Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

This brownstone is an anachronism in Tudor City

November 16, 2020

Tudor City belongs firmly in the 20th century. This quiet “city within the city” built on a bluff west of First Avenue between 41st and 43rd Streets consists of 13 residential buildings, almost all reflecting the Tudor Revival style popular in the 1920s.

In 1925, Tudor City’s developer, Fred French, bought up five acres of land and former middle class brownstones in the neighborhood—brownstones which by that time had been turned into tenements or carved into apartments, according to a 1926 New York Times story.

He bulldozed them to revitalize an area that in the early 1900s had become a slum, putting up modern new “efficiency” units that appealed to young professionals working in Midtown.

But there was one old brownstone French’s company didn’t get their hands on, at 337 East 41st Street.

Today, the house borders one Tudor City building and is surrounded by the beautiful Tudor City Gardens on the other side. It’s a ghost of the Gilded Age, because eerily, it looks almost as it did almost 150 years ago.

Number 337 was built in 1871, part of a wave of “uniform rows of houses for middle-class residents” on East Side blocks north of the city center, according to the Tudor City Historic District Report. (Illustration above shows Second Avenue at 42nd Street amid a building boom in the 1860s)

Brownstones were the fashionable style for upwardly mobile Gilded Age families, and they replaced the modest shanties that had been occupied in part by the very poor as well as Irish gang members in the 1850s and 1860s. (Below, East 42nd Street in 1868)

Number 337 was one of 19 identical houses built for one owner, S.S. Stevens. “Four of these buildings faced south: each was a single-family residence composed of a basement and three stories, faced in Ohio stone and capped with a tin roof and galvanized iron cornice,” states the report.

The value of each brownstone in the early 1870s: $10,000. “It’s Italianate details are remarkably well preserved, especially the triangular stone pediment over the entrance,” notes the report. “Still extant are the original stone lintels, sills, and panels below the first floor windows.”

Like its former neighbors, number 337 was likely occupied by respectable middle-class New Yorkers through the next few decades, though an ad in the New York Daily Herald shows that the second and part of the third floor were already being rented out. (Ad above)

With the Second Avenue El soon rumbling nearby, however, the area gradually slid from respectability, becoming an industrial enclave with slaughterhouses and factories polluting the blocks between Second Avenue and the East River.

In 1887, an ad in The Sun offered three furnished rooms on the third floor of number 337. The fee: $16, though it’s not clear if that was per week or per month. (Ad above)

“Furnished hall rooms” were renting for $1-$1.25, which seems to be a clue that what was described in the ad as a “private house” had actually become a boardinghouse.

By the 20th century, the brownstone was converted back to a single-family residence, notes Daytonian in Manhattan, which has a nice writeup on 337’s backstory.  Residents lived, worked, and died there, with the house attracting little attention. (Fourth and seventh photos, above, in 1946)

Today, 337 appears to still be a single-family brownstone. Like other brownstones in Manhattan, it has a tall front stoop and a side door opening onto a small front yard surrounded by a cast-iron fence and gate. (It also has an unusual lamppost, adding to its charm.)

It might not be quite as noteworthy if it still had its original neighbors beside it, forming an entire brownstone row as seen on so many other city blocks.

Instead, this former middle-class dwelling of the 1870s stands out amid a large 1920s development of middle-class housing, a modest Gilded Age brownstone holding its own amid all that Tudor Revival.

[Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9004; Fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: New York Daily Herald; seventh image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9014; eighth image: New York Sun]

The last in a pretty row of East Side brownstones

November 2, 2020

A single brownstone surrounded by tall modern towers is not an unusual sight in New York City. But something about 143 East 47th Street makes this house seem especially forlorn.

Of course it has a lonely air about it—it’s missing its neighbors.

This house was one in a row of single-family brownstones, built in the late 19th century as Turtle Bay became an attractive area for residences. It was also built amid the brownstone fever that had developers building row after row of these iconic New York City houses.

