Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

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, 89.2.3.152]

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]

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.

This holdout brownstone is a monument to the 1980s tenant who refused to leave

May 23, 2022

These days, the traffic-packed intersection at Lexington Avenue and 60th Street is a modern tower mecca of street-level retail shops topped by floor after floor of office space and luxury residences.

But steps away from this busy urban crossroads is a curious anachronism: a four-story brownstone. Number 134 East 60th Street has been stripped of its entrance and 19th century detailing. It sits forlorn, dark, and boxy, attached to the 31-story tower behind it and to a Sephora next door.

There’s no longer a door or first and second floor windows, so it’s unlikely anyone lives in this walkup, which used to be part of a pretty block of brownstones built in 1865. So how did it escape demolition—and why is it still here?

Think of it as a brick and mortar memorial to a woman named Jean Herman, who almost 40 years ago refused to cede her small apartment on the fourth floor to the developers of the tower.

The story begins in the early 1980s. Herman was a freelance public relations specialist who had a longtime rent-stabilized lease of $168 per month for her two-room apartment here, according to the New York Times. She liked living in the neighborhood, she told the Times in another article, and she decorated her small home with window boxes of petunias and geraniums, per an AP story.

60th Street and Lexington Avenue in 1912, with rows of 1860s brownstones

Then in 1981, a real-estate development company called Cohen Brothers “bought her building and every other on Lexington Avenue between 59th and 60th Street, across from Bloomingdale’s department store, with plans to demolish them all,” stated the AP piece.

Other tenants were evicted or bought out. Herman stayed put, and because her apartment was rent stabilized, she couldn’t be forced to leave. So the developers “offered to find her another apartment and work out an arrangement in which they would pay her rent, plus a stipend,” wrote the Times.

Jean Herman in the Daily News, 1986

Herman was shown 25 apartments in the general neighborhood, but none of them worked for her because they were not rent-stabilized. She told the Times, “if I move this time, I don’t intend to do it again.” Reports came out that she was offered six figures, even a million dollars to give up her home, but Herman insisted these numbers weren’t accurate.

By 1986, Herman was the only tenant left in her brownstone. After exhausting all avenues for getting her out of the building, the developers gave up and begin construction on the tower. When it was completed, the tower opened with Herman still living in the brownstone.

Herman didn’t occupied her apartment for much longer; she died of cancer in 1992. “Her vacancy last month came too late for the Cohens, who remain bitter over what they regard as Miss Herman’s utter folly,” the AP article stated.

To many New Yorkers, however, Herman is something of a heroine, unafraid to stand up to developers and defend herself under the threat of losing the home she was happy with. Her holdout brownstone makes a very appropriate monument.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: Tom Monaster/New York Daily News March 23, 1986]

Manhattan’s most ornate early apartment house comes back into view

May 23, 2022

In 1907, the developers behind Alwyn Court announced their plans to build this 12-story luxury apartment house on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. “It will have ornamental facades of limestone, with terra cotta trimmings,” the New-York Tribune dutifully reported.

That ho-hum description of the facade hardly did the Alwyn justice. When the aristocratic edifice opened to well-to-do tenants two years later—advertising itself as a place of “city homes for people with country houses”—the limestone and terra cotta facade proved to be one of the most ornate ever unveiled.

Alwyn Court’s exterior is an “intricate stone tapestry” of baroque scrolls, floral motifs, grotesques, angels, and crowned salamanders. The salamanders represent Francois I, the French king during the Renaissance whose style the building emulates. (The Alwyn is one of two New York buildings that feature salamanders on the facade, both by the same architects, Harde & Short.)

“This is the finest building of its type in New York City,” states the 1966 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, which designates Alwyn Court a city landmark.

Most luxury apartment buildings of the era only used terra cotta on the base of the facade and thus didn’t have excessive room or ornamentation, the LPC report explains. “Here at Alwyn Court, instead of limiting the decoration, the architects went to the other extreme, leaving hardly any surface undecorated,” states the report.

A lot has changed at the Alwyn since 1909. Originally the building had two apartments per floor with at least 14 rooms and five baths each, along with personal wine cellars for tenants and other exclusive amenities. (Remember, apartment living for the rich was still a new concept, so they tried everything to lure in residents.)

But that layout was eventually altered in favor of more apartments per floor that had fewer rooms. In the 1930s, the lobby was redone, then remade again in 1982 when an air shaft was turned into a central atrium. After a protracted battle with longtime tenants (including many senior citizens living in rent controlled units), Alwyn Court went co-op in the early 1980s.

By Berenice Abbott in 1936

Now, following a long stint behind construction scaffolding, Alwyn Court’s filigreed facade is fully on view. It looks as beautiful as it did in 1936, when Berenice Abbott photographed a portion of the building for her book, Changing New York.

