Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

The gingerbread carriage house of 38th Street

March 16, 2020

Every once in a while, you see a building in New York City that’s so whimsical, it looks like it stepped out of a fable.

Take a look at this Dutch Revival–style carriage house, with its brick facade, spirals, stepped gables, and fan-like stonework surrounding the door and windows.

Ornate and unusual, the little stub of a building on East 38th Street in Murray Hill seems inspired by a fairy tale—you almost expect it to be made from gingerbread.

Adding to the carriage house’s beauty are the two stone horse heads looking out between the first and second stories. Then there’s the growly bulldog keeping an eye on things up top.

For such a fanciful structure, its backstory echoes that of other New York City carriage houses—built for wealthy New Yorkers who resided in nearby mansions and could afford to spend money on the place they housed their horses.

Named for a banker who worked with J.P. Morgan, the George S. Bowdoin Stable was completed in 1902 by architect Ralph Townsend. He designed it for Murray Hill landowner and real estate developer William Martin, according to Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill.

“The carriage house was acquired by Bowdoin in 1907, converted to a garage in 1918 by Mrs. Bowdoin, and later converted to a single-family residence, eventually yielding to commercial use.”

This homage to the whimsy of early 20th century architects was up for sale in 2016—check out the ultra modern interior, courtesy of 6sqft.com. (The price at the time: $8.35 million!)

[Third image: MCNY, 1976, 2013.3.2.252]

The secret backhouse behind East 38th Street

March 9, 2020

While walking through Murray Hill recently, I cut through the driveway of an apartment building to get from 38th to 37th Street without going all the way to Third Avenue.

What I saw when I peered over the apartment building’s brick fence and into a yard next door surrounded by tidy brownstones made me stop in my tracks and ask myself: is that a backhouse?

Backhouses aren’t uncommon in New York; these are small dwellings built behind a main house. Property owners in the late 18th and early 19th century put up backhouses for various reasons.

Sometimes they served as a stable, but others were cheap houses landlords constructed on a lot to squeeze more tenants into the property and get more rent.

I’d seen backhouses before, mostly downtown in the Village or Chelsea—like this backhouse, now hidden behind tenements in the East Village.

But this was the first I’d spotted in Murray Hill, described as “neo-Federal” by the AIA Guide to New York City. (At left and right, in 1936)

So what is this backhouse’s backstory? Like so many fascinating house histories, there are competing narratives.

One starts in 1857, when a contractor named Patrick McCafferty bought a vacant lot on this site in Murray Hill, which was transforming from a bucolic area to an exclusive urban enclave.

“But while the typical house was positioned at the front of the lot, for some reason Mr. McCafferty built his three-story house almost 60 feet back from the street,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2001.

So this dwelling really wasn’t a backhouse in the traditional sense—it was simply a house set way back from 38th Street.

Another version of the house’s origin has it that the home was originally an 1840s “gatehouse” for an estate owned by a member of President Martin van Buren’s family.

Whatever the story is, the three-story dwelling changed hands several times through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Murray Hill cemented its status as a well-to-do neighborhood.

The house was sold to a real estate agent, a carpet dealer, and a manufacturer of dumbwaiters, wrote Gray.

In 1934 the house was leased by Russell Pettingill, who hired the architect son of sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (he designed the bronze statues at Brooklyn’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, among others) to transform the house in the back along with a smaller structure that had been constructed closer to the street.

“In 1936, House & Garden lauded the Pettengill project, which placed offices and a conference room in the front house, 150 East 38th Street, and living quarters in the setback house at No. 152. A one-story wall divided the front yard of 152 in half, permitting direct access to Mr. Pettengill’s office in the front building, through a side door, but screening the setback house almost completely from the street,” explained Gray.

Because of the wall and office building at the front of the property, as well as the fence and greenery, it’s difficult to get a clear view of the set-back house from the street today.

Stand on your toes, though, and you can get a better view of this 19th century beauty,  which has a decorative cornice, clapboard shutters, and red brick facade and chimney.

Rather than beginning its life as a backhouse, this hidden dwelling became one in its maturity.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1936]

“Hugs and kisses” on a Murray Hill manhole cover

February 17, 2020

New York City’s old manhole covers have an artistry all their own. Some feature glass bubbles that looks like jewels in the right light. Others are decorated with stars or similar emblems, and almost all have the name of the designer or foundry on them, advertisements for their work.

