Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

Two mystery gargoyles on a West 29th Street building

March 20, 2023

One of the small pleasures of walking around New York City is noticing all the stone and terra cotta figures looking down at you from Gothic-style loft buildings.

Sometimes scary, often cheeky, these grotesques and gargoyles pose a mystery: who decided to add them to the building, and what’s their significance?

I’m asking this question specifically about the two figures carved into Two West 29th Street, a 16-story building opened in 1928 just west of Fifth Avenue.

Under a banner of carved grape vines, each gargoyle is telling us something. On the right, I see an older woman crouched on her feet clutching something precious—perhaps a bag of money. No wonder she has a greedy, self-satisfied expression.

The man on the left, however, puzzles me. In his right hand, he might be holding some kind of tool, and it looks like his left-hand fingers are keeping something steady. Or he might be pointing to what’s in his hand with his index finger, directing our eyes to letters or numbers.

One way to solve the mystery of these two is to do a little research on the building and find out if it was the headquarters of a specific type of business. But the backstory of this early 20th century loft structure across the street from the Little Church Around the Corner isn’t clear.

Meanwhile, on the other end of West 29th Street, two stone characters outside the entrance of a former fur manufacturer aren’t shy about what they’re doing: one is feeding a squirrel, the other examining a pelt.

A forgotten war memorial in Madison Square Park honors the “glorious dead”

November 7, 2022

New York is a time capsule of war memorials. Solemn doughboy statues, heavy bronze plaques inscribed with names, and dramatic sculptures personifying courage and mortality honor all the city residents over the years who lost their lives in combat.

Some of these memorials are so inconspicuous, they’ve been pretty much forgotten. Case in point is this simple metal plaque on a concrete plinth in Madison Square Park honoring America’s “glorious dead.”

Located on the east side of the Park at about 25th Street, the plaque is partially hidden by fallen leaves from the tree planted at the same time it was installed.

The organization responsible for the tree and plaque is the Young Australia League—a group formed in 1906 in Perth as a soccer league that embraced Australian patriotism and pride. In March 1929, a group of 159 young Australians from the YAL came to New York City as part of a “sightseeing and goodwill” trip of the United States, according to this Brooklyn newspaper article.

Strangely, the marker doesn’t specify who the glorious dead are. But since the plaque came to the park in 1929, the intent was likely to honor the 116,708 American military personnel who perished from any cause during the Great War.

Though small and hard to find, the plaque is in good company in Madison Square Park. The Admiral Farragut statue, honoring the Union Army leader of “damn the torpedoes…full speed ahead” fame, sits inside the northwest corner of the park.

And the military grave site and 51-foot obelisk memorial to General William Jenkins Worth—who died during the Mexican-American War in 1849—rises nearby at Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street.

Bellevue Hospital’s old-school wrought iron sign

October 31, 2022

When I walk past Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue and 26th Street, I see the Bellevue at the dawn of the 19th century—when the fledgling city began quarantining yellow fever patients on former farmland called Belle Vue far away from the city center along the East River.

I imagine open space, grass and trees, and a bucolic environment to help the sick heal in an era with very little understanding of how diseases spread. I also think of the patients who died and were buried in Bellevue’s former cemetery, located at today’s Madison Square Park.

These wrought-iron gates certainly weren’t part of the hospital grounds back then. I don’t know how old they are, but there’s something very old-school about them, with what look like hand-stenciled cutouts spelling the hospital’s name. Every time I pass them, I think of Bellevue’s ghosts.

The magnificent iron window railings on an 1850s Murray Hill mansion

August 19, 2022

There’s a lot to love about the aristocratic brownstone mansion at 231 Madison Avenue, at the southeast corner of 37th Street.

Built as one of three freestanding mansions between 1852-1853 by members of the copper-baron Phelps family just as Murray Hill was transitioning from countryside to a posh urban neighborhood, the house was enlarged in the 1880s—then purchased by J.P. Morgan in 1904 as a 45-room family home for his son and business partner, Jack.

A study in harmony and symmetry, the mansion possesses the kind of elegant restraint of many Murray Hill townhouses. But one decorative element delights me every time I walk by: the wrought-iron balustrades on each of the full-length front windows flanking the entrance.

A collection of vines, florals, and curlicues, each balustrade adds a little Art Nouveau-inspired whimsy to the block, home to the Morgan Library & Museum. (J.P. Morgan’s own mansion was on the northeast corner, bulldozed in 1928. Today, number 231 is owned by the museum.)

