Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

Six unified mansions still gracing Madison Avenue

December 2, 2019

In 1882, when Henry Villard commissioned a complex of six Italian Renaissance-inspired mansions on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Street, the railroad magnate and newspaper publisher was one of the most prominent financiers in the nation.

By 1884, his financial empire was in tatters, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

So begins the unusual story of what became known as the Villard Houses—a collection of six harmonious brownstone mansions designed by the then-new firm of McKim, Mead & White.

Though intended for six separate households, the mansions were to appear as one building (above, 1882), and the ambitious but restrained design was based on the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.

The architects built four mansions in a U-shape around a central courtyard fronting Madison Avenue, with the remaining two mansions facing 51st Street, explained Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2003.

“The courtyard matched a grassy square at the back of St. Patrick’s [Cathedral], and the whole became a sort of urban piazza, with parts not open but at least visible to the public,” wrote Gray.

“Why would Villard build six houses as an enclave for like-minded people rather than just one home? The Real Estate Record and Guide observed in 1881 that his goal was probably to ”secure privacy and get rid of tramps, and to live in a quiet and secluded way.”’

And though Madison Avenue in the 1880s wasn’t exactly secluded, it was sparsely settled—not nearly as posh as neighboring Fifth Avenue, with its Vanderbilts and Astors.

Even though Villard was broke, he managed to spend a few months living in one of the mansions. His was a corner house with beautiful interiors and ornamental touches by John La Farge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Once he was forced to leave (and he was forced, as an angry mob of investors gathered outside his mansion’s front door), Villard’s business associates bought up the six mansions and moved their families in.

Through the turn of the century, these families largely remained in the beautiful yet outdated Villard Houses.

While apartment living became fashionable by the 1920s and the rich gave up their single family homes, the residents of the Villard Houses lived Gilded Age-style, a team of servants in tow.

“All six houses continued to be used as residences until after World War II, when the changing character of Madison Avenue led to their conversion into offices,” wrote Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel in The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Random House were among the new tenants, but by the late 1970s, the entire complex was threatened with demolition.

Then, Harry Helmsley bought the air rights and demolished two of the mansions to build the Helmsley Palace Hotel.

Today, the Lotte Palace Hotel occupies the site, and many of the rooms of the mansions have preserved details and artwork.

Skip the holiday festivities on Fifth Avenue and really celebrate the season by going back in time with a tour of the lobby and public rooms of this Gilded Age masterpiece.

(Photos by Ephemeral New York except third photo: MCNY, 90.44.1.127; fifth photo: MCNY, 2013.3.2.721)

Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

November 25, 2019

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via nyhistory.org stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]

Crossing paths on 59th Street on a blustery day

November 18, 2019

Helen Farr Sloan was the former student—and then second wife—of Ashcan artist John Sloan. When her husband died in 1951, she remained devoted to promoting his art and achievements.

But Farr Sloan was an exceptional artist in her own right. Born in New York, she became a printmaker and painter who had something to say about the 20th century city.

“59th Street, New York City,” from 1930, takes us to a bustling Manhattan block on a blustery day. Hats are blown off, snow is shoveled, a woman approaches a taxi, people in drab coats shielding themselves with umbrellas go on their way.

The scene could be a moment of human interaction in any Depression-era town. Yet the colorful lights and tall buildings in the distance evoke a modern and detached metropolis where it’s unlikely any of these mostly faceless figures will ever cross paths again.

[The painting belongs to the Delaware Art Museum, which has a deep collection of works by John Sloan and Helen Farr Sloan]

An elegy for New York’s 1990s Gen X rock clubs

November 4, 2019

What were you doing during the last week of March 1992?

If you were a music-loving Gen-Xer, you might have been going through the latest Village Voice (yes, the print version that you actually paid for), scanning the ads to see which bands were playing any of the dozens of rock clubs scattered around Manhattan.

Almost all of these venues are gone; the bands that played there also almost all defunct, too.

Roseland, which hosted the Sugarcubes (“the coolest band in the world” according to Rolling Stone in 1988) and a bunch of other 1990s alternative bands, bit the dust in 2014.

CBGB had Toshi Reagon and Smashing Orange on their lineup this early spring week. Mission, in the East Village between A and B, drew more of a hardcore crowd, and women got in free with the ad above.

McGovern’s, on Spring Street, “used to be a great old dive,” according to the late great Lost City blog. Today it’s still a music club, Paul’s Casablanca.

Finally, what would 1990s New York be without the Knitting Factory? This ad is from the original location on East Houston Street, before the music and spoken word venue decamped to Tribeca and then relocated to Williamsburg, where it is today.

Look, indie favorite Luna appeared on April 3!

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]

Columbus Circle’s original IRT subway kiosk

October 14, 2019

No matter what you think of Christopher Columbus, I think we can all agree that the original subway kiosk at the circle named after him is an iconic and inspiring piece of street architecture.

And the trolleys, the lamppost, the dune buggy–like early car in this 1910 postcard of Columbus Circle…sigh.

This kiosk would be for entering the subway. The old-school rule: Domed-roof kiosks were for going into the station, while peaked-roof kiosks were for exiting, according to Tom Range’s 2002 book, New York City Subways.

[Postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2391]

The 57th Street mansion built as a wedding gift

September 2, 2019

The happy couple were the children of two of New York’s wealthiest Gilded Age families.

Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard (right), the 21-year-old great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, married William Jay Shieffelin, 25 (below), in February 1891.

Louise, as she seems to have been known, came from a family that made its riches in the shipping industry and by investing in railroads.

William’s family operated a wholesale drug company founded in 1793, and he was also a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice.

The joining of two prominent families through marriage called for an extravagant wedding, and the couple enjoyed quite a celebration at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on February 5 of that year.

The next day, a “wedding breakfast” for 600 guests was held in the “grand picture gallery” of Louise’s grandfather W.K. Vanderbilt’s magnificent triple-wide, three-family mansion at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, wrote author Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions.

The breakfast netted the newlyweds incredible gifts; an article covering the wedding in the New York Times noted the “many articles of silver and jewels.”

But perhaps the most amazing gift was the one Louise’s mother gave the couple: A fully furnished house (above and at right).

That house is the building still standing at 35 West 57th Street. Images of it from the 1890s weren’t available, but these photos from 1940 show it off nicely: a brownstone beauty with Beaux Arts touches, like the two-story bow window, ornamental carvings, and the petite balcony on the fifth floor.

When the couple moved in, the East 50s off Fifth Avenue was a residential enclave crawling with rich Vanderbilt family members, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose spectacular mansion was just down the block at One West 57th Street.

Amazingly, the couple only lived in their extravagant wedding gift until 1898.

“William and Louise lived in the West 57th Street house throughout the 1890s, until the hustle and bustle of that area made the residence undesirable,” wrote Craven.

Louise’s mother purchased their next home as well, a Richard Morris Hunt–designed mansion on East 66th Street. At some point, the two left that house too and took up apartment living, which was now in vogue.

The Shepard-Shieffelins had eight kids and remained married for 57 years, until Louise’s death at age 78 in 1948.

And what about their wedding present on West 57th Street?

The 20th century wasn’t kind to it. At some point, the first two floors were turned into commercial spaces, and the decorative touches left to the elements. Now that the neighboring townhouses to the east are gone, the house clings to the building on its right, looking unloved and alone.

The fate of 35 West 57th Street remains to be seen. But what a joyous start it had 128 years ago!

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second image: Find a Grave; third and fourth images: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photos; eighth image: NYPL, 1928]

A traveler’s 1971 snapshot below Herald Square

August 12, 2019

The taxi-choked traffic hasn’t changed much in the 48 years since a Dutch traveler named Hans Ketel snapped this photo while on a road trip across the United States.

But 32nd Street and Sixth Avenue, just south of Herald Square, is a very different place than it was in summer 1971—and not just because coconut oil (and billboards featuring women in bikinis selling it) have fallen out of favor.

For starters, 32nd Street is now Koreatown. Gimbels, a major department store in New York before going bankrupt in 1987, would have been on the right. J.C. Penney is there now.

The area is no longer the upper reaches of what used to be known as the Photo District, vestiges of which can still be found on some Flatiron side streets. (See the Olden Camera building in the center and Camera Barn to the left.)

Notice the French Renaissance building to the left? It’s the Hotel Martinique (you can just make out the old red vertical sign on the facade), built in 1898 as an apartment house before being turned into a high-class hotel.

By 1971, the Hotel Martinique’s glory days were long over. Two years after this photo was taken, it would become a welfare hotel until 1988—a place so notorious and dangerous, former residents are still posting stories of survival there on an Ephemeral New York post from 2008.

These days, it’s a spiffy Radisson.

[Photo copyright © Hans Ketel]

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.

What a tourist saw on a trip to New York in 1970

July 8, 2019

In March 1970, a traveler now living in Rotterdam paid a visit to New York City.

Jaap Breedveld was in his 40s at the time. Like many tourists, he took photos that reflect the typical itinerary of a sightseer from overseas, like Times Square (above, with the old Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street on the left).

But Breedveld also captured images of New Yorkers at work, like this pretzel vendor on an unknown street, above. (Were pretzel carts really so low-key in 1970?)

During a foray into Chinatown, Breedveld immortalized these two men slicing fish on a barrel.

His photos also reflect a changed cityscape. In this image above, the Chrysler Building dominates the skyline, as it does today.

But Roosevelt Island—in 1970, still officially Welfare Island—has yet to be developed into a residential enclave, and the tramway wouldn’t start operating until 1976.

Midnight Cowboy fans will recognize the lovely Beaux-Arts building on the left in this image of Times Square.

It’s the Hotel Claridge, where Joe Buck gets a room after he arrives in New York. Opened in 1911 as luxury accommodations, the old hotel was torn down in 1972 to make way for an office building.

This photo appears to be taken from Battery Park and looks toward State Street; that must be the Elizabeth Ann Seton shrine and James Watson House in the center.

Today, the shrine and 18th century house are surrounded by boxy towers, one of which is going up in the photo.

This breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan contains no Twin Towers, and no Battery Park City. Both would be on maps by the end of the decade.

[Breedveld shared these previously unpublished images with Ephemeral New York. Special thanks to Peter van Wijk. ©Jaap Breedveld]