But what to make of this manhole cover spotted in front of East 35th Street near Fifth Avenue?

Jordan Wouk, a manhole cover enthusiast, noticed it on the way to the Morgan Library recently. It lacks an identifying name, contains a single starfish-like star, and the Xs and Os decorating the lid were a mystery.

The message I got was “hugs and kisses,” says Mr. Wouk.

It’s a little late to make this a Valentine’s Day post, but I like this interpretation. The cover is sending love to contemporary New Yorkers—and asking us to take notice of this and other hiding-in-plain-sight remnants of an older Gotham.

[Photo © Jordan Wouk]

Fifth Avenue’s elegant 1890 carriage showroom

October 21, 2019

You might not notice it amid the grit and hustle of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, but there’s a Gilded Age time capsule of a building on the northeast corner.

In the shadow of the Empire State Building and dwarfed by commercial loft buildings is this elegant dowager—made of light brick with terra cotta decorations and enormous arched windows that would look more at home in a cathedral than a busy Murray Hill intersection.

This jewel box is what remains of the Demarest Building.

Completed in 1890 (at left), the Demarest was designed by James Renwick’s architectural firm, which explains the cathedral-like windows. (Renwick is the genius behind Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Those incredible windows served a purpose. The building was commissioned by Aaron Demarest, the head of his eponymous horse carriage company that manufactured luxury carriages and used the space as a showroom for buyers.

Who would be buying the gleaming carriages on display here? (Below, on the right in a 1910s photo)

Wealthy millionaires, including the rich heads of households whose brownstone mansions stood on or near this posh corner at the height of the Gilded Age.

Those old-money millionaires include William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (husband of society doyenne Caroline Astor), William Waldorf Astor, and John Jacob Astor III (next door to his brother William).

(Department store magnate A.T. Stewart had a marble palace of a home on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but by the time Demarest built his showroom, Stewart and his wife were deceased.)

Early on, the Demarest Building fit right in with the wealthy set of Fifth Avenue. It even had the city’s first two electric elevators, in use for 30 years.

But the early 1890s weren’t kind to the building. The Astor households moved on; William Waldorf Astor razed his mansion and built the Hotel Waldorf on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

John Jacob Astor IV, meanwhile, built the Hotel Astoria where his home once stood. (The two neighboring hotels would become the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897)

Then in 1893, the showroom caught fire. A New York Times article described what Hotel Waldorf guests saw from their rooms as the fire illuminated Fifth Avenue:

“The Demarest building is a five-story brick structure, across the avenue from the Waldorf, at the northeast corner of Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.  It is used chiefly as a storage house for carriages.”

“There were over 200 vehicles of all kinds, valued at $150,000, in the building. In the repair shop were twenty fine carriages. Most of these were entirely destroyed and the fire extended to the fourth floor.”

Demarest himself suffered a stroke in 1902; he died in 1908 after eating poisonous clams at a Yale University dinner.

A year later, the company, now building automobiles instead of carriages, relocated to West 57th Street.

The Demarest Building had a colorful new tenant in 1913—a physician who claimed to be able to cure tuberculosis, a leading killer of New Yorkers, especially in poor neighborhoods.

A thousand people showed up for treatment, wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008, but the leasing agent wouldn’t allow the physician to treat anyone.

By the 1920s, this boxy beauty was subdivided into office space. These and other alterations are reportedly the reason the Demarest Building has not been landmarked by the city, as AM New York reported last month.

Currently it is prey for developers and a candidate for the wrecking ball, according to the AM New York article. (Thanks to Robin Kanter for bringing the article to my attention.)

[Second photo: American Architecture and Building News/Office for Metropolitan History via The New York Times; third image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth image: The Portal to Texas History; eighth image: New York Times, 1893]

The rise and fall of the 1856 “House of Mansions”

October 14, 2019

It looked like a palace: a four-story structure of fawn-colored brick with rounded towers, long slender windows, and Gothic touches above entryways and on the roof.

