Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block

March 6, 2023

Eighth Avenue and 56th Street today looks nothing like it did when painter Lucille Blanch captured this otherwise ordinary block south of Columbus Circle 93 years ago.

Today, modern office buildings and apartment towers obscure the view of the Argonaut Building—the castle-like white structure that still stands down the block on Broadway and 57th Street. The enormous billboards are long gone, too.

The church below it, the flamboyant Broadway Tabernacle, met the wrecking ball in the 1970s. The tenement with the empty storefront next to the tire shop has also disappeared, replaced by a McDonald’s.

This stretch of West Midtown in the 1920s was known as the automobile showroom district, which explains the tire store and what look like car dealerships on the left-hand corner and in the middle of the block.

Lucile Blanch made a living as a painter, departing her Minnesota hometown to study at the Art Students League on West 57th Street on scholarship. She then became involved with the Fourteenth Street School, a group of artists with a social realist bent.

In 1930, she would have been 35 years old. Why she chose this corner to paint remains a mystery. But her depiction of the bright, colorful cityscape dwarfing the small, low-key residents might be saying something about the power of the urban environment over its residents caught in the toll of the Depression.

(Hat tip to Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog, which included this painting recently in a post about unheralded female artists living and/or working South of Union Square.)

[Second image: Peter A. Juley/Wikipedia]

The pretty peacocks holding court in the Garment District

February 6, 2023

There’s a lot of leftover loveliness in the Garment District—the wide swatch of Midtown Manhattan west of Fifth Avenue between roughly 41st and 28th Streets.

In the early 1900s, the showrooms and factories here made the vast majority of women’s clothes in the United States. These days, the remaining garment-related producers share dingy side streets with ghostly faded ads and signage from long-departed companies.

But things are still looking bright at the Fashion Tower, at 135 West 36th Street. High above the freight entrance of this circa-1922, 17-story Emery Roth–designed building, two terra cotta painted peacocks sitting in the swirly leaves of a tree greet passersby.

Why peacocks? With their beautiful colors and plumage, these gorgeous birds are symbols of fashion—as well as power, strength, and confidence.

A soft, shimmering Times Square after the post-Christmas blizzard of 1947

December 26, 2022

The snow began falling during the early morning darkness the day after Christmas. It continued through the afternoon and evening, catching New Yorkers by surprise—the forecast only warned of flurries.

By the time the Great Blizzard of 1947 was over, 26 inches of snow buried the city—killing an estimated 77 people, snarling mass transit, and putting a spotlight on Gotham’s lack of snowplows, according to data from Baruch College.

In a softly glowing Times Square, weary New Yorkers found something to cheer.

“Long after nightfall the illuminated news sign of the New York Times flashed the announcement to little groups of people huddled in Times Square that the snowfall, which totaled an amazing 25.8 inches in less than 24 hours, had beaten the record of the city’s historic Blizzard of 1888,” wrote Life magazine on January 5, 1948.

“A faint, muffled shout of triumph went up from the victims.”

[Al Fenn/The Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock]

When Longacre Square became Times Square

November 14, 2022

I’m not sure what year this postcard dates to, but the image offers a few clues. For starters, that’s the then-new New York Times building in the center of the image. The opening of the Times headquarters in 1904 triggered the name change from Longacre Square to Times Square.

On the right there’s another notable building, with porthole windows across a mansard roof. This was the Hotel Astor, constructed in 1905 and at the time one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. What you can’t see is its fabulous roof garden—a dreamy place to go in a city largely without air conditioning.

Times Square in 1905 isn’t quite the crossroads of the world just yet. But with a major newspaper anchoring the square, plus a plethora of hotels, and theaters already occupying this junction, it’s well on its way.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.878]

Capturing the magic of rainy nights in New York City

September 26, 2022

Hard rainy days in New York City can bring on a sense of melancholy—the grayness, the streets relatively empty of people, the steady pounding against windows.

But rain at night can hit the senses differently. Skies glow and obscure the skyline, and pavement slick with water almost twinkles under the lights of the city. There’s a painterly magic to it (if you’re not wrestling with an umbrella or trying to catch a cab, that is).

Few artists have captured this magic of a rainy New York night like Charles Hoffbauer. Born in France in 1875, Hoffbauer came to Gotham in the early 1900s, and with his Impressionist style painted many nocturnes of Manhattan under the spell of the rain.

These three Hoffbauer paintings are new discoveries for me. The exact date of each isn’t clear, but with both automobiles and horse-pulled carriages on the streets, I’d say the 1920s.

What part of New York is Hoffbauer showing us? Street signs and marquees are obscured, so it’s hard to know for sure. My guess is the theater district centered around Times Square.

