Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

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

June 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

The mansion circa 1900

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

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

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

Wurts Bros. photo showing many neighbors now

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

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

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

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

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

[First image: Digital Culture; second image: MCNY 93.1.1.16686; third image: MCNY X2010.7.2.25117; fourth image: NYPL]

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

June 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A metalwork dreamscape at a 1929 Gracie Square co-op

June 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MCNY X2010.7.2.8894]

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

May 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Little Hungary’ was once on East 79th Street

May 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 6 Civil War-era survivors of East 78th Street

May 2, 2021

There’s beauty in symmetry, so on a walk uptown I had to stop and admire the striking row of six Civil War–era brick houses at 208-218 East 78th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.

These remnants—the survivors of an original row of 15 houses—are more than eye-catching; they’re rather unusual for their era. The elliptical windows and doorways set them apart from their rowhouse neighbors. And at a little over 13 feet across, each is more slender than most brick and brownstone houses.

There has to be a story behind them, and it starts with the opening of the Third Avenue railroad in 1852. At the time, the area was part of the Village of Yorkville. New York existed mostly below 23rd Street; few streets above 42nd Street were even graded.

But thanks to the new railroad and regular horsecar service running up and down the East Side, people living in the upper reaches of Manhattan were within commuting distance to the city center. That made land on the Upper East Side very appealing to developers.

In 1861, a speculative developer named Howard A. Martin purchased 200 feet of property deemed “common grounds” and owned by the city on the south side of the block. He also paid for the right (in the form of a fine) to have East 78th Street officially opened, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Martin was the one who subdivided the land into 15 separate 13-foot lots (probably because the smaller the lot, the more houses could be squeezed in). He in turn sold the lots to another speculator, William H. Brower, in 1862.

“Because each of the 15 lots was the same width and the same builders were responsible for the construction of all, the 15 houses in the row were probably identical in appearance even though Brower sold all of the properties to several different owners before construction was completed in 1865,” the LPC report states.

Building these modest beauties in the fashionable Italianate style took longer than usual because of the Civil War, which made materials (and perhaps men to do the work) harder to find.

The first owners of the 15 houses were a varied group of well-off but not rich New Yorkers: a dry goods businessman, a man in the varnish business, another man who worked in bags and satchels, and a widow. Some of these owners quickly resold their home. With the city expanding in the Gilded Age and the Upper East Side becoming a desirable area, they likely made a nice profit.

Over the next century and a half, owners came and went; nine of the houses were lost to the bulldozer. But amazingly, the remainders have barely been altered. Ironwork has been replaced, as have front doors. (Above, number 210 in 1940)

But the cornices remain, uniting the houses at the roofline. (Mostly; number 218’s cornice seems uneven.) And those oval doors and windows mark them as unique.

They aren’t the oldest rowhouses in the neighborhood; that honor has been given to these houses down the street at 157-165 East 78th, which were completed in 1861. Yet they might be the most charming.

[Third image: NYC Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side

April 19, 2021

It’s been decades since Czech could routinely be heard on the streets. Restaurants like Praha and Vasata, heavy on the goose, duck, pork, and dumplings, are long defunct.

The Little Slovakia bar has vanished, and markets, bakeries, relief organizations, and travel agencies catering to Czech and Slovak immigrants closed their doors long ago.

Yet traces do exist of the former Czech neighborhood centered on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Created after waves of immigration in the late 19th century and then again in the 1940s, Little Czechoslovak once had a population of 40,000—with many finding work in local breweries (alongside their German neighbors in Yorkville) and cigar factories in the east 70s.

One of the oldest remnants stands on East 71st Street near First Avenue. This beige brick Renaissance-style structure opened in 1896, and its name is still carved into the facade: Cech Gymnastic Association. (Interesting side note: The architect is the same man who designed the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place.)

The Gymnastic Association, or Sokol Hall, was an elegant community center. “Old photographs show a space full of gymnastic equipment, ringed by a great oak gallery and painted like a European concert hall—marbleized columns and elaborate stencil and decorative work on the walls,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1989.

“The hall was a centerpiece for the Czech community in New York, offering dinners, theatrical events, concerts, bazaars and a comfortable social club.” Sokol Hall still operates as a gym, though the restaurant (see the sign above in a photo from 1940) seem to have vanished.

All of New York’s former ethnic neighborhoods had their own funeral parlors, and Little Czech is no exception. John Krtil got its start in 1885, and it’s the only one that remains, on First Avenue at East 70th Street.

Immigrant enclaves always built churches. St. John Nepomucene Church is one that survives; it’s a stunningly beautiful Catholic church at First Avenue and East 66th Street. The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants in the East Village before relocating here in 1925, according to Slavs of New York.

Inside St. John’s recently, I met a parishioner who’d been going to this church since he was a child and recalled the huge congregation and holiday parties in the basement.

