Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

The yellow trolley cars of Columbus Circle

September 12, 2016

In the 1930s, New York was still a city of trolley cars—like the yellow trolleys whizzing (or lumbering?) through Columbus Circle in this 1931 postcard.

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By 1956, the last Brooklyn trolley lines bit the dust, victims of the popularity and ease of cars and buses as well as the difficulty of maintaining tracks on city streets.

But this postcard freezes the New York trolley in time, with embedded metal rails crisscrossing one of Manhattan’s few traffic circles.

Looking east, we’re at the doorstep of Central Park, and steps away from the wealth and glamour of then-new hotels like the Pierre and Sherry-Netherland on Fifth Avenue.

A Yorkville deli’s wonderful vintage soda sign

September 2, 2016

New York has thousands of corner delis and bodegas. But how many sport one of these vintage soda-themed store signs?

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York Deli on York Avenue and 79th Street is one of the last. Worn and grimy, it’s not the prettiest sign in Yorkville. But it sure has authenticity. (Still, this is 2016, and the deli also has a four-star Yelp page.)

YorkdeliYelpTechnically these signs with soda or ice cream logos are called “privilege signs,” promotional signs paid for by food corporations for small groceries, lunch places, and delis.

They used to be on just about every city block. Now, handfuls remain.

You can see more disappearing privilege signs here and read about their history in David Dunlap’s excellent 2014 New York Times piece on these relics of mid-century cities.

[Second photo: Yelp]

Fifth Avenue’s most insane Gilded Age mansion

August 29, 2016

On the avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony” in the late 19th century thanks to its unbroken line of ornate mansions, one house stood out as the most insanely overdone: William A. Clark’s 7-story Beaux Arts monster at 77th Street.

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Finished in 1907 after eight years in the making, “Clark’s Folly,” as it was called, broke all records. It cost $7 million to build, featured 121 rooms, and had its own rail line for the delivery of coal.

WilliamclarkhousesideviewAmazingly, this monument to money was out of style by the time the final ornament was attached, and it only stood for 20 years.

William Clark (below, with his youngest two daughters) was a copper baron who made a fortune in mining and helped found Las Vegas.

He did a stint as senator from Montana in 1899. Forced to resign after a bribery scandal, the deep-pocketed titan who was highly disliked in Washington (even Mark Twain called him out for corruption, describing him as “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”) got himself elected again in 1901.

Meanwhile, he began building his mansion in New York. This captured the attention of city residents and the press, who estimated Clark’s worth at $150 million.

Williamclarkmansion19051906

After Clark left Washington in 1907 with his new wife (a much younger woman who used to be his ward!) and two young daughters, he took up residence in his finally finished marble palace.

WilliamclarkmansionmcnyThe amenities boggled the mind: repurposed pieces from a French chateau, oak panels from Sherwood Forest, Turkish baths, vaulted corridors lined with Gustavino tile, 11 elevators, a pipe organ, 20-plus servant rooms, and galleries for Clark’s extensive art collection.

By the time Clark and his family moved in, however, this Gilded Age “pile of granite,” as the New York Times called it, was out of fashion. Architectural critics loathed it.

How Clark felt about this is unclear, and in any case, in 1925, the 86-year-old died inside his citadel (at left, in 1927).

Williamclarkhuguette1917His art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery, and his wife and surviving daughter (her sister succumbed to meningitis in 1919) sold the mansion to an apartment house builder—then decamped for a full-floor apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue down the road.

There the two remained. Decades after his wife passed on in the 1960s, Clark’s daughter made headlines for an entirely different reason than her father did.

She is Huguette Clark (on the right side of the photo with her father and sister, about 1917), the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at the age of 104 after many years of living in Beth Israel Hospital.

Huguette Clark left a $300 million fortune, and many mysteries.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverGilded Age excess may have gone out of style by 1910. But every financial titan or old money heir staked their claim to the Millionaire’s Colony in the late 19th century, intent on building a marble castle.

See the amazing photos of this palaces in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), X2010.7.2.5452; second image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.21088; third image, via Shorpy; fourth image: MCNY/Phillip G. Bartlett, X2010.11.4911; Fifth image: Wikipedia]

A Gilded Age mansion goes down in the 1960s

June 16, 2016

Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

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But Brokaw did have at least one thing in common with Gilded Age titans with names like Frick, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie: he too built himself a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Brokaw1927mcnyBrokaw’s French Renaissance palace, modeled after a 16th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley, went up in 1887 at 1 East 79th Street.

