Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

June 22, 2020

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY 93.1.1.1995; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.18096; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

A Downtown plaque for a soldier who died at sea

May 25, 2020

It’s a simple marker inside the dog run at Stuyvesant Square, the leafy park on either side of Second Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets.

“In honor and memory of Pvt. Moses Miller, who died at sea January 26, 1944.” The plaque was dedicated in 1946, it says.

The dog run is currently closed, unfortunately, but a photo of the plaque, taken by Larry Gertner, is on the Historical Markers Database—a site that keeps track of markers and memorials across the country.

Who was Moses Miller? His exact fate remains a mystery, but the Brooklyn Eagle in March 1944 included him on a list of men from Brooklyn and Queens who were deemed missing in action by the War Department.

Private Miller’s address was listed as 417 South Fifth Street, making him a Williamsburg resident. He was lost at sea in the Mediterranean, according to the Eagle.

New York City has many elaborate war memorials. But sometimes it’s the simple plaques in out-of-the-way spots that really hit home what it means to die for your country.

[Photos: Larry Gertner/Historical Markers Database]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

The gingerbread carriage house of 38th Street

March 16, 2020

Every once in a while, you see a building in New York City that’s so whimsical, it looks like it stepped out of a fable.

Take a look at this Dutch Revival–style carriage house, with its brick facade, spirals, stepped gables, and fan-like stonework surrounding the door and windows.

Ornate and unusual, the little stub of a building on East 38th Street in Murray Hill seems inspired by a fairy tale—you almost expect it to be made from gingerbread.

Adding to the carriage house’s beauty are the two stone horse heads looking out between the first and second stories. Then there’s the growly bulldog keeping an eye on things up top.

For such a fanciful structure, its backstory echoes that of other New York City carriage houses—built for wealthy New Yorkers who resided in nearby mansions and could afford to spend money on the place they housed their horses.

Named for a banker who worked with J.P. Morgan, the George S. Bowdoin Stable was completed in 1902 by architect Ralph Townsend. He designed it for Murray Hill landowner and real estate developer William Martin, according to Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill.

“The carriage house was acquired by Bowdoin in 1907, converted to a garage in 1918 by Mrs. Bowdoin, and later converted to a single-family residence, eventually yielding to commercial use.”

This homage to the whimsy of early 20th century architects was up for sale in 2016—check out the ultra modern interior, courtesy of 6sqft.com. (The price at the time: $8.35 million!)

[Third image: MCNY, 1976, 2013.3.2.252]

The secret backhouse behind East 38th Street

March 9, 2020

While walking through Murray Hill recently, I cut through the driveway of an apartment building to get from 38th to 37th Street without going all the way to Third Avenue.

What I saw when I peered over the apartment building’s brick fence and into a yard next door surrounded by tidy brownstones made me stop in my tracks and ask myself: is that a backhouse?

Backhouses aren’t uncommon in New York; these are small dwellings built behind a main house. Property owners in the late 18th and early 19th century put up backhouses for various reasons.

Sometimes they served as a stable, but others were cheap houses landlords constructed on a lot to squeeze more tenants into the property and get more rent.

I’d seen backhouses before, mostly downtown in the Village or Chelsea—like this backhouse, now hidden behind tenements in the East Village.

But this was the first I’d spotted in Murray Hill, described as “neo-Federal” by the AIA Guide to New York City. (At left and right, in 1936)

So what is this backhouse’s backstory? Like so many fascinating house histories, there are competing narratives.

One starts in 1857, when a contractor named Patrick McCafferty bought a vacant lot on this site in Murray Hill, which was transforming from a bucolic area to an exclusive urban enclave.

“But while the typical house was positioned at the front of the lot, for some reason Mr. McCafferty built his three-story house almost 60 feet back from the street,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2001.

So this dwelling really wasn’t a backhouse in the traditional sense—it was simply a house set way back from 38th Street.

Another version of the house’s origin has it that the home was originally an 1840s “gatehouse” for an estate owned by a member of President Martin van Buren’s family.

Whatever the story is, the three-story dwelling changed hands several times through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Murray Hill cemented its status as a well-to-do neighborhood.

The house was sold to a real estate agent, a carpet dealer, and a manufacturer of dumbwaiters, wrote Gray.

In 1934 the house was leased by Russell Pettingill, who hired the architect son of sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (he designed the bronze statues at Brooklyn’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, among others) to transform the house in the back along with a smaller structure that had been constructed closer to the street.