Here’s number 143 in 1940, courtesy of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services tax photo collection.

I’m not sure which house it is; probably the third from right. It’s been remodeled over the years—note the different front windows. But the cornice is the same, and the bones of this old house are still there behind the construction fencing, as it awaits its fate: new modern neighbors or perhaps the bulldozer.

Why Manhattan has two streets named Beekman

October 12, 2020

For such a small strip of land, Manhattan has a lot of duplicated street names. Think Jones Street and Great Jones Street, Washington Street and Washington Place, and Greenwich Street and Greenwich Avenue.

But there’s one shared street name that’s always been a curiosity: Beekman. Beekman Street lies south of City Hall near the South Street Seaport, while Beekman Place is a residential enclave between 49th and 51st Streets by the East River.

Beekman Street, south of City Hall Park

Both Beekmans are slender roads on the East Side, with Beekman Street running three blocks and Beekman Place two. Beekman Street has a rougher mix of 19th century walkups and 1970s-style buildings, while Beekman Place is a posh lane of charmingly restored townhouses and elegant apartment buildings.

Who were the Beekmans, and how did their family name end up in two places on the Manhattan street map?

Beekman Street is the older of the two, named after Wilhelmus Beeckman (right), “who came to New Netherlands with Peter Stuyvesant and became prominent,” states A Landmark History of New York. At some point after arriving in 1647, Beeckman anglicized his name to William Beekman and bought a vast farm, and then another, where Beekman Street sits today.

Beekman Street itself may have started out as a cow path on Beekman’s farm leading to today’s City Hall Park—a community pasture known as the Commons in the 17th century.

William Beekman was just 21 when he relocated to New Amsterdam. He became socially and politically popular, serving as sheriff, burgomaster, and then deputy mayor and acting mayor, both under British rule.

Beekman Place, Turtle Bay

He had many descendants who made their own name in the growing city. One, great-grandson James Beekman, is the namesake of Beekman Place.

Born in 1732, James Beekman (below right) was a wealthy merchant who built a mansion he called Mount Pleasant on an estate centered at today’s First Avenue and 51st Street.

James Beekman’s mansion served as a country respite for his wealthy family from the increasingly crowded city center.

But during the Revolutionary War, Mount Pleasant had some new residents: British generals, who made it their military headquarters. (Nathan Hale was also supposedly hanged here, but that’s a piece of history still in dispute.)

When the war ended, the Beekman family returned to Mount Pleasant; they stayed until 1834, driven away by a cholera epidemic, according to a 1977 New York Times article.

After the mansion was demolished two decades later, the Beekmans created a new street running through the former estate and sold lots to developers.

Brownstones replaces the mansion, but by the late 19th century, “the Beekman Place brownstones were abandoned to the poor, many of whom worked in the packing houses, slaughterhouses and coalyards along the East River,” states the Times.

Beekman Place’s restored townhouses

“The wealthy, drawn largely by the river setting, began to reclaim the neighborhood in the 1920’s.” This is the Beekman Place that remains with us today: quiet, hidden, and with some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

[Third image: Wikipedia; sixth image: MCNY 95.76.3; seventh image: Wikipedia]

The ox head mosaic fountain hiding on First Avenue

September 28, 2020

The Queensboro Bridge is an architectural treasure, with some of its loveliest features off to the side or under the bridge approach, at least on the Manhattan side.

Two examples: the original lamppost dating back to the bridge’s opening in 1909, and the blue and white tiles on a First Avenue ramp leading to the bridge.

But there’s another little-known gem built alongside the bridge, accessible through a gate on 59th Street or from the exit of the TJ Maxx store on First Avenue.

It’s a small, park-like plaza decked out with benches, flowers, and trees—and a granite water fountain with an ox head spout and a kaleidoscopic glass mosaic of a dreamy woman rising from a pile of produce.

With a description like that, you just know this plaza and the fountain inside it must have a pretty interesting backstory.

First came the mosaic fountain, in 1919. It was conceived and funded by a woman named Evangeline Blashfield.

