Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

Only one of these Gilded Age buildings still stands

September 14, 2020

Between the late 19th century and World War I, about 70 opulent (and sometimes absurdly ostentatious) mansions were built on the mile and half strip between East 59th and 90th Streets, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By World War II, many had been demolished; wealthy New Yorkers were now favoring apartment houses instead of single-family dwellings. By the 1970s, almost all of these monuments of Gilded Age money were leveled.

The view in this turn-of-the-century postcard looks up Fifth Avenue at 60th Street. It only captures a few blocks, but not one of the mansions in the postcard still stands. (I sure wish the lavish Elbridge T. Gerry Mansion, the second one in the row, was not bulldozed…it’s wild!)

But one building in the postcard is still with us today—the headquarters of the Metropolitan Club, the stately, refined building in the foreground on the right. (At left, in 1898)

Formed in 1891 with J.P. Morgan as its first president, the Metropolitan Club consisted of New York’s major male movers and shakers. They built this Stanford White-designed clubhouse in 1893.

Exclusive clubs for power brokers and titans of industry might seem a little silly to contemporary city residents. But the Gilded Age was the great era of private clubs.

Joining the Knickerbocker Club, the Metropolitan Club, or the Union Club gave elite men a place to dine, network, and rub elbows in a comfortable space away from the office. (Clubs for elite women popped up in the early 20th century as well, like the Colony Club and the Cosmopolitan Club.)

The Metropolitan Club still exists, though now women can become members. The building extends east along 60th Street, a restrained emblem of Gilded Age society on a very different millionaires’ row. (Above, another view up Fifth Avenue, 1896)

[Postcard: MCNY F2011.33.1749; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.2910; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17065]

Meet the “artist laureate” of the East River

September 7, 2020

The East River—its bridges, boats, and natural beauty—has inspired centuries of artists. But few have depicted the river with the richness and romanticism of Woldemar Neufeld.

[“Beekman Place Houses”]

Neufeld’s journey to New York City was marked by tragedy. Born in Southern Russia in 1909, his Mennonite family immigrated to Waterloo, Ontario, after his father was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1920 following the Russian Revolution, states the Waterloo Public Library.

[“East River in Winter”]

After establishing himself as an artist in 1933, he continued studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University. In the mid-1940s, he, his wife, and his young family moved to Manhattan.

[“Henderson Houses”]

Neufeld lived on East End Avenue, one block from the East River waterfront on the Upper East Side. Even after relocating his family home to Connecticut, he maintained his studio there for 30 years.

[“Hell Gate at Night”]

”When I moved to East End Avenue, it began a new chapter in my life,” he told the New York Times in a 1986 interview. ”For years I painted nothing but the East River. Some people down there still call me the artist laureate of the East River.”

[“John Finley Walk”]

He painted other scenes of New York as well. But his East River images (the first four in this post are linocuts, a printmaking technique using linoleum, and the fifth is a woodblock print) capture the vivid brilliance of the river and midcentury city.

Neufeld depicts the heroic workaday river, where ships belch smoke and tugboats fight through ice. He also gives us the enchantment: an illuminated bridge at night, a soft dusting of snow on riverside park trees, and the popping colors of a luxury block as seen from the river.

His style might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But these narrative prints reveal Neufeld’s (at right in 1950) love and appreciation of the stories the East River tells, as well as the energy and vitality of the city beside it.

[Top image: 1stdibs; second image: George Glazer Gallery; third image: Gregory James Gallery; fourth image: Gregory James Gallery; fifth image: Hibid.com; sixth image: Hartford Courant, 1950]

The most beautiful storage facility in New York

August 24, 2020

When it comes to finding a place to store all the things that no longer fit into your apartment, you could find a storage company that offers the least expensive deal.

Or you go by beauty and history and schlep your stuff to Day & Meyer, Murray & Young Corp, a magnificent Gothic (or Art Deco?) fortress on Second Avenue between 61st and 62nd Streets.

