Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

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]

A hidden city park named for a murdered activist

October 29, 2018

Walk to the far end of East 51st Street, past the bishop’s crook lamppost of lovely Beekman Place, and you’ll find yourself at a dead end blocked off by a cast iron fence.

The high, spectacular views of the East River are enchanting. But there’s more to this spot than immediately meets the eye.

To your left beside the Gothic-style entrance of a prewar apartment building, you’ll see the beginning of a stairway—then steep steps surrounded by brownstone. They’re like a portal to a mysterious part of Turtle Bay few know about or visit.

The steps take you to Peter Detmold Park, a quiet strip of gazebos, park benches, and a dog run beside the river, with trees partly shielding the FDR Drive.

The serenity of this hidden park stands in contrast to the tragedy that inspired its name.

Peter Detmold (below) was a World War II veteran who made his home in Turtle Bay Gardens, the beautifully restored brownstones spanning East 48th and East 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues.

As president of the Turtle Bay Association, he led the fight in the 1960s and early 1970s to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“When landowners began to rent out office space in residentially zoned areas, Detmold defended the rights of tenants and homeowners, protecting the quiet, neighborly spirit of the area, now a designated historic district,” states the NYC Parks website.

But Detmold’s time as a community activist was cut short.

On the night of January 6, 1972, after walking home from a Turtle Bay Association meeting with two colleagues, Detmold was murdered in the stairwell of his apartment building.

“According to police reports, the 48-year-old Detmold was stabbed as he entered his five-story walk-up building,” explained Pamela Hanlon in her book, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: The Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“He struggled to reach his top-floor apartment, but collapsed on the stairwell, where a neighbor found him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.”

The park was named for Detmold later that year. Almost half a century later, his murder remains unsolved.

[Third photo: Getty]

New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

September 24, 2018

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY 90.13.4.320]

A “glorious natural scene” along the East River

September 10, 2018

Ashcan School artist Robert Henri painted many scenes of New York at the turn of the last century. Like other social realists, Henri’s focus was the gritty reality of urban life—but he also depicted the beauty of the cityscape in quieter, gentler moments.

In his 1901-1902 painting, “Cumulus Clouds, East River,” we get Henri’s gentler Manhattan. Here he “transforms the industrial landscape of the riverside into a glorious natural scene, the boats dotted on the shining expanse of the water suggesting freedom and pleasure rather than commerce and labor,” states A Companion to Art.

Henri had a particularly intimate view of the river. At the time, he lived in a brownstone at 512 East 58th Street, which would have been in the middle of the industrial waterfront. It’s long since been replaced by a luxury coop on rebranded Sutton Place.

What remains of Manhattan’s Rose Hill enclave

September 3, 2018

While walking past the NYPD’s 17th Precinct on East 51st Street recently, I noticed that the front door listed all the nearby neighborhoods the precinct house served.

There was Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Rose Hill. Rose Hill?

The East Side of Manhattan did once have a neighborhood called Rose Hill, taken from the name of a 131-acre farm purchased by a New Yorker named James Watts in 1747.

The epicenter of Rose Hill the farm was roughly at today’s Park Avenue and 29th Street.

Watts didn’t stay at Rose Hill very long. He was a Loyalist, and he left New York in the late 18th century, never to return.

A merchant named Nicholas Cruger was apparently the next occupant, and then it was the home of Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates (left).

But while the areas around the former Murray estate and Beekman mansion retained the names of the families who owned them, Rose Hill all but disappeared, swallowed up by the neighborhood in the east 20s and 30s rebranded as NoMad today.

Back when Manhattan north of 14th Street was the outskirts of the city, however, Rose Hill appeared to be a small but lively enclave.

The neighborhood’s boundaries generally stretched from 23rd to 32nd Streets and Third Avenue to Madison Avenue, per the AIA Guide to New York City.

In the early 19th century, Rose Hill was home to a “female seminary,” a five-acre botanic garden, and a boarding house-hotel for the wealthy.

A newspaper ad described the former farm as “peculiarly airy, pleasant, and healthful.”

By the mid-1800s, Rose Hill had been cut into parcels, subsumed into the city street grid.

A savings bank at Third Avenue and 21st Street, a hall for meetings, a hotel, and a couples of churches all popped up.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the name seems to have been on the wane.

Today, few New Yorkers would know where it was—or they would confuse it with Rose Hill in the Bronx, home of Fordham University’s main campus.

But remnants of Manhattan’s Rose Hill still exist.

The Rose Hill Baptist Church remains on Lexington Avenue (above right), though now it’s the First Moravian Church (at right).

The Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church is also extant (above left). These days, it’s St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, located on 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

An iron gate in front of a pretty brownstone on East 31st Street keeps the Rose Hill name alive.

So does this plaque at the Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany on Second Avenue and 22nd Street, which commemorates General Kosciuszko’s visit to Rose Hill to see his former commander, General Gates, in 1797.

