Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan

October 4, 2021

The story begins in 1831, when Samuel B. Ruggles, a New York City lawyer and real estate investor, had an idea.

The metropolis was growing fast, pushing past its Lower Manhattan borders and creeping up to 14th Street and beyond. The builders of all the new houses and commercial buildings didn’t always care much about urban planning, and Manhattan’s naturally hilly topography was being leveled and turned into streets and building lots.

Ruggles knew that elite New Yorkers would pay big to reside in a different kind of setting, even if it was somewhat north of the posh sections of the city. “He recognized the value of centering residences around inviting open spaces within Manhattan’s strict city grid,” stated the National Parks Service.

So Ruggles bought land between today’s 19th Street and 24th Street and Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road) and Second Avenue. This marshy part of the city was known as the Crommesshie, or krom moerasje, a Dutch term later corrupted to “Gramercy” that meant “little crooked swamp,” per the NPS.

Ruggles drained the marsh and planned the new neighborhood of Gramercy (below map, from 1831): 66 lots centered on a two-acre green space for residents only that would be an “attractive inducement for real-estate development in the early 19th century,” according to a 1966 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The idea of a private park on city grounds sounds very undemocratic to contemporary New Yorkers. But it wasn’t all that unusual at the time.

First, the whole idea of a park as we know it today was a new concept; it would be another decade before city officials began seriously considering creating the open urban space that ultimately became Central Park in 1859.

Also, a precedent had been set, as Manhattan already had another private park for elite residents only: St. John’s Park, in view of St. John’s Chapel and many posh row houses in today’s Tribeca.

And since the buyers of the building lots would also pay to maintain the park, it wasn’t unreasonable that the park itself would be off-limits to outsiders, blocked by a wrought iron fence.

The first residents relocated to Gramercy in the 1840s, and two years later, planting in the park began, according to the LPC, adding that the iron gate has been locked since 1844. (The first keys were actually made of solid gold, per a 2012 article in the New York Times.)

Close to two centuries later, some of those original private dwellings remain, joined by elegant and historic apartment buildings. Gramercy Park residents successfully fought an attempt to have a cable car cut through the park in the 1890 and 1912, and the tranquil character Ruggles sought remains to this day, “long after the death of the society for which it was designed,” notes the LPC. (A fountain in the park pays homage to Ruggles.)

And what about the still-private park, the only one in Manhattan—St. John’s Park bit the dust in the 1860s—and one of two in all of New York City? (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, created in 1926, is also members-only.)

According to the New York Times, just 383 keys to the park exist, and they’re reserved for residents of the 39 buildings around the perimeter of the park. (Guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel can also sign a key out and be escorted to the park by a staffer.)

“Any of the 39 buildings on the park that fails to pay the yearly assessment fee of $7,500 per lot, which grants it two keys—fees and keys multiply accordingly for buildings on multiple lots—will have its key privileges rescinded,” notes the Times.

Though Gramercy Park used to open one day every year to non-residents, that tradition has ended. If you really want to enjoy the gorgeous landscaping and the statue of actor (and presidential assassin brother) Edwin Booth yet can’t get a key of your own, you might have a shot on Christmas Eve.

In 2019, the park opened to the public for one hour for a caroling event. But be warned: there’s no word on whether that will ever happen again.

[Third image: 1831, MCNY 29.100.2973; fourth image: early 1900s, MCNY x2011.34.3342; fifth image: 1944, MCNY 90.28.30; sixth image: 1913 NYPL]

What John Sloan painted after “loafing about Madison Square”

August 30, 2021

Ashcan painter John Sloan is the master of the city scene, infusing seemingly uneventful interactions with dense imagery and narration that presents a deeper story.

“Recruiting in Union Square,” from 1909, is a haunting example of this. But it took some lounging around another New York City park for Sloan to get the inspiration to capture the scene.

“Of this piece, the artist wrote that he, “loafed about Madison Square where the trees are heavily daubed with fresh green and the benches filled with tired bums,” states the Butler Institute of American Art, which has the painting in its collection.

“After mulling about this scene for several days, Sloan finally began his painting of a city square where Army recruiting signs stood among several vagrants who he called ‘bench warmers.'”

