Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

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]

The most beautiful police station in Manhattan

February 15, 2021

The old NYPD headquarters on Centre Street is pretty spectacular. And I’m a fan of the understated elegance of the Fifth Precinct on Elizabeth Street.

But when it comes to regular precinct houses, I have to go with the 19th precinct station at 153 East 67th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues) as the loveliest in New York City.

Completed in 1887, it’s a blended confection of different late 19th century styles. The AIA Guide describes it as a “Victorian palazzo: brownstone and red brick borrowing heavily from the Florentine Renaissance. The rusticated base supports a mannered Victorian body.”

It’s not the only piece of Gilded Age eye candy on the block. On its left is the former Mt. Sinai Dispensary; on the right is a firehouse designed by preeminent architect Napoleon Le Brun in 1886. On the other side of the firehouse is the Park East Synagogue, dating back to 1890. “A wild, vigorous extravaganza,” the AIA Guide calls it.

The police station has one extra wonderful touch: the green lanterns on either side of the entrance, a nod all city police stations have to acknowledge the early police force in New Amsterdam that kept watch on the streets with a green lantern on a pole guiding the way.

Brick and mortar phantoms of another Manhattan

February 15, 2021

Every year this site does a roundup of ghost buildings—the faded outlines of chimneys, flat or peaked roofs, windows, and staircases that were left behind after a demolition and look like apparitions of New York’s low-rise, walkup past.

They’re spooky reminders of a different city and often easy to see, like this one in Upper First Avenue, probably a four-story tenement, painted in orange. And could that be a second ghost building behind it, a little taller faded in white?

This one is another double ghost building on 44th Street toward Midtown. In red is a peaked roof building, and then one in white a story or two taller.

Here’s an unusual phantom building, looks like two chimneys and a rooftop stairwell exit. It’s on Madison Avenue at about 80th Street, soon to be shrouded forever behind a luxury apartment residence.

Some ghost buildings look like they were violently ripped from their neighbor, like this one on East 47th Street. Are we left behind with an impression of the structural elements that held the building up—or were they added after the building was demolished to help stabilize the one left behind?

Here you can see the stairways, where New Yorkers of days past walked up and down countless times.

Short and square, this one on the Upper East Side doesn’t look like much. But it was home to someone, or some business, and at one time and likely outshined its neighbors back when it was the new kid on the block a century or so ago.

The colonial city’s most romantic ‘kissing bridge’

February 1, 2021

Manhattan in the 1700s was mostly bucolic countryside, thick with woods and swamps and crossed by brooks outside the small downtown city center.

To get across these brooks, residents of the island’s villages and far-apart estates built small wooden bridges. Perhaps because some of these bridges were in secluded spots that inspired romance, at least three became known into the 19th century as “kissing bridges.”

On these bridges, couples could enjoy a little PDA…and they were encouraged by custom (or bound by tradition) to indulge in a little lip action.

“In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from the city, which you always pass over as you return, called the ‘Kissing-Bridge,’ where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection,” wrote Rev. Andrew Burnaby of the UK, who visited New York in the summer of 1760.

One of these kissing bridges spanned Old Wreck Brook (you have to love these colonial-era names, right?) at today’s Park Row and now-defunct Roosevelt Street. Details about this kissing bridge have been hard to uncover, but it did inspire this 1920 poem.

Another kissing bridge occupied East 77th Street and Third Avenue, about four miles from the city on the edge of Jones Wood. It crossed the Sawkill River near Boston Post Road, according to the New York Times in 2006.

But the kissing bridge that inspired old New York memoirists (and appears to be the one Burnaby wrote about) is the bridge that spanned the Sawkill River (or Turtle Creek, according to one historian) at today’s Second Avenue and 50th or 52nd Street. This was on the farm owned by the DeVoor family, stated Charles Hemstreet in When Old New York Was Young.

“And at the crossing of the waterway and the roadway…there was a bridge over which the road led and under which the stream flowed,” wrote Hemstreet. “This was called the ‘Kissing Bridge’, and it was not the first bridge of the kind on the island, nor was it the last. Twice more on other places a road crossed a stream; and there, too, was a Kissing Bridge.”