Built on Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets in 1856, the “House of Mansions,” as its developer called it, was actually 11 separate homes deemed “a striking architectural novelty” by the New-York Tribune.

Designed to lure the wealthy and fashionable to the underdeveloped neighborhood of Murray Hill, each independent mansion featured 12 to 18 rooms and “unparalleled views” of the outer boroughs, an ad enthusiastically stated.

The House of Mansions was spectacular to behold.

But it was also a spectacular failure—too ahead of its time in expecting the rich to leave their freestanding houses around Washington and Madison Squares to colonize this upper end of Fifth Avenue.

It’s easy to see why developer George Higgins bought the land and had premier architect Alexander Jackson Davis design the House of Mansions.

The massive Croton Distributing Reservoir (above, in 1879) was across the street; its high granite walls became a trendy spot for ladies to promenade in their fancy crinoline frocks in the pre–Civil War city.

Behind the Croton Reservoir was the Crystal Palace, an exhibition hall (above, in 1854) with an observatory tower. Both were very popular destinations.

And in a city rapidly filling up with brownstones that spread “like a cold chocolate sauce,” across Manhattan, Higgins may have thought his unusual dwellings would attract those who eschewed cookie-cutter housing.

He was wrong. In 1860, the House of Mansions was no longer.

Rutgers Female Institute, the first institute of higher learning for women in New York, renovated the 11 homes and turned them into classrooms, as reported in the New York Times on June 18 of that year.

The college didn’t last, either, decamping for a new site in Harlem.

In the 1880s—as the wealthy finally did move into Upper Fifth Avenue—the former House of Mansions (above, in 1885) was partially demolished, and the remaining buildings altered. Eventually, in stages, the castle vanished.

No trace of this ambitious, auspicious housing development remains on the block today.

[Photos: NYPL Digital Collections]

A postcard view of the last J.P. Morgan mansion

September 23, 2019

The fence is gone, as is the blanket of ivy and red paint. But the brownstone mansion on Madison Avenue and 37th Street remains, one of the buildings that today makes up the Morgan Library and Museum.

Interestingly, this surviving mansion, built in 1852-1853 as part of a trio of identical impressive houses, was never the financier’s home.

J.P. Morgan resided at 219 Madison Avenue, the southernmost mansion on the corner of 36th Street, from 1881 to his death in 1913, according to The Morgan Library and Museum website.

His house was demolished in 1928. Before it met the wrecking ball, Morgan had architect Charles McKim design his library, the white marble building in the center of the postcard (and in the bottom photo), completed in 1906.

The mansion on the corner of 37th Street, number 231 Madison? That was the home of J.P.’s son, Jack, purchased by his dad.

“Morgan bought the central brownstone in 1903, which was then razed to make space for a garden, and a year later he purchased the northernmost house, at 231 Madison, for his son, Jack Morgan,” the site states.

“With forty-five rooms, including twelve bathrooms, the house was one of the most impressive residences of its day.”

J.P. Morgan’s mansion was distinctive as well; it’s thought to be the first private home powered by electricity in the early 1880s.

Carrying out his father’s wishes, Jack Morgan created the Morgan Library and gave his father’s incredible art and rare book collection to the new institution—which has been open to the public ever since.

[Second photo: Morgan Library and Museum; fourth photo: MCNY, 1920, X2010.11.5391]

The haunting outlines of old New York buildings

January 28, 2019

Anyone who walks the streets of the city comes across these ghosts. They’re the faded outlines of what was once a New York home or building, sometimes still with the demarcations separating rooms—as the side of an empty tenement on Third Avenue and 109th Street shows in the image below.

Knocked down or uncovered during construction, they usually reveal themselves only for months, maybe a few years, before they are quickly covered up again when a new structure is built over it.

My favorites are the edges of the kinds of buildings New York doesn’t build anymore, like this second one above, what looks like a squat, three-story walkup with a small chimney. It was once attached to the side of a larger tenement on West 96th Street near Riverside Drive.

A peaked roof (above) at Franklin Street and one-block Benson Place north of City Hall piques my interest. Was an old Dutch or Federal-style building here in the 17th or 18th centuries, when Benson Place was still a dead-end alley?

