Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

A “glorious natural scene” along the East River

September 10, 2018

Ashcan School artist Robert Henri painted many scenes of New York at the turn of the last century. Like other social realists, Henri’s focus was the gritty reality of urban life—but he also depicted the beauty of the cityscape in quieter, gentler moments.

In his 1901-1902 painting, “Cumulus Clouds, East River,” we get Henri’s gentler Manhattan. Here he “transforms the industrial landscape of the riverside into a glorious natural scene, the boats dotted on the shining expanse of the water suggesting freedom and pleasure rather than commerce and labor,” states A Companion to Art.

Henri had a particularly intimate view of the river. At the time, he lived in a brownstone at 512 East 58th Street, which would have been in the middle of the industrial waterfront. It’s long since been replaced by a luxury coop on rebranded Sutton Place.

What remains of Manhattan’s Rose Hill enclave

September 3, 2018

While walking past the NYPD’s 17th Precinct on East 51st Street recently, I noticed that the front door listed all the nearby neighborhoods the precinct house served.

There was Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Rose Hill. Rose Hill?

The East Side of Manhattan did once have a neighborhood called Rose Hill, taken from the name of a 131-acre farm purchased by a New Yorker named James Watts in 1747.

The epicenter of Rose Hill the farm was roughly at today’s Park Avenue and 29th Street.

Watts didn’t stay at Rose Hill very long. He was a Loyalist, and he left New York in the late 18th century, never to return.

A merchant named Nicholas Cruger was apparently the next occupant, and then it was the home of Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates (left).

But while the areas around the former Murray estate and Beekman mansion retained the names of the families who owned them, Rose Hill all but disappeared, swallowed up by the neighborhood in the east 20s and 30s rebranded as NoMad today.

Back when Manhattan north of 14th Street was the outskirts of the city, however, Rose Hill appeared to be a small but lively enclave.

The neighborhood’s boundaries generally stretched from 23rd to 32nd Streets and Third Avenue to Madison Avenue, per the AIA Guide to New York City.

In the early 19th century, Rose Hill was home to a “female seminary,” a five-acre botanic garden, and a boarding house-hotel for the wealthy.

A newspaper ad described the former farm as “peculiarly airy, pleasant, and healthful.”

By the mid-1800s, Rose Hill had been cut into parcels, subsumed into the city street grid.

A savings bank at Third Avenue and 21st Street, a hall for meetings, a hotel, and a couples of churches all popped up.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the name seems to have been on the wane.

Today, few New Yorkers would know where it was—or they would confuse it with Rose Hill in the Bronx, home of Fordham University’s main campus.

But remnants of Manhattan’s Rose Hill still exist.

The Rose Hill Baptist Church remains on Lexington Avenue (above right), though now it’s the First Moravian Church (at right).

The Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church is also extant (above left). These days, it’s St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, located on 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

An iron gate in front of a pretty brownstone on East 31st Street keeps the Rose Hill name alive.

So does this plaque at the Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany on Second Avenue and 22nd Street, which commemorates General Kosciuszko’s visit to Rose Hill to see his former commander, General Gates, in 1797.

Interestingly, “Rose Hill” is carved into the facade of a tenement on 14th Street near Second Avenue (top image). It’s a little south of the real Rose Hill, but perhaps the name inspired the tenement builder.

[Second image: The Evening Post, 1830; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY, 1820, 29.100.3176; fifth image, MCNY, 1915,X2010.11.5361; sixth image, MCNY, 1975, 2013.3.1.653]

The apartment rooftop that hosted Henri Matisse

August 13, 2018

French Modernist painter Henri Matisse has many of his still lifes, figures, and landscapes on display in New York’s most distinguished museums.

But there’s only one place in Manhattan where a little-known framed photo of Matisse is always on display, with the Depression-era city skyline behind him.

You can see it yourself if the doorman decides to give you a peek.

The black and white photo, from 1930, is in the small lobby of 10 Mitchell Place, a charming 13-story prewar apartment house built in 1928 that was originally called Stewart Hall.