“In 1936, House & Garden lauded the Pettengill project, which placed offices and a conference room in the front house, 150 East 38th Street, and living quarters in the setback house at No. 152. A one-story wall divided the front yard of 152 in half, permitting direct access to Mr. Pettengill’s office in the front building, through a side door, but screening the setback house almost completely from the street,” explained Gray.

Because of the wall and office building at the front of the property, as well as the fence and greenery, it’s difficult to get a clear view of the set-back house from the street today.

Stand on your toes, though, and you can get a better view of this 19th century beauty,  which has a decorative cornice, clapboard shutters, and red brick facade and chimney.

Rather than beginning its life as a backhouse, this hidden dwelling became one in its maturity.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1936]

“Hugs and kisses” on a Murray Hill manhole cover

February 17, 2020

New York City’s old manhole covers have an artistry all their own. Some feature glass bubbles that looks like jewels in the right light. Others are decorated with stars or similar emblems, and almost all have the name of the designer or foundry on them, advertisements for their work.

But what to make of this manhole cover spotted in front of East 35th Street near Fifth Avenue?

Jordan Wouk, a manhole cover enthusiast, noticed it on the way to the Morgan Library recently. It lacks an identifying name, contains a single starfish-like star, and the Xs and Os decorating the lid were a mystery.

The message I got was “hugs and kisses,” says Mr. Wouk.

It’s a little late to make this a Valentine’s Day post, but I like this interpretation. The cover is sending love to contemporary New Yorkers—and asking us to take notice of this and other hiding-in-plain-sight remnants of an older Gotham.

[Photo © Jordan Wouk]

Fifth Avenue’s elegant 1890 carriage showroom

October 21, 2019

You might not notice it amid the grit and hustle of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, but there’s a Gilded Age time capsule of a building on the northeast corner.

In the shadow of the Empire State Building and dwarfed by commercial loft buildings is this elegant dowager—made of light brick with terra cotta decorations and enormous arched windows that would look more at home in a cathedral than a busy Murray Hill intersection.

This jewel box is what remains of the Demarest Building.

Completed in 1890 (at left), the Demarest was designed by James Renwick’s architectural firm, which explains the cathedral-like windows. (Renwick is the genius behind Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Those incredible windows served a purpose. The building was commissioned by Aaron Demarest, the head of his eponymous horse carriage company that manufactured luxury carriages and used the space as a showroom for buyers.

Who would be buying the gleaming carriages on display here? (Below, on the right in a 1910s photo)

Wealthy millionaires, including the rich heads of households whose brownstone mansions stood on or near this posh corner at the height of the Gilded Age.

Those old-money millionaires include William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (husband of society doyenne Caroline Astor), William Waldorf Astor, and John Jacob Astor III (next door to his brother William).

(Department store magnate A.T. Stewart had a marble palace of a home on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but by the time Demarest built his showroom, Stewart and his wife were deceased.)

Early on, the Demarest Building fit right in with the wealthy set of Fifth Avenue. It even had the city’s first two electric elevators, in use for 30 years.

But the early 1890s weren’t kind to the building. The Astor households moved on; William Waldorf Astor razed his mansion and built the Hotel Waldorf on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

John Jacob Astor IV, meanwhile, built the Hotel Astoria where his home once stood. (The two neighboring hotels would become the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897)

Then in 1893, the showroom caught fire. A New York Times article described what Hotel Waldorf guests saw from their rooms as the fire illuminated Fifth Avenue:

“The Demarest building is a five-story brick structure, across the avenue from the Waldorf, at the northeast corner of Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.  It is used chiefly as a storage house for carriages.”

“There were over 200 vehicles of all kinds, valued at $150,000, in the building. In the repair shop were twenty fine carriages. Most of these were entirely destroyed and the fire extended to the fourth floor.”

Demarest himself suffered a stroke in 1902; he died in 1908 after eating poisonous clams at a Yale University dinner.

A year later, the company, now building automobiles instead of carriages, relocated to West 57th Street.

The Demarest Building had a colorful new tenant in 1913—a physician who claimed to be able to cure tuberculosis, a leading killer of New Yorkers, especially in poor neighborhoods.

A thousand people showed up for treatment, wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008, but the leasing agent wouldn’t allow the physician to treat anyone.

By the 1920s, this boxy beauty was subdivided into office space. These and other alterations are reportedly the reason the Demarest Building has not been landmarked by the city, as AM New York reported last month.

Currently it is prey for developers and a candidate for the wrecking ball, according to the AM New York article. (Thanks to Robin Kanter for bringing the article to my attention.)

[Second photo: American Architecture and Building News/Office for Metropolitan History via The New York Times; third image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth image: The Portal to Texas History; eighth image: New York Times, 1893]