Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

How old is this Manhattan laundry room sign?

January 27, 2020

If you’re lucky enough to have a basement laundry room in New York City, then you probably find yourself down there poking around as you wait for the final minutes of the spin cycle to finish up.

That’s how this old-school sign was discovered, hiding on the back of a basement utility door.

The building it was found in is a 12-story residence built in the 1920s. But how old is this sign? Considering the typeface and that “tenants” were replaced by “shareholders” at least 30 years ago), I’m guessing at least half a century.

The stunning old doors of a Turtle Bay townhouse

January 20, 2020

New York’s quiet residential streets draw their beauty from the rows of brownstones and townhouses that still have their original architectural detail.

But you don’t see too many original front doors on many of these otherwise well-preserved 19th century homes.

Which is why I often stop and tip my hat to the spectacular old front doors welcoming visitors to 335 East 50th Street, a townhouse in a row of slender stone-fronted houses that each have a single window on the top floor.

The two greenish doors that open at the top of the stoop at number 335 are elaborately carved and studded, decorated with floral motifs and matching lion-like heads that inspire awe rather than fear.

Are these really the original doors? I’m not 100 percent certain, as the date the house was built is still in question.

But a 1940 photo of the house—a tax photo from the New York City Department of Records and Information Services—reveals enough of the doors to make me think these are the same ones…meaning they are at least 80 years old, if not decades older.

And however old they are, they’re magnificent!

[Bottom photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The lavish porte cocheres of Gilded Age New York

January 13, 2020

When New York’s first luxury apartment residences were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developers added all kinds of fabulous amenities to entice the city’s wealthy.

After all, the idea of apartment living—”living on a shelf,” as Mrs. Astor reportedly called it—was a hard sell in a city where the elite preferred the status symbol of their own freestanding mansion.

Electric lights, wall safes, private restaurants, billiards rooms, servant quarters, a chauffeurs’ lounge, even a rooftop farm were among the offerings developers used to lure potential buyers.

And there was one other convenience well-heeled New Yorker desired: a porte cochere.

What’s a porte cochere? It’s a recessed entrance—sometimes covered, sometimes not—that allows a vehicle to enter into a building’s private courtyard, so a resident alighting from a car or carriage wouldn’t have to step out on the street.

The porte cochere (it’s in French, so of course it connotes luxury) brings the vehicle to an interior door instead, which was the ultimate in comfort and privacy.

So in the early days of opulent apartment houses, the best buildings all featured porte cocheres. Many of these buildings are still with us, and so are their delightfully old-world porte cocheres, though not all are in use.

Two of the loveliest are—where else?—Sutton Place. The top two photos show the exterior porte cochere and the interior driveway at 2 Sutton Place, at 57th Street. The third photo is the three-entrance porte cochere at 1 Sutton Place across the street.

The fourth image is the beautiful porte cochere of the St. Urban, a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Prague but was actually constructed in 1906 on Central Park West and 89th Street.

Beneath it is the porte cochere at 1185 Park Avenue and 94th Street, completed in 1929 and so luxurious, this residence doesn’t even have a name.

Finally, here’s a throwback photo showing off the wide, high-ceiling port cochere at the Paterno, the magnificent building at 440 Riverside Drive and 116th Street, built in 1909.

Supposedly porte cocheres are all the rage once again, in what some people call New York’s second Gilded Age. The New York Times ran an article last month about how these are the new must-have feature potential buyers want in a co-op or condo.

The demands of the uber rich apparently have not changed very much since the first Gilded Age.

[Last photo: MCNY, 1910]

The ghost chimney on an East Midtown building

December 2, 2019

Phantom buildings abound in New York, especially in the contemporary city, with so many structures that were once neighborhood fixtures getting the heave ho in an era of rampant renovation and reconstruction.

This ghost walkup on East 52nd Street and Third Avenue was probably a 19th century tenement home to several families—perhaps all sharing one slender chimney, its outline very creepily five years after the building was torn down and replaced by a Hilton Garden Inn.

If you look at it long enough, you might actually start envisioning puffs of smoke coming out the top.

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]