Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

October 23, 2017

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

The street where the rich parked their carriages

July 31, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself walking down the quiet, low-key East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, you may have noticed all the carriage houses—each one reflecting a different architectural style.

This conglomeration of carriage house gorgeousness was no accident, of course.

In the Gilded Age, the wealthiest New Yorkers used their new money riches to build mansions on the newly fashionable Upper East Side streets between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue.

And even though new elevated railways offered access to the rest of the East Side, these nouveau riche New Yorkers weren’t the type to take public transportation. They needed a place to keep their carriages and buggies, not to mention the horses who powered them and their equine caretakers.

So this stretch of East 73rd Street, once lined with modest row houses built in the 1860s, became a block of private carriage houses where the rich parked their vehicles.

“Stables were a necessity during the period when urban transportation was limited to horses and carriages, but only the very wealthy could afford to build and maintain a private carriage house,” notes this 1980 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

“The carriage houses were built on streets that were convenient to the East Side mansions, but were not so close that their noises and smells would mar the exclusive character of the residential streets.”

One of the first to go up in the early 1880s was 166 East 73rd Street (third photo), designed by premier architect Richard Morris Hunt for Henry Marquand, a millionaire banker who was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After Hunt designed Marquand’s showstopper of a mansion around the corner at Madison Avenue and 68th Street, he put this 3-story carriage house together.

The $25,000 stable housed three carriages and six horse stalls; the second floor was a hayloft, and the third floor consisted of apartments for coachmen, grooms, and their families, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

The neo-Flemish Renaissance carriage house (fourth photo today, and fifth photo at right in 1905) was built for banker William Bayless.

At number 170 (fourth photo, left side) is the carriage house for merchant Henry Sloane, and then other titans of business after Sloane sold his mansion at 9 East 72nd Street.

Number 178 is a Beaux-Arts beauty built for a man named John Connors, who sold it to Charles Hudson, head of a brokerage firm who resided at One East 76th Street.

(Interestingly, a lot of these carriage houses changed hands early on; perhaps an indication that fortunes frequently rose and fell in the Gilded Age.)

One building built for vehicles in 1906 was actually intended not for horses but cars. Foreseeing that the future would belong to the automobile, one businessman put up this 5-story “automobile garage” at 177-179 (above left, today, and right, soon after it was built). It still serves that function today.

All of the carriage houses on East 73rd Street have long since been converted to homes.

Take a peek inside the combined residence of 165 and 167 (second photo), completed in 1904 for the president of the Remington Typewriter Company. It was going for a cool $14.5 million back in 2007!

[Fifth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.647; Last photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.527]

Grotesque faces staring at you at Hunter College

July 24, 2017

The East 68th Street campus of Hunter College doesn’t look very collegiate, with its skywalks and square modernist buildings.

But there’s a wonderful exception to all those concrete boxes: Thomas Hunter Hall at 934 Lexington Avenue.

(Thomas Hunter was the first president of this former all-female teachers college founded in 1869, when it was known as Normal College.)

Designed in 1912 by Charles B.J. Snyder, the architect of so many of New York’s elementary and high schools at the turn of the century, this English Gothic castle of a college building features cathedral windows and rooftop turrets that give the impression of a Medieval fortress.

And if you look closely, you’ll see plenty of Gothic-style faces staring back at you.

The facade and twin spires flanking the entrance are packed with grotesques—some scary, some goofy with a sense of humor (like the guy in the glasses above, who has a pencil behind his ear).

Hunter College is part of the City University of New York, and it’s not the only CUNY building decorated with unique, cheeky grotesques.

Visit CUNY’s campus on 137th Street in Harlem—a Gothic architecture lover’s dream—and you’ll encounter the same kind of fun and mischievous characters, like this one, appropriately reading a book. (This is a college, after all!)

[Top photo: Hunter College]

A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]

A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy

June 5, 2017

The faded marble fountain dedicated to the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum disaster is not easy to find in Tompkins Square Park.

It’s beyond the brick comfort station that blocks off much of the park from the northernmost end, near the pool and across from the lovely brownstones on 10th Street.

This lonely statue marks the city’s second-biggest tragedy after 9/11 in terms of the number of people killed—and almost all of the dead came from the heavily German “Kleindeutschland” neighborhood of today’s East Village.

The disaster is remembered every June 15, the anniversary of the day St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street chartered the steamship General Slocum for a day excursion up the East River.

The ship, packed with women and children expecting to have a picnic, caught fire as it steamed past 97th Street at about 10 a.m.