Completed in 1928, the 15-story tower offers steel vaults “which travel by truck and are conveyed to racks in our warehouse,” the company website explains, noting that they started in an era when storage was moved via horses and carts.

Store your things here, and you’ll be in good company. According to a 2011 New York Times story, this is the storage space of New York’s social register, the wealthiest families, most prestigious art dealers, and grandest museums.”

I just dig the building, and the old-timey lettering of the company name over the entrance.

Tenements go down, and a church reemerges

August 24, 2020

For decades, passersby on 79th Street between First and York Avenues could only see the facade of gorgeous, Gothic-style St. Monica’s Catholic Church, with its intricate stonework, spires, and wood doors at the main entrance.

Though this church, which was built in 1906, extends almost all the way to 80th Street, both sides of the historic sanctuary were long blocked from view by other buildings.

On the right is the church rectory, and on the left was a freestanding early 1900s tenement. At the corner stood a row of nine similar tenements stretching from 79th to 80th Streets. (At right, 1939, and below, 1940)

But in the 2000s, a developer came along.

Eyeing the corner for a new mixed-use building, Extell Development Company bought up all the tenements and demolished them during the summer of 2019, leaving what Our Town nicely described as the “black hole” of East 79th Street.

Nearly a year later, the black hole is still there, behind a plywood barricade. Work on the site seems to be stalled.

It’s an eyesore, but there is an upside to the open space, at least until construction inevitably ramps up.

For the first time in perhaps a century, it’s possible to see the full length of St. Monica’s from the street, including the enormous and beautiful stained glass windows that make a walk down First Avenue a little more inspiring.

St. Monica’s doesn’t get the architectural love it deserves. But the church and parish have a long history in this stretch of Yorkville.

Established in 1879, St. Monica’s served a mostly Irish-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—when Irish immigrants and their descendants followed the development of elevated trains and streetcar lines and moved to Yorkville.

In the early 20th century, Hungarian New Yorkers migrated to East 79th Street, opening Hungarian restaurants and businesses and founding cultural organizations and churches in what was then called “Little Hungary.”

Two of those churches, St. Stephen’s and St. Elizabeth’s, merged with St. Monica’s in recent years.

The parish is now officially known as “St Monica-St Elizabeth of Hungary-St Stephen of Hungary”—a long name but one that hints at a long history, too.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household

August 10, 2020

Whether you were an old money matron like Mrs. Astor or one of the “new rich” (hello, social climbing Alva Vanderbilt), all super wealthy New Yorkers during the city’s Gilded Age had one thing in common: a large staff of household servants.

While the man of the house tended to business concerns on Wall Street and enjoyed the company of other well-off men at private clubs, the woman of the house was tasked with overseeing multiple maids, butlers, and cooks, as well as nursemaids, coaches, and groomsmen, among others.

Depending on the family bank account and how large their mansion was, a newly minted millionaire household could employ 20 or so servants, who generally lived in the home on a floor devoted to servant rooms.

These rooms were typically near the roof, which was sooty and either too hot or cold, so not a choice place in the home for a family member.

During the Gilded Age, with fortunes being made and immigration high, a reported 16% of the population of New York City worked as a servant. They came from all ethnic groups, but many were Irish, German, or Scandinavian.

The “servant girl question” was often debated in the society pages of newspapers. Where do you find good help? How can you communicate a servant’s duties better? What should you pay them? (These concerns sound snooty, but they’re still being asked today when it come to domestic workers.)

Luckily, some informative writers put out books on the topic, including Mary Elizabeth Carter, who in 1903 published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy.

Here, Carter laid out all the rules, particularly all the servants a rich family should employ (though that varied depending on a family’s needs), and what to pay them.