Unsurprisingly, the balustrades were not part of the original antebellum mansion when early Phelps family members made it their home. They’re a product of either the 1888 renovation, or the “modest” exterior work Morgan commissioned shortly after buying the house, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) 2002 historic designation report.

The LPC report notes that 231 Madison Avenue “was a house that harmonized with the home of the elder Morgans and evoked comfortable prosperity rather than wealthy ostentation.” The balustrades also match the wrought-iron fence, as seen below.

The window railings are as beautiful as the one on the front window of the William and Clara Baumgarten House, a Beaux-Arts row house on Riverside Drive and 101st Street. Berenice Abbott captured a 1937 image of the windows while photographing the stoop—as lovely now as they appear then!

New York’s most perfectly preserved Gilded Age mansion is in Murray Hill

August 5, 2022

Murray Hill has always had an aristocratic edge. In the 18th century, it was the site of the country estate of shipping magnate Robert Murray and his wife Mary Lindley Murray—about 30 acres of steep terrain with a mansion standing at today’s Park Avenue and 36th Street.

James F.D. Lanier Residence, perfectly preserved from the Gilded Age

In 1847, with the former Murray estate divided into land lots and sold for development, the “Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement” went into effect for lots between 34th and 38th Streets and Madison to Lexington Avenues. “The agreement provided that the lots could be used for residential purposes only, barring businesses and commerce from the neighborhood,” stated Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, by Joyce and Alfred Pommer.

Lanier mansion in 1916

With such an elitist covenant in place, it’s no surprise that Murray Hill became New York’s millionaire colony through the 19th century.

Quiet, well-tended streets of charming brownstones and row houses went up. These tidy rows were occasionally interrupted by marble or stone mansions owned by old and new money characters like Caroline Astor, John Jacob Astor III, department store baron A.T. Stewart, and financier J.P. Morgan.

Lanier knocked down two brownstones exactly like the brownstone on the right so he had a big enough lot.

So at the turn of the century, when banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier decided to build his own residential palace for his family, he chose 35th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. The spot he wanted already had two matching brownstones on it, but brownstones were dour and out of fashion. Lanier had them knocked down to create the 33-foot lot for the showstopper he had in mind.

His five-story Beaux-Arts beauty at 123 East 35th Street was completed in 1903. It was a breathtaking sight like nothing else on the block, with its Ionic pilasters, arched windows and entryway, carved wood doors, iron railing, and copper mansard roof. “The total composition is both elegant and dignified, one that could be at home in Paris as well as New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report in 1979.

Lanier was no stranger to society. An avid sportsman and member of the Knickerbocker Club, he made it on Ward McAllister’s list of the 400 most socially prominent people in New York City. His family founded the banking house where he worked, and he certainly had enough money and clout to build his mansion anywhere he wanted.

That Lanier decided to build in Murray Hill is interesting, considering that some of the neighborhood’s wealthy residents had already decamped to the northern reaches of Fifth Avenue—like Mrs. Astor, who moved to a new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street. There were also challenges to the restrictive agreement, plus encroaching businesses. Neither of these annoyances pleased the rich who remained, per a 1914 New York Times article. “How long can the Murray Hill restriction be preserved?” the article asked.

Lanier mansion in 1976

Rather than relocating to more fashionable Upper Fifth Avenue like some of his contemporaries, Lanier lived in his Murray Hill mansion until his death in 1928. When his wife, Harriet, died three years later, the mansion went to his only surviving child, son Reginald Bishop Lanier.

Incredibly, as parts of Murray Hill became increasingly commercial—and the feel of the neighborhood transformed from new money rich to more upper middle class—Reginald Lanier retained ownership of the house for the next 50 years. “Reginald’s wife would frequently host tea and cocktail parties until the 1950s, and according to the LPC designation report, the Laniers would retain ownership of the house until at least 1979,” wrote Curbed in a 2013 article.

With the mansion under such a long stewardship by the family that built it, it’s no wonder 123 East 35th Street retains so much of its original Gilded Age loveliness, including the ornamental urns that greet visitors on the sidewalk in front of the entrance.

The best part of this perfectly preserved Parisian-inspired home is that it’s currently for sale. The nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, parlors, a butler’s pantry, and a servant’s wing can be yours for $33 million.

Christie’s has lots of eye-popping interior photos to pour over. Imagine the grand social events and intimate family life in this time capsule of a mansion!