As the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were forced to either stay on the ship and die by fire or jump into the river and risk drowning.

The huge death toll rocked the German neighborhood, and two years later, the fountain was dedicated—paid for by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

The inscription, “They were earth’s purest children young and fair” (from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem) has cracks and chips in it, and a powerful sadness.

Vintage matchbooks of defunct city restaurants

April 6, 2017

Now this is what I call an old New York eatery: Ye Olde Chop House began its run in 1800 on Cedar Street before moving to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway next door to Trinity Church.

The matchbook could be as old as the 1960s or 1970s, when New York addresses still used single-digit ZIP codes.

Apparently the food was quite good, the atmosphere old school. In 1946, when the chop house was still on Cedar Street, the New York Times called out the “mutton chops as thick as your fist” and “split chickens and lamb kidneys with bacon.”

The Times also noted the host, Harry Kramer. “Happily, Mr. Kramer is antiquarian and, except for introducing air-conditioning, has done little in the way of modernization. The original bar, worn almost white with shrubbing, still stands; the floors are the same old pine boards covered with sawdust and upstairs there are two fireplaces with carved mantles that were constructed when the house was built.”

Does anyone remember Asti? This West Village restaurant was famous for 75 years for its opera-singing waiters and theater-world customers.

Shuttered in 1999, Asti now only lives on in vintage ads, like this matchbook cover from 1975. Look at the old two-letter phone exchanges: AL for Algonquin, according to this guide, and CH for Chelsea or Chickering.

In June 1972, New York announced that the Upper East Side restaurant Camelot not only had “sumptuous buffet brunches on Saturdays and Sundays ($5.50 for all you can eat and all the Bloody Marys, champagne and rose you can drink), but now there’s a sumptuous buffet dinner every Monday night for $6.95.”

Looks like a Dallas BBQ is in this space now.

The sauciest society hostess of the Gilded Age

October 31, 2016

mamiefish One thing about those self-appointed doyennes of New York’s social scene in the late 19th century: they sure knew how to throw a party.

But no party host was as outrageous as Mamie Fish, the wife of old money scion Stuyvesant Fish, a banker whose colonial lineage went back centuries in New York.

Born Marion Anthon, Mamie brought an acid tongue and catty wit to society, which was serious business for women like the dour Caroline Astor, who reigned over the social season and who Mamie hoped to usurp.

“Mamie Fish was a hostess with flair and a capacity for the unexpected, qualities notably lacking in Mrs. Astor’s entertainments,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.

From her first mansion at 19 Gramercy Park South (right) and later inside her spectacular Stanford White–designed palazzo on Madison Avenue and 78th Street (below), Mamie hosted dinner parties for the city’s elite, complete with after-dinner vaudeville shows in the ballroom.

mamiefishgramercyparkShe “was plain, could barely read and write and had a laugh that was described as ‘horselike,’: writes the blog The Gilded Age Era.

“But Mamie was sharp, witty and irreverent which made her an excellent hostess with never a dull moment.

“She once sent out invitations to a dinner honoring a mysterious prince; when the guests arrived they found that the “prince” was a monkey dressed in white tie and tails,” according to one biographical site.

At another party, she reportedly rented an elephant and had dancers feed the animal peanuts as they entertained invitees.

mamiefish78thstreetx2010-28-59mcny“Make yourself perfectly at home,” she would tell guests, “and believe me, there is no one who wishes you there more heartily than I do.”

Perhaps her most fun and frivolous event, symbolizing the excess of the Gilded Age, was the birthday party she threw for her dog—who showed up at the table wearing a $15,000 diamond collar.

Her catty side came out often as well. Speaking about Theodore Roosevelt’s wife Edith, she remarked, “It is said [she] dresses on three hundred dollars a year, and she looks it.”

mamiefishcostumeparty

She also opposed suffrage for women, telling the New York Times, “a good husband is the best right of any woman.”

After Mrs. Astor died in 1908, Mamie inherited the mantle of society queen. But times and tastes had changed, and the social comings and goings of New York’s old money set was never less relevant.

Mamie Fish, the “fun-maker” of New York’s Gilded Age, died in 1915.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAmazingly, her homes still survive; former mayor Michael Bloomberg owns the East 78th Street mansion now.

For more on the fun and frivolity of late 19th century society, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: The Esoteric Curiosa; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: MCNY X2010.28.59; fourth photo: New York Social Diary; fifth photo: The Gilded Age Era]

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.

columbuscirclepostcard1

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?

Yorkdelipepsisign

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]