Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

Filling in the ghostly outlines of former buildings in Manhattan

January 3, 2022

There’s something about New York City in winter that makes ghost buildings come out of hiding. Trees no longer obscure their faded outlines, fewer people on the sidewalks allows for less distraction, and the enchanting late afternoon light throws a spotlight on the forms and shapes we usually miss.

You may have passed some of these phantoms before, but now, in January, they call out to you, wanting to tell their stories. It takes a bit of digging to fill in all the blanks in the current cityscape, but here are some that didn’t ask to be erased.

Above is what remains of 12-14 West 57th Street, remnants of a time when West 57th Street was a residential enclave of elegant, single-family brownstones.

12-14 West 57th Street, 1918

Here’s a view of at least one of the brownstones in 1918, already a survivor in a rapidly commercialized West 57th Street.

The outline above is at 13 East 47th Street in the Diamond District, peeking out above the 2-story block of a building that replaced it. In the early 1900s the building was owned by A. Lowenbein’s Sons, Inc., an interior design company whose showroom stood here.

13 East 47th Street, 1920

Here’s the Lowenbein building in 1920. Perhaps the building started out as a brownstone or rowhouse built in the late 19th century, then was converted to commercial use when 47th Street lost its luster as a residential block.

Back on West 57th Street closer to Sixth Avenue is another hole in the cityscape. All that’s left of 32 West 57th is this outline, with the upper floor looking like it was pushed back.

32 West 57th Street, 1939-1941

What a delightful Romanesque Revival house we lost when number 32 met its fate with the wrecking ball! Too bad the outline that remains doesn’t include those top triangular windows.

The ghost building that used to hug 308 West 97th Street is more of a mystery; an image of what stood here was elusive. With its rectangular shape and chimney, my guess is a rowhouse, part of a lovely line built by one developer around the turn of the 20th century, when so much of the new Upper West Side was filled with gorgeous rowhouses.

The phantom outline above is what’s left of several demolished buildings, leaving East 60th Street from Lexington to Third Avenues looking like a toothless smile. Of course it was a residence, a brownstone in a former elite area that became commercialized during the 20th century.

Lexington Avenue and 60th Street, 1930

In this 1930 photo, the corner building that houses Cohen’s Fashion Optical has just been completed. To the right are the uniform residences that decades later were erased (almost) from the cityscape.

[Second image: MCNY, MNY238872; fourth image: MCNY, MN119720; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; eighth image: MCNY, MNY240548]

The unusual clock hands on a Third Avenue union sign

October 25, 2021

I must have passed the sign for the Metallic Lathers Union on Third Avenue in Lenox Hill a hundred times before finally noticing it the other day.

There’s a little history on it: the current union came out of an original union of wood, wire, and metal lathers workers that was organized in 1897. But what really caught my eye was the street clock attached to the sign, with its streamlined, Art Deco look.

The clock hands could be tools of some kind, perhaps a tool a lather might use? (A lather installs the metal lath and gypsum lath boards that support the plaster, concrete, and stucco coatings used in construction.)

This lathe cutter looks something like the clock hands. Maybe it’s a stretch, but perhaps the clock reflects something about the work these union members do in an industry vital to the growth of the city.

These ‘automobile stables’ on 75th Street might be the city’s first garages

October 25, 2021

Back in the days when New Yorkers got around town by horse and carriage, wealthy Gothamites built separate private carriage houses blocks away from their own mansions.

Inside these carriage houses (many quite lovely), broughams and phaetons were parked and horses cared for. In a small second or third floor area, a coachman and groom could live and work, making sure the carriage was ready when the owner wanted to use it.

By the turn of the century, however, the motor car hit the scene. Though some thought these “devil wagons” were just a fad, others realized they would soon replace horses and become the preferred mode of transportation for posh city residents (who were the only people who could afford a car at that time).

In 1902, a man named Edmund C. Stout was one who saw the future. That year, Stout bought five brownstone houses at 168-176 East 75th Street and converted them into what he dubbed “automobile stables,” according to a 2013 paper by Hilary Grossman from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture.

