Archive for the ‘Cool building names’ Category

Manhattan’s most ornate early apartment house comes back into view

May 23, 2022

In 1907, the developers behind Alwyn Court announced their plans to build this 12-story luxury apartment house on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. “It will have ornamental facades of limestone, with terra cotta trimmings,” the New-York Tribune dutifully reported.

That ho-hum description of the facade hardly did the Alwyn justice. When the aristocratic edifice opened to well-to-do tenants two years later—advertising itself as a place of “city homes for people with country houses”—the limestone and terra cotta facade proved to be one of the most ornate ever unveiled.

Alwyn Court’s exterior is an “intricate stone tapestry” of baroque scrolls, floral motifs, grotesques, angels, and crowned salamanders. The salamanders represent Francois I, the French king during the Renaissance whose style the building emulates. (The Alwyn is one of two New York buildings that feature salamanders on the facade, both by the same architects, Harde & Short.)

“This is the finest building of its type in New York City,” states the 1966 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, which designates Alwyn Court a city landmark.

Most luxury apartment buildings of the era only used terra cotta on the base of the facade and thus didn’t have excessive room or ornamentation, the LPC report explains. “Here at Alwyn Court, instead of limiting the decoration, the architects went to the other extreme, leaving hardly any surface undecorated,” states the report.

A lot has changed at the Alwyn since 1909. Originally the building had two apartments per floor with at least 14 rooms and five baths each, along with personal wine cellars for tenants and other exclusive amenities. (Remember, apartment living for the rich was still a new concept, so they tried everything to lure in residents.)

But that layout was eventually altered in favor of more apartments per floor that had fewer rooms. In the 1930s, the lobby was redone, then remade again in 1982 when an air shaft was turned into a central atrium. After a protracted battle with longtime tenants (including many senior citizens living in rent controlled units), Alwyn Court went co-op in the early 1980s.

By Berenice Abbott in 1936

Now, following a long stint behind construction scaffolding, Alwyn Court’s filigreed facade is fully on view. It looks as beautiful as it did in 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed a portion of the building for her book, Changing New York.

[Last photo: Sotheby’s]

The magic of a ‘complicated, chaotic’ Central Park West apartment house

April 21, 2022

It doesn’t have the Gothic, French Renaissance-inspired fancy of the Dakota to the south on 72nd Street. Nor is it a balancing act of flamboyance and elegance like the St. Urban, at 89th Street, which looks right out of La Belle Epoque.

What the Braender, a 1903 apartment building at Central Park West and 102nd Street, does have is that kind of enchantment found in buildings that blend various design styles and come out looking eclectic and unique. These buildings are often found outside official historic district boundary lines and far from the trendy end of the avenue—and the Braender checks both boxes.

The Braender’s story begins at the turn of the century, when Central Park West was fulfilling its destiny as a grand thoroughfare of apartment residences. The builder, German-born Philip Braender, hired architect Frederick Browne to design his eponymous apartment house.

The result was a 10-story, 50-unit structure. The building was “fireproof,” as the ad below says, and it featured apartments of 5 to 12 rooms (with from one to 3 bathrooms per residence).

The Braender, from an early promotional booklet

Its style was quite a lovely mishmash. “The exterior of the Braender — residents pronounce the name to rhyme with gander — is a complicated, even chaotic mix of French Renaissance, Spanish and Baroque styles, all in light-colored stone, brick and terra cotta,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times column. Gray seemed to have a fondness for the building, deeming it “lovably awkward.”

I don’t know if awkward is the right word. On one hand, it has an inviting beauty, thanks to the gentle curves of the facade. Yet the figures carved into the entrance and the winged creatures that stare down at you from under a ninth floor balcony give it a Gothic, spooky feel.

The courtyard is accessed by walking through a wide arched entrance perhaps inspired by a Medieval castle. Two large terra cotta griffins are surrounded by greenery on the ground—casualties of a building renovation from the 1990s, according to the doorman.

Then there’s the lobby, with its marble walls, hand-tiled floor, and original light fixtures. You can just imagine late Gilded Age residents alighting from carriages on cold nights, then entering this sumptuous space and warming up by the fireplace before getting the elevator to one of those 12-room apartments.