It had all the trappings of a multimillionaire’s home from the Age of Elegance: four stories, stained glass windows, a staff of seven, even its own moat.

“Its grandiose entrance hall is of Italian marble and mosaic and huge murals line the walls,” wrote the New York Times decades after it was built.

“The ceilings are paneled in stone and wood and no two of them are alike. The library has a seven‐foot‐tall safe concealed behind a panel opened by press­ing a hidden catch in the mould­ing,” the Times continued.

Brokawmansion1960sBy 1911, three more modest mansions adjoined the chateau, built by Brokaw for his two sons and daughter.

After he died, squabbling family members occupied all four Brokaw mansions. Three were eventually sold off to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers between the 1940s and early 1960s, which used them as office space.

Gilded Age chateaus with skyrocketing upkeep costs had long since gone out of favor; dozens of the more than 70 mansions constructed along Fifth Avenue in its Millionaires’ Mile heyday had been razed in favor of stately apartment houses.

BrokawmansionIEEE

In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.

BrokawmansionprotestNYPAPNewspaper editorials denounced the demolition. More than 100 people (including Ed Koch, then a city councilman) attended a rally in front of the original chateau to persuade officials to protect this remnant of a fast disappearing older city.

“However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965,” reports The New York Preservation Archives Project.

Brokawmansion2016The wreckers came the next day. A year later, the Brokaw mansion’s successor, a 26-story apartment co-op, was completed.

It stands today, across 79th Street from one of the last remaining Gilded Age palaces—the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, occupied by the Ukrainian Institute of America.

[Top photo: 1920s, LOC; second photo: 1927, MCNY; third photo: Getty Images, 1960s; fourth photo: 1960s, IEEE; fifth photo: The New York Preservation Archives Project]

The never-built East River bridge at 77th Street

June 2, 2016

As the Brooklyn Bridge began rising to the south in the 1870s, plans for a second bridge linking Manhattan to Long Island were getting off the ground.

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“The projectors of this proposed bridge over the East River, between New York and Brooklyn at 77th Street, by way of Blackwell’s Island, have, in response to the invitation sent out, received ten separate designs and estimates from as many engineers,” an 1877 newspaper story stated.

“Ground will be broken as soon as a plan shall be decided on.”

Eastriverbridgearticle1881Of course, there is no East 77th Street bridge (and Queens is just across the East River, not Brooklyn).

So why didn’t the project go forward?

It started to, tentatively. In 1881, a caisson was sunk into the river on the Queens side, off the outpost of Ravenswood, according to the Greater Astoria Historical Society’s The Queensboro Bridge.

But it was the future Brooklyn Bridge that captured New York’s fancy.

With less money and interest, the company chartered to build a bridge to Queens put a stop to construction.

EastriverbridgethumbnailAlmost two decades after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, and only a few years since Brooklyn and Queens became part of greater New York City, plans for a bridge were drawn up again . . . resulting in the graceful cantilever span known as the Queensboro Bridge in 1909.

New York is a bridge proposal graveyard, as these images of other bridges never built attest.

[Top photo: NYPL; second image: Arkansas City Weekly Traveler; third image: Greater Astoria Historical Society]

 

A relic of a 1920s theater on East 80th Street

August 3, 2015

The remains of some of New York’s loveliest buildings can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places.

Ziegfeldgoddesshead

Take this carved stone head of a goddess. For decades, it’s sat outside the parlor floor window (between the garbage cans and coal hole cover) of the 1883 brownstone at 52 East 80th Street.

Ziegfeld19272The goddess head’s original home? The facade of the Ziegfeld Theater, an Art Deco gem that stood on Sixth Avenue and 54th Street for 39 years.

The theater, financed by William Randolph Hearst, opened to great fanfare; Florenz Ziegfeld’s renowned Follies were staged there.

But within six short years, it became a second-run movie house. By 1966, it met the wrecking ball.

Yet the goddess head survived the demolition—and it ended up on East 80th Street (below, with the copper bay window) because the owner of the home, a theater producer named Jerry Hammer, asked the right person for it.

