Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

The story of the two young faces on an 1861 Turtle Bay row house

October 24, 2022

It’s a charming scene on the facade of 328 East 51st Street: a boxy bas relief sculpture of two short-haired young children. One holds what seems to be a pet, perhaps a kitten, while the other looks on and touches it with tenderness.

Such a sweet depiction in a domestic setting would lead you to assume that the children were part of a family that once resided in the house, built in 1861 between First and Second Avenues.

Turns out the real-life children in the bas relief never lived at number 328; their childhood home was a stunning mansion farther uptown. And while questions remain about their connection to the artist who sculpted it, how it came to be installed above the door in the 1960s is less of a mystery.

First, the identity of the children: They are Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany, the twin daughters of artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, according to a New York Times FYI column from 2000 by Christopher Gray.

The twins were born in 1887 to Tiffany’s second wife. Julia and Louise are two of Tiffany’s eight children, and they resided with their parents in the Tiffany family mansion on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. (Julia and Louise are the granddaughters of Charles Tiffany, founder of the jewelry store.)

Twins Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany as babies in a family photo, 1888

The bas relief of the sisters was made by Mary Lawrence Tonetti, according to Gray. Born into a prominent old New York family, Tonetti was a rare female sculptor of the Gilded Age—studying at the Art Students League under Augustus Saint-Gaudens before becoming his assistant in the 1890s.

How did Tonetti come to sculpt the faces of Julia and Louise? “Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known, but the Tiffany twins appear to be about 10 or 12 in the panel, which suggests it was done around 1900,” wrote Gray.

328 East 51st Street in 1939-1941, without the bas relief on the facade

The connection between Tonetti and the Tiffany sisters appears to be lost to the ages. But Gray has an explanation for how the sculpture ended up on 328 East 51st Street.

The row house was purchased in 1965 by a former stage actress named Katharine Cornell. Cornell’s name might draw a blank today, but she gained fame in the 1930s and 1940s for her many starring turns on Broadway, playing the leads in 1931’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet in 1934.

Cornell’s leading-lady status was so solid, she was dubbed “first lady of the theater” by the critic (and Algonquin Round Table member) Alexander Woollcott, according to her 1974 New York Times obituary.

Cornell had been friendly with Tonetti when the two were neighbors in Sneden’s Landing, a small village on the Hudson River waterfront in Rockland County. Cornell had seen Tonetti’s sculpture of the Tiffany sisters and took a liking to it, according to Gray’s Times piece.

Tonetti died in 1945. When Cornell moved from Sneden’s Landing to East 51st Street in 1965, Tonetti’s daughter-in-law gave her a copy of the sculpture a housewarming present, states Gray.

Cornell passed away almost 50 years ago, and the row house has long since changed hands. But the young faces of Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany remain—an anonymous ode to the innocence and wonder of two little girls.

This isn’t the only bas relief of children on a New York City residence. Outside a Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street, Isaac and Julia Rice installed this frieze of their six beloved children. Though weathered and faded, it still stands today.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The spooky spider web windows on 57th Street

September 30, 2022

The scary season is upon us, and Halloween-loving New York City residents are decorating their front stoops, windows, and terraces with witches, skeletons, and spider webs. But one East Side apartment building flaunts cast-iron spider webs across its front windows all year long.

The spider web windows are at 340 East 57th Street, a 16-story vision of prewar elegance between First and Second Avenues. Look closely at the service door above: this web has a black spider sitting in it, waiting and watching. It looks particularly Halloween-like with the orangey glow from the inside light.

The building’s architect, Rosario Candela, was one of the legendary designers of Manhattan’s most exclusive residences in the 1920s. I’ve posted about this building before, and I still don’t know if he had a hand in creating those spider web window guards.

If so, I appreciate Candela’s sense of spooky playfulness. Also playful but not quite spooky: the whimsical seahorse reliefs below the second-story windows.

The roses in the window guards outside an East 51st Street townhouse

September 19, 2022

Sometimes you come across a New York row house with enchanting, floral-inspired window guards and railings, like the Art Nouveau iron grilles outside this Riverside Drive townhouse.

There’s also the iron blooms on the balconies of the Chelsea Hotel, and the tangle of vines that make up the iron railings outside the front windows of J.P. Morgan’s former mansion in Murray Hill.

But equally beautiful are the wrought-iron roses and rose leafs decorating the oval window guards on the ground floor of 331 East 51st Street (above, top)—a five-story elegant townhouse between First and Second Avenues in Turtle Bay.

The second floor window railings also feature iron roses, and so does the fence around the property. It’s all the more lovely to see actual red and yellow roses growing alongside their iron counterparts.

Walking by this turn-of-the-century townhouse and seeing all the roses—real and decorative—makes this passerby wish summer would never end.

All the different business districts of Manhattan, according to a 1939 magazine

August 29, 2022

The center of finance is still firmly in Lower Manhattan, and the Theater District continues to surround Broadway in the West 40s.

But these two commercial districts are all that remain in 2022 of the many business and industry centers that used to thrive in different sections of Manhattan. The commercial districts and map were outlined in a July 1939 issue of Fortune, published to coincide with the World’s Fair that summer in New York City.

Fresh fish is still an industry in today’s New York. But the wholesale markets are no longer centered at South Street; a new Fulton Fish Market was relocated to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005. I’m sure you can still find fresh produce on what was once called the Lower West Side, but today’s Tribeca is no longer the produce market neighborhood it used to be.

Selling fish on South Street, photographed by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune

The Flower District, on Sixth Avenue in the West 20s, still has a few holdout wholesalers. Garments continue to be manufactured in the Garment District, but the output is nothing like it was in the 1930s, when this area from Sixth to Ninth Avenues between 34th and 40th Streets was home to the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world, per the Gotham Center for New York City History.

