Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

The man behind a faded store sign at 52nd Street

April 12, 2021

In 1960, East Side resident Louis Mattia opened his antique light fixtures business in a small tenement space at 980 Second Avenue. Back then, Manhattan’s design district—in the East 50s along First and Second Avenues—was at its peak.

Showrooms and decorative arts concerns still operate here. But the neighborhood doesn’t resemble the one Mattia likely knew, when the Stuyvesant-educated machinist who worked nights restoring and rewiring lamps decided to open his own store and make his love of lamps his livelihood, according to 1972 Daily News article.

“Whenever Louis Mattia sees an old sconce or candlestick, a discarded table leg, a broken chandelier, or a 50-year-old bubble gum machine, he immediately envisions the lovely light it will shed as a lamp and proceeds to make it,” wrote the News.

“Louis, who is not only a clever artisan but an imaginative artist, looks upon a lamp with the same affection with which a father looks at his child.”

For 35 years, Mattia (above, in a photo from the News story) ran his store, giving it up in 1995. He passed away in 2004 at age 87, according to a death notice in the New York Times.

Mattia may be gone and East Midtown transformed. But for several years now, the beautiful, hand-painted sign for the former lamp store remains on the facade.

“Louis Mattia” the sign reads in large faded gold letters, along with the PL (for Plaza) phone number. It’s a gentle reminder of the man who the Daily News called “buoyant with enormous joy in his art and craft,” the kind of artist and craftsman Manhattan doesn’t seem to have much room for anymore.

[Second image: New York Daily News]

The country chapel still standing on 42nd Street

March 29, 2021

On the eastern end of 42nd Street between First and Second Avenues stands a delightful little brick church.

Hemmed in on all three sides by tall apartment towers, it’s an eclectic dollhouse-like structure—with Gothic windows and arches as well as a facade that looks like a nod to its Tudor City neighbors.

But this church predates Tudor City and the modern hustle of East 42nd Street by at least 50 years.

So how did a country-style chapel end up on one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares?

The story begins with another church, the Church of the Covenant (above in 1890)—a Presbyterian church completed in 1865 at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 35th Street. After the Civil war, this area was on its way to becoming one of the poshest enclaves in Manhattan.

“Dedicated in 1865, the graceful stone building was designed in the Romanesque style by James Renwick, Jr., the noted architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, All Saints Catholic Church and Grace Church in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC,” wrote nycago.com.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Church of the Covenant began running a mission school out of a stable on East 40th Street. One of the Church’s well-heeled congregants was architect J. Cleveland Cady, the designer behind the original Metropolitan Opera House, part of the American Museum of Natural History, and dozens of churches and synagogues in and around New York City.

Cady ran the mission school, and in 1871 he designed a country-style chapel known as Covenant Chapel that served as kind of a satellite branch of the church down on 35th Street.

By the 1890s, East 42nd Street was a developing residential area. But it still didn’t have the population and cache of Murray Hill.

That would soon change. As New York’s population marched northward, Covenant Chapel’s congregation became larger than that of the main church.

In 1893, the country chapel on 42nd Street became the main church. “A Fellowship Hall was added to the 42nd Street site in 1927, with a half-timbered facade to complement neighboring Tudor City,” wrote David Dunlap in From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

The original Church of the Covenant outlived its use and was bulldozed—and the little country chapel continues to serve the neighborhood.

[Second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

A short-lived road named for a female scientist

March 8, 2021

Since its creation in the 1880s, it was unceremoniously called Exterior Street—a slender road east of York Avenue between 53rd and 80th Street that ran closest to the East River. It existed primarily to provide access to the river for industry.

But in 1935, a prominent New Yorker came up with an idea. She wanted to rename a stretch of Exterior Street in honor of Marie Curie, the Polish-born, Nobel Prize–winning scientist who discovered the elements polonium and radium and died a year earlier from the effects of radiation from her own research.

Mayor LaGuardia had already held a ceremony honoring Curie in City Hall Park in November 1934. There, he and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, unveiled a plaque dedicated to Curie (fourth photo below) as well as a tree planted in her memory, according to a 1999 article in The Polish Review by Joseph W. Wieczerzak.

A rare female scientist at the time, Curie was a heroic figure worldwide but especially in America, thanks in part to her development of mobile X-rays brought to the front line in France during World War I that “did much to lessen the suffering of wounded soldiers,” wrote Wieczerzak.

Mary Mattingly Meloney, the influential editor of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine and a personal friend of Curie’s, appealed to Mayor LaGuardia to create a Marie Curie Avenue in Manhattan. The idea was quickly brought to a vote before the Board of Alderman, and it passed unanimously.

Why was Exterior Street chosen for the honor? First, “Exterior” was really just a generic name for an industrial, riverfront road. But also, several medical facilities—like Rockefeller Institute, later University—built their headquarters nearby on York Avenue, states Wieczerzak. It seemed fitting to have an avenue to the east named for a scientist, even though that street wasn’t always so attractive, as the photos suggest.

The official renaming took place on June 8, 1935, in a ceremony attended by 5,000 people, according to the New York Times. Despite the fanfare, Marie Curie Avenue would only officially last for five years.

The street was doomed in 1935, when plans were unveiled for the East River Drive. “Construction of the drive began in 1937,” wrote Wieczerzak, adding that parts of Marie Curie Avenue were widened, leveled, and elevated before being covered in 1939 or 1940 by the “rubble from bomb-destroyed buildings of British cities carried as ballast in ships docking in New York Harbor to load wartime cargo.”

The East River Drive opened in 1940…and it was eventually renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I don’t think a trace of Marie Curie Avenue—the first major street named after a woman in New York City—remains.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Nobelprize.org; third photo: MCNY X2010.11.2542; fifth photo: NYT July 10, 1935; sixth photo: NYPL]

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]