Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

This luxury building had a private dock for yachts

September 16, 2019

River House, the majestic Art Deco apartment building at the end of East 52nd Street, offers lots of amenities.

Residents of this tony co-op built in 1931 on the site of a former cigar factory enter and exit through a cobblestone courtyard with a private driveway behind a wrought-iron fence.

Multi-room apartments have panoramic views of the East River, and the 26-story building features the River Club, a members-only club with a gym, pool, and dining room.

Too bad one of the original selling points River House dangled in front of its earliest prospective tenants is no longer there: a private dock on the East River where residents could park their yachts.

It’s hard to believe, but this really did exist. Even though the building opened during the Great Depression, that didn’t stop residents from using the dock to sail back and forth to their Long Island mansions, as one Daily News article from 1940 shows.

The yacht dock’s demise began when the city decided to build the East River Drive (later the FDR Drive) along the river in the 1930s, cutting into the dock. City officials apparently tried to work out a compromise.

“At River House, the highway is all at one level, the same level as the original dockside landing,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2005 New York Times column.

“The city built a high wall separating the landing from the highway—leaving plenty of light, if no view—and erected an elevated walkway to a new riverside landing just beyond the highway itself.”

Apparently it just wasn’t the same without the original dock, and residents either gave up their yachts or parked them elsewhere.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1931: 88.1.1.2083; second photo: MCNY 1931: 88.1.1.2058; third photo: MCNY, 1938; fourth photo: MCNY 1931: 88.1.1.2121; fifth photo: City Realty]

The 9/11 memorial soaring over Third Avenue

September 9, 2019

“The Braves of 9/11” appeared on Third Avenue off East 49th Street last year, joining these and other memorial murals on New York City streets.

But artist Eduardo Kobra said this last year after his seven-story mural was unveiled, via Time Out New York: “The image contains details that allude to the historical episode. On the helmet, I wrote the numbers 343. This is a reference to the number of firefighters killed that day.”

“There is also a representation of the Twin Towers, and the flag of the United States. The stars represent all the lives that were lost in the tragedy—which left nearly 3,000 dead. Lastly, the colors have one goal: To pass on a message of life, of a restart, of reconstruction.”

2 pre-Civil War homes laying low on the East Side

August 26, 2019

In 1856, a mason named Hiram G. Disbrow decided to build himself a modest home off Second Avenue and today’s East 58th Street.

At the time, Second Avenue above 42nd Street (below illustration, from 1861) was a sparsely populated, slightly shabby area marked by detached, humble houses—similar to the two-story dwelling Disbrow was planning to construct.

Today, 163 years after it was completed, Disbrow’s house—as well as a companion house next door—are still standing.

Hemmed in by towering apartment residences and the traffic-choked approach to the 59th Street Bridge, these antebellum anachronisms serve as humble reminders of pre-Civil War Manhattan.

The houses, at 311 and 313 East 58th Street, are slightly different.

But each reflects design styles popular in the 1840s and 1850s: huge windows, French doors, pilasters, shutters, small front lawns, and a (charmingly crooked) front porch.

Think of them as examples of the “modest, semi-suburban houses which dotted the uptown side streets of mid–19th century New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report.

Two hundred years earlier, in the 17th century, the land beneath these homes was basically countryside, interrupted by Eastern Post Road and the occasional tavern. One tavern-hotel nearby was the Union Flag, located where the bridge approach is today.

Later, in the 1850s, Disbrow and another man decided to make their homes here, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. (Above, a map of the area circa 1854, before the houses were built.)

Number 313 was Disbrow’s house. Now landmarked, it’s described in the LPC report as “a perfectly scaled, classically conceived small townhouse…a little gem of human proportion.”

Number 311 is also a city landmark. The LPC called it a “historically anonymous” two-story plus basement dwelling with “painted brick walls and stone trim” that’s “refreshing to behold,” via a 1999 New York Times article.

Throughout the next century and a half, the original owners departed. Industry took over the neighborhood. In the 20th century, factories were gradually replaced by wealthy enclaves like Sutton Place and postwar luxury apartment blocks.

Today, number 311 is occupied by an English antique furniture business (the business bought the house for $1.1 million in 1999).