Interestingly, “Rose Hill” is carved into the facade of a tenement on 14th Street near Second Avenue (top image). It’s a little south of the real Rose Hill, but perhaps the name inspired the tenement builder.

[Second image: The Evening Post, 1830; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY, 1820, 29.100.3176; fifth image, MCNY, 1915,X2010.11.5361; sixth image, MCNY, 1975, 2013.3.1.653]

The apartment rooftop that hosted Henri Matisse

August 13, 2018

French Modernist painter Henri Matisse has many of his still lifes, figures, and landscapes on display in New York’s most distinguished museums.

But there’s only one place in Manhattan where a little-known framed photo of Matisse is always on display, with the Depression-era city skyline behind him.

You can see it yourself if the doorman decides to give you a peek.

The black and white photo, from 1930, is in the small lobby of 10 Mitchell Place, a charming 13-story prewar apartment house built in 1928 that was originally called Stewart Hall.

Never heard of Mitchell Place? It’s a secret sliver of a street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place in a quiet neighborhood of old world charm—perfect for an artist more accustomed to Nice than New York.

In the photo, Matisse is sitting in a chair on the building’s brick roof terrace. With his left hand holding his bearded chin, the artist looks contemplative amid a backdrop of apartment buildings, water towers, and the Queensboro Bridge.

What brought Matisse to Mitchell Place? I wonder if he’s in New York visiting his son.

Pierre Matisse moved to New York in the 1920s to become an art dealer and opened a renowned art gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street.

Apparently Matisse came to Mitchell Place often, according to a 2014 New York Times article on one-block streets.

“The painter Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the charming roof deck at 10 Mitchell Place, a.k.a. Stewart Hall. There, a framed 1930 photograph in the 1928 co-op’s equally charming lobby, which has a large fireplace, shows him resting on a canvas deck chair, pondering the East River views.”

A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers

July 30, 2018

When she was found by a police officer on the third floor of Beekman Tower on the morning of November 12, 1935, Vera Stretz didn’t deny that she had just fired four bullets into the married man she was having an affair with (below).

“I shot him,” the blond, 31-year-old NYU graduate confessed to the officer, who spotted her sitting on the floor by the elevator of the sleek Art Deco hotel at First Avenue and Mitchell Place (below left).

In her purse, Stretz was carrying a revolver, ammo, a bloody negligee, and her will—along with the passport and apartment key of Fritz Gebhardt, 43, her German businessman lover.

The Manhattan DA’s office probably assumed it was a slam-dunk case; a crime of passion with a quick confession and lots of evidence.

But this lurid murder would take an unusual turn, with Stretz ultimately claiming that Gebhardt asked her to do something so “unnatural,” she had to defend her honor.

The details emerged when her trial began in March 1936. Stretz met Gebhardt on a cruise to the West Indies and fell hard for the smooth-talking World War I pilot and intellectual. (He was a fan of Nietzsche, apparently.)

Back in New York, Gebhardt got Stretz a job in his office and an apartment for her below his in Beekman Tower.

When Gebhardt sailed to Germany in July, Stretz assumed it was to divorce the wife he’d left behind so he could come back and marry her.

But when her paramour returned to New York in November, he was still married. Worse, he said he had no intentions of marrying Stretz.

This is where the crime of passion theory veers into totally different territory, one with salacious details that captivated New Yorkers.

Stretz’s defense lawyer was Samuel Leibowitz (at the right of Stretz in the above photo), the celebrated attorney who represented Al Capone and the Scottsboro Boys.

Leibowitz put Stretz on the stand.

“Through tears, Stretz told the court how he dominated her, and of the horrible events on the night of the shooting,” wrote the New York Daily News in a 2010 recap of the story.

“She said Gebhardt had called for her to come to his apartment because he was feeling ill. Once there, he tried to force her to perform an ‘unnatural act.’

She shot, Leibowitz declared, in defense of her honor.”

The “unnatural act” was assumed to be oral sex—and the 12-man jury apparently agreed that no morally straight man would ask a woman to take part in this sexual activity. Leibowitz also capitalized on anti-Nazi sentiment by painting the dead man as a Nazi sympathizer.

Stretz was found not guilty on April 3. She never made headlines again.

[Top photo: via Daily News 1936; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: AP; fourth image: Daily News 1936; fifth photo: Daily News 1936]

When New Yorkers went to roofs to sunbathe

July 16, 2018

Here’s an old-school New York City summer pastime you don’t see very much anymore: rooftop sunbathers.

These UV fiends are soaking up the rays on Prospect Tower at Tudor City in 1943—and I have a feeling not one of them is using any kind of sunblock.

Tudor City’s rooftop is clearly designed to host residents. What did New Yorkers do if they lived in a building without an official rooftop? Tar beach, of course!

[Photo: Wurts Brothers, MCNY, X2010.7.1.8408]