The ghost of a colonial road on the eastern side of the Chrysler Building

September 15, 2022

There’s no finer example of a New York City Art Deco skyscraper than the Chrysler Building, which gleams with strength and grace 77 stories over 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The Chrysler Building in 1931, rising above 42nd Street

This icon of Machine Age Manhattan was completed in record time between 1928 and 1930, in a race with 40 Wall Street to claim the title of New York’s tallest building. (The Empire State Building beat them both when it debuted on the skyline in 1931.)

Designed by William Van Alen for Walter Chrysler, the head of the car manufacturer, the building begins with a base and then features elegant setbacks as the slender tower rises higher and higher, finally coming to a crown and then a point, literally, with a stainless-steel needle spire that pierces the clouds.

The architectural loveliness of its exterior and interior deserve their own lengthy posts. This post is about how a slant along the Chrysler Building’s setback reflects the former presence of a primitive road traversed by colonial-era New Yorkers.

Gerald R. Wolfe points out this setback in his deeply researched book of walking tours, New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. “Around the corner on 42nd Street (best viewed from the south side of the street), it will be noted that the east wall of the Chrysler Building’s lower setback is not parallel to the north-south avenues,” wrote Wolfe.

This 1822 map shows 42nd Street and Eastern Post (Boston Post) Road as the road crosses Lexington and Third Avenues

Take a look when you’re in the neighborhood: you can see that this eastern setback was built on a rightward slant, while the other setback walls are straight.

What’s the explanation? It’s the ghost of Boston Post Road, a long-defunct thoroughfare and one of the city’s few reliable roadways in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (Boston Post Road was also called Eastern Post Road, or East Post Road—it was the thoroughfare to take if you were heading out of the city to New England.)

Plans for the trapezoid-shaped Chrysler Building

The plot of land on which Walter Chrysler planned to build his tower once bordered Boston Post Road, which predated the city street grid and ran roughly between today’s Third and Lexington Avenues, Wolfe explained. When he acquired it, the original border remained—even though the road was defunct.

With this meandering colonial road forming the parcel’s eastern boundary, Chrysler ended up with a slanted plot shaped like a trapezoid, as Sam Roberts put it in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings. Hence the angled setback, which reflects the angle of this de-mapped road.

Boston Post Road disappeared from city maps in the 19th century, though it’s unclear when. It was definitely gone by the Gilded Age: A New York Times article from 1881 describes it as “now obliterated and forgotten.”

Other ghosts of the Boston Post Road still exist though. One remnant is this East 49th Street courtyard, where travelers could catch the stagecoach to Boston.

In 1929, ready to wow the world

[Top photo: NYPL; third image: Map of the Common Lands;; fourth image:; fifth image: NYPL]

The early 1880s apartment building you’ve probably never noticed on Seventh Avenue

August 22, 2022

Today, Seventh Avenue and 55th Street is surrounded by an unbeautiful streetscape of hotels, office lunch spots, touristy trinket shops, and random spillover from the Theater District of Times Square.

The Ontiora, 200 West 55th Street

But picture it in the 1880s, when it was fresh Manhattan real estate. Back then, this was a centrally located intersection just blocks from the calming landscapes of Central Park.

Edward Clark decided to take advantage of this premium location. Clark, a lawyer who made his fortune as a president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and was now a developer, purchased land at three of the four corners here in the late 1870s.

Clark wasn’t planning to construct row houses or another kind of single-family home, the preferred type of domicile for the city’s Gilded Age rich. Instead, his goal was to bring luxury apartment houses to what would eventually become part of Midtown.

Clark and his architect, Henry Hardenburgh, worked fast. By 1879, they had completed the Van Corlear, an apartment building that spanned Seventh Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets, according to Christopher Gray in a 1997 New York Times piece.

The two also began work on the Wyoming, at the southeast corner of 55th and Seventh Avenue, as well as the Dakota, way up on Central Park West at 72nd Street. (“Clark’s folly,” it was called, because it was so far from the bulk of the city at the time.)

The final building Clark and Hardenburgh collaborated on is the mysteriously named Ontiora. Unfortunately, Clark never saw it rise: he died in 1882, when the building was in the planning stages.

But almost a century and a half after its 1883 opening, this early example of Queen Anne-style “French flats” still stands, a little rough around the edges, at the southwest corner of 55th Street and Seventh Avenue.

Only part of the Ontiora fronts Seventh Avenue. Turn the corner, however, and you can imagine the Gilded Age grandeur of living in this red-brick beauty, with its iron balconies, stained glass, and porthole window under the cornice.

Seventh Avenue and 55th Street outside the Ontiora, surrounded by a low fence

Apartments here were roomy, with just one per floor. “The Ontiora’s five families had 2,000-square-foot apartments, about two-thirds of the average Dakota apartment at the time,” wrote Gray. “From later plans of the building it appears that the kitchens and service areas were at the west end, with a parlor at the corner and other rooms in between.”