After stints as the headquarters of the Humane Society, and then as a restaurant and celebrity nightclub called Le Club in the 1970s and 1980s, number 313 is once again a private dwelling.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth image: NYPL map collection]

The most spectacular mansion on Sutton Place

July 1, 2019

When developers created Sutton Place in the 1870s, they started with a one-block strip of 24 brownstones between 58th and 59th Streets and the East River and Avenue A (which ran uptown at the time).

But it wasn’t until the 1920s when Sutton Place, now stretching from 57th Street to 60th Street, became synonymous with extreme wealth and privilege.

This couldn’t have happened if a group of New York’s richest and most notable women—such as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, and society decorator Elsie De Wolfe— didn’t decide to turn this out of the way street into the city’s new corridor of exclusivity.

Among these influential women was Anne Harriman Vanderbilt (left).

Anne Vanderbilt was the widow of William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and ex-husband of Gilded Age society doyenne turned suffrage supporter Alva Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt’s announcement that she was relocating from her Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street mansion to a part of Manhattan known for its proximity to slaughterhouses and factories was quite shocking.

It marked such a shift among the society set that the news made the gossip columns and bold type headlines.

“Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt to Live in Avenue A,” proclaimed the New York Times in 1921, in an article that chronicled the movement of “society leaders” to this “new colony” of Sutton Place that sought to blend the three “classifications of life—social, artistic, and professional.”

Vanderbilt was a philanthropist who helped finance a development of open air tenements for tuberculosis sufferers not far away on Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) and 77th Street.

Though devoted to her charitable endeavors, Vanderbilt apparently pulled out all the stops when it came to her  new digs.

Instead of building a luxury townhouse or moving to a ritzy apartment residence, she commissioned architects to create an expansive Georgian-style mansion on the corner of Sutton Place and 57th Street.

Christened “One Sutton Place North” and completed in 1921, the mansion was a 13-room (plus 17 servant rooms) ivy-covered home with a bright blue front door.

Stately shutters flanked enormous windows, and shady trees swayed gently across the front facade.

Perhaps the mansion’s most impressive features were the terraces, gardens, and the lawn sloping down to the East River.

Vanderbilt only lived on Sutton Place until 1927, after which she relocated to a triplex on Park Avenue.

Her magnificent house still stands on this lovely corner today, one of the last single-family mansions in Manhattan on a street that isn’t trendy but still has its air of exclusivity.

Want a sneak peek? It was up for sale in 2018 for $21 million bucks.

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY 1921, X2010.11.14511; fifth image: New York Times headline 1920; sixth image: New York Daily News 1920; seventh image: Berenice Abbott, 1926]

An apartment house rises out of this 1893 school

May 20, 2019

In the late 19th century, New York City went on a public school building spree, constructing several handsome new schools across Manhattan to educate all children, but especially those of the poor and working classes.

One of these schools, completed in 1893, was a spectacular romanesque building that resembled the Dakota—trimmed with brownstone and brick and tricked out with arched windows and gabled roofs.

Public School 35 (above, in 1920) occupied the northwest corner of First Avenue and 51st Street (the former site of the 18th century Beekman mansion) for the next 70 years.

What was it like attending school here?

One New York Times letter writer summed it up this way in 1987: “My fellow-students, although by no means an assemblage of miniature angels, had been cautioned by hard-working parents to derive maximum benefits from the free education denied their European-born parents.”

By the 1960s, PS 35 was no longer. For the next few decades it was a mostly empty neighborhood eyesore. The old school even did a stint as a homeless shelter for women.

In the 2000s, however, this striking building took on a new role: as the lower-floor facade of a 20-story condo designed by Costas Kondylis.

The interior walls were knocked out and a modern apartment tower was built inside the facade. (Above, before the apartment building was started).

Don’t give too much credit to the developer, though, for preserving the facade. The school earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Presumably the facade of PS 93 couldn’t be totally leveled, so the sleek condo building now rises inside the school—a curious mix of old and new New York on a Turtle Bay block.

[Third photo: NYPL; Fourth photo: Turtle Bay Association]

Desolation and isolation on the East River in 1909

March 25, 2019

Social realist painter George Bellows completed “Bridge, Blackwell’s Island,” in 1909, which is also the year of the opening of the Queensboro Bridge, as this span over the East River was called at the time.

