Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

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: whitehouse.gov]

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]

A painter’s dazzling mosaic of energy and color in 1901 Madison Square

April 28, 2022

Painter Maurice Prendergast has been described as a “post-Impressionist.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but he has a unique, early 1900s style that turns city spaces into dazzling mosaics and perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic vitality of New York’s streets and parks.

The painting above, “Madison Square,” is from 1901 and is part of the collection at the Whitney Museum.

I can’t make out the words in the sign below “Buffalo NY,” but I can feel the women and girls and drivers and strollers, all out for a day in a park that was much more elite a generation earlier but has been ceded to the masses. Judging by all the umbrellas shielding female faces, the sun must be quite warm.

Prendergast seemed to like scenes of leisure and play, like these—also in New York City parks.

Is this the skinniest row house in Murray Hill?

April 11, 2022

It’s not the skinniest house in all of Manhattan; that honor goes to this circa-1873 gabled beauty on Bedford Street, which clocks in at an itty-bitty nine and a half feet wide. (Famously, it was the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in the 1920s.)

But 164 East 37th Street just might be the skinniest row house in Murray Hill, a neighborhood with its fair share of slender brownstones and townhouses.

The backstory of this slender contender hasn’t been easy to dig up. Scouting New York took a look at it in 2011, determining that it measured 10 feet wide and served as the entrance and stairwell for the larger brick building on the corner.

I’m not so sure about that. First of all, the brick building has a different architectural style and likely was built in a different time period. Why wouldn’t the brick one have its own entrance and stairwell? Number 164 is also set back from the brick building; the two neighbors are not in harmony. On the other hand, the sloppy cornice matches, kind of.

Whatever the backstory, the house hasn’t really changed since at least 1940, when this tax photo was taken by the city. The doors look the same as today, but the more decorative entryway has vanished.

It’s hard not to be charmed by these narrow houses, even when they’re more shabby than shabby chic. A handful of them can be found on Manhattan side streets, hiding between more modern buildings—like this skinny row house at 19 West 46th Street, which does have an interesting history going back to 1865.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A rich Gilded Age ‘man of mystery’ builds Murray Hill’s most flamboyant mansion

March 28, 2022

Most of the opulent mansions that lined the avenues of Murray Hill in the late 19th century have been demolished, and the spaciousness and quiet formality of what used to be an entirely residential neighborhood has largely disappeared.

But in the early decades of the Gilded Age, the east side blocks between Madison Square and 40th Street comprised the most elite enclave in the city. Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion commanded respect on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; her brother-in-law lived in a similar house next door.

Department store magnate A.T. Stewart built his French Empire fortress across the intersection, and J.P. Morgan lived in a more restrained mansion at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.

By the turn of the century, however, most of the Gilded Age rich decamped for Upper Fifth Avenue; Murray Hill was thought of as staid, even a little shabby as commercial enterprises crept in.

Captain De Lamar’s mansion soon after completion

So it raised eyebrows when, in 1902, Joseph Raphael De Lamar—who made millions in gold mining and then millions more on Wall Street—chose the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street as the site for the breathtaking Beaux-Arts mansion he built for himself and his young daughter.

Joseph Raphael De Lamar, undated photo

De Lamar was rich, but he was an outsider when it came to Gilded Age society. Born in Amsterdam, he supposedly stowed away on a ship as a child and spent years as a sailor, visiting ports around the world, according to his 1918 obituary in the New York Times.

After settling in Martha’s Vineyard, the Captain, as he was called, moved out West. There, he made his mining fortune, tried politics in Idaho, and then set his sights on New York City.

The De Lamar Mansion in 1925

On Wall Street, he was known as “the man of mystery.” Wrote the Times: “His intimate friends said that he never talked much,” but was “uniformly successful in his transactions.”

De Lamar was socially ambitious as well. In the 1890s he wed Nellie Sands, the daughter of a prosperous New York druggist. Despite their wealth, “the Lamars never became a part of the inner circle of society,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society. After having a daughter, Alice, the family subsequently spent a few years in Paris. “Wealthy Americans who were shunned by society often tried their luck in European capitals,” stated Craven.

The marriage ended in divorce. After De Lamar returned to Manhattan with Alice, he hired Charles P. H. Gilbert, the architect behind some of the best-known Gilded Age mansions, to construct his as well. De Lamar gave Gilbert “a free hand so far as the dwelling itself [was] concerned,” wrote the New York Times in 1904, via Gilded Mansions.

De Lamar may have chosen the Madison Avenue and 37th Street site for a specific reason: to spite J. P. Morgan, who resided a block away and “had regularly rebuffed [Lamar] in business,” according to Leanne Italie in a recent Associated Press article.

The Parisian-style mansion, completed in 1905, didn’t reflect Gilbert’s usual French Gothic style. But physically and stylistically, it overshadowed Morgan’s dwelling—thanks in part to the rusticated stone, copper crests, recessed entrance, and roof. “The subtly asymmetrical house, with an entrance that is flanked by marble columns and crowned by a pair of putti, is surmounted by an exceptionally imposing mansard,” wrote The Guide to New York Landmarks.

That spectacular mansard was dubbed “the most formidable mansard roof in New York,” by the AIA Guide to New York City.

De Lamar added another impressive feature to his mansion: a sidewalk-level car elevator. “At the far right edge of the property, a large metal plate flush with the sidewalk is actually the roof of his automobile elevator, which goes down to the basement,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008. (The outline of the metal plate is barely visible now under a new stairway.)

For the next 13 years, De Lamar and Alice lived in the eye-popping mansion; the 1910 census recorded the two living with nine servants, stated Gray. Society may not have accepted him, however, and Alice seemed to shy away from the display of wealth. Even so, when De Lamar died in 1918 at Roosevelt Hospital, he left part of his fortune of $29 million to his daughter, who was now 23 years old.

The mansion in 1975

“Alice De Lamar soon deserted her father’s house for a Park Avenue apartment, and went on to become a volunteer driver and mechanic for the Red Cross and an advocate of housing for working women,” wrote Gray. This “bachelor girl,” as 1920s and 1930s gossip columnists dubbed her, spent time in her homes in Palm Beach, Connecticut, and Paris. She was a quiet supporter of the arts until her death in 1983.

And the mansion? It was bought by the American Bible Society, and then became the headquarters of the National Democratic Club in the 1920s.

In the 1970s, De Lamar’s Beaux-Arts gem was purchased by the Polish government, which made it the site of its Consulate General. The interiors are rumored to be as lovely as the facade. Keep an eye out for events that might be open to the public.

[Third image: MCNY MNY233642; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL; ninth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.852]

The teens who found splendor on the gritty East Side docks of the 1940s

March 7, 2022

The smokestacks and storage tanks of the East River waterfront of the 1930s or 1940s should be an unappealing place to meet friends. But painter Joseph Lambert Cain has captured a group of teenagers gathered on a pier here to sunbathe, talk, and pair off.

For these teens, perhaps from the Lower East Side or the Gas House District in the East 20s, the waterfront is an idyllic location—away from the critical eyes of adults and into the warm embrace of the working class city they likely grew up in.

Cain titled his painting “New York Harbor.” I’m not sure of the date, but my guess is about 1940. The riverfront industry surrounds them, but the modern city of skyscrapers is within sight and reach.