Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

A Yorkville faded sign with a two-letter old phone exchange

August 5, 2022

The Little Wolf Cabinet Shop is a longtime fixture on the upper reaches of First Avenue at about 82nd Street. The shop also has another space on a nearby side street—and it’s the sign above this space that sparked my interest.

An old New York City phone exchange! The number of these pre-1970s exchanges still visible on signs and in ads is dwindling fast. I’d actually photographed this one for a 2011 ENY post, and the sign is, sadly, much more faded 11 years later.

RE stood for Regent, a Yorkville/Upper East Side exchange. I still haven’t figured out what Regent was though, and why the name was used. Could Regent have been a nearby hotel or theater?

Questions about the city’s old phone exchanges always generate insightful comments. This link will take you to some of the older posts delving into the mysteries of these two-letter exchanges.

The charming wooden houses time forgot in Carnegie Hill

June 20, 2022

You won’t notice anything unusual at first as you walk along quiet, unassuming 92nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.

122 East 92nd Street

But in the middle of the block, amid the quaint brownstones and apartment houses on the south side, stand two startling architectural anachronisms: side by side wood-frame houses with clapboard shutters, low iron fences, and deep front porches more countryside than Carnegie Hill.

120 East 92nd Street

Of course, these houses went up when this neck of the Upper East Side was mostly countryside. Number 122 is the older of the two. The charming Italianate-style home was built in 1859 by Adam C. Flanagan, a custom house officer, according to Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks.

120 and 122 East 92nd Street in the 1930s

A little more than a decade later, Flanagan had next-door neighbors. “In 1871, Flanagan sold adjacent land to John C. and Catherine E. Rennert,” wrote Dolkart. “John Rennert, a wine merchant, commissioned No. 120.”

Getting down to the city center involved something of a commute. By the 1850s, horsecar lines ran up and down Second and Third Avenues. By the end of the 1870s, elevated train service on Third Avenue made the trip shorter.

The 92nd Street wood houses in 1976

Both houses were constructed before the city banned wood frame houses below 155th Street in 1882, deeming them a fire hazard. (Wood houses were first prohibited below Canal Street in 1816, and as the city expanded northward, the ban was extended, explained Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog.)

By the turn of the century, once-sleepy Carnegie Hill and neighboring Yorkville had transformed into an urban part of the cityscape. Strangely, the two wood houses barely changed. Photos from the 1930s and 1970s, above, show them to be well preserved, almost untouched by time.

A handful of other wood houses similar to these survive on the Upper East Side, remnants of a semi-rural city. Number 120 was available for rent for $18,500 back in the 2010s, per 6sqft.com; here’s a peek at the gorgeous historic interior.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.782; fifth image: Google]

A touch of Art Nouveau on a former Fifth Avenue Gilded Age mansion

June 16, 2022

When Andrew Carnegie decided to build a mansion for himself and his family on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, he told his architects to construct “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York,” according to a 1971 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The mansion, completed in 1903, did not disappoint the industrialist-turned-philanthropist. At four stories and with 64 rooms surrounded on two sides by gardens, it was certainly roomy.

And while modest and plain are in the eye of the beholder, Carnegie’s Georgian-style house displayed more modesty and restraint than many of the pompous marble and stone castles going up on Fifth Avenue at the time.

But even an elegant mansion built in the style of an English country manor is likely to be influenced by the new design trends coming out of Europe at the turn of the century. The glass and iron canopy over the front entrance, with its curvy shape and floral motifs, seems to be a nod to Art Nouveau.

Though it never made a huge splash in New York City, Art Nouveau design prevailed in many European cities in the early 1900s. Buildings, clothing, and objects were designed with graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimicked flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature.

The canopy is described as “Tiffany-style” by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition. Based on early images and the 1910 postcard, above, it appears to be part of the original house Carnegie occupied until his death in 1919. (His wife resided in the home until she passed away in 1946.)

Whether the craftsman who created it was inspired by Art Nouveau or approached it with a different influence, the canopy adds a delightful touch to a Gilded Age mansion that since 1976 has been the home of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, according to The Landmarks of New York.

Very fitting that a world-class design museum occupies a mansion that inside and outside reflects such design and style.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.2869]

The stone and iron turtles decorating New York City

June 10, 2022

Colonial New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their heads up while feasting in city waterways.

Considering the role they’ve played in Gotham’s history and their presence in the modern city, it’s no wonder that images of turtles can be found on building facades, fence posts, and the sculptures in Manhattan parks.

You would expect a neighborhood called Turtle Bay to have its fair share of ornamental turtles. The turtle above is one of several on the iron fences surrounding Turtle Bay Gardens, a posh collection of restored brownstones flanking a private garden between Second and Third Avenues and 48th to 49th Streets.

The Turtle Bay Gardens iron fence turtles are a lot more stylized than this stegosaurus-like critter, one of three lifelike bronze turtles in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on East 49th Street off Second Avenue.