Like the East River waterfront, Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island) was to Bellows a place on the margin—where refuse, industry, and those who were edged out by 20th century urban life were relegated.

This look at the bridge almost devoid of people seems to say something about the desolation and isolation of the contemporary city.

Smokestacks belch, a tugboat speeds through the choppy river, a lone man not much bigger than a speck is tending to something on the dock—and four children shrouded in darkness peer across the water—perhaps contemplating the modern metropolis they’re part of.

Blue and white tiles line the Queensboro Bridge

February 4, 2019

New York City’s many bridges are frequently praised for their beauty.

But The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (yep, the former mayor’s name was officially added in 2011) might be the most lovely.

The cantilever span itself is graceful and elegant, of course. But what sets the Queensboro apart might be the smaller design motifs and decoration the bridge architects insisted on before it officially opened in 1909.

Among these are the decorative lampposts at the entrance to the bridge, and vaulted, Cathedral-like ceilings lined with famous Guastavino tiles under the Manhattan-side bridge approach, the commercial space known as Bridgemarket.

Then there are the blue and white tiles built in to the facade under the bridge approach on First Avenue. They could be terra cotta; I’m not quite sure.

The circles and rectangles on each individual tile weave a spectacular pattern covering large swaths of the bridge approach.

But if you don’t look for them as you walk under the approach, you might miss out on this wonderful decorative touch that appears to exist entirely to charm pedestrians.

The striking doorway Medusa on Sutton Place

January 14, 2019

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster with snakes in her hair; looking at her could cause a viewer’s face to turn to stone.

On contemporary Sutton Place near 58th Street, there’s another Medusa.

Snakes live in her hair, but rather than turning viewers into stone, she herself is stone—a keystone that is. She frames the doorway of a beautiful five-story, French chateau–inspired townhouse below a lovely wrought-iron balcony.

The house has a long backstory. It was the first in a line of drab, out-of-style brownstones to be transformed by literary and decorating power couple Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe in 1920 into a luxury showpiece.

Soon after, the East Side street attracted New York’s most elite to the newly developed Sutton Place, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

Since then, it’s had a number of notable residents, and in 2017 was listed for sale at $8.5 million. (See the amazing interior photos.)

But who put Medusa there?

She wasn’t guarding the (much less ornate) doorway in the 1940 tax photo I found taken by the city, above.

But she appears to be in another tax photo taken sometime in the 1980s.

That photo also shows the townhouse looking much like it does today. Though the quality of the image is too poor to be sure (at left).

At some point between the 1940s and 1980s, an owner decided a scary Medusa head would be a nice addition to the facade.

[Third and fourth photos: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

A riverside cobblestone cul-de-sac no one knows

November 5, 2018

Imagine living on your own gated street on the far East Side of Manhattan—with a row of 19th century townhouses on one side and a tree-shaded lawn sloping down to the East River on the other.

Such a place exists east of Sutton Place at the end of 58th Street: a cobblestone cul-de-sac called Riverview Terrace.

Most New Yorkers don’t know it’s there, and that’s probably the way the residents prefer it.

“Just beyond Sutton Square is one of the neighborhood’s finest, and least‐known, residential enclaves, Riverview Terrace, a group of five ivy-covered brownstones fronting directly on the river,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1976 in the New York Times.

“A private street, tiny Riverview Terrace runs north from Sutton Square just on the river; a place geographically closer to city tensions yet more removed from them would be hard to imagine.”

Riverview Terrace was originally a less showy street, settled in the 1870s “by ‘nice people’ in modest circumstances, who were erratic enough to prefer a view of the river to a convenient horse car,” wrote the Times in 1921.

By the 1920s, with Sutton Place (formerly known by the more pedestrian Avenue A) becoming a bastion of wealth, the houses on Riverview Terrace underwent an upgrade.

The photo on the left was taken in 1935, with the street looking similar to the way it appears today.

The next photo on the right is from the 1930s, looking at Riverview from the East River.

Since then, these houses have been remodeled and renovated according to the imaginations of their wealthy owners.

Occasionally they come up for sale. Take a peek inside one on the market for $8 million right now.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3160; Fifth photo: NYPL]