“Soon after completion, they were noted in the New York Times as the first automobile garages erected for private use in the city,” stated the Upper East Side Extension report by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Stout gave his automobile stables an architectural makeover, adding a fourth floor, removing the stoops, and trading the out-of-fashion brownstone style for a more arts and crafts look with fanciful rustic red brickwork.

“The buildings were sold off to New Yorkers who sought a place to keep their automobile and house their chauffeur,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times column from 1988. “Each building originally had a charging station for electric automobiles.”

The automobile stables weren’t just for cars. The LPC report had this to say: “According to the New York Times, each building was initially outfitted with ‘a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.’ Other sources indicate that the upper-stories may have actually housed the private chauffeurs of the owners.”

Who were these owners? Millionaire C.G.K. Billings owned number 172, per the LPC report; Billings is best remembered as the man who arranged a black tie dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s in 1903. George F. Baker, a financier and philanthropist, owner number 168. Banker Mortimer Schiff purchased number 174.

Though the popularity of automobiles soared in the early 1900s, some of the automobile stables were converted for other uses. By 1912, number 172 was thought to have been used for an embroidery business, according to the LPC report. Numbers 172 and 176 may have been turned into residences.

Number 176 housed a physician’s office for more than a decade, from 1966 through 1979, per the LPC report, “while number 172 hosted a number of different businesses simultaneously in 1964, including an antiques store, custom dress-making store, and
artist studios.”

Today, the five former automobile stables are residential units, and only numbers 168 and 174 still have a first-story garage, the LPC report states.

A small number of Manhattanites are lucky enough to have private garages, including the owners of the house next door to this row at number 178—the rest do without or fork over big bucks to park underground.

[Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

There’s a lot going on outside the Third Avenue Railroad Depot in this 1859 painting

October 18, 2021

Sometimes a painting has so much rich detail, it just knocks you out. That was my reaction to this magnificent scene of the Third Avenue Railroad Depot between 65th and 66th Streets, painted two years after the depot opened in 1857.

Amazingly, the painter of this “precise representation” of the depot, William H. Schenck, was also the company’s superintendent, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the work.

In 1859, this stretch of what would become the Upper East Side (near the Treadwell Farm Historic District) was mostly untouched by developers, though some wood houses are off in the distance. Street lamps stand on corners, however, and the road looks paved.

The streetcars pulled by horses follow the rails in and out of the depot. People are scattered about; some are on horseback, and one man steers a wagon full of goods. A hot air balloon sails through the sky, what’s that about?

“In addition to highlighting the contemporary popularity of the horse-drawn streetcar, Schenck also included a hot-air balloon in the sky, identified in tiny letters as the Atlantic,” the Met states. “The balloon’s owners, John Wise and John LaMountain, hoped to fly it across the Atlantic Ocean to initiate an entirely new form of transportation, but they never succeeded.”

Sadly, the Third Avenue Railroad Depot was destroyed by fire four years later.

Who is the rich New Yorker the Monopoly Man is based on?

August 16, 2021

At first glance, the board game Monopoly doesn’t seem like it has a New York City connection. The man who sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935 was from Philadelphia, and the board features properties in Atlantic City.

J.P. Morgan

Then there’s that mustached man long dubbed “the Monopoly Man” or “Mr. Monopoly.” He appears on the Chance and Community Chest cards, always in a Depression-era suit with a bowtie and top hat.

But the Monopoly Man isn’t just a board game invention—this iconic character (who has an actual name, Rich Uncle Pennybags) is supposedly based on the image of an actual New Yorker.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

So who is he? Apparently he’s modeled after banker J.P. Morgan. Morgan’s company financed some of the Gilded Age’s biggest corporations. He consolidated railroads, helped rescue the gold standard, and helped stabilize financial markets during the Panic of 1907, according to His former mansion on Madison Avenue is now the Morgan Library.

