Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

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.

The Murray Hill double house with a link to President Lincoln

February 21, 2022

During his life, Abraham Lincoln made just a handful of visits to New York City. Little is known about his first two trips to Gotham in 1848 and 1857, according to Lewis E. Lehrman, writing in Mr. Lincoln and New York, but they were likely just pitstops as he made his way north.

It was his third time in Manhattan, a three-day trip in late February 1860, that gave the Kentucky-born lawyer more exposure to the city. On this visit, Lincoln delivered his electrifying Cooper Union speech on slavery, which propelled him to national prominence and helped him win the presidential election later that year.

Speaking at Cooper Union wasn’t the only activity on Lincoln’s agenda. He stayed at the luxurious Astor House hotel on Vesey Street, had his photo taken at Mathew Brady’s Broadway studio, attended services at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and made an appearance at the Five Points House of Industry, addressing the city’s poorest children in this notorious slum.

Considering that Lincoln’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1865, he clearly could never have set foot inside 122-124 East 38th Street, a Georgian-style double house completed in 1904. But the slain president does have a direct link to the house: It was the home of at least one (and possibly two) of the granddaughters he never knew.

The granddaughters, Mary (known as Mamie) and Jessie, were the daughters of Lincoln’s only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln—who bought number 122 for his two daughters, states Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, by Alfred and Joyce Pommer.

Mary “Mamie” Isham and her son, Lincoln

However, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) makes no mention of Jessie living there. According to their report on the Murray Hill Historic District, Mamie bought number 122 in 1906 with her husband, Charles Isham. For many years, Mamie, Charles, and their son, Lincoln, resided in the elegant house in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood.

It was Isham who commissioned the attic story, “which contained servants quarters,” per the LPC report.

Lincoln for President poster, 1860

The house apparently held various “relics,” as the New York Sun put it in a 1920 article, that related to the Lincoln presidency. “Both Mr. and Mrs. Isham are deeply interested in the Lincoln traditions and have many interesting and valuable relics of the life of the Emancipator,” stated the article, which focused on Lincoln’s surviving family members.

After Charles Isham’s death in 1919, Mamie remained in the house until 1935, when she moved to Washington D.C., per the LPC report. Mary Lincoln Isham died three years later.

The lovely house on one of Murray Hill’s most beautiful blocks is another Lincoln link in a city with streets, schools, statues, a square, playground, and tunnel all honoring the martyred president.

[Third photo: Lincoln Collection; fourth image: National Park Service]

The two very different mansions where Mrs. Astor hosted New York society

January 24, 2022

In the 1880s, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor asserted her position as the grand dame of of New York society. Mrs. Astor, as she became known, presided over a November through February social season for the city’s old-money elite who could trace their lineage to the colonial era.

Mrs. Astor’s understated mansion, 350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street

You’d think that a woman with her money and influence would host her weekly dinners and fabulous annual ball in a spectacular palace. But the “mansion” where she lived for most of her married life as she ascended the throne of society was surprisingly understated.

The house, on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, was built in 1856 on former farmland owned by the Astor family. The family gifted it to Mrs. Astor and her husband, William Backhouse Astor, after the couple married.

Mrs. Astor’s portrait greeted guests at 350 Fifth Avenue

On that lot the couple built a “plain four-story town house,” as Eric Homberger, author of Mrs. Astor’s New York, described it. “At 50 by 107 feet, and with Nova Scotia freestone used in window dressings, architraves, cornices, Corinthian columns, and a double stoop, the building certainly had an imposing air,” stated Homberger.

A fenced-in garden on the left side of Mrs. Astor’s house (350 Fifth Avenue) was shared with the neighboring house on the block, constructed and occupied by William’s brother, John Jacob Astor III (338 Fifth Avenue). The area was the most fashionable residential part of the city in the Gilded Age.

Mrs. Astor’s first ballroom, 1894

Though the exterior wasn’t impressive, the interior, however, was a different story. In Incredible New York, author Lloyd Harris explains what guests of Mrs. Astor’s annual January ball would experience as they made their way inside the house, which was “ablaze with lights.”

“Through a wide hall, guests proceeded to the first of three connected drawing rooms, where their hostess received them, standing before the life-size portrait (above) which she had recently commissioned from [portrait painter] Carolus Duran.

Mrs. Astor’s house, overshadowed by the new Waldorf Hotel in 1893

“Cordially greeted by this scintillant idol, her guests made their way through two more thronged drawing rooms to the spacious art gallery which served as a ballroom. Lander’s costly orchestra was playing in the musicians’ gallery, and the walls were hung with works of art which had acquired fame, if not merit, from Mrs. Astor’s favor.”

Supper would then be served in a “grand dining room from an immense table,” wrote Harris. The upper floors aren’t described, but with five children and his and hers bedrooms (the Astors spent very little time together), it must have been roomy.

Mrs. Astor’s second Fifth Avenue mansion bears a better resemblance to the kind of luxurious Gilded Age house you would expect.

Mrs. Astor’s second and last Fifth Avenue mansion, at 65th Street, was a marble palace.

In the early 1890s, her brother-in-law razed his mansion and built the Waldorf Hotel in its place. (The hotel was intentionally designed to overshadow Mrs. Astor’s house—these two Astor families didn’t get along, as you can imagine.)

The now-widowed Mrs. Astor and her son then sold her house at 350 Fifth Avenue and moved to a stunning French Renaissance double mansion at 840 and 841 Fifth Avenue, at 65th Street. Designed by Richard Hunt, the new mansion was Mrs. Astor’s final residence in New York City, situated on posh upper Fifth Avenue. She died there in 1908, and it was demolished in 1926.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image:; third and fourth images: MCNY; fifth image: Wikipedia]

The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter

January 24, 2022

By 1895, just about all of Manhattan was urbanized. Central Park, completed only 30 years earlier far north of the main city, was now centrally located. In three years, the consolidation of Greater New York would be complete, and the city would take the shape we know today.

But the heart of the Gilded Age city was still Madison Square, a crossroads of business, shopping, nightlife, and culture. Above, artist Theodore Robinson painted the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with all the action and activity to be expected in the mid-1890s.

Missing from Robinson’s painting is the Flatiron Building, of course; the iconic skyscraper didn’t open until 1902. But to the left in the foreground is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the meeting place of business and political movers and shakers. Farther up is Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850s and one of the city’s oldest most elite congregations.

Horses power carriages along the paved avenue. Skirt hems skim the sidewalks. You can practically hear the conversation between the smartly dressed young man and the driver. Streetcars travel up and down 23rd Street, ferrying daytime shoppers to grand department stores like Stern Brothers and nighttime theatergoers.

Robinson is a new name for me. Born in Vermont, he came to New York in the 1870s and returned again after stints in Europe, according to the National Gallery of Art. His depiction of Union Square (above), also an important Gilded Age location, seems closer to his pioneering Impressionist style.

Robinson died in New York in 1896 at age 43 after a lifelong fight with severe asthma, per a New York Times review of an exhibit held in 2005. His name isn’t well known, but his work capturing the street life of the Gilded Age lets us feel the energy and excitement of the city on the cusp of the 20th century.

What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

November 15, 2021

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]