It didn’t take long for other apartment houses to pop up near the Ontiora. The Osborne, two blocks away at Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, was built between 1883-1885. The Navarro, or Spanish Flats, was a spectacular early co-op on Central Park South between Sixth and Seventh Avenues that opened in the mid-1880s.

The Ontoria in 1920, with a subway entrance and ground floor commercial space

Of course, the neighborhood’s fortunes changed as the 20th century went on. Clark’s Wyoming building was knocked down in 1906 and replaced with another of the same name. By the 1920s, the Navarro bit the dust. The Van Corlear met the bulldozer as well.

The Ontiora, anonymous and subdivided into smaller units, is still with us. A ground floor commercial space was added before 1920, based on the photo above. Gray’s article, from 1997, stated that the 45 apartments in the building now are rent-regulated, but that may not be the case in 2022.

Whatever is going on with the apartments inside, at least the exterior retains its Gilded Age bearings and stands as a reminder of New York City’s first luxury apartment house district.

[Fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The staircases left behind after the original Penn Station was demolished

August 12, 2022

It took five years to build Penn Station: millions of tons of granite, steel, stone, and bricks were transformed into a triumphant Beaux Arts monument to modern transportation that officially opened in 1910.

(Constructing Penn Station leveled several blocks and hundreds of tenements in the Tenderloin, but that’s another story.)

A half century later, it took three years to demolish what was now an underused, money-losing station. On October 28, 1963, small groups of protestors could not stop the team of wreckers who began jackhammering the exterior and carting away the rubble.

While the old station was going down, it was being replaced by an unlovely, utilitarian station under a new Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza office complex. If you’ve been there, you know what was lost.

But amazingly, bits of the original Penn Station have survived all these years, hiding in plain site below the main level. Where can you find them? Head to the LIRR sub-level of the station and look at the staircases.

On some of the tracks, you’ll see brass and wrought-iron staircase railings. Compare the staircase images: in the above black and white photo, taken by Berenice Abbott in 1935, you can see the same wrought-iron design—kind of an X in a square—in the railings of the staircases today.

I’m not sure the brass handrail is original, but the ironwork looks a little too fanciful to be part of the 1960s Penn Station—which I can’t recall having a single architectural flourish or design touch of any kind.

The staircases aren’t the only relics of the old Penn Station that managed to survive the bulldozer. A wall of beveled glass panes with iron detailing remains inside the station close to the Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street entrance.

Cut off by construction, the wall separates a waiting room from the rest of the station.

And outside on 31st Street is a curious structure known as the Penn Station Service Building. Completed two years before the station opened, this was the power center for Penn Station, supplying electricity for train engines as well as heat, refrigeration, elevator hydraulics, and compressed air.

It’s the staircase railings, however, that feel the most compelling. Imagine the rush of adrenaline millions of passengers experienced as they descended those staircases to their awaiting trains—and then on to their destinations!

[Second image: MCNY,]

The two holdout houses that forced Rockefeller Center to be built around them

August 1, 2022

In the early 1800s, the bucolic site that eventually became 48th to 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues hosted the nation’s first botanical garden. Through the 19th century, the property was owned and developed by Columbia University.

The 19th century holdout building at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street

By the 1920s, what had been transformed into an elite neighborhood following the Civil War was now a downtrodden collection of shabby low-rise houses, eateries, and retail shops (plus some speakeasies and brothels) made even more undesirable by the hulking steel elevated train tracks above Sixth Avenue.

So when the Metropolitan Opera began looking for a site to build a new opera house that would replace its current home at Broadway and 39th Street, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (son of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., head of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men in the world) envisioned these Midtown blocks to be an ideal location not only for the opera but for a gleaming new skyscraper business and entertainment district in the shadow of his own nine-story mansion on West 54th Street.

On the other side of 30 Rock, a three-story holdout at Sixth Avenue and 49th Street

After the stock market crashed in 1929, the Metropolitan Opera dropped out of the project. Still, Rockefeller went ahead with plans for an 11-acre mini-city mix of retail, theater, and office space. He leased the land from Columbia, then brought in architects and builders. Between 1932 and 1939, Rockefeller City’s 14 original Art Deco buildings opened.

Before construction commenced, however, Rockefeller had to buy out (or wait out) the leases for 203 different lots, and then raze 208 of the old low-rise buildings, according to Daniel Okrent’s 2004 book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.

Money talked in the Depression, and owners and lease holders almost always took the cash offered to them. But Rockefeller didn’t buy out everyone. Cases in point: the two 19th century walkup buildings flanking 30 Rockefeller Plaza. One of these holdouts is on the corner of Sixth and 49th Street, and the other stands at the corner of Sixth and 50th Street.