I’d passed the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church many times over the years and was eager to include it here. Completed in 1888, this Gothic Revival church on East 74th Street off First Avenue was one of the earliest houses of worship to serve the Bohemian community.

What a surprise to find it impossible to view behind heavy scaffolding! The church building was sold to the Church of the Epiphany, which is doing a heavy renovation. Jan Hus Church will be moving to 90th Street and First Avenue. (The photo above was shot before the building went into hiding; it’s from the Historic Districts Council.)

“The [Jan Hus] Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion,” wrote Majda Kallab Whitaker, in a thoughtful farewell on the website for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

Luckily Bohemia National Hall is still with us. Completed in 1896, this stunning five-story building on East 73rd Street could be described as the heart of the neighborhood. “Since its beginning it has served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, Czech language and history classes as well as space for its large community to meet and hold various events,” the Hall’s website states.

With its lion heads on the facade and beautiful arched upper windows, the Hall serves a new purpose these days. Owned by the Czech Republic since 2001, it’s the headquarters of the Czech consulate, according to the New York Times. It’s also the site of a restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, that serves the kind of Czech and Slovak food once dished out in the small cafes and eateries in the neighborhood,

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Six to Celebrate/Historic Districts Council]

The oldest apartment house might be in Yorkville

April 12, 2021

Apartment living didn’t become the norm for wealthy and middle income Manhattanites until after the turn of the 20th century. (Poor city residents, of course, were cramming into small units under one roof in tenements since before the Civil War.)

But builders had begun enticing the upper and middle classes to try this new housing mode since 1869.

That’s when developer Rutherford Stuyvesant completed Stuyvesant Flats, the city’s first apartment building. His elegant five-story, 16-apartment building on East 18th Street was designed by Richard Hunt to appeal to folks who desired amenities like running water and bathrooms but couldn’t afford their own dwelling.

Stuyvesant Flats was bulldozed in 1958. But what might be the second-oldest big apartment house in Gotham is still standing on a busy corner 68 blocks up the East Side: a boxy beauty named the Manhattan (above and below).

The Manhattan, on Second Avenue and 86th Street, was built in 1879-1880. It’s one of the many “French flats” residences that were developed by the heirs of the Rhinelander family, which owned land in the late 18th and 19th centuries in what became the Yorkville section of Manhattan. (The family also developed these 1889 side-by-side Yorkville apartment buildings with the illustrious names the Kaiser and the Rhine.)

“French Flats evolved in the 1870s as demand grew for affordable, socially respectable working- and middle-class housing, and many of the earliest examples were built on the Upper East Side,” wrote the Historic Districts Council.

Almost 200 French flats were constructed in New York between 1869 and 1876, stated Gwendolyn Wright in her book, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America.

But when it comes to big apartment houses, the six-story, 33-unit Manhattan (third photo is from the side in 1940) might be the oldest survivor. The Dakota didn’t open until 1884, and this extant apartment building on East 17th Street is a small jewel from 1879.

What was the Manhattan like in 1880? Imposing, according to an homage to the building that hangs in the small lobby with a 1940s-era photo (fourth image, via the New York Times).

“It provided the most comfortable apartments east of Madison Avenue….Surrounding it, by contrast, were modest four- and five-story tenements that provided crowded housing for the largely immigrant and working-class population that was coming to Yorkville on the newly opened elevated trains on Second and Third Avenues.”

The building was designed around a courtyard. Each unit featured separate parlors, full kitchens, private bathrooms, servants’ rooms, and closets, notes the historical homage.

Architect Charles W. Clinton also designed the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and 66th Street, and it’s no accident that both buildings have a similar feel, with red brick and “the look of a pared-down castle on the upper portions.”

The first residents of the Manhattan included people from “Germany, Austria, Sweden, Ireland, England, and Canada, as well as a few from Connecticut or Pennsylvania,” the historical homage states. “They were policemen, teachers, clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, butchers, and one ‘brewmaster’ probably from one of the three large breweries on Second Avenue and the 90s.” Robert Wagner, US Senator from New York in the 1930s and 1940s and father of mayor Robert Wagner Jr., was also a resident.

The 20th century changed this stretch of the Upper East Side, but the Manhattan was stable. Fire escapes were installed, the stairs were likely replaced (above), and the facade redone a bit, “but the building remained undisturbed even through the first ‘luxury’ apartment boom of the 1960s,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times piece from 1988, when the building was “destined for demolition.”

That didn’t happen, and today the building is a striking and eye-catching rental in a very different Yorkville. This two-bedroom unit is up for grabs right now for $4990 per month.

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: Office for Metropolitan History via the New York Times]

What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street

April 5, 2021

When the Stern Brothers opened their new Dry Goods Store at 32-36 West 23rd Street in October 1878, New York’s growing consumer class was floored.

