Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

Brick and mortar phantoms of another Manhattan

February 15, 2021

Every year this site does a roundup of ghost buildings—the faded outlines of chimneys, flat or peaked roofs, windows, and staircases that were left behind after a demolition and look like apparitions of New York’s low-rise, walkup past.

They’re spooky reminders of a different city and often easy to see, like this one in Upper First Avenue, probably a four-story tenement, painted in orange. And could that be a second ghost building behind it, a little taller faded in white?

This one is another double ghost building on 44th Street toward Midtown. In red is a peaked roof building, and then one in white a story or two taller.

Here’s an unusual phantom building, looks like two chimneys and a rooftop stairwell exit. It’s on Madison Avenue at about 80th Street, soon to be shrouded forever behind a luxury apartment residence.

Some ghost buildings look like they were violently ripped from their neighbor, like this one on East 47th Street. Are we left behind with an impression of the structural elements that held the building up—or were they added after the building was demolished to help stabilize the one left behind?

Here you can see the stairways, where New Yorkers of days past walked up and down countless times.

Short and square, this one on the Upper East Side doesn’t look like much. But it was home to someone, or some business, and at one time and likely outshined its neighbors back when it was the new kid on the block a century or so ago.

The colonial city’s most romantic ‘kissing bridge’

February 1, 2021

Manhattan in the 1700s was mostly bucolic countryside, thick with woods and swamps and crossed by brooks outside the small downtown city center.

To get across these brooks, residents of the island’s villages and far-apart estates built small wooden bridges. Perhaps because some of these bridges were in secluded spots that inspired romance, at least three became known into the 19th century as “kissing bridges.”

On these bridges, couples could enjoy a little PDA…and they were encouraged by custom (or bound by tradition) to indulge in a little lip action.

“In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from the city, which you always pass over as you return, called the ‘Kissing-Bridge,’ where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection,” wrote Rev. Andrew Burnaby of the UK, who visited New York in the summer of 1760.

One of these kissing bridges spanned Old Wreck Brook (you have to love these colonial-era names, right?) at today’s Park Row and now-defunct Roosevelt Street. Details about this kissing bridge have been hard to uncover, but it did inspire this 1920 poem.

Another kissing bridge occupied East 77th Street and Third Avenue, about four miles from the city on the edge of Jones Wood. It crossed the Sawkill River near Boston Post Road, according to the New York Times in 2006.

But the kissing bridge that inspired old New York memoirists (and appears to be the one Burnaby wrote about) is the bridge that spanned the Sawkill River (or Turtle Creek, according to one historian) at today’s Second Avenue and 50th or 52nd Street. This was on the farm owned by the DeVoor family, stated Charles Hemstreet in When Old New York Was Young.

“And at the crossing of the waterway and the roadway…there was a bridge over which the road led and under which the stream flowed,” wrote Hemstreet. “This was called the ‘Kissing Bridge’, and it was not the first bridge of the kind on the island, nor was it the last. Twice more on other places a road crossed a stream; and there, too, was a Kissing Bridge.”

The heyday of this kissing bridge was in the 1760s Hemstreet explained, and the name “was gotten from an old Danish custom, giving to any gentleman crossing such a bridge, not only the privilege, but the right of kissing the lady who chanced to be by his side.”

It’s unclear when this and the other two kissing bridges met their end. But the one in today’s Turtle Bay survived the longest. Valentine’s Manual published an illustration of the kissing bridge in 1860 titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge on the Old Boston Road, 50th & Second Ave.”

If only one of these bridges made it to the 21st century—what an appropriate place for New York couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

[Top image: The American Magazine, 1882; second and fourth images: NYPL; third and fifth images: Ballads of Old New York]

The violin over the door of a Turtle Bay mansion

January 18, 2021

Old New York City houses hold the most interesting clues—like this bas relief of an angel and horns. It sits over the doorway of 225-227 East 49th Street in Turtle Bay, a mostly brownstone block with the exception of this unusual Tudor-style building.

Now a carved up rental, it was once a single-family mansion…and the hint about its most famous occupant is inside this bas relief.

See the violin and musical notes? This is the former home of Efrem Zimbalist, the Russian-born violinist whose career spanned much of the 20th century. (If you aren’t familiar with him, you might have heard of his actor son, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., or his actress granddaughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.)

Zimbalist the musician moved into the house in 1926 with his wife, Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck. The letters under the bas relief confirm this: “Erected in the year 1926.”

Designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, “the 20-room house with its distinctive casement windows had fireplaces in almost every room, 11 bathrooms, stained glass door panels, and an Italian garden out back,” states Pamela Hanlon in her book Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“On the second floor a large music room featured dark wood floor-to-ceiling paneling, an ornately carved fireplace, and parquet floors.”

Interestingly, after Zimbalist moved out, the mansion actually served as the 17th precinct house for three years in the 1950s before the police got their own new building on East 51st Street, wrote Hanlon.