Phil Orbanes, a former VP at Parker Brothers and author of The Monopoly Companion, confirmed in this interview that the artist who drew Mr. Monopoly based him on J.P. Morgan.

Otto Kahn

On the other hand, a site called monopolyland raises the possibility that Mr. Pennybags is based on Otto Kahn, a German-born financier with a mansion on Fifth Avenue who died in 1934, close to the release date of Monopoly. (Morgan died in 1913.) Kahn also wore a top hat and had the requisite mustache.

They both certainly look like Uncle Pennybags. A composite perhaps?

[Top image:; second image:; third image: Wikipedia]

This massive stone mansion stood for just 26 years on Fifth Avenue

June 21, 2021

When railroad baron H.H. Cook decided to build himself a New York City mansion, he didn’t try to squeeze into a plot of land on Fifth Avenue in the 50s—an area that had been colonized by several Vanderbilt heirs and other Gilded Age moneymakers.

The H.H. Cook mansion in 1891, with few neighbors

Instead, he went to the then-hinterlands of Manhattan, purchasing the entire block from Fifth to Madison between 78th and 79th Streets. There he oversaw construction of his monumental stone house, which was completed on the corner of Fifth and 78th Street in 1883.

The cost of this exuberant, somewhat incongruous (are chimneys coming out of the dormer windows?) marble and sandstone home: $500,000, a hefty sum at the time, even for a millionaire.

The mansion circa 1900

He seemed determined to make the most of his investment. “Mr. Cook was very much interested in the building of the mansion, and it was his wish to make it one of the finest in the city,” stated the New York Times in 1909.

“Every detail of its construction was carefully looked after, and the building was done by ‘day’s work’—that is, there was no general contract to have it done at a certain time or at a certain cost, but the progress of the work was watched and if any particular feature did not please the owner it was taken out or altered.”

The Cook mansion became something of a monument at the time, and it likely lured other rich New Yorkers out of Murray Hill and other posh enclaves to this upper stretch of Fifth Avenue. By the 20th century, even Mrs. Astor relocated there, along with Andrew Carnegie.

Wurts Bros. photo showing many neighbors now

Cook wouldn’t live in his mansion very long, though. “After occupying it for 20 years, Cook became tired of the large place,” according to a 1930 New York Times article. He began construction on a smaller, more up-to-date one next door but never moved in; he was spending much of his time at his Berkshires estate in Massachusetts.

He died in 1905. Four years later, tobacco scion James B. Duke purchased the mansion, intending to renovate it. Duke changed his mind and had it bulldozed that year, constructing a more elegant mansion that still anchors the corner today, below. (It’s now owned by NYU.)

The James B. Duke mansion replaced Cook’s house, seen in 1938

“‘They don’t put buildings up that way now,” a watchman at the house said to a New York Times reporter, who wrote an elegy to the mansion in 1909 as it was “being taken to pieces and the material turned over to the second-hand men.”

Though Cook’s mansion only stood for a mere 26 years, his influence on the block lasts to this day. When he bought all the lots back in the early 1880s, he decided to sell them off only to developers intending to build single-family homes. “Cook’s Block” became known as one of the most restricted in Manhattan. Thanks to his foresight, the newest building fronting Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets is the Duke place, completed in 1912.

[First image: Digital Culture; second image: MCNY; third image: MCNY X2010.7.2.25117; fourth image: NYPL]

The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

June 7, 2021

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

A metalwork dreamscape at a 1929 Gracie Square co-op

June 7, 2021

Ever since the far eastern end of 84th Street was rebranded Gracie Square in 1929 (after Archibald Gracie, whose summer home is now the mayor’s residence four blocks north), this one-block stretch alongside Carl Schurz Park has (mostly) been lined with tall, elegant apartment houses.

These buildings, off East End Avenue overlooking the East River, radiate a stuffy kind of luxury. But something very imaginative makes 7 Gracie Square stands out from its more staid neighbors.

It’s the magnificent metalwork on the front doors and window grilles—featuring a bestiary dreamscape of elephants, gazelles, plants, leaves, and curlicue, wave-like motifs that looks like snails or shells.

