Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

This 1930 neon hotel sign still illuminates East 42nd Street

January 3, 2022

Rising 20-plus stories above 42nd Street, the old-school sign for what was once called the Hotel Tudor is a beacon for Tudor City, the apartment complex mini-city of 12 Tudor Revival-style buildings built in the late 1920s.

Like so many vintage neon signs in New York, its future was threatened. “The sign dates from 1930 when the hotel opened, and has a fleeting brush with demolition in 1999,” according to Tudor City Confidential, a blog that covers the complex. Community opposition helped keep it in place.

Today the hotel is officially known as the Westgate New York Grand Central—and the red glow of the sign lights the way along the eastern end of 42nd Street.

Shy lonely brownstones hiding in the cityscape

December 6, 2021

New York is a city where buildings proudly announce themselves—with bright, windowed lobbies, or large logos, or architectural bells and whistles that convey something grand or self-important about the space.

16 East 58th Street

Then there are the lone, faded brownstones and row houses that tend to go unnoticed.

Once flanked by identical houses on pretty, exclusive streets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these solo dowagers are usually stepped back from the sidewalk and wedged between commercial buildings, their facades altered in the contemporary city.

58 East 56th Street

Houses like these, sometimes found in a pair (above), can be seen in pockets all over Gotham.

Number 58, still part of a pretty row in 1939-1941

But quite a few seem to be in Midtown closer to the East Side, the remnants of a rush of Gilded Age residential development centered near Central Park when every Shoddyite (aka, nouveau riche New Yorker) wanted their own brownstone.

127 and 129 East 60th Street

But New York has what Walt Whitman called the city’s “tear-it-down-and-build-it-up-again spirit.” Commercial development crept northward. Within a generation or two—or at least by midcentury—many of these residential blocks met the wrecking ball, replaced by loft buildings or office towers dedicated to business.

Same buildings, altered in 1939-1941

And the remaining brownstones? Abandoned as single-family homes and carved up into apartments with ground-floor store space, they faded quietly into the background, often hidden behind a store sign or years of construction scaffolding.

Lexington Ave and 58th Street

They’re holdout buildings of sorts, but perhaps more by accident than the result of a stubborn owner. Once you notice one, it’s hard not to wonder about its former life as an elegant or expensive residence: who lived there, what was the neighborhood like before it became a commercial corridor?

I’ve found a few earlier photos to give an idea of what they looked like around 1940, when they were still part of a residential block but with commercialism creeping up. Consider these remaining brownstones the phantoms of an earlier layer of city history.

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The soaring, stunning vaulted ceilings of an East Side Trader Joe’s

December 6, 2021

Most shoppers flock to Trader Joe’s because of the low prices and extensive food options—and a checkout line that seems a little speedier than at other city supermarkets.

But the new Trader Joe’s that recently opened in the cavernous space under the Queensboro Bridge at 59th Street and First Avenue offers a reason to look not at the shelves but high up at the 40-foot ceiling.

The cathedral-like ceiling features a seemingly endless cascade of domed vaults and columns covered in off-white tiles arranged like a basket weave.

The tiling was the work of Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish immigrant who patented a tiling system “based on the building methods behind Catalan vaulting” in the early 20th century, according to Architect Magazine. Grand Central Station’s Whispering Gallery, the Manhattan Municipal Building, and other architectural landmarks of New York’s progressive era also feature Guastavino tiles.

The original vendors’ market, 1915

Bridgemarket, as the space under the bridge is known, might seem like a strange place to open a retail food outlet. But its roots as a marketplace run deep.

Inside the marketplace, 1915

Five years after the Queensboro Bridge was completed in 1909, this space was used as an open-air market (above, in 1915), where vendors came in wagons to sell produce and set up booths.

That original market closed in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until 1999 when Food Emporium renovated the space to fit a modern supermarket; the store featured a mezzanine level that made the view of the ceiling tiles almost magical (below).

Flashback 2014, when Food Emporium operated the space

Food Emporium left Bridgemarket in 2015—and now Trader Joe’s is giving a try to this soaring, stunning monument to New York’s food market history.

[Photo 3: MCNY x2010.11.5557; Photo 4: MCNY x2010.11.10030]

The story of the hidden garden inside a Turtle Bay tenement block

November 1, 2021

East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues in Turtle Bay is a block with a backstory.

During the 17th century, this was farmland owned by Dutch settlers; in the 18th century, a stagecoach stop on Boston Post Road was established here. By the Civil War, the farms vanished, subsumed into the urban city and turned into brownstones and tenements.

But the story in this post concerns something that came to Turtle Bay in 1946: a hidden romantic garden of shady trees, decorative flower pots, stone block walls and paved walkways unseen from the street and accessed through a thin-slatted iron gate.

That courtyard, Amster Yard, was the brainchild of interior decorator James Amster (below). Two years earlier, Amster had heard that a cluster of buildings on East 49th Street were for sale. Constructed around 1870, the buildings were now dilapidated and the neighborhood not quite as desirable as it once had been, especially with the elevated train still roaring along Third Avenue.

Amster purchased these buildings, which included “a boarding house, a carpenter’s workshop and the home of an elderly woman with 35 cats,” according to a New York Times article from 2002.

He then enlisted the help of friends to “create a garden complex surrounded by offices and apartments renovated from the shells of the original buildings,” wrote Pamela Hanlon in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

The result: “a picturesque cluster of one- to four-story brick houses around an L-shaped garden courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery,” stated the New York Times in 1986.

“You go through a thin-barred iron gate down a long flagged corridor till you’re midway between the north side of 49th Street, but perhaps 40 feet short of 50th Street, and you’re in a cool, ailanthus-shaded garden restored to look much as it was, say, 150 years ago,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1953.

Amster Yard was also something of an artists’ enclave, home to interior designer Billy Baldwin and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

In the 1960s, Amster Yard became a New York City landmark, a “pleasant oasis in the heart of Manhattan” that altered the original buildings but recreated the feel of an Old New York garden. Amster himself was a presence there until he died at age 77 in 1986.

Amster Yard still exists, and it’s semi-open to the public. But while today’s Amster Yard looks like the courtyard James Amster designed, it’s actually a recreation.

In the early 2000s, Amster Yard’s new owner, the nonprofit cultural group Cervantes Institute, found that the buildings surrounding the garden were structurally dangerous. The group decided to demolish them, then built reproductions.

Wander into Amster Yard now, and you’ll experience an illusion of Amster’s buildings, which were recreations of the original dilapidated circa-1870 houses. It’s a little convoluted, but the courtyard itself is romantic and delightful, a peaceful respite that blocks the sounds of the modern city.

It’s not the only lovely garden hidden from the street in the neighborhood. Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century rowhouses restored for the elite in the 1920s, also has a secret garden…but that one is residents-only.

[Third photo: Wikipedia]

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]