At the top of the hierarchy is the Superintending Housekeeper. Typically a woman, she oversees the rest of the household staff: she checks with the cook about the day’s menu, inspects all rooms for cleanliness, and she can take the place of the mistress of the household by hiring and firing other servants. Her monthly pay: $50-$150.

Next up is the Lady’s Maid, who worked hard for her $25-$40 a month. This servant handled her mistress’s toiletry needs, her clothes, and various tasks associated with her social engagements.

“However luxurious the surroundings, that is not an ideal life where one must constantly at the beck and call, or subject to the caprice, of another during all the 24 hours, day in and day out,” warns Carter.

The next level of maid is the house maid, or chambermaid. This servant would be assigned to a specific room or suite of rooms, responsible for dusting, bed-making (plus airing out bed linens), cleaning, and sweeping embers from the fireplace. Her salary is $18-$25 per month.

The Parlor Maid and Dining Hall Maid round out the maid list.

The parlor maid kept the parlor and family rooms in tip-top shape, while the Dining Hall Maid assisted in the servant dining room; she might be the only servant who served other servants. For their labor, they made $20-$30 monthly.

No functioning mansion could do without laundry workers, who washed not just clothes but rugs and bedcovers via boiling them and then laying everything out to dry (or pinning them up). A head laundress could expect $30 per month, while assistants might score $18 monthly.

On the male servant side, the Butler was of primo importance. “In every household of any pretension to fashion, the butler looms up an imposing figure,” notes Carter. “His dignity must never be impeached.”

The butler needed managing skills (for his staff of up to four assistants), good handwriting, and the ability to do basic bookkeeping. Carter leaves out his ideal monthly salary, but it must be comparable to the Superindending Housekeeper’s, I imagine.)

The “Useful Man” is a curious servant who functioned as a jack at all trades who brought wood for the fireplace, fixed things, and handled the hard labor of turning the wet laundry in the laundry room, among other duties. His monthly salary: $30-$40.

The Chef is the “gastronomical director” of the house, Carter writes, and his take-home would be $100. He might be French, as French food was quite faddish at the time. The chef could also be a female cook, as this illustration from Puck shows.

It was the chef’s job to go to markets and purchase the raw materials for the dishes he or she would whip up for the family—or for special dinners or social events that may require he bring in assistants to help.

Last but not least is the Valet. The valet’s counterpart is the lady’s maid; he’s a kind of personal assistant to the wealthy man of the household, pressing his clothes and preparing his bath. He will go everywhere with his master, even on trips. Carter leaves out his monthly salary, but it’s probably in the range of the lady’s maid.

There were other servants, of course: coachmen for the carriage, footmen, and grooms (who typically lived upstairs in the family stable). If children were in the household, a nursemaid would devote herself to their care. Scullery maids did the dirty work in the kitchen.

After the Gilded Age, the need for such an enormous servant staff wasn’t as great. Many of the early apartment buildings had staff servants of their own, and appliances took the place of a laundress, for example.

Though plenty of households employ “help” today, the line between servant and those being served is much blurrier than it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These days, you often hear a person boast that their nanny or live-in housekeeper is “part of the family.” The nanny or housekeeper, however, might feel differently.

[Top photo: MCNY, 93.1.1.20444; second and third images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Emily Holt; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY. 45.335.21; sixth and seventh images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette; eighth image: Puck; ninth image: unknown; tenth image: New York Herald, 1870s]

In 1886, this East 77th Street house was a church

August 10, 2020

The lovely little house caught my eye while I was walking a few blocks south of Yorkville toward First Avenue.

The enchanting Romanesque style, the peaked chapel-like roof, the two tall arched windows that looked like they were designed to hold stained glass—in this tiny dwelling’s earliest years, it had to have been a church.

Turns out, 429 East 77th Street was originally a church, built in 1886.

And up until it was sold and made into a private residence a decade ago, this simple sanctuary appears to have housed up to four different congregations, reflecting the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood through the 20th century.