A feminist, writer, and intellectual, Blashfield (below left) decided to install a fountain on what was then one of the city’s largest open-air farmers markets.

She wanted the vendors (and their horses), who came over the bridge from the farmlands of Queens with their wares, to have fresh water.

In the 1910s, Blashfield “noticed that the market under the ramp at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge had only one unsightly water faucet for all of its vendors,” wrote John Tauranac in his book, Manhattan’s Little Secrets.

Blashfield, who would have been described as “strong-minded” by men and women of her era, was also a supporter of public art.

“Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country,” states the Municipal Arts Society of New York (MAS).

Blashfield’s husband happened to be an artist (and a founding member of the MAS). She served as his model for the fountain, lending her image to the allegorical figure Abundance.

“The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace,” explains the MAS.

The ox head and granite basin (a drinking bowl also or horses, something the city sorely needed in the still-equine-powered early 20th century) was designed by another MAS member.

Unfortunately, Evangeline didn’t live to see its completion.

She died in 1918 at age 59, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, six months before the fountain was given to the city and dedicated in her honor.

The fountain may have been a welcome addition to the farmers market. But once public art is installed, of course, it isn’t always maintained properly.

By the 1930s, the farmers market under the bridge had been cleared away in the name of progress. (Open-air markets created sanitation issues.) Until the 1970s, the space served as a warehouse for road signs and garbage trucks.

After decades of debate about what to do with the space (and the fountain that badly needed repair), the retail complex known as Bridgemarket finally opened in 1999.

“Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business,” states the MAS.

In June 2003, the restored mosaic returned to what was now known as Bridgemarket public plaza, installed once again on a granite base with its ox head fountain. (When I visited, the fountain wasn’t working, sadly.)

“Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century,” wrote MAS.

And Evangeline Blashfield, looking like a goddess rising out of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, towers over this former farmers market once again.

[Third image: Find a Grave]

Meet the “artist laureate” of the East River

September 7, 2020

The East River—its bridges, boats, and natural beauty—has inspired centuries of artists. But few have depicted the river with the richness and romanticism of Woldemar Neufeld.

[“Beekman Place Houses”]

Neufeld’s journey to New York City was marked by tragedy. Born in Southern Russia in 1909, his Mennonite family immigrated to Waterloo, Ontario, after his father was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1920 following the Russian Revolution, states the Waterloo Public Library.

[“East River in Winter”]

After establishing himself as an artist in 1933, he continued studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University. In the mid-1940s, he, his wife, and his young family moved to Manhattan.

[“Henderson Houses”]

Neufeld lived on East End Avenue, one block from the East River waterfront on the Upper East Side. Even after relocating his family home to Connecticut, he maintained his studio there for 30 years.

[“Hell Gate at Night”]

”When I moved to East End Avenue, it began a new chapter in my life,” he told the New York Times in a 1986 interview. ”For years I painted nothing but the East River. Some people down there still call me the artist laureate of the East River.”

[“John Finley Walk”]

He painted other scenes of New York as well. But his East River images (the first four in this post are linocuts, a printmaking technique using linoleum, and the fifth is a woodblock print) capture the vivid brilliance of the river and midcentury city.

Neufeld depicts the heroic workaday river, where ships belch smoke and tugboats fight through ice. He also gives us the enchantment: an illuminated bridge at night, a soft dusting of snow on riverside park trees, and the popping colors of a luxury block as seen from the river.

His style might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But these narrative prints reveal Neufeld’s (at right in 1950) love and appreciation of the stories the East River tells, as well as the energy and vitality of the city beside it.

[Top image: 1stdibs; second image: George Glazer Gallery; third image: Gregory James Gallery; fourth image: Gregory James Gallery; fifth image: Hibid.com; sixth image: Hartford Courant, 1950]

The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

July 13, 2020

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states History.com. An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories, and construction sites and urging their workers to join them.”

“The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY 93.1.1.1995; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.18096; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).