Of course the doors are the creation of an artist: a painter and muralist named Arthur W. Crisp. After relocating to New York City from his native Canada in the early 1900s, Crisp studied at the Art Students League and shared a studio on 34th Street.

Unlike most people working in creative fields, Crisp had some money by the late 1920s. He bought property on the future Gracie Square and commissioned a builder and architect to construct an apartment house, wrote Christopher Gray in a 2011 Streetscapes column in the New York Times.

“Crisp retained George B. Post & Sons, along with Rosario Candela, and they designed a tepid Art Deco facade of red brick, with vertical runs of brick set at an angle,” stated Gray.

Why Crisp decided to decorate the doorway entrance in various types of metal—and what inspired his vision to make this “tepid” building so unique—remains a mystery.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Crisp lived in one of the building’s maisonettes, according to Gray. He left behind his last name, which he playfully embedded in one of the iron window grilles to the left of the front doors (below).

Crisp didn’t stay long at 7 Gracie Square. In 1935, the building went bankrupt, Gray wrote, and at some point Crisp relocated to Charlton Street.

The building went co-op in 1945—and the dreamy, fanciful doors still greet residents, catching the eye of the occasional passerby when the sun hits the metal and creates a powerful gleam.

[MCNY X2010.7.2.8894]

It’s hard not to love New York’s holdout buildings

May 17, 2021

A holdout building is a piece of property that refused the wrecking ball. Instead of bowing to threats of eminent domain or accepting an offer to sell, the building’s owner holds their ground and forces developers to change plans.

In New York City, that doesn’t seem to usually stop developers; they simply build around the holdout. and that leads to some pretty incongruous streetscapes, like this one above. Here, a late 19th century tenement continually gets the squeeze from two postwar towers on East 79th Street between First and York Avenues.

Some holdout buildings stood their ground decades ago. This yellow brick walkup was probably part of a long line of once-fashionable townhouses on East 20th Street near Fifth Avenue in the mid- to late 1800s. Tall loft buildings replaced them in the early 1900s…but the set-back holdout at number 34 remains.

Was this holdout in the Diamond District on West 47th Street once bright white and glorious? That balcony makes it look like a palace flanked by two dour bullies.

This skinny holdout (only wide enough for one window per floor!) was built in 1865, when West 46th Street was near the magnificent Croton Reservoir at 42nd and Fifth. I imagine this was another block of residences slowly replaced by tall loft buildings after the turn of the century…except for this one.

Nat Sherman Cigars operated out of this townhouse for years before closing up shop in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic. Though the townhouse itself wasn’t built until 1971 at 12 East 42nd Street, a previous holdout building stood its ground between these bigger guys, reserving the space.

This last one is a holdout mystery. The photo was sent to me years ago, and I’ve had no luck tracking down where exactly it was taken. In any event, it’s hard not to love the little cabin and the walkup behind it (those shutters!), both almost swallowed up by the cityscape around it.

‘Little Hungary’ was once on East 79th Street

May 10, 2021

A few weeks ago, Ephemeral New York put together a post about the former Czech neighborhood once centered around 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues on the Upper East Side.

The post generated many comments, with readers either reminiscing about a vanished enclave they remember well or wishing Manhattan still had pockets of ethnic neighborhoods like that one.

This week while looking through some photo archives, I find these images of a Hungarian grocery store. It could have been taken in Budapest, perhaps, but it’s actually Second Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets—smack in the middle of an area that used to be New York’s Little Hungary.

Like the old Czech neighborhood, Little Hungary had its churches and schools, community centers, and shops selling groceries and delicacies, like this one above. It isn’t the city’s first Hungarian neighborhood; that was on Second Avenue in the East Village. But at the turn of the century, just like their German and Czech neighbors, Hungarian immigrants relocated and colonized Yorkville through much of the 20th century.

Use Google Translate to find out all the unique offerings one could pick up here, foods I doubt you’ll be able to find on East 79th Street today.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]