Dingeldein Memorial Church of the Evangelical Association of North America was its earliest incarnation.

Dingeldein Memorial’s congregation drew from the German immigrants who had moved to this working- class tenement part of the Upper East Side in the late 19th century.

After the General Slocum disaster in 1904, much of New York’s Little Germany neighborhood (today’s East Village) dispersed to Yorkville, which became the city’s new Kleindeutschland. The church likely remained heavily German.

Change came in 1920. The Dingeldein Memorial Church congregation sold the little building to the New York City Baptist Mission, an organization with the goal of promoting “churches, missions, Sunday-schools, vacation schools, settlements, and other missionary and charitable work.”

It may have been the New York City Baptist Mission that renamed the church the Czechoslovak Baptist Church.

A Czech church on East 77th Street? It made perfect sense at the time.

In the early 1900s, the blocks in the far East 70s were ground zero for New York’s Czech population, with thousands of immigrants patronizing Czech businesses, entertainment spaces, and churches—only a few of which exist today. (Bohemian National Hall, on East 73rd Street since 1896, is a remnant of the neighborhood.)

In 1961, with the Czech population receding, the church decamped. The next occupant was the First Russian Baptist Church; this congregation may have been the one to paint the little house cream with brown trim (above, in a 2010 photo).

By that year, the First Russian Baptist Church’s days were over. A listing hit the market that included the church itself and a small building behind it, according to Curbed.com, which had already been renovated into a residence.

Together, both buildings sold for 2.1 million. The church-turned-house has a roof deck now, and the dwelling is stripped of any religious symbols or icons (like the cross on the roof, at left, and the wooden pews, top).

But this charming house still resembles a chapel, and its spiritual past can’t be entirely erased.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, 1920; fourth, fifth, and sixth images: Streeteasy.com]

Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan

July 27, 2020

You can learn a lot about New York’s makers and inventors just by coal hole covers—the decorative iron lids that lead to a storage space beneath the sidewalk where coal for heating a house or building was stored.

This beauty embossed with stars sits at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street.

“Dreier Safety Coal Hole Cover” it reads, listing an address in today’s East Village and a patent date, April 1919.

What’s a safety coal hole cover? A 1979 New York Times obituary for Abraham Dreier, the Polish immigrant who founded the Dreier Structural Steel Company in 1917, doesn’t explain it. But the obituary does say that Dreier patented the cover after he began his career making fire escapes.

Dreier’s company had an earlier address on the Lower East Side’s now-defunct Goerck Street.

What’s better than a coal hole cover than a coal hole cover with vault lights? This one was made by the Brooklyn Vault Light Company, once located on Monitor Street in Greenpoint. (The company had several addresses in the neighborhood, the ever-informative Walter Grutchfield says.)

Vault lights are basically glass skylights that allow sunlight into a space, though I’m not sure why that would be advantageous in a hole designed to store coal.

This coal hole cover is also a safety cover, patented in August 1905. The company operated from 1896 to 1958, according to Glassian. The company is gone, but the cover remains at East 73rd Street near Lexington Avenue, a quiet monument to the ironworks of another New York.

A British writer visits a NYC resort hotel in 1829

July 20, 2020

In 1828, James Stuart, a British lawyer and politician, took a trip to the United States. He journeyed to various East Coast cities, traveled through Georgia and Alabama, then went west to Missouri and Illinois before heading back east.

In his 1833 book documenting his travels, Three Years in North America, Stuart seemed to take a liking to the young nation. He described cities and states, the customs of people he met, as well as current events of the era, such as slavery.

But it’s his stay in Manhattan that I want to focus on here, especially his time at what was then an elite riverside retreat called the Mount Vernon Hotel, at today’s 61st Street between First and York Avenues.

In the early 1800s, Mount Vernon was located far from the city, which barely existed past 14th Street. The hotel was originally built as the carriage house for the planned country estate for Abigail Adams Smith (President Adams’ daughter, below right) and her husband. After the Smiths’ fortunes dwindled, the carriage house fell into other hands and was transformed into a hotel.