Ziegfeldhousegoogle“Mr. Hammer said that in the 1960s he was riding in a limousine with the developer Zachary Fisher, who motioned to the old Ziegfeld Theater, at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and said he was going to demolish it for a new office building,” stated the New York Times in 2004.

Hammer asked Fisher jokingly if he could have it. About four months later,  ”’I hear noises outside, and it’s a truck with a crane, and a head, and they ask me where I want it,'” wrote the Times.

Hammer moved out, but the goddess head remains, a glorious relic of Roaring ’20s New York City.

[Second photo: Cinema Treasures; third photo: Google]

“Eclectic elegance” of a Madison Avenue building

August 3, 2015

When the Parkview opened at 777 Madison Avenue in 1908, the Upper East Side was still known for opulent single family mansions, not French flats.

Parkview2015

But apartment living was catching on among the rich, particularly on the Upper West Side with the Dakota and similar buildings.

The architecturally diverse Parkview, which mixes Flemish, French, and English Gothic styles to create what one contemporary critic calls “eclectic elegance,” therefore had no trouble finding renters.

Parkviewad1908

And why not? Behind the elaborate facade of arches, multi-paned windows, and a rounded corner that slightly resembles a Medieval tower were luxurious and spacious apartments, just two per floor.

“The public areas of each included a room-sized windowed foyer, a music room, a dining room (plus a small conservatory), a living room, and a large salon, all totaling about 1600 square feet,” states Andrew Alpern’s Luxurious Apartment Houses of Manhattan.

ParkviewlayoutDon’t forget the 3-4 bedrooms, rooms for household help, and the bedroom for the lady of the house’s maid.

Wealthy and prominent New Yorkers flocked to the building, which shows up frequently in what was once known as the “society” pages of the newspaper, filled with announcements of weddings, new babies, and other milestones people with money wanted everyone to know about.

Dwarfing the rows of brownstones that surrounded it, the Parkview underwent slight alterations as the neighborhood became more commercial.

Parkviewcloseup

A protective railing around the ground floor was removed to make way for business tenants. The Parkview name was ditched too; the residence was then known as 777 Madison, and later, 45 East 66th Street.

Parkview1920sAfter World War II, many of the grand apartments were carved into smaller units, and in 1977, the building achieved landmark status.

Now a collection of pricey co-ops, this lovely building with incredible detail and ornamentation is a monument to a turn-of-the-century apartment living.

It’s arguably the most eye-catching residence on Upper Madison Avenue, and it even has a celebrity tenant: Rudy Giuliani.

[Images: second, NYPL Digital Gallery; third, NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth, MCNY Collections Portal]

Two 19th century slums known as “Battle Row”

May 25, 2015

BattlerowheadlinebattleroweastnytOld New York’s slums had some illustrious names: Murderers’ Alley, Bandits’ Roost, and the Dead End (an Irish district off First Avenue overlooking the East River).

But one descriptive name was used for two poverty rows, one on the east side of Manhattan and one on the west: Battle Row.

Battlerow39thand10thavenyplThe east side Battle Row marked a stretch of First Avenue around 63rd Street. The Battle Row Gang ran this neighborhood of old-law tenements and belching riverfront factories.

Lawlessness ruled even without the gang’s influence. “The destructive pastimes of the Battle Row tenants were largely informal,” according to a 1924 New York Times piece. “They were most congenial as they rifled the wagon of an unfortunate peddler who ventured into their street.”

“In the decade between 1902 and 1912, the Row obtained its peak of pugnacity,” explained a 1926 New York Times article.

“An ever-popular diversion of the Row’s tenants was cop-sniping,” stated the Times. “Men, women, and children would peep from roofs and windows and drop rocks and decrepit vegetables upon passing policemen.”

Battlerow40thstreetjacobriisOne longtime cop recalled in the Times piece a holiday tradition in Battle Row:

“Groups of [residents] would go over to First or Second Avenue and toss a rock through the window of a butcher store and in a minute or two the nice collection of turkeys, ducks, and chickens would have disappeared.”

Meanwhile, the west side Battle Row, on West 39th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, was part of Hell’s Kitchen, then known as “probably the lowest and filthiest of the city.”

BattlerowwestsidenytheadlineThis slum of “gas-works, breweries, and rum shops,” which reportedly got its name due to all the street fights among the packed-like-sardines population, was the territory of the Gophers and other gangs.

