Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

Park Avenue’s terra cotta tapestry of grotesques

January 15, 2018

Sometimes you come across an apartment building with a facade that takes your breath away.

That was my experience recently on a walk past 898 Park Avenue. This 14-story Romanesque beauty on the corner of East 79th Street finished in 1924 is a medley of terra cotta detailing, figures, and faces.

The design is described as “Tuscan-style terra cotta ornamentation” by Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan. It’s also been called “Lombardy Romanesque” or “Tuscan Tapestry,” Alpern says.

Whatever the style is called, it’s delightful, as Alpert also points out. The facade belies the reputation Park Avenue has as a stretch of New York with staid, fortress-like residences.

There’s a playfulness at 898 Park. The cerulean and tan arches on the second story contain bas relief images of men sleeping, eating, and what appears to be inventing. (Newyorkitecture.com has closeups.)

And the grotesques affixed to the ground floor arched entryway—they have disturbingly weary faces. But then again, they have been watching passersby for 94 years.

[Top photo: Streeteasy.com]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

Where was the original WPIX yule log filmed?

December 24, 2017

WPIX Channel 11’s strangely mesmerizing Yule Log is a Christmas tradition for New Yorkers from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So it was quite a disappointment to discover that the yule log so many of us grew up on was actually shot in a fireplace in California.

The original 16mm footage, a 17-second loop first shown on Christmas in 1966, was actually and appropriately filmed in a fireplace at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor John Lindsay lived at the time.

But when Channel 11 wanted to upgrade the deteriorating film to 35mm in 1970, they got a definitive no from the Lindsay administration.

“Unfortunately, when WPIX shot the original Gracie Mansion footage, to capture the log in all its flaming glory, the crew decided to remove the protective screen and a stray spark damaged a valuable antique rug,” explains a story on WPIX’s website, pix11.com.

“Needless to say, the Mayor’s office was not receptive to the idea of letting WPIX come back and re-shoot the footage.”

A fireplace was located in Palo Alto, California and new footage shot—but really, there wasn’t one townhouse owner who could lend his or her fireplace to the film crew so the Yule Log could be from New York, for New York?

[Photos: Wikipedia]

Weird things done to New York brownstones

December 18, 2017

Few things are as lovely as a row of brownstones—a solid line of stoops and cornices signifying harmony, community, and Gilded Age New York charm.

I’m using brownstone as an all-purpose word for a New York rowhouse. Brownstones themselves were kind of the McMansions of the late 19th century; every newly minted banker or merchant had to have one.

But while it’s the dream of many city residents to rent or own one of these beauties and have it restored to its 19th century grandeur, not everyone thinks so.

On some of the most fashionable brownstone blocks are strange architectural upgrades that would puzzle Gilded Age New Yorkers—like this one on East 51st Street (top photo), swathed in glass with what looks like a giant punch card over the facade.

Some brownstones still look the part—at least, the top half of the house does. This one in Flatiron has an ugly storefront addition covering the parlor and second floors.

On East 71st Street is a building I like to call the bubble brownstone. As far as I know, this is the only brownstone in the city with glass oval pods for windows.

I don’t know what to make of this brickface former brownstone on West 18th Street except that it has a very 1970s feel.

It looks like a concrete grill or lattice is covering the entire front of this rowhouse on the Upper East Side. I wonder what kind of light comes in. It was designed by a Modernist architect in the 1950s.

Finally, here’s a brownstone that looks like it’s undergone the Brutalist treatment in Chelsea. Hey, at least the owner has his or her own garage.

Medieval men on a 1920s Park Avenue building

December 18, 2017

If you’re an admirer of New York’s many elegant prewar apartment houses, then you probably know Alex and Leo Bing, the two brothers responsible for these stately buildings with Art Deco touches.

The Bing & Bing pedigree is always mentioned in real estate ads. But the brothers themselves—progressive-minded lawyers who also devoted themselves philanthropy and to affordable public housing—have largely been forgotten.

There is one whimsical tribute to these two brothers who had so much influence on the cityscape, however; it’s on the facade of a residence they built at 1000 Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth reportedly based the two Medieval figures flanking the entrance to this luxury coop after the Bing Brothers, who hired Roth to design the spacious, airy apartments in so many of their buildings.