Stuart and his party visited Mount Vernon after traveling by steamboat from New Haven in May 1829.

During his stay, he took note of the habits of the New Yorkers who soon surrounded him—habits that might seem familiar to contemporary city residents.

“We immediately set about obtaining a comfortable lodging-house in the neighbourhood of the city, and at length pitched our tent at Mount Vernon, about four miles from New-York, on the East River or Long Island Sound, a good house in an airy situation, from the door of which a stage went to New-York two or three times a day.”

“The house is placed upon the top of a bank, about fifty feet above the river; and the view of the river and of the gay sailing craft constantly passing, and tossed about by the eddies in every direction, is very interesting.”

Mount Vernon had first-class amenities, including a ladies parlor and a men’s tavern. Stuart noticed the hotel’s trotting course next door. He also wrote that it was the custom for people to stop into Mount Vernon from the city for “a little spirits or water or lemonade.”

Warm weather in Manhattan meant dealing with crowds. “We bargained from the beginning to have our meals in our own parlour, and had many pleasant walks for exercise in the neighboring parts of the island of Manhattan, at times when they were free from the crowds of people who came out of the city in the evenings.”

Stuart observed that in the summer, “the great mass” of New Yorkers liked to “leave the town in carriages, gigs, or on horseback, for an hour or two before sunset, which, at the longest day, is at half past seven.”

These New Yorkers “drive and ride very fast,” he noted, “and the number of carriages of all descriptions on the various outlets of the city, especially toward the beautiful parts of the island, is such as I never saw but in London or its immediate vicinity.”

Stuart remarked about the quiet East River area where Mount Vernon was located. “The bustle, however, of this house is over before or very soon after sunset, and we are not in the slightest degree subjected to noise or intrusion,” he wrote.

He also touched on crime in the city, finding that at Mount Vernon, there was little need to be cautious about theft. “Near as we are to New York, and within 300 yards of the high road, there is neither a shutter nor a bar to a window in the house. Clothes are laid out to bleach all night without the slightest fear of their being carried off.”

Stuart eventually left for Philadelphia. Mount Vernon lasted until 1833, when it was turned into a country house. In 1905 it passed into the hands of a local gas company, which in turn sold it to the Colonial Dames of America in 1924.

In the 1980s, the Dames set about restoring Abigail Adams Smith’s one-time (and short-lived) carriage house. They renamed it the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, recreating the feel of the hotel resort Stuart wrote about during his travels to early 19th century America.

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden still operates as a museum. Here you can stop in and imagine what it was like for Stuart as he lounged in his room and enjoyed river breezes, or took to the men’s tavern for spirits and conversation. The sailing crafts on the river are still interesting; the neighborhood still quiet and off the beaten path.

[Second image: Mount Vernon in 1850; Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden Collection via Wikipedia; third image: Google Books; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: The Evening Post, 1827; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: New-York Historical Society]

A 20-story condo subsumes a Yorkville tenement

July 20, 2020

It’s hard not to cheer on a holdout building. You’ve seen these underdogs: the old, unfashionable walkups that stand their ground against modern apartment house developers, forcing the big guys to build around them or thwarting new development altogether.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a holdout building quite like the tenement that appears to be subsumed by its newer neighbor at 408 East 79th Street, just east of First Avenue.

The tenement, at number 412 for at least a century (at right in 1940), is a 5-story brick building with a fire escape on the facade; it’s the same small apartment building still found all over Manhattan neighborhoods.

The newer neighbor, the Arcadia, is a condo completed in 2005 and designed by Costas Kondylis. The spacious, lovely apartments in this 20-story residence sell for millions.

I wasn’t able to uncover the backstory, but it looks like the tenement stood down the Arcadia…which then swallowed the little building whole.

[Second photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.