Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

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]

Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat

May 27, 2019

The last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and much-heralded slices of pie a try.

Instead, I’ll have to suffice with memoirs and stories from old-timers, who happily recall the more than 40 Automats scattered across the city in the middle of the 20th century—their steel and glass sleekness, their comfort, and how sitting in one made a newcomer feel a little more like a real New Yorker.

[Sixth Avenue and 57th Street Automat postcard from 1935: MCNY F2011.33.1809]

The skinniest building in Midtown Manhattan

April 22, 2019

Dark and grimy Midtown blocks are loaded with hidden treasures. Take this slender walkup at 19 West 46th Street, for example.

It dates back to 1865, when West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a quaint residential block close to the Croton Reservoir rather than a corridor of small businesses in the shadow of Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal.

I didn’t measure the building, but I wish I had.

Number 19 is so skinny, there’s only room for one window per floor, not including the ground-floor restaurant space.

Diminishing it even further are the two loft buildings (one with gorgeous Art Deco designs) that sit just in front of it.

These two relative newcomers to the block crowd out their skinny neighbor, so it gets even less light and love from passersby.

And that slate mansard roof! It’s hard not to romanticize this 19th century holdout, even though it isn’t in the best shape.

I can’t help but think of it as a testament to what a developer will build with a fraction of the size of a regular building lot, as well as how little space New Yorkers need.

And of course, it’s proof that some of the most interesting buildings in the city are on the streets where you least expect them.

The best old-school butcher sign on Ninth Avenue

April 1, 2019

You don’t have to be a meat eater to appreciate the old-style store signs at Esposito, a meat market at Ninth Avenue and 38th Street that’s been making sausage and selling cold cuts since 1932.

Yet there’s something a little unusual on the wholesale “Giovanni Esposito & Sons” sign down a bit on 38th Street.

I’ve seen similar store signs at other Italian specialty food shops that advertise “Italian” and “American.” But I’ve never seen one that added “French” to it!

A 1910 packing plant subsumed by Hudson Yards

April 1, 2019

For more than a century, the two-story building at 527-531 West 36th Street held its own with its neighbors in this once-industrial part of Manhattan—away from more traditional retail stores and apartment buildings in the far west 30s.

It’s an unusual survivor that looks a lot older than records reveal.

Apparently constructed by 1910 (though one 1902 newspaper article said it was supposed to have five stories), the brick building has large arched windows and ornamental trim on the second floor.

One of its earliest occupants was a fruit packing plant; another business was Rohe and Brothers, a wholesale beef and pork provisions company.

It makes sense that Rohe operated here; West 36th Street is three blocks from what used to be known as Abattoir Place because of all the slaughterhouses that turned cattle brought to the West Side via rail or ferry into beef.

A milk distributor and pasteurization company operated here in the 1940s. Soon the food packers and distributors were replaced by auto body businesses, like Steven and Francine’s, whose sign hangs on the building’s boarded-up second floor.

Recently, this humble holdout in the shadow of Hudson Yards’ steel and glass luxury towers was sold to Tishman Speyer for $20 million. The real estate developer plans to turn the site into a park in exchange for air rights for another office tower going up next door.

It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the far west 30s (at the recently named “Hudson Boulevard”) on the fringes of Manhattan. But it won’t be here much longer.

[Second image: 1940 Tax Photo NYC Department of Records]