[Second and fifth photos: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

The mystery of the mermaid on East 23rd Street

July 28, 2022

At the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street—a busy intersection at the border of Kips Bay—stands a squat, two-story building.

With a tan-brick facade and cookie-cutter rectangular shape, the building is empty of ground floor tenants, which not long ago included unglamorous neighborhood shops like a mattress outlet and cell phone store.

The one distinguishing factor of this building is how undistinguished it is in a neighborhood where restored cast-iron commercial spaces share the streets with low-rise walkups, tenements, and modern high-rise residential towers.

But there’s something mysterious above one of the empty store entrances on the 23rd Street side: a circular medallion of a mermaid, or siren, swimming among fish on the waves of the sea. She has a face of contentment, her eyes closed, her long hair free beneath a three-pointed crown.

The medallion is surrounded by brickwork that enhances its beauty. But where did it come from? The building doesn’t appear to date back farther than the late 1950s, while the mermaid seems to be in the artistic style of the late 19th or early 20th century.

It’s possible that the mermaid came from an earlier building either knocked down or renovated into the squat postwar structure. Previous turn-of-the-century businesses at the address—either 301 Third Avenue or 201-205 East 23rd Street—include a bank, the New York College of Dentistry, according to Songlines, the New-York Ophthalmic Hospital, and the office of a D. Peraza, who sold powders and tonics via periodical ads of dubious quality.

The mermaid seems like a much better fit for an entertainment venue—a theater perhaps, or a music hall. But this corner is a little to the east of the city’s Gilded Age/early 1900s theater district and Madison Square Garden. Maybe home to a German singing society? New York’s Little Germany, or Kleindutschland, extended from the East Village into the Gramercy area at the time.

It’s the only ornamentation of any kind on the building, yet it’s easy to miss, and it isn’t the kind of strange loveliness you don’t expect to find on an otherwise utilitarian building.

The mermaid medallion must have a good backstory; at the very least, it’s one of those architectural mysteries that make New York City streets so fascinating.

A live connection to James Madison stands tall in Madison Square Park

July 18, 2022

For a founding father from Virginia, there’s a lot of James Madison in New York City. Madison Square was named for him in 1814, when the Square was a former potter’s field turned military parade ground and Madison was serving his second term as U.S. president.

Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, got its name in 1826, and Madison Avenue opened in 1836, the year this writer, legislator, and statesman died.

Madison Square evolved into Madison Square Park, and this patch of green separating the Flatiron District from Murray Hill no longer seems to acknowledge Madison the man.

But obscured among the greenery on the east side of the park is a mighty red oak tree with a direct connection to the nation’s fourth commander-in-chief.

The red oak came to the park from Madison’s estate in Virginia, Montpelier. In 1936, the tree was transplanted as a sapling by a group of businessmen to commemorate the centennial of the opening of Madison Avenue to the east of the park.

The small, almost hidden plaque in front of the towering tree says it all, adding that it was brought and planted here by the Fifth Avenue Association, an organization that still exists.

Madison Square Park has more 300 trees of a variety of species, according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy—from red maples to ginkgos to magnolias. All are lovely and bring beauty to this popular space. But only one, still young at about 90 years old, stands as a direct connection to the man the park is named for.

[Third image:]

The geometric stillness in a Precisionist painter’s view near Avenue A

July 14, 2022

Niles Spencer was a Rhode Island-born painter who moved to New York City in 1916. “The lively intellectual milieu of Greenwich Village was in its heyday, and Spencer was exposed to many of the radical theoreticians and personalities of the time, who encouraged him to begin working in new directions,” stated New York City’s Forum Gallery.

“Deeply influenced by Cézanne’s faceted explorations of landscape and still life, Spencer’s paintings began to focus on the geometry of architectural shapes and how they related to their landscape.”

The painting above, “Near Avenue A,” was completed in 1933. The scene reduces what looks like a view from the old Gas House District (where Stuyvesant Town is today) to a “spare dynamic, architectonic composition” per the Forum Gallery.

Spencer is often grouped as a Precisionist painter, a style that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. (George Copeland Ault is another Precisionist whose work can be seen here.) “Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the machine and industry as an exaltation of the dynamism of the future,” wrote the Forum Gallery.

“Near Avenue A” is at the Museum of Modern Art. It captures a scene that’s hard to recognize in the Manhattan of today—but the round gas storage tank in the background places it on the East Side of the 1930s.