This tenement-looking outline is an unusual one (above); it’s on Lexington Avenue in the 50s. I wonder what the view from the back must have looked like, and how easy it was to see what the neighbors in other tenements were doing.

On Madison Avenue and 31st Street, an old-school tenement that blended in with its neighbors was torn down (above). It looks like it was set back a bit from the sidewalk, and it too probably had a wooden water tower on top.

I noticed this phantom outline in Tribeca several months ago (above), but I still am not sure what kind of building stood here. Something appropriately low and squat, maybe a stable? The dark smudges on the brick building that used to be its neighbor look like smoke stains from a chimney.

This last one, I believe from Greenwich Street downtown, is also a mystery. The angle of the roofline makes me think it’s a remnant of an old Manhattan structure of some kind when the city was concentrated below today’s Soho.

For fans of Stanford White’s Gilded Age New York

September 7, 2018

UPDATE POST for everyone who gave me their name for the Stanford White event: all names (Susan Spector got the last seat) have been added to the list and confirmed by Landmark West, an event co-sponsor. For more information, go to this link.

If you’re fascinated by the architecture and excitement of New York’s Gilded Age, then this is for you.

On September 12, the The National Arts Club and Landmark West are hosting an hour-long program called “Temples of Power, Temples of Pleasure: Stanford White’s Manhattan.”

Author Paula Uruburu will offer insight into White’s creative genius and scandalous love life. The program and a Q and A take place at the beautiful National Arts Club building at 15 Gramercy Park South.

If any Ephemeral New York readers would like to attend, please message me and I can add your name to a list; admission will be free.

Landmark West has more info here.

What remains of Manhattan’s Rose Hill enclave

September 3, 2018

While walking past the NYPD’s 17th Precinct on East 51st Street recently, I noticed that the front door listed all the nearby neighborhoods the precinct house served.

There was Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Rose Hill. Rose Hill?

The East Side of Manhattan did once have a neighborhood called Rose Hill, taken from the name of a 131-acre farm purchased by a New Yorker named James Watts in 1747.

The epicenter of Rose Hill the farm was roughly at today’s Park Avenue and 29th Street.

Watts didn’t stay at Rose Hill very long. He was a Loyalist, and he left New York in the late 18th century, never to return.

A merchant named Nicholas Cruger was apparently the next occupant, and then it was the home of Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates (left).

But while the areas around the former Murray estate and Beekman mansion retained the names of the families who owned them, Rose Hill all but disappeared, swallowed up by the neighborhood in the east 20s and 30s rebranded as NoMad today.

Back when Manhattan north of 14th Street was the outskirts of the city, however, Rose Hill appeared to be a small but lively enclave.

The neighborhood’s boundaries generally stretched from 23rd to 32nd Streets and Third Avenue to Madison Avenue, per the AIA Guide to New York City.

In the early 19th century, Rose Hill was home to a “female seminary,” a five-acre botanic garden, and a boarding house-hotel for the wealthy.

A newspaper ad described the former farm as “peculiarly airy, pleasant, and healthful.”

By the mid-1800s, Rose Hill had been cut into parcels, subsumed into the city street grid.

A savings bank at Third Avenue and 21st Street, a hall for meetings, a hotel, and a couples of churches all popped up.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the name seems to have been on the wane.

Today, few New Yorkers would know where it was—or they would confuse it with Rose Hill in the Bronx, home of Fordham University’s main campus.

But remnants of Manhattan’s Rose Hill still exist.

The Rose Hill Baptist Church remains on Lexington Avenue (above right), though now it’s the First Moravian Church (at right).

The Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church is also extant (above left). These days, it’s St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, located on 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

An iron gate in front of a pretty brownstone on East 31st Street keeps the Rose Hill name alive.

So does this plaque at the Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany on Second Avenue and 22nd Street, which commemorates General Kosciuszko’s visit to Rose Hill to see his former commander, General Gates, in 1797.

Interestingly, “Rose Hill” is carved into the facade of a tenement on 14th Street near Second Avenue (top image). It’s a little south of the real Rose Hill, but perhaps the name inspired the tenement builder.

[Second image: The Evening Post, 1830; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY, 1820, 29.100.3176; fifth image, MCNY, 1915,X2010.11.5361; sixth image, MCNY, 1975, 2013.3.1.653]