The NYPD didn’t remove the violin, and luckily, subsequent landlords have left it up as well—a tantalizing tipoff about the history of an unusual house. (At right, in 1927)

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.3278]

Fierce tigers and eagles on a 58th Street co-op

January 4, 2021

Midtown East is the land of elegant 1920s-era apartment houses: handsome buildings of 10, 11, maybe 12 stories that usually feature understated brick and limestone facades.

But 339 East 58th Street has something else going on: fierce creatures in cast stone above Medieval columns and decorative Romanesque arches.

Adorning this co-op, built in either 1920 or 1929 depending on the source (I’m betting on 1929), are two eagle figures standing ramrod straight like soldiers high above the canopied entrance.

Between these avian sentries are two tiger heads emerging from the brickwork just beneath the second floor windows.

I couldn’t find much information about the building and the backstory of the figures as well as the columns and arches surrounding the entrance.

Perhaps there’s no more significance than an architect tasked with creating yet another standard New York City apartment building while dreaming of Medieval Europe’s soaring cathedrals and castles and taking inspiration from illuminated manuscript pages.

A rich family’s spectacular 18th century carriage

December 14, 2020

James Beekman, a dry goods merchant who lived at Hanover Square, was one of the wealthiest men in 18th century New York City.

Beekman had cash, a prominent family name (his great-grandfather was Wilhemus Beekman, who came to New Amsterdam aboard the same ship in 1647 as Peter Stuyvesant), and a riverside country estate called Mount Pleasant (below) at today’s 51st Street and Beekman Place.

It makes sense, then, that a man so distinguished would want a distinguished carriage, so he and his family could get around Manhattan in style.

This is the stunning coach he purchased from a sea captain in the UK and had shipped to New York in 1771, according to the New-York Historical Society, which has the carriage in its collection.

“If you watch movies set in the 1700s, you might get the impression that everyone rode in carriages like this one. But painted carriages like this—with beveled glass windows and a place at the back for a footman—were rare even among the elite of the colonies,” states the New-York Historical Society, which adds that only 26 carriages like the Beekman coach existed in the city in the mid-1700s.

Of course, Beekman probably didn’t use this carriage for running errands. “[The coach was] the crown jewel in his fleet of prestigious vehicles that already included a chaise, chariot, and phaeton,” according to the New-York Historical Society. Records indicate that the coach cost £138, “with additional expenditures for painting the family arms and varnishing.”

Reserved for special events like balls and banquets, the coach may have also been used to transport a president.

Before the Revolutionary War, George Washington was friendly with James Beekman, who actively supported the American cause.

“After the disastrous Battle of Long Island and with New York under the threat of a British invasion, Washington, a regular guest of the Beekman’s, urged James to flee Manhattan with his family,” states revolutionarywarjournal.com.

The Beekmans (which included Mrs. Beekman, aka Jane Ketaltas, at right, along with their 12 children) hid their valuables, including the carriage, and abandoned New York City for seven years.

After the war and Washington’s ascent to the presidency, The Beekmans lent him their carriage in 1789, states revolutionarywarjournal.com, so Washington could take it from his Cherry Street home to his inauguration at Federal Hall (below).

The New-York Historical Society, however, reports a different event. They make no mention of Washington riding in the Beekman carriage to his inaugural, but they do say he reportedly used it to get to his first congressional session.

The carriage was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1911 by Beekman’s great-grandson. Imagine traveling across the 18th century city’s muddy roads in rain and snow in such a spectacular vehicle!

[Top image: Wikipedia; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third image: posterazzi; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: painting by Ramon de Elorriaga; sixth image: Wikipedia]

 

 

 

The former lives of a shabby Midtown brownstone

December 14, 2020

When you think of Madison Avenue in Midtown, brownstones don’t generally come to mind. But in the late 19th century, rows of these iconic chocolate-brown houses for the city’s upper classes lined this new residential district in the East 40s, north of posh Murray Hill.

Not many survive today; this stretch of Madison has long been subsumed by commercial buildings. (Below, in the 1920s). But the modest brownstone at number 423, between 48th and 49th Street, is still hanging on.

Madison Avenue at 48th Street, 1925

Hiding behind scaffolding and wedged between two office towers, this ghost of the Gilded Age certainly has stories to tell.

It’s not clear when it went residential to commercial, but by the 1880s it was home to J.H. Morse’s School for Boys—a hint that the neighborhood was probably still overwhelmingly residential and populated by families.

Frank Bruns’ latest delivery wagon in 1912

What kind of school was J.H, Morse’s? It sounds very similar to the prep schools of today’s New York. Run by a Harvard grad, the school’s main purpose was to “prepare boys thoroughly for the best colleges and scientific schools,” according to a 2014 New Republic article.

423 Madison Avenue in 1940, with the vertical Longchamps sign

In the early 1900s, number 423 was a grocery run by Frank Bruns. This grocer made news as an early adapter of gasoline-powered automobile for deliveries. “In 1905 he placed in service a Peerless car fitted with a delivery body, and from his own statement secured more in the way of advertising value than otherwise, though its service was by no means unsatisfactory,” stated The Horseless Age, published in 1912.

