Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

The daises hidden on a Stanford White building

April 9, 2018

The weather is still chilly and skies are wintry gray. But on the facade of a building on East 30th Street, pretty white daisies have been popping up for at least a century.

You can see them on the underside of The Nottingham, a handsome apartment residence designed by Stanford White that has kind of a Byzantine or Tuscan look to it.

Bright white daisies with yellow centers surrounded by blue tiles appear under a second-floor juliet balcony.

When The Nottingham was built is a bit of a mystery. Real estate website say the late 19th century; an article on reinforced concrete from 1907 implies the early 1900s.

Did Stanford White have a hand in adding the daisies? It could be the kind of ornamental whimsy he enjoyed.

The meaning behind two Gramercy lampposts

January 22, 2018

Four Gramercy Park West, with its ornamented white doors and iron lace terrace, is about as breathtaking as a New York City townhouse can get (number four is at left).

Built in 1846 soon after Gramercy Park was transformed from a swamp to an elite neighborhood, the Greek Revival home “features sun-filled rooms, high ceilings, and elaborate crown molding, and it comes with a coveted key to the park,” writes 6sqft.

It also features two cast-iron lampposts flanking the front entrance on the sidewalk. Oddly, the mirror image townhouse next door, Three Gramercy Park West, has no lampposts.

So what’s the significance?

The lampposts are remnants of a mayoral tradition leftover from Dutch colonial days.

In the 1840s, this was the home of New York mayor James Harper (founder in 1825 of Harper & Brothers, now Harper Collins). What were dubbed the “mayor’s lamps” were at some point installed.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Hmm, sounds like the tradition was in part a way to get a possibly drunk colonial leader back home safely.

“The lanterns were then left in front of the residence as a warning to any boisterous members of the town not to disturb the rest of the official ruler of the city.” Well, those early colonists did love their taverns.

“The Dutch custom of placing special lamps at the mayor’s door was an aid to finding his house at night, but by Harper’s day, it was merely ceremonial,” states nyc-architecture.com. “The custom ended with the 1942 establishment of Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s official residence.”

Harper lived there until his death in 1869; his descendants stayed on in the house until 1923. Since then, it’s become significant for two more reasons.

Number four is rumored to be the townhouse home of Stuart Little.

E.B. White never specified this in his classic tale of the adventurous mouse boy. But the book’s illustrations certainly look a lot like the former Harper residence, as the site Architecture Here and There reveals.

Four Gramercy Park is also immortalized on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Manager Albert Grossman lived there at the time. Doesn’t the white door behind Dylan look familiar? Here’s the story about the shoot, from Rolling Stone.

[Second Photo: Wikipedia; Fourth photo: MCNY/Berenice Abbott 89.2.3.44]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

Weird things done to New York brownstones

December 18, 2017

Few things are as lovely as a row of brownstones—a solid line of stoops and cornices signifying harmony, community, and Gilded Age New York charm.

I’m using brownstone as an all-purpose word for a New York rowhouse. Brownstones themselves were kind of the McMansions of the late 19th century; every newly minted banker or merchant had to have one.

But while it’s the dream of many city residents to rent or own one of these beauties and have it restored to its 19th century grandeur, not everyone thinks so.

On some of the most fashionable brownstone blocks are strange architectural upgrades that would puzzle Gilded Age New Yorkers—like this one on East 51st Street (top photo), swathed in glass with what looks like a giant punch card over the facade.

Some brownstones still look the part—at least, the top half of the house does. This one in Flatiron has an ugly storefront addition covering the parlor and second floors.

On East 71st Street is a building I like to call the bubble brownstone. As far as I know, this is the only brownstone in the city with glass oval pods for windows.

I don’t know what to make of this brickface former brownstone on West 18th Street except that it has a very 1970s feel.

It looks like a concrete grill or lattice is covering the entire front of this rowhouse on the Upper East Side. I wonder what kind of light comes in. It was designed by a Modernist architect in the 1950s.

Finally, here’s a brownstone that looks like it’s undergone the Brutalist treatment in Chelsea. Hey, at least the owner has his or her own garage.

The pretty peafowl on a Madison Avenue building

October 23, 2017

The Alexander Wilson Building has been at 274 Madison Avenue since 1928, blending in with the neighboring 1920s-era gray-beige office towers in this stretch of Midtown.

But on a walk past the lobby, some unusual detailing above and around the entrance catches your eye and sets the structure apart from the rest.

Wow—peafowl! Two lovely regal birds face each other on an Art Nouveau–esque frieze of leaves, grapes, and two peachicks behind them.

I’m not sure what these birds symbolize, but it’s an enchanting ode to the natural world amid Madison Avenue’s concrete sidewalks and cathedrals of commerce.

Of course, New York building facades are decorated with images to all kinds of animals, from squirrels to lions to elephants to rats.

And then there are the real peafowl—peacocks roaming around the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on West 112th Street.

The understated 9/11 memorial few people know

September 11, 2017

It’s just a simple plaque, mostly bronze with a bright red, white, and blue American flag, four sentences plus a bas relief image of the skyline before September 11, 2001.

Unless you regularly walk up First Avenue in Kips Bay, you probably wouldn’t even notice it. The understated plaque is affixed to the side of a VA Hospital building on First Avenue near 23rd Street.

I don’t know when the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System put it up.

But in a city filled with sizable memorials and monuments commemorating the immense bravery and tragedy of 9/11, there’s something to be said for a small quiet plaque that sits off to the side.

