Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

Step into the remains of a Gilded Age hotel

April 20, 2015

Hollandhouse“Every window in the Holland House, at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, was glowing with light last night when the doors were opened to hundreds of visitors bidden to see the beauties of the new hostelry,” wrote the New York Times in a gushing review of the newest kid on a luxury block on December 6, 1891.

In a Gilded Age city resplendent with so many sumptuous hotels, the Holland House quickly became the place to live, dine, and enjoy a stretch of Fifth Avenue lined with the mansions of wealthy New Yorkers.

And former mansions, as New York’s richest residents were steadily relocating their residences uptown.

Hollandhouse1905

“The Holland House presents many novelties—and extremely attractive ones too . . .” stated the Times.

“In the main hall, leading from the Fifth Avenue entrance, the walls and the carved staircase are of Sienna marble.”

Hollandhousestaircase“There are 350 guest rooms in the hotel, and from the bridal suites down are all beautifully furnished and decorated,” wrote the Times.

The writer of the article also noted the novel wine cellar, the banquet and drawing rooms, the restaurant, and the staff of 180 employees.

Holland House offered sumptuous accommodations through the teens, hosting president Taft (and an army of Secret Service guards) in 1912.

HollandhouseornamentationBut the hotel was eclipsed not long after it opened when the Waldorf and the Astoria Hotels went up a few blocks north on 34th Street.

In 1897, the two joined forces to become the city’s premier hotel, turning the area into kind of a luxury hotel row which played host to the most exclusive balls and parties, like the legendary Bradley Martin Ball.

Today, unlike the original Waldorf-Astoria, Holland House still stands.

Hollandhouse2015Its facade is remarkably unchanged, and mysteriously there is a marble staircase and ornamental motifs in marble visible in the lobby.

The building manager says they are originals.

If so, they’re some of the last remnants of Gilded Age glamour on this once exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

Hoffbauerarainynewyorkstreet

He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

Hoffbauernewyorkpubliclibrary

The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

Hoffbauerrainynightinnyc1912

The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.

Holdout buildings that survived the bulldozer

February 16, 2015

They’re the survivors of New York City real estate—the walkups and low-rise buildings now dwarfed by shiny office towers and more contemporary residences.

Holdoutbuildinggreenwichvillage

Each building probably has a different backstory that explains how the wrecking ball was avoided.

Maybe an owner refused to sell for sentimental reasons. This lovely Greenwich Village brownstone, sandwiched between two tall apartment houses above, looks like it could have been one person’s longtime romantic hideaway.

 Holdoutbuildingchelsea

Or perhaps an owner tried to hold out for a bigger offer, until a developer realized it wasn’t worth the payout anyway. That might have been in the case of this one-story space wedged between a 19th century tenement and 21st century box on Tenth Avenue.

 Holdoutbuilding19thstreet

And thanks to real estate rules governing landmark structures and historic districts, some of these buildings probably couldn’t be torn down, like the gorgeous carriage house on a Gramercy side street.

Holdoutbuilding60thstreet2

It’s hard not to root for these underdogs. This ivy-covered walkup on East 60th Street gives bustling 59th Street near Bloomingdale’s the feel of a smaller-scale city.

Holdoutbuildnigsantander

Doesn’t this stately red townhouse do a good job breaking up the monotony of a block of Murray Hill terraced high-rise apartment buildings?

Holdoutbuildinguws

I can’t be the only New Yorker happy to see a Gilded Age limestone mansion holding its own in the middle of a stately Upper West Side block.

A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

Chesterarthurhome2

And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

A chilling holocaust memorial at Madison Square

January 5, 2015

For such a stark yet provocative memorial, it’s easy to miss.

Appellatecourt25thstreetwikiBut if you head to 25th Street and Madison Avenue, on the facade of the circa-1900 marble Appellate Division Courthouse facing Madison Square Park, you’ll see it at eye level: a bas relief of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s a grim and affecting aerial view of the camp. Buildings are arranged inside a high walls. “Torture Chamber” and “Commandant’s House” are inscribed beside two separate structures.

 “Execution Wall” and “Gas Chamber and Crematorium I” are chillingly noted as well.

Holocaustmemorialaerialview

A small plaque next to it lets us know that this is a “Memorial to All Victims of the Holocaust,” completed in 1990 by Harriet Feigenbaum, who used a photo as her guide.

Holocaustmemorial25thstreet“Feigenbaum’s choice of source material is used to question the moral character of the Allies, who, by the taking the photo itself, exhibit their awareness of the camp existence, and their simultaneous indifference to addressing that very existence,” wrote Nasha Virita at Untapped Cities.