Maybe the Bings appreciated the arts like the Medici family of the Renaissance? Inside joke? I don’t think Roth ever explained, but he decorated the third-floor of the facade with lots of fanciful Medieval figures.

[Second photo: Douglas Elliman Real Estate]

Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

October 23, 2017

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

The street where the rich parked their carriages

July 31, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself walking down the quiet, low-key East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, you may have noticed all the carriage houses—each one reflecting a different architectural style.

This conglomeration of carriage house gorgeousness was no accident, of course.

In the Gilded Age, the wealthiest New Yorkers used their new money riches to build mansions on the newly fashionable Upper East Side streets between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

And even though new elevated railways offered access to the rest of the East Side, these nouveau riche New Yorkers weren’t the type to take public transportation. They needed a place to keep their carriages and buggies, not to mention the horses who powered them and their equine caretakers.

So this stretch of East 73rd Street, once lined with modest row houses built in the 1860s, became a block of private carriage houses where the rich parked their vehicles.

“Stables were a necessity during the period when urban transportation was limited to horses and carriages, but only the very wealthy could afford to build and maintain a private carriage house,” notes this 1980 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

“The carriage houses were built on streets that were convenient to the East Side mansions, but were not so close that their noises and smells would mar the exclusive character of the residential streets.”

One of the first to go up in the early 1880s was 166 East 73rd Street (third photo), designed by premier architect Richard Morris Hunt for Henry Marquand, a millionaire banker who was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After Hunt designed Marquand’s showstopper of a mansion around the corner at Madison Avenue and 68th Street, he put this 3-story carriage house together.

The $25,000 stable housed three carriages and six horse stalls; the second floor was a hayloft, and the third floor consisted of apartments for coachmen, grooms, and their families, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

The neo-Flemish Renaissance carriage house (fourth photo today, and fifth photo at right in 1905) was built for banker William Bayless.

At number 170 (fourth photo, left side) is the carriage house for merchant Henry Sloane, and then other titans of business after Sloane sold his mansion at 9 East 72nd Street.

Number 178 is a Beaux-Arts beauty built for a man named John Connors, who sold it to Charles Hudson, head of a brokerage firm who resided at One East 76th Street.

(Interestingly, a lot of these carriage houses changed hands early on; perhaps an indication that fortunes frequently rose and fell in the Gilded Age.)

One building built for vehicles in 1906 was actually intended not for horses but cars. Foreseeing that the future would belong to the automobile, one businessman put up this 5-story “automobile garage” at 177-179 (above left, today, and right, soon after it was built). It still serves that function today.

All of the carriage houses on East 73rd Street have long since been converted to homes.

Take a peek inside the combined residence of 165 and 167 (second photo), completed in 1904 for the president of the Remington Typewriter Company. It was going for a cool $14.5 million back in 2007!

[Fifth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.647; Last photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.527]

Grotesque faces staring at you at Hunter College

July 24, 2017

The East 68th Street campus of Hunter College doesn’t look very collegiate, with its skywalks and square modernist buildings.

But there’s a wonderful exception to all those concrete boxes: Thomas Hunter Hall at 934 Lexington Avenue.

(Thomas Hunter was the first president of this former all-female teachers college founded in 1869, when it was known as Normal College.)

Designed in 1912 by Charles B.J. Snyder, the architect of so many of New York’s elementary and high schools at the turn of the century, this English Gothic castle of a college building features cathedral windows and rooftop turrets that give the impression of a Medieval fortress.

And if you look closely, you’ll see plenty of Gothic-style faces staring back at you.

The facade and twin spires flanking the entrance are packed with grotesques—some scary, some goofy with a sense of humor (like the guy in the glasses above, who has a pencil behind his ear).

Hunter College is part of the City University of New York, and it’s not the only CUNY building decorated with unique, cheeky grotesques.

Visit CUNY’s campus on 137th Street in Harlem—a Gothic architecture lover’s dream—and you’ll encounter the same kind of fun and mischievous characters, like this one, appropriately reading a book. (This is a college, after all!)

[Top photo: Hunter College]

A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]