Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

A vision of a colonial-era country mansion inside an East Side apartment lobby

November 28, 2022

Imagine the Upper East Side along the East River from the 1700s until roughly the Civil War.

In a time of booming population and rapid development, this stretch of Gotham remained sparsely populated, dotted with grand old estate houses surrounded by woods, streams, and mostly unspoiled countryside.

The Astors, Rikers, and Gracies are among the Old New York families who built unpretentious, comfortable wood-frame estate houses here, with characteristic wide porches to better enjoy the river breezes and beautiful views.

Almost all of these estates homes have disappeared, the pretty houses and spacious grounds subsumed by the march of urbanization through the end of the 19th century.

But one 1960s apartment building has found a way to memorialize the country life that existed on its footprint a century earlier.

The building is the Pavilion (below), a white-brick, luxury rental with a fountain in front of its circular driveway. It’s exactly the kind of postwar apartment house you wouldn’t expect to have a floor-to-ceiling lobby mural marking a long-gone era in Manhattan history.

Yet there it is behind the front desk: the image of an 18th or 19th century estate house overlooking a gentle East River, a sailboat on the water, pavilion on the grounds, and trees swaying in the breeze.

The artist behind the mural isn’t named, and a simple plaque states “nearby country mansion and pavilion, circa 1850.”

It’s a wonderful old-school vision inside a modern apartment house. But whose mansion was it?

The Pavilion is at 500 East 77th Street, between York Avenue and Cherokee Place. The nearest estate house in pre-Civil War Manhattan was the Riker Mansion, once “at the foot of 75th Street East River,” per the caption on the above illustration, from 1866.

The mural, then, likely honors the Riker mansion. But the porches are dissimilar, and the Riker mansion appears to have a third floor of dormer windows in the 1866 illustration.

Perhaps the artist took liberties with the image of the mansion, combining features from other illustrations—and from Gracie Mansion on 88th Street and East End Avenue, the only one of these country houses to still exist (above)—to create a composite representation of a type of house and way of life that is lost to the ages.

[Top image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

Tracing the owner of a former stable and blacksmith shop in Yorkville

October 31, 2022

Along the side streets of Manhattan, it’s not hard to notice the remains of former horse stables. That’s especially true on specific “stable rows”—designated blocks in the 19th century where wealthy homeowners and livery companies kept their horses and carriages in sometimes fanciful buildings.

East 75th Street between First and York Avenues appears to be one of those former stable rows. Both sides of the street feature a handful of storefronts with wide entrances that look suspiciously like stable doors.

One that caught my eye was 428-430 East 75th Street. The two-story brick building with bars on the top windows and an unusual drop-down fire escape isn’t in pristine shape. It doesn’t have the fairytale-like design of the many restored carriage houses that were converted into high-end housing after the horse era came to a close.

Instead, this former home for horses has something more special: a decorative frieze at the top with a name and date. The panel reads Henry Bock, 1895. Who was Henry Bock, and how long did he operate his stable here in rapidly urbanizing Yorkville? (Or Lenox Hill; the southern boundary of Yorkville is defined as either 72nd Street or 79th Street, depending on the source.)

A New York Times article from October 1895 lays out the stable’s beginnings: Philippine Bock, of 406 East 76th Street (one block north), paid $11,000 for the land to build a stable, dwelling house, and blacksmith shop.

Philippine Bock was the wife of Germany-born Henry Bock, identified in the 1900 census as the 33-year-old head of the family who immigrated to the US in 1883. It seems unusual that a wife would be the one to purchase the land, but perhaps Philippine came from a family that lent or gave her the money for the new building.

According to the census record, the Bocks resided at 428-430 East 75th Street with their six young children, two boarders, and one female servant. Space was tight, indeed.

But in the Yorkville of the era—filling up with large immigrant families from Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other European nations, as well as cookie-cutter tenements to house them all—large families crammed into small rooms was probably the norm.

The Bocks may have had things better than their neighbors, many of whom were likely to be unskilled laborers. Henry Bock wasn’t just a stable owner but a shoer, according to the New York City Directory of 1899/1900. With thousands of horses powering New York City, shoes were a necessity. A tradesman who knew how to shoe horses would have had steady income.

Henry Bock left his mark on the block, but the family only lived and worked there for a decade. In 1906, the New York Times recorded the sale for $17,000 of 428-430 East 75th Street by Philippine Bock to Alois Dill, also a blacksmith who made horse shoes. By the time of the 1910 census, Dill was listed as the head of a family that included his wife and two young sons.

