Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace

November 23, 2020

In 1905, Fifth Avenue gained a new mansion. Businessman and baseball team owner Morton F. Plant, the son of a railroad, steamship, and hotel baron, commissioned a marble and limestone showstopper at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.

When Plant moved in to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion facing 52nd Street (above and below left) with his first wife, Nellie, he should have felt satisfied with his decision to build it here.

After all, his neighbors were among the wealthiest New Yorkers, including several Vanderbilts, who occupied their own mansions across the street. (Plant bought the land from William K. Vanderbilt; previously it was the site of an orphan asylum, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article by Jack Forster.)

Within a few years, though, Plant apparently realized he’d made a mistake.

An increasing number of businesses were creeping up to his stretch of Fifth Avenue (like the St. Regis Hotel and Gotham Hotels at 55th Street), ruining the exclusive, residential vibe.

One of those new Fifth Avenue businesses was the American outpost for Cartier, the French jewelers. In 1909, Pierre Cartier launched his first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, near 56th Street, wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2001.

Business was good for Cartier, which organized workshops in the city to meet the demand for their jewelry, states Forster. (Selling the Hope diamond in 1910 also helped from a PR standpoint, raising the jeweler’s Manhattan profile.)

But back to Plant (at right) and his mansion, which was increasingly out of character on a more commercialized Fifth Avenue. In 1914 he’d remarried a much younger woman, Maisie (above center). The two found themselves left behind as neighbors moved away and businesses replaced them. 

“By 1917, life on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (at left, in 1900) had long since become untenable for Plant,” wrote Forster. “The ongoing encroachment of businesses, combined with the removal of virtually all the families who’d once colonized the Avenue below Central Park to new addresses north of 59th Street, had left the Plants isolated both physically and socially. Plant had already begun work, the year before, on a new and even bigger residence, on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue (below right).”  

Paying for two Fifth Avenue mansions, however, was quite costly, even for a scion of wealth. But then, Maisie caught a look at a Cartier pearl necklace. “It’s really two necklaces: a double strand of enormous, natural South Sea pearls; the smaller is a strand of 55 pearls and the larger, of 73,” wrote Forster. The necklace’s value: $1 million.

“When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity,” states a 2016 article by Business Insider. “Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls —and $100—for the Plants’ New York City home.” (The house was assessed at $925,000.)

In July 1917, an article appeared in the Real Estate Record and Guide announcing the sale of the Plant mansion on 52nd Street to Cartier for “$100 and other valuable considerations,” according to Forster. (At left, in 1975)

It’s an unusual deal, but definitely a win-win. Plant unloaded his first mansion by trading it in to Cartier for a necklace his wife desired, then moved uptown in a more luxurious house on the city’s new Millionaires’ Mile. (Cartier also absorbed the elegant residence next door at 4 East 52nd Street, the Holbrook House.)

Cartier has occupied Plant’s mansion on 52nd Street ever since. The exterior looks very much the same as it did in Plank’s day, though the interior has been altered somewhat.

I tried to get in to take a look around but the line to enter was too long; I’d forgotten it’s jewelry-buying season—when Cartier wraps the building up in a big red bow to celebrate the holidays.

But I did spot this modest plaque marking the mansion’s past as a short-lived residence built on a street destined to become a commercial corridor. 

Morton Plant died in 1918, shortly after moving into his 86th Street mansion. When Maisie passed away in 1957, the mansion was bulldozed and her pearls went to auction, where they were sold for $181,000.

Where are they today? No one knows. But a portrait of Maisie wearing them (above portrait) hangs in the Cartier store today, wrote Forster.

[Top photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.221; second photo: NYPL; third image: by Claudia Munro Kerr based on portrait by Alphonse Junger; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.4753; sixth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.366]

 

Who is the man on this York Avenue building?

November 9, 2020

1221 York Avenue is a handsome, brown-brick apartment house built in 1923. Shaded by trees, this six-story building between 65th and 66th Streets blends nicely into the streetscape.

But on a recent walk past it, I could see through the tree leaves two bas reliefs of male figures, each on the facade right above the building’s wide main entrance.

The facade also features another bas relief of a sailing ship positioned high along the second floor.

The ship, plus the colonial-era clothes worn by the men (or man, since it appears to be different profiles of the same person)—seems to hint that this person was an explorer.

Nothing I could tell about the building offers any clue. Henry Hudson would be an obvious guess, though neither image looks like ol’ Hendrick to me.

Whoever they are—or he is—was noteworthy enough to make it onto this building, giving it a little artistic flair on a quiet stretch of York Avenue neighboring hospitals and medical research institutions.

I’m terrible at recognizing faces, but that collar looks very much like something a 17th century explorer would wear. Sir Francis Drake?

When this apartment house was built, explorers were still held in high esteem. Anyone want to take a shot at it?

The ox head mosaic fountain hiding on First Avenue

September 28, 2020

The Queensboro Bridge is an architectural treasure, with some of its loveliest features off to the side or under the bridge approach, at least on the Manhattan side.

Two examples: the original lamppost dating back to the bridge’s opening in 1909, and the blue and white tiles on a First Avenue ramp leading to the bridge.

But there’s another little-known gem built alongside the bridge, accessible through a gate on 59th Street or from the exit of the TJ Maxx store on First Avenue.

It’s a small, park-like plaza decked out with benches, flowers, and trees—and a granite water fountain with an ox head spout and a kaleidoscopic glass mosaic of a dreamy woman rising from a pile of produce.

With a description like that, you just know this plaza and the fountain inside it must have a pretty interesting backstory.

First came the mosaic fountain, in 1919. It was conceived and funded by a woman named Evangeline Blashfield.

A feminist, writer, and intellectual, Blashfield (below left) decided to install a fountain on what was then one of the city’s largest open-air farmers markets.

She wanted the vendors (and their horses), who came over the bridge from the farmlands of Queens with their wares, to have fresh water.

In the 1910s, Blashfield “noticed that the market under the ramp at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge had only one unsightly water faucet for all of its vendors,” wrote John Tauranac in his book, Manhattan’s Little Secrets.

Blashfield, who would have been described as “strong-minded” by men and women of her era, was also a supporter of public art.

“Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country,” states the Municipal Arts Society of New York (MAS).

Blashfield’s husband happened to be an artist (and a founding member of the MAS). She served as his model for the fountain, lending her image to the allegorical figure Abundance.

“The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace,” explains the MAS.

The ox head and granite basin (a drinking bowl also or horses, something the city sorely needed in the still-equine-powered early 20th century) was designed by another MAS member.

Unfortunately, Evangeline didn’t live to see its completion.

She died in 1918 at age 59, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, six months before the fountain was given to the city and dedicated in her honor.

The fountain may have been a welcome addition to the farmers market. But once public art is installed, of course, it isn’t always maintained properly.

By the 1930s, the farmers market under the bridge had been cleared away in the name of progress. (Open-air markets created sanitation issues.) Until the 1970s, the space served as a warehouse for road signs and garbage trucks.

After decades of debate about what to do with the space (and the fountain that badly needed repair), the retail complex known as Bridgemarket finally opened in 1999.

“Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business,” states the MAS.

In June 2003, the restored mosaic returned to what was now known as Bridgemarket public plaza, installed once again on a granite base with its ox head fountain. (When I visited, the fountain wasn’t working, sadly.)

“Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century,” wrote MAS.

And Evangeline Blashfield, looking like a goddess rising out of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, towers over this former farmers market once again.

[Third image: Find a Grave]

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.