How did they survive the Rockefeller bulldozer? Let’s start with the gray holdout on the 49th Street side, with the charming late 19th century cornice.

This survivor, which the Rockefeller Center website describes as “a pebble surrounded by boulders,” dates back to the 1870s. In 1892, the little building became an Irish pub called Hurley’s, run by brothers John and Daniel Hurley and a bartender, Patrick Daly.

Hurley’s already had to deal with Prohibition in the 1920s, when they turned the “front of their pub into a flower shop, among other ventures, and the upstairs into a speakeasy accessible through an unmarked side entrance,” the Rockefeller Center website noted.

Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street: these might be the holdout buildings on each corner

In 1930, Rockefeller began buying out leases and demolishing buildings. Turns out the Hurleys had a lease that ran until 1942 that “barred demolition,” explained Sam Roberts in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings: “They demanded $250,000 (about $3.7 million in today’s dollars), which the Rockefellers refused to pay. After Prohibition was repealed, the brothers reopened their bar.”

Not long after Rockefeller was forced to build his skyscrapers around the stubborn bar, Hurley’s became a watering hole that attracted media professionals working at the neighborhood’s big network and newspaper headquarters. According to Liz Trencha’s 1994 book, Fighting for Air: In the Trenches With Television News, a man identified as “Old Man Hurley” reportedly said, “I’ve seen sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers come and sonofabitchin’ Rockefellers go and no sonofabitchin’ Rockefeller’s gonna tear down my bar.”

1258 Sixth Avenue at 50th Street in 1939-1941

Hurley’s closed up shop in the 1970s. The saloon reopened with the same name under new owners before going out of business for good in 1999, according to a New York Times article. Today, Magnolia Bakery occupies the ground floor space. A new pub, called Pebble Bar, has recently opened as well.

How the building on the 50th Street side of 30 Rock became a holdout is less clear. According to a 1962 Daily News article, the building was owned by a grocer named John F. Boronowsky, who simply refused to sell his three-story store. Rockefeller built around his grocery as well, which now houses a Warby Parker eyeglass store.

Today, it almost looks like Rockefeller planned to keep two walkups on either side of flagship 30 Rock. The little buildings balance out the Art Deco tower; they look like charming 19th century bookends for a mighty 20th century skyscraper. But the truth is, because of their age and prime location, they may be the most famous holdout buildings in New York City history.

[Third, fourth, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collection; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

Three holdout brownstones hiding in the Diamond District

June 27, 2022

For a block devoted to the jewelry trade, 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has business bustle and energy…but not much sparkle.

Marked by two oversized diamond-shaped lights (below) and some colorful signage above some storefronts, the buildings lining the block dubbed the Diamond District seem drab—not unlike neighboring blocks with a similar mix of old brownstones and commercial loft buildings in the shadows of modern office towers.

It’s curious how this unlovely stretch of Midtown—a tidy townhouse and brownstone street in the Gilded Age—ended up as the modern-day Diamond District. Since the mid-19th century, New York’s jewelry district was firmly centered on Maiden Lane, according to Barak Richman in a 2020 article in The Conversation.

The reason for the move came down to the increasingly high rents for Maiden Lane’s old building stock. “When wealthier banks started driving up downtown rents in the 1920s, diamond businesses started moving uptown to 47th Street,” wrote Richman.

1-11 West 47th Street in 1913

One real-estate developer saw an opportunity. In 1923, “Fenimore C. Goode, a broker, promoted construction of a new building at 20 West 47th Street specifically to tempt the Maiden Lane firms,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2008 New York Times column.

Diamond and jewelry concerns began relocating to Number 20, as well as new buildings that followed at 40 West 47th Street and One West 47th Street, stated Gray. Within a few years, Gray continued, “The Real Estate Record and Guide reported that the 47th Street block “has almost overnight become New York’s new Maiden Lane.”

75 West 47th Street

To make room for the trade, new construction came in, replacing the townhouses and brownstones. Some dark and forlorn low-rise holdouts still survive in the Diamond District though, hiding between bigger buildings and behind store signs.

28 West 47th Street

You can easily imagine 75 West 47th Street (above) as one in a row of handsome 19th century brownstones, likely with a high stoop leading to a parlor floor. Only the top two floors are visible now, grimy with age, along with the signature cornice.

28 West 47th Street, 1939-1941

Its neighbors underwent major makeovers, but 28 West 47th Street has remained the same—just as it looked in this 1939-1941 tax photo, above.

The prettiest holdout building might be this sweet walkup, below, at 33 West 47th Street. No cornice remains, a window is blocked by an air conditioner, and a two-story storefront obscures the bottom two floors. But imagine the romance that balcony might have inspired!

33 West 47th Street

[Third image: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth image: New-York Historical Society/Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection; seventh image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]