The three Stern brothers from Buffalo had outgrown their previous shop on West 23rd Street as well as their first New York City store, established in 1867, around the corner at 367 Sixth Avenue). So a new cathedral of commerce was needed, and it featured a stunning cast-iron facade and five stories of selling space.

Stern’s was now the city’s biggest department store—one that catered to both aspirational middle-class shoppers and the wealthy carriage trade. These elite shoppers entered a separate door on 22nd Street, so as not to rub shoulders with the riffraff.

But everyone who came to Stern’s left feeling like a million bucks.

”When the customer entered the store, he was welcomed personally by one of the Stern brothers, all of whom wore gray-striped trousers and cutaway tailcoats,” wrote the New York Times in 2001, quoting Larry Stone, who started at Stern’s in 1948 as a trainee and retired as chief executive in 1993. ”Pageboys escorted the customer to the department in which they wished to shop, and purchases were sent out in elegant horse-drawn carriages and delivered by liveried footmen.”

Stern’s was such a popular spot on 23rd Street—the northern border of what became known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District, where women were free to browse and buy without having to be escorted by their husbands or fathers—this dry goods emporium was enlarged in 1892.

The store was always a stop for tourists, too. “We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” wrote 12-year-old Naomi King, who kept a travel diary of her visit to the city with her parents from Indiana in 1899.

King wrote that she saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

But Stern’s reign as one of the most popular shops on Ladies Mile wouldn’t last—mainly because Ladies Mile didn’t last. Macy’s was the first store to relocate uptown, from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to Herald Square, in 1903.

Other big-name department stores followed. Stern’s made the jump to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1913, leaving their old building behind, according to a 1967 New York Times article marking the store’s centennial. For most of the 20th century, the palatial building on 23rd Street was used for light industry and commercial concerns.

That 42nd Street flagship store would ultimately close in 1970, wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. By 2001, Stern’s shut down all of its stores and went out of business.

Since 2000s, Home Depot has occupied the old Stern’s dry goods palace, and it seems as if every trace of Stern’s has long been striped from the building.

Except on the facade. If you look up above the Home Depot Sign, you can see the initials “SB,” a permanent reminder of this magnificent building’s original triumphant owners.

[Top three images: NYPL Digital Collection]

A short-lived road named for a female scientist

March 8, 2021

Since its creation in the 1880s, it was unceremoniously called Exterior Street—a slender road east of York Avenue between 53rd and 80th Street that ran closest to the East River. It existed primarily to provide access to the river for industry.

But in 1935, a prominent New Yorker came up with an idea. She wanted to rename a stretch of Exterior Street in honor of Marie Curie, the Polish-born, Nobel Prize–winning scientist who discovered the elements polonium and radium and died a year earlier from the effects of radiation from her own research.

Mayor LaGuardia had already held a ceremony honoring Curie in City Hall Park in November 1934. There, he and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, unveiled a plaque dedicated to Curie (fourth photo below) as well as a tree planted in her memory, according to a 1999 article in The Polish Review by Joseph W. Wieczerzak.

A rare female scientist at the time, Curie was a heroic figure worldwide but especially in America, thanks in part to her development of mobile X-rays brought to the front line in France during World War I that “did much to lessen the suffering of wounded soldiers,” wrote Wieczerzak.

Mary Mattingly Meloney, the influential editor of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine and a personal friend of Curie’s, appealed to Mayor LaGuardia to create a Marie Curie Avenue in Manhattan. The idea was quickly brought to a vote before the Board of Alderman, and it passed unanimously.

Why was Exterior Street chosen for the honor? First, “Exterior” was really just a generic name for an industrial, riverfront road. But also, several medical facilities—like Rockefeller Institute, later University—built their headquarters nearby on York Avenue, states Wieczerzak. It seemed fitting to have an avenue to the east named for a scientist, even though that street wasn’t always so attractive, as the photos suggest.

The official renaming took place on June 8, 1935, in a ceremony attended by 5,000 people, according to the New York Times. Despite the fanfare, Marie Curie Avenue would only officially last for five years.

The street was doomed in 1935, when plans were unveiled for the East River Drive. “Construction of the drive began in 1937,” wrote Wieczerzak, adding that parts of Marie Curie Avenue were widened, leveled, and elevated before being covered in 1939 or 1940 by the “rubble from bomb-destroyed buildings of British cities carried as ballast in ships docking in New York Harbor to load wartime cargo.”

The East River Drive opened in 1940…and it was eventually renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I don’t think a trace of Marie Curie Avenue—the first major street named after a woman in New York City—remains.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Nobelprize.org; third photo: MCNY X2010.11.2542; fifth photo: NYT July 10, 1935; sixth photo: NYPL]