By 1920, the Braender fell into the hands of Frederick Bangerter, an “inventor of automatic machinery” who planned to turn the building into a “cooperative home for people of moderate circumstances, and a home that will run easily and happily through co-operation of all its members, just as one cog in his automatic machinery runs smoothly with another,” according to a 1920 issue of the magazine Forecast.

If that cooperative plan ever panned out isn’t clear, and the Braender stayed under the radar in the news and real estate pages in the decades since.

“In the mid-1900s most of the large apartments in the Braender were cut up into smaller ones, and by the 1980s, when it was converted to condominiums, the building was in poor shape: its stone was battered and defaced, and the cornice and much its ornament had been removed,” wrote Gray.

The Braender in 1940, already minus its unusual cornice

Despite the stripped down ornamentation and the addition of a fire escape on the facade, the Braender maintains an old New York charm in the upper Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan Valley. The building is a condo now, and a two bedroom is currently on the market for $1.6 million.

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

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The Chelsea ‘Muffin House’ where a beloved brand was baked

May 9, 2021

In the 1830s, Clement Clarke Moore began selling off parcels of land from his country estate, a retreat north of Greenwich Village that his grandfather had named Chelsea in the 18th century.

Moore—a wealthy professor best known as the author behind ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas—planned to develop his estate into a fine residential neighborhood for elite members of the growing city, according to the Chelsea Historic District report.

Unfortunately, the new Chelsea neighborhood didn’t last as an enclave of huge brownstones and mansions. Instead, it became a “comfortable and middle class” district through much of the 19th century, per the CHD report.

By the end of the 19th century, the exclusively residential neighborhood Moore had planned gave way to commercial enterprises—including one iconic bakery brand that introduced New York to the English muffin and is still sold across the US today.

That brand was Thomas’ English Muffins, which were baked in the basement of the circa-1850 brick house on 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues (photos above).

The Thomas’ English muffin story begins in 1874, when baker Samuel Bath Thomas (above) left England and settled in New York City, determined to bring his family’s English muffin recipe (these muffins were originally called “toaster crumpets,” reports The Nibble) to the American masses.

He opened his first bakery in 1880 at 163 Ninth Avenue, according to a 2006 New York Times article. Business was good. So in the early 20th century, Thomas opened another bakery around the corner in the basement and ground floor of 337 West 20th Street, a three-story dwelling with a hidden back house on the property.

“Sam’s muffins were sold on the streets of New York by those basket-carrying, bell-ringing muffin men of song and story, by Sam in the retail store—upstairs from the bakery and downstairs from his apartment—and by pushcarts to restaurants in the neighborhood,” states a New York Daily News article from 1980, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the English muffin’s introduction to the United States.

“Finally, as the fame of Thomas’ muffins spread to the suburbs, which were then places like Queens and Brooklyn, Sam bought a horse and wagon to haul around all the muffins he was making,” the Daily News wrote. (See the above photo, with the 20th Street store address on the side of the wagon.)

Thomas died in 1918 just as a new English muffin plant was going up in Long Island City. The business carried on with the help of relatives before being sold to a manufacturer, which still produces them today.

But what of the former bakery at 337 West 20th Street? It’s unclear when it was abandoned; the ground floor was still used as a storefront in the tax photo from 1940. But amazingly, the enormous oven in which Thomas’ muffins achieved their nook and cranny goodness was found in 2006 behind a basement wall.

Tenants of the apartment on the other side of the wall made the discovery of the “room-size brick oven,” as the Times described it. The nonworking oven—likely originally built for the foundry that used to be in the basement before being converted to bakery use—was built into the basement foundation, and most of it stretches underneath the courtyard between the main building and the back house (below).

Number 337 is now a co-op apartment residence. On the facade of the building is a charming sign giving some historical background on what’s now affectionately known as the “muffin house.”

[Third and fourth photos:; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo:]

A ghost sign for a family business on Essex Street

March 15, 2021

Back in 2010, a lounge and restaurant called Beauty & Essex opened in a cavernous space at 146 Essex Street—a glittery addition to Lower East Side nightlife back when the neighborhood still had a grittier edge.