The Bocks left New York City and resettled in Seattle. But the third photo, above, brings some family members back: It’s a photo of the shop in 1939, with an inscription by one of the Bock children explaining that he was born there in 1899. The child, now an adult, is posing with another sibling in front of their father’s stable, according to the inscription.

It’s hard to imagine that Dill ran his stable and shoe shop much longer. By the 1910s, the automobile was making its mark on New York City streets. Though horses were still part of the streetscape for a few more decades, their numbers dwindled greatly.

The building at number 428-430 was renovated a few times over the next several decades; it’s unclear when it was converted into a storefront with what appears to be upstairs apartments. The fourth and fifth photos in this post were taken in the late 1930s, before any conversion but clearly after the stable closed up shop.

Today Bock’s former stable has a very appropriate tenant occupying the ground floor storefront: a veterinary clinic.

[Third image: eBay; fourth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The short life of the multi-family Tiffany mansion on Madison Avenue

September 26, 2022

In 1882, Charles Lewis Tiffany decided to build an enormous new residence for himself and his family.

The early years of the mansion, almost alone in the wilds of the Upper East Side

This wouldn’t be unusual for a rich, prominent merchant in Gilded Age New York City. Tiffany was that Tiffany, the man who launched a stationary and fine goods shop in 1837 that soon grew to become the internationally famous jewelry store.

What might have seemed odd was the location Tiffany chose for his family castle. Rather than gravitating toward Fifth Avenue just below Central Park, where other elite new money New Yorkers were building elegant homes, Tiffany planned his mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street—a mostly empty stretch of Manhattan that had yet to fulfill its destiny as a wealthy residential enclave.

The Tiffany mansion between 1900-1910, with more neighbors on Madison Avenue

Perhaps he had an affinity for Madison Avenue; Tiffany lived at 255 Madison near 38th Street at the time. Or it may have been an opportunity to “procure a large footprint of land on a wide cross street, ensuring not only extra light but also ample southern exposure,” wrote Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen in Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall.

Tiffany hired McKim, Mead & White to design what would be one of the largest dwelling houses in New York, even by Gilded Age standards. Working closely with Stanford White in particular was Charles Tiffany’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Louis had studied painting before becoming an innovative and acclaimed decorative artist-craftsman and starting Tiffany Studios, “renowned for pottery, jewelry, metalwork and, especially, stained glass,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times piece.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, far left; Charles Tiffany is in the center holding Louis’ kids in 1888

The mansion, completed in 1885, was a 57-room showstopper that dwarfed its few neighbors. There was another unusual aspect to it: the gigantic house was actually three separate residences for separate Tiffany family members.

“The first, on the first and second floors, was frequently said to be for Charles, but he never occupied it,” wrote Gray. “The second apartment, taking up the third floor, was for Louis’s unmarried sister, Louise; the third, on the fourth and fifth floors, was for Louis himself.”

Louis’ first wife died before the mansion was finished, and the widower moved in with his four young children from their previous residence on 26th Street. (He would soon remarry and have four more kids.) Louise stayed with her parents at 255 Madison, according to Michael Henry Adams, writing in HuffPo.

To enter the house meant walking through a huge stone arch, which led to a central courtyard. “The structure was crowned by a great tile roof—substantial enough to have covered a suburban railroad station—and by a complex assemblage of turrets, balconies, chimney stacks, oriel windows and other elements in rough-faced bluestone and mottled yellow iron-spot brick,” noted Gray.

Of course, a mansion of this size and pedigree attracted the attention of architectural critics, who either loved it or hated it. Ladies’ Home Journal dubbed it “the most artistic house in New York City,” thanks in part to detail on the facade and ornament, wrote Frelinghuysen. A detractor called it “the most conspicuous dwelling house in the city,” she added.

Louis reserved the fifth floor for his studio, which was three to four stories high and situated amid the mansion’s gables, according to Gray. Accounts from visitors suggested that the studio was a showcase for Louis’ talent and creativity, as well as his collections of exotic objects and furnishings. It also served as a “sanctuary from the daily bustle,” wrote Frelinghuysen.

“A forest of ironwork, brasses and decorative glassware suspended from the ceiling made the atmosphere even more obscure and mysterious,” added Gray. “Near the center was a four-hearth fireplace, feeding into one sinuous chimney made of concrete. It rose from the floor like an Art Nouveau tree trunk.” Makes sense; Louis took his inspiration from nature.

An 1886 sketch of the house, dwarfing the two men on the sidewalk

In 1905, after the elder Tiffany passed away, Louis built a country estate near Oyster Bay, Long Island called Laurelton Hall. As the decades went on, he began spending more time there, moving some of the furnishings and objects from his Madison Avenue to his estate house.

