Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

Art Nouveau beauty on a Fifth Avenue building

April 24, 2014

Baltmanfifthaveentrance3In 1906, distinguished fine goods store B. Altman & Company opened this Italian Renaissance palazzo–inspired store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

The new store helped transform “middle” Fifth Avenue from an elegant street of small shops and mansions to a commercial boulevard fronted by several department stores.

 B. Altman went out of business in 1989. Yet the lovely flagship building still stands, taken over by CUNY’s Graduate Center.

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The Fifth Avenue facade is stunning: the columns, the bays, and especially the “curving, Art Nouveau style metal and glass canopy, supported by elaborate wrought-metal brackets” above each entrance, in the words of the CUNY Graduate Center website.

Baltmanfifthaveentrance4These ornate entrances are essentially unchanged. “The B. Altman & Company building remains an exemplar of American neo-Renaissance commercial design, and a landmark in the cultural history of New York,” the CUNY site notes.

It’s a little slice of old New York beauty amid the express buses and Empire State Building crowds and throngs of shoppers.

Twenty years of Starbucks in New York City

April 14, 2014

If your experience in New York doesn’t stretch back more than two decades, then you’ve never known a time when the city didn’t have multiple Starbucks stores in almost every neighborhood.

Broadway87thstsignIt was 20 years ago this month when the first Starbucks opened on Broadway and 87th Street.

“At 3,000 square feet, this is the largest of the company’s 318 stores and also one of the largest coffee bars in the city,” wrote Florence Fabricant in her New York Times column on April 27, 1994.

That writeup didn’t capture the conflicting emotions many New Yorkers felt about having Starbucks descend on the city.

“When the store at 87th Street welcomed its first caffeine-charged customers in April 1994, national chains and upscale retailers and restaurants were not common in that part of the Upper West Side,” stated a New York Times article from 2003, the year the first store closed.

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Starbucks “stirs conflicting feelings among people who live near their branches,” another Times article from 1995 said.

“Some see the coffee bars as promising signs of upscale development and badges of sophistication. Others are put off by the sprawling uniformity of Starbucks stores and fear that they may threaten the distinctive character of old-time establishments in their areas.”

Twenty years later, the opening of a Starbucks branch can still whip up the same opinions.

[photo: a Starbucks in the East 20s, one of 283 in the city]

Identifying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims

March 22, 2014

TriangleshirtwaistcorpsesThe fire started at 4:40 p.m. It was Saturday, March 25—a workday in 1911.

As flames quickly turned the top three floors of the Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place into a “roaring cornice of flames,” dozens of employees crowded the windows and fire escapes.

Half an hour later, when the fire had been extinguished, 146 Triangle Waist Company workers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. The grim task of identifying so many victims had begun.

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Over the next several hours, their corpses were laid out on the sidewalk, tagged, put in coffins, and loaded into wagons.

They were going to Charities Pier, off East 26th Street—nicknamed “Misery Lane” because it was the makeshift morgue where city officials routinely brought victims of lethal disasters.

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“When the wagons arrived, they were met by a team of homeless men dragooned from the Municipal Lodging House, who were assigned to open the boxes and arrange them in two long rows,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

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“At midnight, the doors opened. The first in a growing line of friends and family members began shuffling up one long row and down the other. Low voices, slow footsteps, the cry of gulls, and the lapping of water punctuated the heavy silence.

“A faint sulfuric glow fell from the lights hung high in the rafters. They did little  to illuminate the coffins, however, so policemen stood every few feet holding lanterns.

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“When a loved one paused at a box and peered close, the nearest officer dangled his lantern helpfully.

Trianglememorialevergreens“The light swayed and flickered over the disfigured faces. Now and then a shock of recognition announced itself in a piercing cry or sudden sob splitting the ghastly quiet.”

The task of identifying the dead lasted four cold, rainy days. Pickpockets and the morbidly fascinated lined up along with family members.

Within a week, all but seven bodies had been ID’d.

In April, they were honored in a procession (above) and buried together at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

A surprising relic inside Bellevue Hospital’s lobby

February 17, 2014

In 2000, Bellevue Hospital Center—the city’s oldest hospital, established in 1794 in the hinterlands of the city along First Avenue and 28th Street—decided to build a new Ambulatory Care Pavilion.

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The I.M. Pei-designed pavilion has been open since 2005. It’s a gleaming modern glass atrium, the kind seen on office buildings and institutions all over the city.