No word on why Sloan seemed to move the scene he found in Madison Square to Union Square, but he would have crossed paths with both parks regularly. After moving to Manhattan from Philadelphia in 1904, he and his wife moved around Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

“Although he claimed he tried to keep his political views out of his art, Sloan painted Recruiting a mere six months before becoming a member of the Socialist Party,” according to the Butler Institute. “Perhaps it was this pursuit of personal freedom that ultimately encouraged Sloan to become a member of Henri’s infamous group known as ‘The Eight,’ who rebelled against the popularity and academia of The National Academy of Design.”

Who is the rich New Yorker the Monopoly Man is based on?

August 16, 2021

At first glance, the board game Monopoly doesn’t seem like it has a New York City connection. The man who sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935 was from Philadelphia, and the board features properties in Atlantic City.

J.P. Morgan

Then there’s that mustached man long dubbed “the Monopoly Man” or “Mr. Monopoly.” He appears on the Chance and Community Chest cards, always in a Depression-era suit with a bowtie and top hat.

But the Monopoly Man isn’t just a board game invention—this iconic character (who has an actual name, Rich Uncle Pennybags) is supposedly based on the image of an actual New Yorker.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

So who is he? Apparently he’s modeled after banker J.P. Morgan. Morgan’s company financed some of the Gilded Age’s biggest corporations. He consolidated railroads, helped rescue the gold standard, and helped stabilize financial markets during the Panic of 1907, according to History.com. His former mansion on Madison Avenue is now the Morgan Library.

Phil Orbanes, a former VP at Parker Brothers and author of The Monopoly Companion, confirmed in this interview that the artist who drew Mr. Monopoly based him on J.P. Morgan.

Otto Kahn

On the other hand, a site called monopolyland raises the possibility that Mr. Pennybags is based on Otto Kahn, a German-born financier with a mansion on Fifth Avenue who died in 1934, close to the release date of Monopoly. (Morgan died in 1913.) Kahn also wore a top hat and had the requisite mustache.

They both certainly look like Uncle Pennybags. A composite perhaps?

[Top image: Biography.com; second image: pixy.org; third image: Wikipedia]

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]

An old New York phone exchange on 47th Street

March 8, 2021

Spotted on an unremarkable building on West 47th Street in the Diamond District: an old-school New York City phone exchange, in this case “MU.”

What does it stand for? Murray Hill, of course, the neighborhood where the real estate company that put up this plaque is based.

It’s getting harder to find these two-letter exchanges, which were replaced by numerals in the early 1960s. But they’re out there—especially in the boroughs outside Manhattan.

A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine

February 15, 2021

When important people visited New York City in the middle of the 18th century, they often stopped at the spectacular home of Robert and Mary Lindley Murray.

In the colonial-era city, the Murrays were a powerful couple. Robert Murray had immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family from Ireland as a boy; he worked his way up from a mill operator to a wealthy wheat and flour merchant. Mary Lindley Murray was the daughter of Quaker immigrants from Philadelphia.

Married in 1744, they moved to New York City in 1753, according to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on the Ratzer map from 1766.

“The two-story great house was located at what is today Park Avenue and 36th Street,” states womeninhistoryblog.com. “Grand Central Station stands on what was one of the estate’s cornfields.”

Eventually this neck of the woods would be renamed Murray Hill, after the couple and their 11 children; a 1926 plaque on an apartment building at that corner on Park Avenue memorializes Inclenberg (above).

But back to the 18th century city, which in 1776 became a battleground when the War for Independence broke out. Some residents were Loyalists to the British; others considered themselves Patriots and supported the Continental Army.

While Robert Murray reportedly was a Loyalist, Mary’s sympathies went with the Patriots, according to The Murrays of Murray Hill, by Charles Monaghan. And legend has it that she proved her allegiance in September 1776, when British General William Howe came ashore at Kip’s Bay to take on George Washington’s Patriot army.

While Howe and his officers was making his way through Manhattan and Patriot militiamen were retreating to Harlem Heights, Mary invited Howe and his men to her home. With her husband conveniently away, Mary and her daughters entertained their British guests for two hours with lunch and wine to stall them so the Patriots had time to get away. (Above and below images)

“After the catastrophe on Long Island, August 28, 1776, and the affair at Kip’s Bay, the Americans withdrew up the island, time for which retreat being gained, so it is claimed, through the instrumentality of Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained General Howe and his officers at luncheon on September 15, 1776, at her house at present Park Avenue and 36th Street,” wrote Hopper Striker Mott in The New York of Yesterday.

There’s another account of this story that has a slightly different take.