By the 1940s, the brownstone had a new life as a Longchamps, a popular Midcentury restaurant chain with several locations around Manhattan. “Named for the race track in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the first elegant Longchamps opened in 1919, and by the 1950’s there were 10 in Manhattan, most clustered around midtown,” states the New York Times FYI column in 1998.

What kind of place was Longchamps? The restaurants typically featured Art Deco style, cooked up dishes like oxtail ragout and crabmeat a la Dewey, and was a decent place to get a drink—seen above in a 1933 Daily News photo showing fashionable New Yorkers sharing a table and enjoying cocktails.

The Longchamps at 423 Madison also had an early neon sign, which went vertically down the side of the brownstone and put a crack in the cornice. Long after the chain moved out in the 1960s (Longchamps went bankrupt by the mid-1970s, according to the Times), the sign remained; Lost City has a photo of it from 2007.

Today, the sign is gone, but the cracked cornice remains. Another local restaurant chain occupies the ground floor. The brownstone’s upper floors are apartments—it’s a residence once again.

Scaffolding keeps us from seeing it all. But you can imagine its former glory as a refined Gilded Age single-family home, likely surrounded by similar brownstones. Some of these still exist in Midtown but tend to be obscured by taller buildings, as 423 is.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: New York Times 1888; fourth image: The Horseless Age; fifth and sixth images: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh image: New York Daily News, 1933]

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

Looking for a Berenice Abbott bar on 56th Street

November 30, 2020

Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and have a drink at Billie’s Bar? 

The hand-carved bar, antique fixtures, brass handles, tiled floor, and simple, red-checked tablecloths evoke the Gilded Age.

Which makes sense, as the bar first opened in either 1871 or 1880 (depending on the source) by a Michael Condron at 1020 First Avenue, at 56th Street.

Billysbarmen

This remarkably preserved late 19th century-style saloon was captured by Berenice Abbott in four photos she took in 1936—when Billie’s grandson, William Condron, Jr., was running the place.

It looks like a true neighborhood joint, and perhaps the only change from the Gilded Age to the Depression is that women are allowed in (definitely a no-no in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Visit First Avenue and 56th Street today, of course, and you won’t find Billie’s. Nor is there a clear paper trail explaining what happened to this bar and restaurant worthy of Abbott’s artistic eye.

The story of Billie’s is the story of a neighborhood, you could say. Changing New York, the book containing Abbott’s WPA-era New York City photos, states that Billie’s “stood at the corner of a block dominated by the abandoned buildings of Peter Doelger’s Brewery, which before Prohibition had kept Billie’s and many similar well stocked.”

Billie’s patrons were “recent immigrants who lived in nearby tenements and worked in the factories and slaughterhouses along the East River.”

Billy’s, not Billie’s, in a 1940 city directory

Tracking the story of Billie’s means accepting that Abbott may have gotten the name of the bar wrong. City directories note that “Billy’s Bar” was at 1020 First Avenue. (Not to be confused with another Victorian-era saloon, Bill’s Gay Nineties, long at 57 East 54th Street until it was transformed into the more upscale Bill’s Townhouse.)

Newspapers called it “Billy’s” as well. A New York Daily News article in 1967 noted that “Billy’s Gaslight Bar” was being forced to move from its First Avenue and 56th Street location because the original spot was marked for demolition. (A 1960s-style block-long high rise occupies the site now.)

Billy’s/Billie’s stove, by Berenice Abbott

“Reconstruction has begun on Billy’s Gaslight Bar, a landmark at 56th Street and First Avenue for 96 years,” the Daily News noted later that year. “The new location will be 52nd Street and First Avenue.”

So Billy’s moved down the street, a milestone covered by Craig Claiborne in the New York Times.

From the Daily News, 1967

“The wrecker’s ball wrecked Billy’s, the wonderful Sutton Place landmark, in 1966, and now it has reopened at a new location with many of the sentimentally remembered trappings intact,” wrote Claiborne.

“The present establishment seems smaller, cleaner, more polished, more civilized, lower-ceilinged, less personal. In the move, Billy’s has lost a good deal of its patina and original charm, but it is still worthwhile and tables are at a premium.”

So how long did Billy’s (or Billie’s) hang on at the 52nd Street site? I wish I knew, but the trail goes cold.

Perhaps the bar outlived its era. The East 50s along First Avenue transformed from a neighborhood of low-rise tenements to a stretch of mid-rise buildings and apartment towers, with some of the old walkups interspersed within each block. A handful are empty, supposedly awaiting that wrecker’s ball.

But earlier this year, I was tipped off by another New York City history fan that even though Billy’s the saloon is gone, its hand-carved wood bar might still be with us.

Reportedly, the French restaurant Jubilee, which has occupied a site on First Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street since 2012, just might be using Billy’s bar in their own (very atmospheric and homey) establishment.

I couldn’t find anyone there who could confirm this, but the photos of the bar at Jubilee look eerily similar, no?

[Top three images: Berenice Abbott, 1936; Fourth image: Baybottles.com; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Berenice Abbott, 1936; seventh image: New York Daily News 1967]

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.