The heyday of this kissing bridge was in the 1760s Hemstreet explained, and the name “was gotten from an old Danish custom, giving to any gentleman crossing such a bridge, not only the privilege, but the right of kissing the lady who chanced to be by his side.”

It’s unclear when this and the other two kissing bridges met their end. But the one in today’s Turtle Bay survived the longest. Valentine’s Manual published an illustration of the kissing bridge in 1860 titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge on the Old Boston Road, 50th & Second Ave.”

If only one of these bridges made it to the 21st century—what an appropriate place for New York couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

[Top image: The American Magazine, 1882; second and fourth images: NYPL; third and fifth images: Ballads of Old New York]

Art Deco poetry on a 1929 East Side high-rise

January 25, 2021

You don’t see a lot of green glazed terra cotta on New York City high-rise facades. But then 240 East 79th Street isn’t just another residential building on the Upper East Side.

This “rather plain brick building” completed in 1929 features a showstopping Art Deco entrance, “completely faced in colored glazed terra-cotta squares, with glazed terra cotta surrounds for the windows and the main entrance,” noted Anthony Robins in his book New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.

The building’s awning carries the address in a recognizable Art Deco typeface, as does the “No. 240 East 79 St” inscribed above the entrance.

Isn’t that eight-sided emblem amid all the green terra cotta unusual? Robins has this to say about it: “Above the inscription sits an octagonal piece of stone, set within a terra cotta frame and capped by a flowering form that curves out from the facade to hover protectively over it.”

“Frederick Godwin, the architect, was a great-grandson of American poet William Cullen Bryant—and his ornamental treatment here is quite poetic.”

An 1887 example of apartment living in Yorkville

January 18, 2021

The Upper East Side’s Yorkville neighborhood is dense with brownstones, tenements, and high-rise residences.

But hiding in the middle of all that stone and glass is one of New York City’s first-ever apartment buildings—an 1887 red-brick dowager with a combined name that harkens back to the German immigrants who began populating Yorkville in the late 19th century.

This early residence containing individual apartments is actually two buildings at Second Avenue and 89th Street, according to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. (The official address: 1716 and 1720 Second Ave.) The name of the two: the Kaiser and the Rhine.

“The Romanesque Revival buildings were named to evoke German nobility, and appeal to Yorkville’s middle class German residents,” stated the Friends in a 2020 newsletter.

The name also served as an homage to the Rhinelanders, the old New York family who developed the apartments. The Rhinelander family bought land in Yorkville in the early 19th century, and generations later cashed in when the enclave lost its rural feel and filled with people during the Gilded Age.

1929 map of the block between Second and First Avenues and 89th and 90th Streets, with the Kaiser and the Rhine on the lower left.

Their calculated attempt to appeal to German immigrants was crucial to making the apartments a success. Prior to the early 20th century, apartment living was a hard sell. Any New Yorker who could resided in their own single-family house, and only the poor or working class dwelled in separate units under one roof.

But by branding them “French” or “Parisian” flats and hiring prominent architects to design spacious, stately units, apartment buildings slowly began to catch on.

The first, The Stuyvesant Apartments, was designed in 1870 by Richard Morris Hunt on 18th Street near Gramercy Park. By the 1880s, a French Gothic apartment building had gone up on East 17th Street. The Dakota on the West Side, The Osborne on 57th Street, and the spectacular Navarro Flats on 59th Street were also filling up with tenants.

The Kaiser and the Rhine boasted refined architectural touches like large arched windows and balconies (plus a shared courtyard behind the building), but compared to the bells and whistles of the Navarro Flats, these apartments are relatively low-key.

It was the Rhinelander family’s second French Flats building in Yorkville; the first was the Queen Anne-style Manhattan, which still exists on Second Avenue and 86th Street.

With 134 years on this corner (and one disastrous fire in 1904, where firemen were credited with saving 40 women and children from a “flat house fire”), the combined Kaiser and Rhine is still a rental and blends into the neighborhood.

Empty storefronts on the first floor provide something of a ghostly feel, and it’s easy to walk past these apartments without noticing some of the 19th century architectural touches. But behind its exterior just might be the kind of large, light, airy homes New Yorkers always dream of inhabiting.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]