Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

The lavish porte cocheres of Gilded Age New York

January 13, 2020

When New York’s first luxury apartment residences were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developers added all kinds of fabulous amenities to entice the city’s wealthy.

After all, the idea of apartment living—”living on a shelf,” as Mrs. Astor reportedly called it—was a hard sell in a city where the elite preferred the status symbol of their own freestanding mansion.

Electric lights, wall safes, private restaurants, billiards rooms, servant quarters, a chauffeurs’ lounge, even a rooftop farm were among the offerings developers used to lure potential buyers.

And there was one other convenience well-heeled New Yorker desired: a porte cochere.

What’s a porte cochere? It’s a recessed entrance—sometimes covered, sometimes not—that allows a vehicle to enter into a building’s private courtyard, so a resident alighting from a car or carriage wouldn’t have to step out on the street.

The porte cochere (it’s in French, so of course it connotes luxury) brings the vehicle to an interior door instead, which was the ultimate in comfort and privacy.

So in the early days of opulent apartment houses, the best buildings all featured porte cocheres. Many of these buildings are still with us, and so are their delightfully old-world porte cocheres, though not all are in use.

Two of the loveliest are—where else?—Sutton Place. The top two photos show the exterior porte cochere and the interior driveway at 2 Sutton Place, at 57th Street. The third photo is the three-entrance porte cochere at 1 Sutton Place across the street.

The fourth image is the beautiful porte cochere of the St. Urban, a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Prague but was actually constructed in 1906 on Central Park West and 89th Street.

Beneath it is the porte cochere at 1185 Park Avenue and 94th Street, completed in 1929 and so luxurious, this residence doesn’t even have a name.

Finally, here’s a throwback photo showing off the wide, high-ceiling port cochere at the Paterno, the magnificent building at 440 Riverside Drive and 116th Street, built in 1909.

Supposedly porte cocheres are all the rage once again, in what some people call New York’s second Gilded Age. The New York Times ran an article last month about how these are the new must-have feature potential buyers want in a co-op or condo.

The demands of the uber rich apparently have not changed very much since the first Gilded Age.

[Last photo: MCNY, 1910]

The skyscraper tree grates at Rockefeller Center

January 13, 2020

Look up to the sky at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see the iconic skyscraper 30 Rock—the sleek, 66-story beauty at the center of the Art Deco complex of towers developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s.

Now look down at the sidewalk you’re standing on. Embedded into the concrete are metal tree grates with a similar Art Deco skyscraper design.

A lovely touch, right? The interesting thing is that the skyscrapers in the grates don’t exactly look like the gleaming buildings at Rockefeller Plaza.

With their stacked shape and tall antennas, these mini-scrapers actually resemble the Empire State Building, standing proud since 1931 just 16 blocks south.

Perhaps the skyscraper grates are less of an homage to Rockefeller Plaza as a mini-city of silver towers and more of a nod to the skyscraper era itself—when the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, the Chrysler Building, and others defined the New York City skyline and became emblems of optimism during the bleak years of the Depression-era city.

[Rockefeller Center, 1930: MCNY]

What became of the first, short-lived Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2020

When the Plaza Hotel finally opened its doors on October 1, 1890, the debut of this elegant, long-awaited hotel (construction began seven years earlier, but the developers needed more financing to finish it) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South was heralded across the city.

This “magnificent” new building “was inspected by an immense number of people, and illimitable appropriation was bestowed upon the management for the almost perfect arrangements, elegance of decorations, etc,” wrote Brooklyn’s Standard Union newspaper.

King’s Handbook of New York City also gushed praise. “It is a palatial establishment…and it is sumptuously furnished,” stated the 1892 book. “There are 400 rooms…it is one of the grandest hotels in the world.”

Ads for the Plaza painted a luxurious image, like the one above. “Absolutely fireproof…Overlooking Central Park…the pioneer in the new hotel centre.”

Sounds a lot like the Plaza Hotel that’s been an icon of New York City for more than a century, right?

Except this isn’t the 19-story Plaza Hotel holding court on Fifth Avenue today, the one that was designed to be a skyscraper-high chateau in French Renaissance style.

These rave reviews actually describe the first Plaza Hotel—a more modest eight-story building that only stood at this elite corner of Manhattan for 15 years.

Why was it demolished, especially considering the swooning reception it received? Basically, “it was unprofitable,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition.

The design of the first Plaza Hotel—called neo-Classical and Italianate by Inside the Plaza, by Ward Morehouse—also quickly became dated in a city of newer, more fanciful hotel buildings.

So the first Plaza Hotel was bought by a new developer, who had it demolished in 1905.

The second Plaza Hotel, “with three stories composed of rusticated marble, the rest white glazed brick, all topped by a three-story mansard roof,” according to Morehouse (those small windows peeking through the roof were for the servants rooms), went up in just two years.

The new Henry Hardenburgh-designed Plaza Hotel (which served more as a longterm residence than a per-night kind of place) opened to equally rabid fanfare and acclaim on October 1, 1907.

 Here it is at the end of 2019, still stunning in a transformed city.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.31.9; second image: New York Times, 1894; third image: MCNY 2010.28.15; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.6467; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.3.1529; sixth image: Ephemeral New York]

A remnant of the Drama Book Shop from 1962

December 16, 2019

Like so many other New York City specialty bookstores, the Drama Book Shop has a long history of moving around.

First established in 1916 inside the West 42nd Street offices of the New York Drama League, according to a 2017 New York Times article, the shop then moved to 47th Street, and by the late 1950s it occupied a brownstone and then a commercial building on West 52nd Street.

That’s where this relic of one of the 52nd Street stores comes in.

Thumbing through an old catalog of plays, I noticed the front cover had this Drama Book Shop decal across it—displaying not just one of the best store logos ever but also an old 2-letter postal code (used in the days before 5-number ZIP codes) and a two-letter phone exchange, JU for Judson.

(There’s nothing like coming across bits and pieces of the city’s literary glory days while browsing old books, right?)

The catalog, from the Samuel French company, dates back to 1962; twenty years later, the store hopscotched over to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street, then to 250 West 40th Street in 2001.

Forced from the 40th Street location earlier this year, the Drama Book Shop was bought by Lin-Manuel Miranda and three others Hamilton collaborators. An updated New York Times piece from last month says the new store will open on West 39th Street next spring.

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]