He died in the Madison Avenue mansion in 1933 at the age of 84; the house met the wrecking ball three years later. The spectacular mansion, designed as a family compound of sorts that most of the family never actually lived in, was replaced by a stately apartment building.

[First and second images: NYPL; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY; fifth image: Google Arts and Culture; sixth image: NYPL]

Check out these upcoming talks and tours with Ephemeral New York!

September 17, 2022

I’m pleased to let everyone know about upcoming tours and a program I’ll be leading this fall. All are open to the public and offer a portal to some of the most dynamic eras in New York City history. It would be wonderful to meet Ephemeral readers at these events!

First, new dates for Ephemeral New York’s popular Riverside Drive walking tour, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive,” are on the calendar in September and early October. The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 108th Street.

In between, we’ll stroll the gentle curves of the avenue and delve into the history of this beautiful drive born in the Gilded Age, which became a second mansion row and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s millionaire colony. We’ll look at the mansions that remain, the families and characters who lived there, and the stories told by spectacular monuments.

Tours run from 1 pm to 3 pm and are in conjunction with the New York Adventure Club. Here’s the schedule so far:

Sunday, September 18
Sunday, September 25
Saturday, October 8

On November 9 at 6 pm, I’ll be presenting a Zoom program: “Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers,” in conjunction with West Side preservation organization Landmark West. Using newspapers, photos, and guidebooks of the era, the program will explore how the upper classes navigated the domestic side of life, why “the servant girl question” was such a vexing topic of the age, and how a staff of maids, coachmen, and other servants managed the households inside the sumptuous mansions and brownstones of the Upper West Side and other areas of Manhattan.

Tickets for this program are not yet available, but I’ll provide a sign-up link and more details when it’s live!

[Top image: New York Adventure Club; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY, 204627]

The colorful mystery mosaics on a Lenox Hill block

September 15, 2022

Sometimes the most ordinary buildings hold charming surprises. Take 239 East 73rd Street, for example.

It’s a well-kept but unremarkable tenement-style walkup, similar to so many that line the low-rise pockets of the Upper East Side’s Lenox Hill neighborhood.

But someone over the years with a playful sensibility decided to liven up the nondescript facade with a couple of colorful mosaics: one of an owl, the other of a rooster.

A yearning for country life? A whimsical representation of daytime and night? Perhaps the reason for the mosaics is lost to the ages. But they remain on the streetscape, delighting sharp-eyed passersby.

One of New York’s last 18th century farmhouses sits on an East River island

August 26, 2022

After the Revolutionary War, two financially strapped New York City brothers named James and Jacob Blackwell tried to find a buyer for the East River island they had inherited from their father.

A 1784 newspaper advertisement placed by James Blackwell described the island’s selling points.

The island, “was about four miles from the city,” the ad stated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1976. Among the features were “’two small Dwelling Houses, a Barn, Bake, and Fowl House, a Cyder Mill,’ a large orchard, stone quarries and running springs.”

Despite the amenities, the island didn’t sell—or perhaps the Blackwells fortunes changed, and they decided to hang onto this two-mile long private strip between Manhattan and Queens.

Whatever the reason, From 1796 and 1804, James Blackwell built a spacious farmhouse that still stands on their former island, now called Roosevelt Island.

The clapboard Blackwell House, with typical late 18th-century touches like a wide porch, separate kitchen wing, gabled roof, root cellar, and dormer windows, is the only building that survives from the two centuries or so when Roosevelt Island was privately owned, states the LPC report.

It’s also the sixth oldest still-extant farmhouse in New York City, a charming relic still in its original spot facing the East River. It dates from the same era as the Dyckman Farmhouse in Northern Manhattan as well as Gracie Mansion across the East River.

A farmhouse isn’t what you’d expect to find on a spit of land better known as a notorious 19th century repository for Gotham’s poor, sick, and criminal. But before New York City purchased the island from the Blackwells in 1828 and built a penitentiary—then an almshouse, workhouse, and hospitals for people afflicted with smallpox, mental illness, and a variety of incurable diseases—the island was farmland.

The Blackwell farmhouse, about 1933, before a wing off the house was demolished

The first European settlers in the 17th century were Dutch, who called it Varckens Eylandt, or Hog Island in English, after the pigs raised there. “It was purchased from two [Native American] chiefs by Governor Wouter van Twiller in 1637 and was already being farmed by 1639 under land grants from the Amsterdam Chamber of the West India Company,” explains the LPC report.