NYT2010060216222163CBut inside this atrium remains a curious piece of the hospital’s past.

The far wall of the atrium is actually the facade of an older Bellevue building.

It’s the granite and brick front of the 1930s administrative building built by McKim, Mead & White.

It’s nicely preserved and pretty impressive. Above what was the main hospital entrance facing First Avenue is a version of the official city seal.

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Smaller entryways marked “waiting room” and “employes” also remain, as well as a gas lantern from the 1880s.

BellevuewaitingroomsignIt’s always inspiring to see an old facade spared the wrecking ball and incorporated into a new structure.

Check out a few recent examples: a church-turned-NYU-dorm and a condo springing up from inside the shell of an old elementary school.

The most extravagant party of the 19th century

January 23, 2014

In Gilded Age New York, superrich families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts were known for their opulent balls.

The most over-the-top ball of them all, however, was held by Bradley and Cornelia Martin, a wealthy lawyer and his matron-like wife known as the Bradley Martins.

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In the late 19th century, their riches made the Bradley Martins part of the upper crust of city society. And in 1896, the story goes, they had an idea.

CorneliamartinmaryqueenofscotsThe Panic of 1893 still had its grip on the city. Unemployment was high; the economy in the doldrums.

Mrs. Martin believed that hosting a costume ball would lift spirits. And the money spent (about $300,000) would end up benefiting the florists, cooks, and other service workers they had to hire—a trickle-down effect as it were.

So they sent out 1,200 invitations, booked the Waldorf Hotel at 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue for February 10, 1897, and held their legendary “monument to vanity,” as the New York World put it.

About 600 invitees attended. They arrived at a hotel (below) transformed into Versailles. Guests dressed as Kings and Queens of legendary European royalty. Mrs. Martin, at right, went as Mary Queen of Scots.

Waldorfhotel1890sAttendees dined on champagne, duck, truffles, petit fours, and other delicacies; they danced until 5 a.m.

The next day, the newspapers dutifully reported the details of the ball—but they also excoriated the Bradley Martins for their wastefulness and tacky display of wealth during an economic recession.

“The ball was greeted with a torrent of criticism and the Bradley Martins removed themselves to England; there was much clucking of tongues in the society pages and sermons about foolish ostentation,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.

Even a city used to gawking at unrestrained vulgar ostentation had had enough. The Gilded Age was unofficially over.

The “great dog show” thrills the Gilded Age city

January 16, 2014

Dogs have always had a place in New York: as guardians, beloved pets, police partners, and firehouse mascots.

WestminsterdogshowSo it’s no surprise that the world’s most prestigious canine event, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, got its start in a dog-happy 19th century city.

It all began at the upscale Westminster Hotel on Irving Place and 16th Street.

The hotel bar was the meeting place for elite “sportsmen” who enjoyed boasting about their prized sporting dogs.

The men decided to form a club, and when they couldn’t agree on a name, went with Westminster Kennel Club, after the hotel.

The first dog show was held in May 1877 at Gilmore’s Gardens, on the site of the future Madison Square Garden at Madison Avenue and 27th Street. It was a huge hit with the public.

Westminsterhotel

About 1,200 dogs were entered: pointers, setters, St. Bernards, spaniels, collies, Newfoundlands, dachshunds, harriers, beagles, wolfhounds, and other purebreed pups, all vying for a ribbon.

WestminsterimageUp to 8,000 New Yorkers visited on the first day. “Everybody was fashionably dressed and wore an air of good breeding,” wrote The New York Times.

“One the second day, there were 10,000 visitors, and on the third, the same,” stated The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster.

“This led the club to extend the show by a day. Proceeds of that day, minus expenses, were to go to the ASPCA as the nucleus of a fund to open a home for stray and disabled dogs, similar to one in London.”

The show moved to Madison Square Garden and grew in subsequent years; the first Best in Show award was given in 1907 (to a smooth fox terrier named Warren Remedy, below).

Warrenremedybestinshow1907In the teens, firehouse Dalmatians had their own contest, and a World War I hero German Shepherd named Filax of Lewanno earned a special salute.

The show is back at the Garden on February 10—one of only four events to be held at every incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

The men on the facade of the National Arts Club

December 23, 2013

NationalartsclubNew York City brownstones don’t come any lovelier than 14 and 15 Gramercy Park South, the combined home of The National Arts Club since 1906.

Flora, fauna, and other ornamentation decorate the warm, handsome buildings. But why are the heads of five literary giants carved into the facade as well?