A nursery in the Flower District, by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune magazine

Automobile showrooms have long left West 57th Street near Columbus Circle. The arrow that says “meat” pointing to Midtown East (where the United Nations headquarters is today) referred to the former Abattoir Center—one of two slaughterhouse districts designated by the city in 1898, according to Tudor City Confidential. (The other slaughterhouse district was on West 14th Street.)

The East Side Abattoir Center, by Alexander Alland for Fortune magazine

A leather district on the Lower East Side? That’s news to me. “Art” and “style” just below Central Park seem to refer to the luxury department stores and fashion boutiques, as well as the art galleries and art-related showrooms, on 57th-59th Streets.

[Images: Fortune, July 1939]

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.

The stone and iron turtles decorating New York City

June 10, 2022

Colonial New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their heads up while feasting in city waterways.

Considering the role they’ve played in Gotham’s history and their presence in the modern city, it’s no wonder that images of turtles can be found on building facades, fence posts, and the sculptures in Manhattan parks.

You would expect a neighborhood called Turtle Bay to have its fair share of ornamental turtles. The turtle above is one of several on the iron fences surrounding Turtle Bay Gardens, a posh collection of restored brownstones flanking a private garden between Second and Third Avenues and 48th to 49th Streets.

The Turtle Bay Gardens iron fence turtles are a lot more stylized than this stegosaurus-like critter, one of three lifelike bronze turtles in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on East 49th Street off Second Avenue.

Outside of Turtle Bay, turtle sculptures abound. One of my favorites is the circa-1916 turtle at the base (one of four) of the Pulitzer Fountain beside the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Its mouth serves as one of the fountain’s spouts—a nice bit of whimsy.

Farther uptown at 973 Fifth Avenue is a sculpture with a base resting on the backs of two rather round turtles. The sculpture is in the rotunda of a former Gilded Age mansion now occupied by a French-English bookstore called Albertine (operated by the French Consulate, which has long owned the mansion).

Full-size view of The Young Archer, resting on turtles

The turtles supporting the sculpture are impressive. But the sculpture itself might have more of a pedigree. Acquired by Stanford White and called The Young Archer, it’s been in the rotunda for decades and has recently been identified as a possible early work of Michelangelo, according to the Albertine website.

The seafaring symbols on a Turtle Bay church’s stained glass window

May 30, 2022

Walk down East 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues on a bright day, and you’ll probably miss it.

But some nights when the interior lights are on, the spectacular stained glass window in the middle of this five-story church on East 52nd Street illuminates the street below with startling color and beauty.

The window is the visual centerpiece of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church—two former brownstones joined together on a mostly residential block offering Norwegian sailors, students, ex-pats, and visitors from all backgrounds a place of worship as well as a cultural center and coffee spot.

The church has been at the site since 1992, hidden amid a row of low-rise walkups. But its roots go back to the 1870s, when the first Norwegian Seamen’s Church opened on Pioneer Street in Red Hook. Fifty years later, the church moved to Clinton Street and First Place in Carroll Gardens, closer to the Norwegian community in Bay Ridge.

As the community dispersed later in the 20th century, the church made another move, this time to Manhattan.

The details painted on the compass-like window are a visual delight, and I’ll try my hand at interpreting these symbols. In the center is a seagull, flying high over the earth’s horizon approaching the heavens, which are marked by a cross.

In 2018, a church pastor told the Turtle Bay Association website that the seagull, “follows ships at sea, so this is appropriate because Norwegians love to travel and wander around cities like New York.”

On the left is a lamb with a staff and halo—the lamb of God. A Viking ship is painted on the bottom, and on the right, it looks like another bird, perhaps signifying the Holy Spirit. The image at the top is hard to make out, but it looks like it symbolizes the power of God.

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

Three mythological Art Deco figures on a 57th Street apartment building

April 25, 2022

Walk along 57th Street, and you’ll see many examples of Art Deco architecture and ornamentation: geometrical shapes, zigzags, and even sculptures of mighty male figures toiling in the modern city. That last one is part of the facade of the 40-story Fuller Building.

Farther east, where office towers recede and elegant apartment buildings line quieter stretches of East Midtown, there’s a different example of Art Deco artistry on one specific residence.

The building is 320 East 57th Street. Take a look at the images above the entrance: three nude women hold hands in a kind of dance, surrounded by floral motifs. Helpful Ephemeral New York readers pointed out that these are the Three Graces, the goddess daughters of Zeus in Greek mythology. Each daughter bestows a particular gift on humanity: mirth, elegance, and youth and beauty.

The bas relief appears to be modeled after this sculpture by Antonio Canova from 1814-1817, which is currently housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

I imagine the Three Graces has been here since the building was completed in 1926, according to Streeteasy—which attributes the ironwork in the lobby to French ironworker Edgar Brandt, a giant of Art Deco design.

Could Brandt be the sculptor behind the figures? I saw no attribution in the building, which only has a plaque outside noting that Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque resided there.

This 1930 neon hotel sign still illuminates East 42nd Street

January 3, 2022

Rising 20-plus stories above 42nd Street, the old-school sign for what was once called the Hotel Tudor is a beacon for Tudor City, the apartment complex mini-city of 12 Tudor Revival-style buildings built in the late 1920s.

Like so many vintage neon signs in New York, its future was threatened. “The sign dates from 1930 when the hotel opened, and has a fleeting brush with demolition in 1999,” according to Tudor City Confidential, a blog that covers the complex. Community opposition helped keep it in place.

Today the hotel is officially known as the Westgate New York Grand Central—and the red glow of the sign lights the way along the eastern end of 42nd Street.