near yet so far” glittering magnet trying to pull me in from my comfortable suburb – is kinda history, but I think its passing is a great loss.

        Just my ruminative two cents.

      • Kelly Says:

        No, it’s not progress although that is how it is often described. I moved to ny in 1978. A few years later a mall opened in my home town driving business away from downtown. Sooooo, the powers that be changed the facades of every building on Main Street making it look like some scary manufactured town. They drove the nail in the coffin of downtown because people had no connection to what they created.
        I’ve never been to Phoenix but i do understand your point. Why erase the past when it can be built upon?
        Btw, Jackie Kennedy, et al were RIGHT! Those towers on 57th street create swaths of darkness blocks long across the lower end of the park. You can walk from sunlight in to the shade… exact lines have been created by the buildings.

  4. edwardleather Says:


    div dir=”ltr”>


    div dir=”ltr”>The Murray Hill bldg is

  5. countrypaul Says:

    It is if the holdout itself that we think we love, or the idea of what it represented in the city that now looks more like Hong Kong than its original self?

  6. andrewalpern Says:

    These holdout-friendly comments are driven by nostalgia for an older lower-scale city. If that approach had been taken in the past we would still be living in a three-story town that didn’t extend beyond Chambers Street, and today the city would have no more importance than Baltimore. New buildings taller than the existing ones have always been bemoaned by some, but many of those “too tall” buildings from a hundred years ago are now treasured and protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. For a more nuanced vision of the phenomenon, try the book “HOLDOUTS! The Buildings That Got In The Way.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Your points are well-taken as always, but I confess I’m in the holdout-friendly camp. To come across a brownstone or Queen Anne confection amid a sea of office towers or prewar apartment buildings makes my heart pound. I also highly recommend the book!

  7. Sally F Says:

    Love this post!

  8. VirginiaLB Says:

    Another vote for the holdouts. They add so much to the cityscape and to our NYC history, tangible proof of an ongoing story.

  9. velovixen Says:

    I love the “holdout” buildings, not only for their beauty and distinctive character, but also because they are a reflection of this city.

    This has long been a city of “holdouts,” including E.B. White’s “boy from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and pain in his heart,” women fleeing the violence of their spouses and their neighborhood’s gangs, and people like me who moved back. We came here to be holdouts; some of us need architectural and historical holdouts from algorithmic blocks of neutral tones that, as Kelly and CountryPaul say, have overtaken other places and are overtaking parts of this city.

  10. alewifecove Says:

    Sometimes called “Nail Houses”

  11. Sam Becamean Says:

    What a shame. The girl 👧 losing her life so that the City could finally oversee facade work? Oy vey!

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