These gangs of Irish immigrants raided the train yards at 30th Street, among other criminal enterprises. Battle Row seems to have also been the name of a saloon on that block operated by Mallet Murphy, one of the “Lady Gophers” and a notorious female criminal.

Battlerow61ststmodeltenementsmcnyBoth Battle Rows disappeared in the reform-minded city after the turn of the century.

The east side’s Battle Row became the site of model tenements, then a neighborhood of luxury apartment towers with river views.

The West Side Battle Row held out as a working-class neighborhood. It’s now on prized land made trendy by the revitalized Far West Side.

[Images: headline, NYT; tenement on West 39th Street, NYPL; Hell’s Kitchen tenement similar to what Battle Row would have looked like, Wikipedia; headine, NYT; model tenement that replaced Battle Row on First Avenue, MCNY Digital Collection]

Faded outlines of long-gone Manhattan buildings

January 12, 2015

Ghostbuildingwest30sSigns for long-departed stores, retaining walls no longer in use, trolley tracks peeking out from asphalt streets: New York’s past leaves its imprint everywhere.

The sides of buildings give us glimpses of the city’s history too. The faded outlines of tenements and other buildings long gone often remain, at least until new construction comes along and obscures them again.

On a lonely block in the far West 30s is this classic city walkup, with a roof on a slant–a modest place to make a home in what was once a modest neighborhood.

Ghostoutlinemercerstreet

Hebrew Union College put up this building in 1979, at Mercer and West 4th Streets, almost covering the two chimneys from the building that previously occupied the spot. A tenement perhaps?

Ghostlybuilding43rdstreet

Considering the pace of construction in a luxury-building crazed New York, these remains of a 43rd Street walkup might already be sealed out of view.

Ghostoutline86thstreet

Same with this former home—maybe a brownstone?—on 86th Street, on a stately block near Fifth Avenue.

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Also in the far West 30s near the Javits Center is this outline of a humble tenement on the side of another humble tenement, the people who once lived and worked there and their stories lost to the ages.

More faded building outlines—dormer windows too!—can be seen here.

Harpo Marx on Yorkville’s corrupt Election Days

November 3, 2014

HarpomarxchildIf you think elections are corrupt these days, listen to what Adolph “Harpo” Marx remembers about Election Day in turn of the 20th century New York City.

It was “the one supreme holiday held every two years,” recalled Harpo in his autobiography Harpo Speaks . . . About New York. (Until 1906, mayors were elected to two-year terms.)

“The great holiday used to last a full thirty hours,” wrote Harpo. “On election eve, Tammany forces marched up and down the avenues by torchlight, with bugles blaring and drums booming. There was free beer for the men, and free firecrackers and punk for the kids, and nobody slept that night.”

Schools and business closed for the day. “Around noon a hansom cab, courtesy of Tammany Hall, would pull up in front of our house.

Electionbonfireglenncoleman

Frenchie (Harpo’s tailor father) and Grandpa, dressed in their best suits (which they otherwise wore only to weddings, bar mitzvahs, or funerals), would get in the cab and go clip-clop, in tip-top style, off to the polls.”

After the cab brought them back to the Marx family tenement on East 93rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, Harpo’s father and grandfather (who wasn’t even a U.S. citizen) would wait . . . until the hansom cab came back to take them to the polls a second time.

Marxbrotherskids“About a half-hour later, the hansom cab would reappear, and Frenchie and Grandpa would go off and vote again. If it was a tough year, with a Reform movement threatening the city, they’d be taken to vote a third time.”

Festivities began on election night.

“The streets were cleared of horses, buggies, and wagons. All crosstown traffic stopped. At seven o’clock fireworks began to go off, the signal that the polls were closed.

Whooping and hollering, a whole generation of kids came tumbling down out of the tenements and got their bonfires going. By a quarter after seven, the East Side was ablaze.

“Grandpa enjoyed the sight as much as I did. . . .He pulled his chair closer to the window and lit the butt of his Tammany stoogie.

“‘Ah, we are lucky to be in America,’ he said in German, taking a deep drag on the cigar he got for voting illegally and lifting his head to watch the shooting flames. ‘Ah yes! This is a true democracy.'”

[Middle illustration: “Election Night Bonfire,” Glenn O. Coleman, date unknown]