According to the military journal of James Thatcher, an army surgeon, the British army marching up Manhattan to catch up to the Patriots realized “there was no prospect of engaging our troops” and decided to “repair to the home of Mr. Robert Murray, a Quaker and friend of our cause; Mrs. Murray treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more….It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army.”

Whatever really happened, General Howe and his men apparently did stop off at the Murray mansion—and the Patriots made their way to Harlem Heights and beyond. The legend was solidified in 1903 when the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque affixed to a boulder in honor of Mary at Park Avenue and 37th Street (above).

[Top image: by the Duskhopper via Cool Chicks From History; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Ratzer Map, 1766; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: Alamy; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL]

Looking for traces of Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay

January 4, 2021

Imagine Manhattan Island in the late 1700s. Before it was divided into farms and estates, and before those farms and estates were bricked in and paved over by the end of the 19th century, it was mostly a place of untamed beauty—with woods, swamps, meadows, and streams.

Sunfish Pond illustration, via Patch

Tompkins Square Park was swampland, for example; Collect Pond near City Hall provided drinking water. A trout-filled brook called Minetta flowed through the Village until development diverted it underground. (Evidence of the brook can be seen beneath the lobby of the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue.)

And at today’s Park Avenue South and 31st Street was a blob-shaped body of water called Sunfish Pond, which older New Yorkers recalled in turn-of-the-century memoirs.

Sunfish Pond, lower right, on an 1867 map of the Ogden Farm

Sunfish Pond was “bounded by 31st and 33rd Streets and Madison and Lexington Avenues, fed by a stream rising between Sixth and Seventh Avenues at 44th Street, and flowing into the East River between 33rd and 34th Streets,” wrote Charles Haynes Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian.

Haswell noted that Sunfish Pond “was a favorite resort for skating,” well beyond the boundaries of the city when he was a boy in the early 19th century.

The stream from Kip’s Bay that fed Sunfish Pond in an 1840 map

Rufus Rockwell, author New York, Old and New, published in 1902, quotes a source who described Sunfish Pond as “famous for its eels, as well as sunfish and flounder.”

The source added that “the brook which fed it was almost dry in summer, but in times of freshet overflowed its banks and spread from the northern line of the present Madison Square to Murray Hill, more than once compelling those who lived along its lower course to resort to boats as the only means of reaching the avenue.”

Inclenberg, aka the Murray Estate

Sunfish Pond would have been located near Inclenberg, the estate owned by Robert Murray and Mary Lindley Murray (whose name now graces the neighborhood of Murray Hill). When the British invaded Manhattan at Kip’s Bay, soldiers may have stopped to drink from this spring-fed pond.

And when the road to the east, Eastern Post Road, became a route for stages running in and out of the city, travelers were known to break here for a rest, wrote Sergey Kadinsky in his 2016 book, Hidden Waters of New York City.

Peter Cooper, namesake of Cooper Union, Peter Cooper Village, and Cooper Square

The beginning of the end of Sunfish Pond was sparked by industry. Peter Cooper, who lived nearby, opened a glue factory on the edge of the pond, “amid clover fields and buttonwood trees,” according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

Cooper was a brilliant innovator and inventor in mid-19th century New York. “He also became a pioneer polluter: his factory so fouled the pond’s waters that it had to be drained and filled in 1839,” states Gotham. After that, it was a storage site for streetcars before becoming valuable real estate in an elite neighborhood.

Looking down Park Avenue toward what would have been Sunfish Pond two centuries ago.

Today, no trace of Sunfish Pond exists anywhere in Manhattan…except in century-old books published by memoirists and historians. But that shouldn’t stop you from standing at Park Avenue South and 31st Street and imaging skaters, fishers, farmers, travelers, and boats ferrying flooded New Yorkers across what was once a placid and peaceful body of water.

[Top image: via Patch; second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth 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]

The neon glow is gone from a Murray Hill deli sign

November 16, 2020

After 72 years in Murray Hill, including 63 of them at Second Avenue and 34th Street, the Clover Delicatessen has shut its doors for good.

The Clover Deli, RIP

The shutdown was partly due to of Covid, but also because the third generation family members who ran the deli wanted to move on, according to the New York Post.

No more black and white cookies and rugelach from this old-school deli. But what will become of the gorgeous neon sign, which glowed at this corner since 1957?

The sign in better days, exploding with color

It’s off now, but the Post reports that the owners intend to bequeath it to the new tenant. They’re also considering donating it to a sign museum—good news for fans of New York’s disappearing vintage neon store signs.

[Top Photo: Duane Sherwood]

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]