“By doing so, she demonstrates the terrors that arise when law and justice are left by the wayside.”

The smokestack-like column that tops the memorial mimics the columns of the rest of the building. Note the flames carved on the side, above the words “indifference to justice is the gate to hell.”

New York’s postwar-planned Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park remains unbuilt.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Five hero firehouse dogs of old New York City

December 15, 2014

FirehousedogsNew York has had firefighters since Dutch colonial days, first in the form of volunteers and then, beginning in 1865, a professional paid force.

And in the days of horse-drawn engines and a less-sophisticated alarm system, firehouse dogs played an important role.

Often a stray who found his way to the house or an unwanted pup given to the chief, many these canines served their companies heroically, explains 1897 New York Times piece.

FiredogjacknytimesThere was Jack (left), of Hook and Ladder Company 18, on Attorney Street. He’s described as a “large, sober-looking, brown-and-black shaggy full-bred shepherd dog” by the Times.

“When the alarm rings, Jack hurries the horses by biting at their hind legs,” stated the Times.

“He runs with the team, directly in front of the engine, and when the scene of the fire is reached is the first to investigate, dashing recklessly in amid the smoke and flames.”

FiredogbarneynytimesJack reportedly would use his teeth to drag the hose up the stairs of a burning building, and when pleased “will show his teeth and laugh in a perfectly Rooseveltian manner.”

At Engine 25 on Fifth Street, Barney (right) was the resident fire mutt.

“At a fire in Engel & Heller’s wine cellar recently one of the men was overcome by the smoke,” noted the Times.

“Barney saw his comrade’s danger, and, remaining by his side, barked furiously until the others investigated and found the unconscious fireman.”

Firedog1930mcny

Spot, of Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, also earned kudos. “She goes into all the fires, unless too hot, and has distinguished herself for her bravery a number of times,” wrote the Times.

Firedog1920mcny“At command she bounds on the shoulders of a fireman, or on the back of one of the horses. The latter she makes her special charges . . . barking when they chance to gnaw at the pole straps.”

In 1936, on something called Animal Hero Day (sponsored by the New York Anti-Vivisection Society), a 3-year-old dalmatian named Susie, from Engine Company 2 on Lafayette Street, scored top honors.

Susie “was sunning herself in front of the firehouse when she smelled smoke in a paper twine warehouse next door,” stated the Times. “Her frantic barks brought the firemen and the blaze was put out.”

Firedog1905mcnyBut perhaps no dog was honored for bravery more than Chief, a stray who hung around Engine Company 203 in Brooklyn in 1929 and stayed for 10 years.

While helping with firefighting duties, “’Chief’ received numerous injuries, such as: cuts from broken glass and falling debris, burns from scalding water, and bruises from falling off the fire engine,” states the website of the New York City Fire Museum.

“His hallmark rescue was in 1936, for which he won 4 medals of honor. On November 21, a fire broke out in the Bermudez home in Brooklyn.

Firedogchief“Sixteen year-old Johnny Bermudez escorted his family part way downstairs but went back to the fourth floor to get his cat. ‘Chief’ ran into the building and returned carrying the cat, with his teeth.”

After being killed by a car in 1939, firefighters had Chief stuffed and mounted in the firehouse. Today, he belongs to the Fire Museum (above).

[Top and bottom photos: NYC Fire Museum; photos 2 and 3: NYTimes; photos 4,5, and 6: MCNY digital collection]

Granite remains of the 1842 Croton reservoir

December 8, 2014

It’s always a treat to see bits of New York’s past hidden within the contemporary city.

Case in point: sections of a granite wall once part of the four-acre receiving reservoir at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, filled in 1842 and lasting through the Gilded Age.

Granitereservoir3

These walls are visible along a staircase in the south wing of the main branch of the New York Public Library, which took the reservoir’s place on that stretch of Fifth Avenue and opened in 1911.

Granitereservoir4Imagine what the city was like in the 1840s, when the Croton Aqueduct was completed, and the growing metropolis finally had a ready supply of fresh upstate water.

“Chosen for its location at the highest point of Murray Hill to increase water pressure to densely populated downtown districts, the reservoir was an odd symbol of urban accomplishment,” wrote David Soll in Empire of Water.

“When completed in 1841, it had few neighbors and towered over the handful of scattered structures in the surrounding area.

Across Fifth Avenue lay ‘an open field, upon which stood a single country house.'”