Beauty & Essex is temporarily closed, according to Yelp. But there’s another reason to do a walk-by at this address: to see the faded ghost sign that still remains on the facade decades after it went up in the 1960s.

This spot used to be the home base of M. Katz & Sons Fine Furniture—a business founded in 1906 out of a Lower East Side tenement by Meilich Katz, according to the store website. In the 1930s, M. Katz’s sons opened a shop on Stanton Street, and by the late 1960s, a third generation relocated to 146 Essex Street (below, an undated photo of the Essex Street sign).

M. Katz’s still sells furniture; a fifth generation of the Katz family occupies a smaller space on Orchard Street these days. The facade on Essex Street is a palimpsest of a century-old family business still bearing the founder’s name.

[Second photo: Yellowbot]

Two elite addresses on 1830s Bleecker Street

October 5, 2020

Named for the family whose farm once surrounded it, Bleecker Street between the Bowery and Sixth Avenue became one of New York’s most fashionable addresses in the 1830s.

Leroy Place, drawn by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1831

But for rich New Yorkers, it wasn’t enough to just live on Bleecker Street. Two developments in particular were built to cater to the cream of the crop.

The first was Leroy (or LeRoy) Place, above. Spanning the south side of the block between Mercer and Greene Streets, Leroy Place emulated the “terraces,” or terraced houses, popular in London—essentially a group of identical attached townhouses with harmonious front yards.

Isaac G. Pearson hired architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design Leroy Place, which he built out of granite, according to Luther S. Harris’ Around Washington Square. Once it was finished, Pearson managed to get the city to rename the block after his development.

Leroy Place on an 1835 map of New York City, by Henry Schenk Tanner

“Christened LeRoy Place in honor of the Knickerbocker merchant Jacob LeRoy, its Federal-style row houses sold for a hefty twelve thousand dollars,” states Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New Yorkers with names like Clinton and Beekman took up residence here.

Impressed with the way Pearson attracted Clintons, Beekmans, and other affluent New Yorkers, Francis DePau completed DePau Row between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in 1830.

DePau Row, in what’s described as a proposed illustration, from MCNY (32.159.1)

DePau Row had just six houses. “All were unified by their identical height, a seamless finish, and common detailing, including a long ornamental iron verandah—the first in the city—extending across all six fronts,” states Around Washington Square.

A.T. Stewart, dry goods mogul, lived at DePau row, as did Valentine Mott, one of the city’s most esteemed surgeons.

While Leroy Place and DePau Row had status in their day, their wealthy residents decamped for more spacious homes uptown as soon as commercialism (and lower class people) crept in. “By 1853, the Builder observed that ‘Bond and Bleecker Streets, that were then the ultima thule of aristocracy, are now but plebian streets,’ per the NYPL.

Depau Row, 1896, from the New-York Historical Society

Leroy Place in the 1850s and beyond hosted an oyster house, furniture warehouse, and saloon. Long after it lost its luster, it was demolished in the mid-20th century.

DePau Row also fell into disrepair; it was bulldozed in 1896 to make way for Mills House No. 1, a home for single men funded by banker and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills.

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

A mystery copper-topped building in East Harlem

February 4, 2019

Second Avenue in East Harlem is a wide stretch of road lined mostly with century-old tenements.

Makes sense—most of them date back to when the Second Avenue Elevated opened up northern Manhattan to developers, who built row after row of walkup buildings for New Yorkers desperate to escape the slums of the Lower East Side.

But there’s one building on the southeast corner at 109th Street that’s always come off as more elegant and distinguished along this longtime working class avenue.

With its wide arched windows on the third floor, decorative garlands and wreaths, and green copper facade at the top corner, this was a building meant to impress.

So what was it? A bank, apparently.

Though the department of buildings website doesn’t confirm exactly when the building went up, it certainly looks like a bank from the early 1900s, with refined aesthetics meant to inspire confidence and trust.

It’s also a little unclear what kind of bank this was. In 1918, a man named F.M. Ferrari and his partner, Giuseppe D’Onofrio, applied to operate a private bank here, with the address listed as 2112-2114 or 2118 Second Avenue.