[Last photo: Sotheby’s]

This Art Deco skyscraper on 57th Street rightfully celebrates itself

May 9, 2022

The Fuller Building, on Madison Avenue and 57th Street, has racked up some impressive accomplishments.

Topping out at 40 floors, this 1929 masterpiece was one of New York’ first “mixed use” buildings, with the lower floors boasting high ceilings and a distinct design to attract galleries to 57th Street’s active Jazz Age art scene, according to The City Review.

Art is outside the building as well. Above the entrance is a sculpture of workmen framed around a clock and a relief of the cityscape. Construction themes are reflected on the elevators, and the upper floors feature geometric patterns on the facade.

With so much to boast about, why shouldn’t the Fuller Building have large mosaic medallions of itself embossed in the lobby?

Sure “AD 1929” sounds like the owners expect the tower to be in a museum someday. But this icon has every reason to honor itself and decorate the lobby floor with love letters to its own greatness.

[Second image: structurae.net]

Three mythological Art Deco figures on a 57th Street apartment building

April 25, 2022

Walk along 57th Street, and you’ll see many examples of Art Deco architecture and ornamentation: geometrical shapes, zigzags, and even sculptures of mighty male figures toiling in the modern city. That last one is part of the facade of the 40-story Fuller Building.

Farther east, where office towers recede and elegant apartment buildings line quieter stretches of East Midtown, there’s a different example of Art Deco artistry on one specific residence.

The building is 320 East 57th Street. Take a look at the images above the entrance: three nude women hold hands in a kind of dance, surrounded by floral motifs. Helpful Ephemeral New York readers pointed out that these are the Three Graces, the goddess daughters of Zeus in Greek mythology. Each daughter bestows a particular gift on humanity: mirth, elegance, and youth and beauty.

The bas relief appears to be modeled after this sculpture by Antonio Canova from 1814-1817, which is currently housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

I imagine the Three Graces has been here since the building was completed in 1926, according to Streeteasy—which attributes the ironwork in the lobby to French ironworker Edgar Brandt, a giant of Art Deco design.

Could Brandt be the sculptor behind the figures? I saw no attribution in the building, which only has a plaque outside noting that Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque resided there.

A peek inside a 1946 Yankees program—and the New York brands that advertised inside

April 25, 2022

I have no idea what a Yankees program looks like today. But I do know what it looked like in 1946, when the Bronx Bombers hosted the Cleveland Indians either in late April/early May, June, or August of that postwar year.

Strangely, the 16-page program doesn’t say when the series takes place. But it mentions the upcoming All-Star Game at Fenway Park, so it must have been before July.

The lineup of legendary players to take the field that day included Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill DIckey, with Bill Bevens and Spud Chandler listed as pitchers. More interesting to me are the ads throughout the 16-page program—like Ruppert Beer.

The Ruppert ad for this Yorkville-brewed beer isn’t much of a surprise because the Yankees were owned by Jacob Ruppert from 1915 until his death in 1939. A plaque recognizing his devotion to his team stands in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.

I’ve never heard of Major’s Cabin Grill. It’s on 34th Street, a long subway ride from Yankee Stadium, but why not? I like the warning about betting and gambling at the stadium.

I’m glad to see Schrafft’s make an appearance in the program; the restaurant chain famous for its ice cream was highly popular at the time. Apparently the ice cream bars they sold to fans at the stadium were in short supply.

The Hotel New Yorker today may not be a five-star kind of place, but it had a better reputation in the mid-20th century. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as a “home of major-league ball clubs.”

Here’s the actual scorecard, plus some fun ads on the sides—especially for the famous Hotel Astor rooftop. At one time, this was a glamorous place for dining, dancing, and catching a cool breeze in a city without air conditioning.

The touching 1913 dedication over a Grand Central Terminal entrance

April 21, 2022

When Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, the railroad barons who financed the $35 million project could have dedicated the stunning terminal to their board of directors, or to the city officials who cut through red tape to help make this third version of a central train station at 42nd Street on Manhattan’s East Side a reality.

They could have eschewed a dedication altogether, too. After all, do most rail terminals, or other major urban development projects, have dedications?

Grand Central in 1915, two years after opening

Instead, they decided to dedicate Grand Central to the people who actually labored to build it.

“To all those with head heart and hand toiled in the construction of this monument to the public service this is inscribed,” the dedication reads, above an entrance on the 42nd Street side and under one of the many spectacular clocks across all the halls of this city treasure.

Something about the modest inscription makes Grand Central even more of a spectacular place than it already is.

[Second image: MCNY, 1915, X2011.34.3570]