Outside of Turtle Bay, turtle sculptures abound. One of my favorites is the circa-1916 turtle at the base (one of four) of the Pulitzer Fountain beside the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Its mouth serves as one of the fountain’s spouts—a nice bit of whimsy.

Farther uptown at 973 Fifth Avenue is a sculpture with a base resting on the backs of two rather round turtles. The sculpture is in the rotunda of a former Gilded Age mansion now occupied by a French-English bookstore called Albertine (operated by the French Consulate, which has long owned the mansion).

Full-size view of The Young Archer, resting on turtles

The turtles supporting the sculpture are impressive. But the sculpture itself might have more of a pedigree. Acquired by Stanford White and called The Young Archer, it’s been in the rotunda for decades and has recently been identified as a possible early work of Michelangelo, according to the Albertine website.

This is how New York celebrated Decoration Day in 1917

May 30, 2022

“Not since 1898 have the Decoration Day parades and ceremonies had the significance which will emphasize them to-day,” wrote The Sun on May 30, 1917. “The city will not only pay tribute to the heroes of the past, but the marching columns of youths and veterans will help stimulate the country to the highest endeavor to gain victory in the world war.”

“Twenty thousand uniformed men will march up Riverside Drive, while 50,000 schoolboys will parade up Fifth Avenue,” the newspaper stated on the front page. “The two parades will start at 9 o’clock in the morning. The Grand Army of the Republic and its accompanied divisions will leave Broadway and 72nd Street, march west to Riverside Drive, then north to Grant’s Tomb, and will be reviewed on the way at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 86th Street.”

[Photo: LOC/Bain Collection]

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]

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The Fifth Avenue wedding present gifted to these rich Gilded Age newlyweds

April 28, 2022

Getting married during the Gilded Age when you’re young, rich, and from a famous family meant making lots of plans. The right church for the ceremony had to be booked, a grand reception arranged, distinguished guests invited, and a proper wedding party put into place.

The almost-completed Payne Whitney House, 973 Fifth Avenue; the James B. Duke mansion has not been built yet

And in an era when young people generally resided with their families before marriage, a couple also had secure their own place to live after the wedding bells finished ringing.

Payne Whitney, undated

Payne Whitney and his bride, Helen Hay, both 26 years old, luckily had that taken care of for them. Whitney was gifted the ultimate Gilded Age wedding present when his wealthy Civil War colonel uncle, Oliver H. Payne, purchased a 70 by 100 foot plot of land on Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Street and intended to build a mansion for his “favorite” nephew and new wife.

Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in 1911: corner left is the Isaac Brokaw Mansion, corner middle is the Fletcher Mansion, and attached is the Payne Whitney House. The James B. Duke mansion is on the far right.

This gift of a Fifth Avenue mansion was actually announced at the wedding, held on February 6, 1902 in Washington, DC. (Hay’s father, John Milton Hay, was a DC insider, serving as President Lincoln’s private secretary and then as Secretary of State in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations.)

The name of the mansion giver was kept secret, but a month later the New York Times revealed that it was Oliver Payne and printed some financial details of the yet-to-be-built home—which would be end up between the splendid 1899 Isaac Fletcher chateau-like mansion and then the James B. Duke mansion when that one was completed in 1912.

The Payne Whitney mansion is on the far left; Duke mansion is at the center

“The plot has been held at $525,000, and it is said that the price paid by Col. Payne is little, if any, below that figure,” the Times wrote on March 8, 1902. “The mansion to be erected thereon will undoubtedly cost as much more, so that the total value of the wedding present will not be less than $1,000,000.”

Who would be hired to design this mansion, which would front Fifth Avenue at a prime location of Millionaire Mile? Stanford White—who also happened to be a guest at the wedding.

Helen Hay Whitney

“Designed by White in 1902, the house contained forty rooms,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and Dealer in Antiquities. “Construction continued until 1905, and work on the interiors dates from 1904 on.”

It’s not clear where Payne Whitney (whose mother was one of the fabled ‘Astor 400’) and Helen Hay lived while their mansion was going up. But after the wedding they spent a monthlong honeymoon in Georgia, and then after a brief stop in New York City went to Europe for several months.

Another view of the mansion

One major interruption during construction, unfortunately, was White’s demise in 1906; the architect was shot and killed on the roof of his magnificent Madison Square Garden. By the time of White’s death, “most major work on the interiors was completed, but the house was not actually finished until 1909,” stated Craven.

It took seven years to build, but what a stunning palace it was. What became known as the Payne Whitney house at 972 Fifth Avenue “was designed in high Italian Renaissance style, the curved granite front, covered with rich classical ornament, rises five stories,” wrote Barbara Diamonstein-Spielvogel in The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Looking good in a 1939-1941 photo

“Winged cherubs fill the spandrels of the round-arched parlor floor windows, which are flanked with Ionic pilasters,” continued Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “The Renaissance treatment of the upper stories, with Corinthian pilasters and carved classical figures in low relief, is particularly handsome.”