The Blackwells become owners when Mary Manning Blackwell inherited it from her stepfather, Captain John Manning. Captain Manning got it through a land grant from Richard Nicholls, the first British colonial governor of New York and one of the commanders who seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664.

The house on what was then called Welfare Island, 1950

After the city took over Blackwell’s Island, the farmhouse was used to house administrators of the many institutions that didn’t begin to close until the end of the 19th century, as the terrible conditions inside them became known to an outraged public.

During the 20th century, the house fell into disrepair, like so many other buildings on what was renamed Welfare Island. Restored and rehabbed (minus an original wing) in the early 1970s—with the island renamed for FDR—it now houses artifacts and documents related to Roosevelt Island history and is open to the public.

Imagine the views the house had to the Manhattan country estates along the East River (the house would line up to about East 65th Street today, across from the circa-1799 Mount Vernon Hotel, a popular summer resort) and the sailing ships of New York’s busy harbor!

[Fourth photo: LOC/Historic American Buildings Survey; fifth photo: MCNY, X2010.11.10363]

The Fifth Avenue mansion of a millionaire who built houses for the poor

August 15, 2022

In 1905, former steel magnate Henry Phipps donated $1 million to construct cleaner, more spacious apartments—”model tenements” as they were known at the time—for poor and working-class New Yorkers.

Henry Phipps’ Fifth Avenue home

At about the same time, he had embarked on another ambitious house-building project: that of his own new Fifth Avenue mansion. It would be across the street from the five-story townhouse he moved into at 6 East 87th Street after relocating to New York City from Pittsburgh a few years earlier, according to Christopher Gray in the New York Times.

The mansion appears to have been completed first. Described by Gray as “a low, broad Renaissance design of marble with a wide garden and driveway,” the magnificent house at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 87th Street sat just four blocks from the colossal mansion of his former partner at Union Iron Mills, Andrew Carnegie.

Like Carnegie’s mansion, Phipps’ house resisted the hideous architectural flourishes of some of the other Gilded Age palaces on Fifth Avenue, such as the ghastly mansion built by mining millionaire and senator William A. Clark ten blocks south at 77th Street.

The mansion’s second floor hallway

Facing away from Fifth, the Phipps house was surrounded by a gated low brick fence, behind which was a circular driveway. The mansion conveyed a sense of elegance but also privacy—perfect for Phipps, a low-key philanthropist who began funding research on tuberculosis after earning a reported $40-$50 million from the 1901 sale of Union Iron Mills, which became U.S. Steel.

Henry Phipps and his wife, Anna, 1910-1915

Not long after the mansion was done, the first of Phipps’ model tenements, 325-335 East 31st Street, was move-in ready. Roughly 800 residents occupying 150 new, airy apartments enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside. The new flats even had a hedged roof garden, where kids could play.

“Henry Phipps, the millionaire philanthropist whose name has been so prominently associated with the war against tuberculosis, built the tenement as a place of comfortable living and of education,” wrote the New York Times in 1911.

Phipps Houses, East 31st Street, east of Second Avenue

In 1907, another Phipps model tenement went up on West 63rd Street (below), in the impoverished, mostly African-American neighborhood of San Juan Hill. In 1911, a third Phipps building was completed a block away on West 64th Street, according to Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898-1919.

Other Phipps model tenements were planned, but nothing was built until 1931, when the company “put up Phipps Garden Apartments in Sunnyside, Queens, an intelligent and idealistic complex,” wrote Gray. “Rather than trying to solve the housing problem of the inner city—which was the goal in 1905—the Sunnyside apartments sought to draw its residents to an entirely new environment.”

Phipps Model Tenements, 235-247 West 63rd Street

After that, Phipps’ model tenement movement unfortunately fizzled out. As other idealistic builders of model tenements discovered, it seems that middle class folks ended up moving in. Inevitably the rent on a flat would become out of reach for the poor, who are forced back into dank, dark tenements, a Times article from 1912 explains. The nonprofit Phipps Houses still exists, providing affordable housing and other services to low-income New Yorkers.

Phipps house in 1927, destined for the wrecking ball

Phipps’ Fifth Avenue mansion didn’t last very long either. In 1930, the highly respected philanthropist died at 91. His obituary says of his mansion, “it gave way to the apartment house builder four years ago.”

[First image: X2010.7.1.966; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.4949; third image, MCNY: X2010.7.1.969; fourth image: Bain Collection/LOC; fifth image: MCNY, X2010.7.1.417; sixth image, MCNY X2010.7.1.8533; seventh image: MCNY, X2010.11.4947]

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; 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]