Never heard of Mitchell Place? It’s a secret sliver of a street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place in a quiet neighborhood of old world charm—perfect for an artist more accustomed to Nice than New York.

In the photo, Matisse is sitting in a chair on the building’s brick roof terrace. With his left hand holding his bearded chin, the artist looks contemplative amid a backdrop of apartment buildings, water towers, and the Queensboro Bridge.

What brought Matisse to Mitchell Place? I wonder if he’s in New York visiting his son.

Pierre Matisse moved to New York in the 1920s to become an art dealer and opened a renowned art gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street.

Apparently Matisse came to Mitchell Place often, according to a 2014 New York Times article on one-block streets.

“The painter Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the charming roof deck at 10 Mitchell Place, a.k.a. Stewart Hall. There, a framed 1930 photograph in the 1928 co-op’s equally charming lobby, which has a large fireplace, shows him resting on a canvas deck chair, pondering the East River views.”

A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers

July 30, 2018

When she was found by a police officer on the third floor of Beekman Tower on the morning of November 12, 1935, Vera Stretz didn’t deny that she had just fired four bullets into the married man she was having an affair with (below).

“I shot him,” the blond, 31-year-old NYU graduate confessed to the officer, who spotted her sitting on the floor by the elevator of the sleek Art Deco hotel at First Avenue and Mitchell Place (below left).

In her purse, Stretz was carrying a revolver, ammo, a bloody negligee, and her will—along with the passport and apartment key of Fritz Gebhardt, 43, her German businessman lover.

The Manhattan DA’s office probably assumed it was a slam-dunk case; a crime of passion with a quick confession and lots of evidence.

But this lurid murder would take an unusual turn, with Stretz ultimately claiming that Gebhardt asked her to do something so “unnatural,” she had to defend her honor.

The details emerged when her trial began in March 1936. Stretz met Gebhardt on a cruise to the West Indies and fell hard for the smooth-talking World War I pilot and intellectual. (He was a fan of Nietzsche, apparently.)

Back in New York, Gebhardt got Stretz a job in his office and an apartment for her below his in Beekman Tower.

When Gebhardt sailed to Germany in July, Stretz assumed it was to divorce the wife he’d left behind so he could come back and marry her.

But when her paramour returned to New York in November, he was still married. Worse, he said he had no intentions of marrying Stretz.

This is where the crime of passion theory veers into totally different territory, one with salacious details that captivated New Yorkers.

Stretz’s defense lawyer was Samuel Leibowitz (at the right of Stretz in the above photo), the celebrated attorney who represented Al Capone and the Scottsboro Boys.

Leibowitz put Stretz on the stand.

“Through tears, Stretz told the court how he dominated her, and of the horrible events on the night of the shooting,” wrote the New York Daily News in a 2010 recap of the story.

“She said Gebhardt had called for her to come to his apartment because he was feeling ill. Once there, he tried to force her to perform an ‘unnatural act.’

She shot, Leibowitz declared, in defense of her honor.”

The “unnatural act” was assumed to be oral sex—and the 12-man jury apparently agreed that no morally straight man would ask a woman to take part in this sexual activity. Leibowitz also capitalized on anti-Nazi sentiment by painting the dead man as a Nazi sympathizer.

Stretz was found not guilty on April 3. She never made headlines again.

[Top photo: via Daily News 1936; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: AP; fourth image: Daily News 1936; fifth photo: Daily News 1936]

When New Yorkers went to roofs to sunbathe

July 16, 2018

Here’s an old-school New York City summer pastime you don’t see very much anymore: rooftop sunbathers.

These UV fiends are soaking up the rays on Prospect Tower at Tudor City in 1943—and I have a feeling not one of them is using any kind of sunblock.

Tudor City’s rooftop is clearly designed to host residents. What did New Yorkers do if they lived in a building without an official rooftop? Tar beach, of course!

[Photo: Wurts Brothers, MCNY, X2010.7.1.8408]

The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street

July 9, 2018

Turtle Bay is one of the most enchantingly named neighborhoods in Manhattan.