The city refused their application. Yet by the 1920s, Ferrari was running a bank called the Harlem Bank of Commerce at this address.

This was the center of Italian Harlem, at the time Manhattan’s biggest Little Italy—with 89,000 residents by 1930.

That was three times the number of people in the Little Italy on Mulberry Street. With so many working people, Ferrari’s bank likely had plenty of customers.

In 1928, Ferrari changed the name to City Trust Company, advertising bank vaults and other banking services.

At some point, the bank disappeared, and the building was occupied by a mystery store (see the 1940s tax photo, above left), a small factory, and offices.

Today, East Harlem’s copper-topped building seems unoccupied—its large first-floor windows covered up, and its side entrance at 300 East 109th Street looking abandoned.

[Fourth image: NYC Tax Photos database; Fifth Image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1928]

The faded cornerstone of the old police building

September 17, 2018

At the turn of the last century, when the newly consolidated New York needed a bigger, more modern police headquarters, city officials pulled out all the stops to build something glorious.

The result was a Beaux Arts beauty dominating slender Centre Street in what used to be Little Italy: a granite central pavilion and Corinthian columns topped by a gilded dome and an allegorical statue representing the five boroughs.

Completed in 1909, the new building was designed to “impress both officer and prisoner…with the majesty of the law,” according to a 1978 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The NYPD moved out of 240 Centre Street into newer, much uglier headquarters in the 1970s. But if you walked by the former police building today, you’d probably have no idea of its history.

Since 1988, 240 Centre Street has been a luxury condo, and it seems as if the developers did everything possible to erase anything relating to the police department on the facade.

Only the cornerstone, unveiled in May 1905 by Mayor George McClellan in a grand ceremony that featured a police band and mounted troops, provides a faded, chipped-away clue to the building’s former use.

[Second photo: Streeteasy]

The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street

July 9, 2018

The end of East 72nd Street is a lovely, almost secret spot. It’s a quiet cul-de-sac straight out of the Village or Brooklyn Heights with wide sidewalks, old school lampposts, and a pretty terrace overlooking the East River.

It’s also the site of four modest yet charming walk-up buildings known for decades as the “black and whites.”

With an illustrious name like that, you know these homes have an intriguing backstory.

Built in 1894 as eight separate tenements from 527 to 541 East 72nd Street between York Avenue and the East River, they were similar to other low-rise tenements in this once-gritty stretch of Lenox Hill.

At the time, this was a working-class neighborhood of waterfront industry and factories, plus rows of humble tenements for the people who toiled in them.

(The 1930 photo below shows East 72nd Street looking east from York Avenue; it’s unclear if they are the tenements from 527-541, but they give you an idea of what the street looked like.)

By the 1920s, living along the river on the East Side became very fashionable. The newly named and revamped Sutton Place had attracted wealthy residents, and Beekman Place and East End Avenue did as well.

This might have been the reason fashion doyenne Carmel Snow and her real-estate investor husband decided to buy these rundown tenements in 1938.

Snow was the rich and well-connected editor in chief of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Something of an Anna Wintour of her day, Snow’s social circle included artists and writers, as well as bankers and society people.

Later that year, Snow brought in a team of architects. They “designed an alteration that gutted and combined the eight tenements into four buildings with two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments of simple finish, many with wood-burning fireplaces,” stated a 1997 New York Times article.

Whether Snow had them painted in black with white trim or the tenements were originally black and white isn’t clear. But at some point the color scheme gave them their nickname.

“The Snows themselves left their apartment in the Ritz Tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue and moved to the easternmost building, facing the river. Five of the nine recorded tenants in 1939 were in the Social Register; this was a new building type, the Social Register tenement.”

Carmel Snow and her husband moved out in the 1950s; George Plimpton moved in, to Number 541, and he used the ground floor as the office for the Paris Review for the next four decades.

By that time, the black and whites had become co-ops. They also apparently survived the threat of being swallowed up by enormous office towers, according to this 1982 New York article.

Today, the black and whites feel like a wonderful New York secret, a surprise bit of beauty and history at the river’s edge. Walk east along 72nd Street; your spirits will lift when you stumble upon them.