42ndstreservoir1850

By the 1860s, New York’s elite promenaded on the reservoir’s walkway, and Fifth Avenue became prime real estate.

In 20 years, calls for the reservoir’s destruction appeared and grew louder; it was obsolete, critics charged, and its Egyptian revival architectural style an eyesore, even after the city planted ivy to cover the Fifth Avenue side.

42ndstreservoir1880

By 1898, the wrecking ball came. The granite walls in the library are all that remain.

[Third image: the reservoir in 1850; fourth image: in the 1880s; NYPL Digital Collection]

Roasting a Thanksgiving turkey in a coal stove

November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving cards became a thing around the turn of the last century; the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery has a nice collection of them.

Thanksgivinggreetingfrontnypl

This one serves a dual purpose: it’s a cozy greeting with an angel and traditional harvest symbols . . . and an advertisement for the coal that powered late 19th century New York City stoves.

Thanksgivinggreeting1909nypl

Mr. Bohnenkamp, at 329 East 17th Street, surely had one in his townhouse kitchen! Jagels & Bellis was a coal wholesaler based in Hoboken.

Where in colonial Manhattan was Inclenberg?

November 24, 2014

InclenbergmansionThe only thing marking it is a bronze plaque discreetly affixed to an apartment building on Park Avenue and 35th Street in today’s Murray Hill.

But in the 1750s, with New York City concentrated far downtown, this was the center of a 29-acre hilltop estate known as Belmont or Inclenberg, the latter also lending its name to the surrounding area.

Aaccording to this account, Inclenberg was absolutely lovely.

Inclenbergplaquewiki“A magnificent place altogether was Inclenberg . . . approached by an avenue of magnolias, elms, spruce and Lombardy poplars . . . the spacious, two-story mansion had a broad veranda extending around three sides, and . . . front windows commanding a view of Kip’s Bay and the East River.”

It was the home of prosperous businessman Robert Murray and his wife, Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained the city’s elite there, including George Washington.

InclenbergteapartyHosting Washington wasn’t Inclenberg’s only brush with Revolutionary War–era notoriety.

Legend has it that in 1776, Mary Lindley Murray—who, unlike her secret Loyalist husband, was a fierce supporter of American freedom—supposedly used tea, cake, and female charm to helped the Patriots escape the British army.

“When Gen. William Howe crossed the East River from Long Island in 1776, pursuing Washington’s troops and attacking New York City, Mrs. Murray and her daughters invited General Howe and his officers to tea,” states a 1999 New York Times article.

“They accepted and were detained long enough to allow Washington and his troops to escape.”

Inclenberg19thcentury

The Murrays died by the turn of the 19th century; their mansion burned down in 1835. The neighborhood and its once-formidable hill carry their name—while Inclenberg has been almost forgotten.

[Top image: Inclenberg, the mansion, from murrayhillnyc.org; second: the plaque, Wikipedia; third: Mrs. Murray’s tea, NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: another sketch of the mansion, NYPL Digital Gallery]

The literary past of a once-seedy Gramercy hotel

October 4, 2014

Looking at the facade of the former Kenmore Hall Hotel, at 145 East 23rd Street, you can imagine the kind of place it was when it opened in 1929.

Like so many of the new hotels built in the Jazz Age city, it was a place for the city’s young smart set, with a roof garden, skylit lobby, and swimming pool.

Kenmorehallpostcard

It was also a hotel with a hidden literary rep. Shortly after the 22-story building opened, struggling young writer Nathanael West became its night manager.

MisslonelyheartscoverNathanaelwestIn the 1930s, West earned fame for his novels Miss Lonelyhearts (inspired by a real Brooklyn Eagle advice column to the lovelorn) and Day of the Locust.

During his time on the Kenmore’s graveyard shift, West reportedly worked on Miss Lonelyhearts while letting writer friends like Dashiell Hammett, Edmund Wilson, and Maxwell Bodenheim crash in empty rooms.

KenmorehallhoteltodayWest died in 1940 in a California car accident with his wife, Eileen McKenney (of My Sister Eileen fame). In subsequent decades, Kenmore Hall changed hands; as East 23rd Street became seedier, so did the hotel.

By the early 1990s it was an infamous SRO hotel where the city’s downtrodden lived in squalid quarters and drugs and crime were rampant.

Since 1999 the cleaned-up Kenmore is an SRO offering affordable housing—plus a little-known literary pedigree.

[Bottom photo: Emporis]


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,386 other followers