On another note, is this an archaic use of “hale” as a verb in the second sentence below?

In the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag is “hailed.”

Two forgotten Broadways nobody knows about

April 21, 2017

Broadway, the 13-mile road that began as an Indian trail and grew to define the city, is synonymous with greatness.

To put “Broadway” in the name of a new street is to aspire to something big — which was the idea behind East Broadway and West Broadway.

City fathers in the 19th century gave these names to existing streets in Lower Manhattan to divert traffic from the real Broadway and create what they hoped would be successful thoroughfares, states The Street Book.

So how do you explain Old Broadway and Broadway Alley, two narrow byways all but forgotten by the early 20th century?

Old Broadway is actually a leftover piece of another street. This lane runs from 125th Street to 129th Street (at left in 1932) just east of the real Broadway, then picks up again between 131st and 133th Streets (below, also 1932).

It’s a vestige of the old Bloomingdale Road, a colonial-era road that started around Madison Square and crossed to today’s Upper West Side.

In the late 19th century, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of the real Broadway.

The remaining seven blocks of Bloomingdale Road didn’t fit anywhere, so it was given the moniker Old Broadway and allowed to remain on the map.

“Why the few blocks of Old Broadway were left no one knows exactly, but probably because the wiping out of the thoroughfare, with many of its old houses, would have entailed unnecessary hardship upon the residents,” explains a 1912 New York Times article.

Vestiges of rural Manhattan remained through the 1930s. “For nearly a block, on the west, huge signs hide a bit of raised, rocky ground — pasture, no doubt, for goats in days gone by,” states another Times piece from 1930.

Today, the only reminder of a bygone city is the Old Broadway Synagogue (on the left side of the above photo), built in 1922 for Harlem’s Jewish population.

Broadway Alley has a more colorful past. It’s a one-lane drive between 26th and 27th Streets and Lexington and Third Avenue with a street sign on the 27th Street side.

Laid out around 1830, according to a 2005 Times article, the street was given its name at some point by owners who hoped to associate it with the glamour of Broadway theater.

For much of the 19th century, it was actually associated with crime and poverty; the alley was home to narrow tenements where residents had a fondness for gambling and drinking.

Rumor has it that Ringling Brothers once kept their circus elephants here — hopefully when it was a dirt drive not littered with debris behind wire and iron fencing, as it is today (at left), from the 26th Street end).

Broadway Alley is mostly covered in asphalt now, but it was once considered one of the last unpaved roads in the city.

Though maybe it doesn’t technically count, since Broadway Alley is privately owned and only one occupied building uses the street address, according to the Times.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.174; third photo: MCNY: 33.173.175]

The most spectacular roofs are in Union Square

April 10, 2017

On a walk around Union Square, it’s impossible not to look up, thanks to the number of gorgeous roofs—stacked, sloping, multi-tiered roofs that top off the Gilded Age buildings like the elaborate feathered hats worn by stylish women of the era.

The four-story mansard roof crowning 201 Park Avenue South is perhaps the most impressive. This gorgeous building—close to the heavily German East Village back in the day—was once the headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company, built in fashionable French Renaissance style in 1911.

On the north side of the square at 33 East 17th Street is the Century Building, with it Queen Anne bells and whistles and two-story gambrel roof. Opened in 1881, the first tenant was a music publisher—and there’s a publishing link today, with Barnes & Noble occupying four floors.

A little farther up Broadway at 20th Street is a mansard roof like no other. Lord & Taylor built this Victorian blowout in 1870, when this stretch of Broadway was nicknamed Ladies Mile. The enormous store featured one of New York’s first steam elevators, and the company installed the first Christmas window decorations.

A detour to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street puts this double-decker Addams Family–esque roof in view. This is the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods store, also part of Ladies Mile.

Constructed between 1869 to 1877, the monster emporium spanned 19th Street from Broadway to Fifth Avenue.

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

The brick and mortar ghosts all over Manhattan

January 16, 2017

The history of New York City is written on its walls—the walls of apartment houses and commercial buildings still standing, bearing the faded outline of those that met the bulldozer long ago.

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These phantom buildings are on every block (above, Fourth Avenue and 1oth Street), especially in today’s city with its constant renovation and rebuilding—what Walt Whitman called “knock down and pull over again spirit.”

ghostbuilding11thave

The roofs of these faded ghosts are often slanted and peaked—hints that a Federal-style house or stable once existed there. I’m guessing this outline on 11th Avenue in the west 20s, above, was a stable.

ghostbuildingrectorstreet

Many of the outlines resemble the shells of tenements. This phantom at Rector Street, above, is likely all that remains of an anonymous tenement where generations of New Yorkers lived and raised families.

ghostbuildinglafayettestreet

The ghost building on Great Jones Street near Lafayette Street above, with what appears to be the outline of three chimneys, looks too short to be a tenement. Probably just a walk-up with a couple of flats per floor.

ghostbuilding3rdavemountsinai

The painted-white outline here on Third Avenue in Gramercy could have been a single family home, similar to the one on the left side of the photo hidden behind scaffolding.

ghostbuilding57thstreet

On West 57th Street a lonely tenement bears the remains of its neighbor, which had what looks like a central chimney or rooftop exit door.

ghostbuildingwestside

Is this the ghost of another stable or carriage house? It’s on the far West Side around 42nd Street, where the city’s last remaining working stables are.