But did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East River?

Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay?

The truth is lost to the ages. But turtles are what inspired the designers of this iron fence along East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

The fence keeps the riffraff away from these elegant townhouses, which are part of Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century brownstones lining East 48th Street and East 49th Street that were restored in the 1920s.

The 20 houses are connected in the back by a shared secret garden modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome between East 48th and East 49th Streets (below in 1920).

These exclusive residences gave Turtle Bay cachet, and they become home to privacy-seeking celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.

Most of us will never get a personal glimpse inside one of these beauties or the hidden garden. (Though real estate listings offer a peek inside the restored homes.)

But we can walk down East 49th Street and get a kick out of the turtle-adorned fence posts, which pay homage to the aquatic creatures the neighborhood may or may not be named for.

[Third and fourth images: Library of Congress]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island

June 25, 2018

City officials had good intentions when they built the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841 on Blackwell’s Island.

Rather than confining city residents who were deemed insane to prison cells (which had long been the preferred course of action), this new institution with the octagon entrance was all about “moral treatment,” explains Stacy Horn in her new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

Insanity was to be considered an illness, not demonic possession. And “therapy was focused on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs,” wrote Horn. That meant exercise instead of shackles, work that would build self-esteem, and recreation to lift spirits.

What kind of recreation? Activities included lectures, concerts, magic lantern shows—and a periodic event dubbed the Lunatic’s Ball.

“On special holidays they’d fit up one of the pavilions as a dancing hall and everyone—patients, attendants, and doctors alike—would dance,” explains Horn.

In 1865, Harper’s Weekly covered one of these Lunatic’s Balls in an article titled “Dancing by Lunatics.”

“The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was the scene of a most interesting and remarkable spectacle on the night of November 6,” the article stated.

“The completion of the first of a series of four frame buildings was celebrated by a ball, in which the patients of the Asylum were the dancers, ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’ after a fashion even more fantastic than Milton dreamed of in ‘L’Allegro.'”

The new buildings were necessitated by an increase in asylum residents, causing overcrowding and making the place much less therapeutic and more dangerous than the city had hoped.

“A prominent fiddler, himself a patient, is lost in ecstasy in the sounds which he produces, and in their influence upon his fellows. Every variety of ‘pigeon wing’ is being cut by the active dancers. Now and then there darts out one who enchains the attention of all her acquaintance by her excellent execution of the most difficult pas.”

“Occasions of this sort no doubt tend in a great degree to relieve the sluggish melancholy which too close confinement or too monotonous surroundings are apt to produce in our institutions for insane people. It is often the case that isolation renders incurable diseases of the mind which a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”

This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and “sluggish melancholy” was the least of the problems residents encountered.

Bly’s expose on the terrible conditions there ultimately led to its closing. Residents were relocated to a cleaned-up facility on Ward’s Island, one that didn’t seem to continue the Lunatic’s Ball tradition.

[Top image: Lunatic asylum scene in 1868; second image, the Lunatic’s Ball, Harper’s Weekly; third image: NYPL, 1850s; fourth image: Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s; fifth image: Lunatic Asylum, undated]

The spider in the web on a 57th street building

May 28, 2018

Owls, bats, elephants, rats, rams, horses, squirrels—there’s a Noah’s Ark of animals decorating New York’s prewar buildings and apartment houses.

But I’ve never seen anything quite as whimsical as the spider webs at 340 East 57th Street, between Second and First Avenues.

The windows and doors along the ground floor all have cast iron webs, and they’re a wonderful touch on a stretch of elegant and exclusive co-ops with kind of a staid and sedate feel.

Even better, one of webs on a utility door has a spider in it, although whoever designed it gave the predator just six legs, not eight.

But just like in real life, this spider is hiding and waiting, hanging out until prey gets stuck in his trap.

340 East 57th has another fun animal ornament higher up on the facade: sea dragons (or sea horses?). A pair of pheasants welcome tenants and guests on the lobby doors.