The names are underneath their sculptural busts: Shakespeare, Dante, Franklin, Milton, and Goethe.

They were among the authors and thinkers whose books were featured in the library of the brownstones’ Gilded Age owner, former New York State governor and 1876 presidential candidate Samuel Tilden.

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In the 1870s, Tilden, a wealthy lawyer, commissioned Central Park co-architect Calvert Vaux to combine the two 1840s brownstones into one incredible mansion complete with Gothic Victorian touches, stained glass, and bay windows.

After he died, Tilden’s library, as well as his fortune, helped create the New York Public Library. His homage to five literary legends lives on, greeting passersby on one of the prettiest blocks in the city.

Whatever happened to lovely Livingston Street?

December 16, 2013

LivingstonplacemapBrooklyn Heights still has its Livingston Street, named after the old New York family that counts 19th century state governor Hamilton Fish as a descendent.

But what about Manhattan’s Livingston Place—a pretty little London-esque lane (seen here on a midcentury map) which served as a bookend for the east side of Stuyvesant Square since 1836?

Livingstonplace1939nyplLovely Livingston Place lost its original moniker in the 1950s, when the city decided to rename the road, which stretched two narrow blocks from 15th to 17th Streets alongside Beth Israel Hospital.

The new name: Perlman Place. Nathan D. Perlman was a judge as well as vice-president of Beth Israel who died in 1952.

Plans to honor Perlman by putting his name on this picturesque lane (here in the 1930s) was not universally well received.

“In a city as rich with history as New York street names should not be changed without overwhelmingly good reason, long consideration, and ample public debate,” The New York Times weighed in in 1954. “Such changes are confusing to the public, they make maps obsolete, they break the traditions of the past.”

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The City Council approved the name change anyway—and Manhattan lost a slender connection to its colonial beginnings.

[Middle photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street

December 16, 2013

HenryphippsTurn of the century New York had many millionaires. Some built Fifth Avenue palaces for themselves, while others invested part of their fortune in better housing for others.

Henry Phipps did both. A steel magnate with a Fifth Avenue mansion, Phipps constructed model tenements—cleaner, more livable multi-family residences than the typical city tenement, which was a hastily constructed firetrap packing many people in airless rooms.

“I shall like the buildings to have all the light and air possible; to have them fire-proof and thoroughly sanitary, and so far as possible, to have spaces around them in which the children could play,” he said, according to a 1905 New York Times article.

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This wasn’t a charity; Phipps put up the money hoping for at least a minimal return on his million-dollar investment, which he planned to use to build more tenements.

The first Phipps model tenement went up two years later at 325 to 335 East 31st Street. About 150 apartments housed 800 residents, who enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside (rather than a filthy air shaft).

PhippsbrochurenyplBy 1912, two more Phipps buildings were built on West 63rd and West 64th Streets; they were occupied mostly by black New Yorkers in what was then an African-American neighborhood called San Juan Hill.

Why only three Phipps houses in Manhattan, especially when two out of three residents lived in a traditional tenement, and better housing was desperately needed?

Perhaps because the market-rate rents ended up attracting middle-class residents, and working-class and poor people were priced out—one reason other model tenements didn’t last long either

The two West Side Phipps tenements still stand, but the 31st Street complex was demolished decades ago.

[Middle photo: Museum of the City of New York; bottom: NYPL Digital Collection]

Holdout tenements dwarfed by towering giants

October 24, 2013

Holdoutbuildings22ndst

Every so often on New York City streets you come across a faded old walkup or tenement that’s holding its own beside a gleaming tower or tall office building.

It’s hard not to be charmed by these little underdogs, whose owners likely turned down a hefty buyout offer for the property.

I love these two buddy tenements on Third Avenue and 22nd Street, once probably part of a late 19th century row of tenements that looked just like them.

New York is all about change, and lovely buildings are always being torn down to make way for something new.

Yet there’s something strangely satisfying about a massive 20-story co-op being forced to build around these two stragglers.

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On East 59th Street sits the well-maintained walkup below—squeezed between handsome 1920s residences that are at least six times the little building’s height.

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Also in the East 50s is this little guy—a fire-engine red old-school walkup wedged against a 20+ story apartment building, with other apartment residences casting cold shadows over it on its right and from behind.

Holdoutbuildingeast50s

What’s it like to live in an architectural relic—left behind from an older, smaller-scale New York—that refused to budge as the city marched forward?


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