The Gilded Age was at its end when the mansion was completed, but the Whitneys had a fortune with which to live well for the next two decades with their two children. Payne, a Yale Law School graduate, launched his career as a financier and thoroughbred horse breeder. Helen was an accomplished author and poet.

This looks like the Venetian Room, still viewable today

After her husband passed away suddenly in 1927 while playing tennis, Mrs. Whitney became a renowned philanthropist and living in the mansion until she died in 1944.

“The Republic of France has been the owner of this impressive mansion since 1952,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report designating the Payne Whitney mansion a New York City landmark.

The Payne Whitney Mansion in the middle, earlier this year

The French have been good to the house, keeping it open and installing a beautiful two-story French-English bookstore called Albertine. Curious visitors can wander through the impressive front doors to a rotunda with a marble fountain, then view a gilded former receiving room called the Venetian Room (above), furnished with pieces from Europe bought by White and the Whitneys.

Long after the Whitneys departed, the house stands as a Gilded Age reminder on an avenue with few mansions left from this elegant era. There is one curious treasure inside worth noting: a statue (below), The Young Archer, which has been in the marble rotunda for decades, is “now thought to be an early work by Michelangelo,” according to a website about the mansion maintained by the French Embassy.

[Top photo: MCNY, 90.44.1.862; second photo: FindaGrave; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: LOC; sixth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.864; seventh photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; eighth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.423]

Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions

April 4, 2022

Next time you’re in one of the city’s former Gilded Age mansions—reborn as a museum, perhaps, or a cultural center, store, or some other public building—be on the lookout for tiny buttons.

Sure you’ll want to gaze in amazement at the mansion’s elaborate interiors, with their lovely detailing, mahogany wood staircases, and splendorous ceiling murals.

But while you marvel at the beauty of it all, you might notice one of the purely functional servant call buttons that discreetly summoned the hired household help who allowed wealthy families to live so well.

The servant call buttons above come from the Gothic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Once known as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, it’s now home to the Ukrainian Institute. Several servant buttons can be found around the interior, sometimes chipped or partly painted over.

Frick mansion, 1919

This servant buttons below were found at the Frick Collection, now a magnificent art museum but once steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s palazzo-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. The Frick family had 27 servants living on the third floor of his mansion, according to the Frick Collection website, and I imagine these buttons were pressed often.

Butler, pantry, housekeeper—I can’t quite make out the rest. The buttons came from the museum’s West Gallery. And no, none of the buttons meant to summon servants worked!

[Third image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

A colorful mural across a tenement wall honors the immigrants who built Yorkville

April 4, 2022

Save for a few restaurants in the upper East 80s and some cultural and historic organizations, the German presence in Yorkville—Manhattan’s last “Kleindeutschland“—has almost entirely vanished.

German bakeries and bars no longer line the streets, German language newspapers aren’t readily available at newsstands, and the smell of beer wafting from local breweries vanished after the last brewer closed its doors in 1965, according to an AMNY article from 2018.

But one tenement on York Avenue continues to pay homage to the German immigrants and their descendants who made East 86th Street a hub of culture and energy through much of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The five-story tenement, on the corner of York and 83rd Street, appears similar to the hundreds of other low-rise walkups lining the streets from Third Avenue to the East River north of 79th Street.

But look closely: one side is painted with a series of whimsical images of a clock, NYPD officers, gargoyles, a sewing machine, cartoonish faces, and gothic arched entrances.

Called Glockenspiel, the building-wide mural is the work of artist Richard Haas. Its origins date back to 2005, when a towering new luxury condo building across 83rd Street called the Cielo opened its doors. Apparently, new residents of the 28-story Cielo weren’t too happy about the shabby tenement view from the lobby.

“The refined atmosphere of the building was marred by its neighbor: a graffiti-covered tenement,” wrote Glenn Palmer-Smith in his book, Murals of New York City. To class up the corner, the developers of the Cielo asked the owner of the tenement if they could have a mural painted on the facade “to give the illusion that the neighborhood was upscale enough to justify the price of the apartments.”

The owner agreed, and Haas painted the mural “as a tribute to the Germanic history of the Yorkville neighborhood,” wrote Palmer-Smith. “He painted a side of the building rich in architectural detail, such as a three-story bay window and a clock with painted ‘moveable’ mechanical figures which, reflecting the city theme, are two New York City mounted policemen.”

Some of the images are a bit of a mystery. The sewing machine and dress form could represent industry, or perhaps the sense of home and family found in Yorkville. The gargoyles are similar to some of the gargoyles found on tenements like this one.

One of the painted images has the exaggerated face of a man grinding a mortar and pestle, suggesting a local druggist or medicine. Two hooded figures blowing horns might be referencing the rich tradition of German music halls and singing societies. The painted windows with a closetful of suits and a stairway are harder to decipher.

The tribute as a whole seems to tell the story of the neighborhood as it was a century or so ago: rich with the touchstones of an immigrant culture that has departed from the protective and insular world Yorkville once provided.