This 1883 apartment rental on Madison Avenue was one of Manhattan’s first co-ops

May 5, 2022

I’ve walked past 121 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 30th Street, many times, and it’s always puzzled me.

The red brick, the bay windows, the ornamental detailing along the facade—these architectural hints tell me that the building may have been a stunner when it made its debut, probably in the Gilded Age.

Set on the Gilded Age stylish border of Gramercy and Murray Hill, it was likely surrounded by brownstones and mansion row houses that enhanced its elegance. Thanks to the photo below from Andrew Alpern that shows the building in its early years, you can see it amid those brownstones on a tidy residential block.

121 Madison Avenue, courtesy of Andrew Alpern

Yet there’s something a little forlorn about it, as if it’s been stripped of its true beauty, its colors washed out somewhat. The heavy, block-like extra floors added to the original roof make it seem like the building is carrying the weight of the world.

As it turns out, number 121 does have a grander past. Completed in 1883 when “French flats,” aka apartment residences, were going up in Manhattan but had yet to catch on with the upper classes, the building is one of the city’s very first cooperative apartment houses—with residents owning a stake in the building rather than renting their unit.

The very first co-op building was the Rembrandt, constructed in 1881 at 152 West 57th Street but long demolished. Both the Rembrandt and 121 Madison Avenue were developed by Jared B. Flagg—described by Christopher Gray as a “clergyman-capitalist” in a 1991 New York Times article—and architect Philip Hubert.

The two were behind several other early co-op buildings, like the spectacular failure called the Navarro Flats on Central Park South, as well as the red-brick beauty at 222 West 23rd Street, which became the Chelsea Hotel in 1905. The co-ops were cannily marketed as “Hubert Homes” to help sell the idea of cooperative living as exclusive and homey, wrote Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

The marketing may have been slick, but the apartments inside 121 Madison Avenue sound quite elegant. The building featured “five grandly spacious duplex apartments for each two floors of the building,” stated Alpern. Each duplex apartment’s “entertaining rooms,” as Alpert called them, were on the lower floor, with the bedrooms on the upper level.

“The largest of the apartments had five entertaining rooms opening en suite via sliding mahogany and etched-glass doors: reception room, library, drawing room, parlor, and dining room,” explained Alpern.

This duplex design earned praise by the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide in 1883. “The elevator in this 11-story building stops at only five floors and each suite forms a complete two-story house in itself, entirely separate from any other apartment,” according to the Guide.

Early residents included bankers and lawyers, wrote Gray. But you know the story. When elite New Yorkers moved out of the increasingly commercial area around Madison Avenue and 30th Street, number 121 suffered as well. In 1940, the co-op became a rental, and its duplexes were carved into small units, wrote Alpern.

The facade was significantly altered as well, with the cornice and decorative balconies “lobotomized,” as Alpern wrote, and much of the ornamentation as well as the ground floor were gutted.

These days, 121 Madison Avenue is still a rental building, in the recently dubbed NoMad neighborhood. Its “historic, prewar luxury homes” are going for up to 10K per month, according to Streeteasy.

[Second photo: Courtesy of Andrew Alpert]

What to order from a 1950s Mother’s Day menu from the Gramercy Hotel

May 5, 2022

Vintage menus from New York City hotels reveal a lot about how food choices and dining habits have changed over the years.

Case in point is this Mother’s Day menu from the luxurious Hotel Gramercy Park for May 8, 1955. The menu is for dinner, with dinner starting at noon. It’s a reminder that what we generally call “dinner” today was typically served a lot earlier in the afternoon; this mention of Sunday in New York during the Gilded Age has it that dinner was always served at 1 p.m. A smaller evening meal would be supper.

The menu itself also has a very feminized look to it, with floral images and pink type. In the 1950s, I doubt anyone complained. Today’s customers might take issue with the traditional female feel.

The menu items, though, are quite hearty, with an assortment of old-school appetizers (stuffed celery hearts, seafood cocktail) and 14 entrees (plus a cold buffet) you would expect from a menu in the 1950s. Lobster Newburgh has an old New York backstory, as it supposedly was first served at Gilded Age favorite Delmonico’s in 1876.

The desserts look divine. I wonder how many moms chose the stewed prunes over the layer cake? As for beverages, this might be the oldest mention I’ve seen on a menu of iced coffee.

[Menu: NYPL]