Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

There’s a Marx Brothers Playground in Yorkville

October 1, 2018

When the Marx Brothers lived at 179 East 93rd Street, the playground nearby that would eventually be named for them was just a car barn for the new electric trolleys owned by the Second Avenue Railway.

That was in the 1890s and early 1900s. Back then, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo lived with their parents, immigrants Minnie and Frenchie, plus assorted relatives in a cramped but lively apartment.

The future vaudeville and movie stars were coming of age in “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the south in Yorkville,” according to 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

In the 1930s, after the brothers had achieved stardom and left tenement life behind, buses replaced the electric trolleys on Second Avenue

The car barn was abandoned and soon torn down, explains NYC Parks. In 1947, the land it once occupied was turned into grassy playing fields and made over into what the Parks Department called “Playground 96.”

It’s unclear exactly when the playground was renamed in honor of the local boys who became comedy legends.

But now that we have Marx Brothers Playground in the once rough and tumble neighborhood that inspired their characters and gags, perhaps city officials could add a plaque to the still-standing tenement where the brothers were raised?

The mortar and pestles of a former city pharmacy

August 27, 2018

Today, 1209 Lexington Avenue is the home of a Warby Parker store, part of the trendy national eyewear chain.

But from 1899 to 2012, this was Lascoff Apothecary, a pharmacy on the corner at 82nd Street that was so old-school, they used to sell leeches.

Lascoff’s was a New York pharmacy at its finest, the kind of place with a pharmacist-owner running the show that every neighborhood had, before the era of Rite-Aid and Duane Reade (which have their benefits but are low on charm).

“The space was known and admired for its large, arched windows, cathedral ceilings, wrap-around mezzanine and hanging blade sign,” stated DNAInfo four years ago.

The sign has been replaced, the exterior painted over, and the apothecary jars, flasks of poison, and pharmaceutical scales that decorated the interior long removed.

But the facade still tips passersby off to the drugstore that used to be here.

Just look up at the mortar and pestles carved above the entrance.

At least we still have C.O. Bigelow on Sixth Avenue, with its vintage chandeliers and wood ladders—and a handful of other independent holdouts.

The four-faced street clock of East 79th Street

August 13, 2018

Few things are as charming in New York as an old-fashioned street clock, and this four-faced brass beauty with the beehive-like knobs on the top and bottom is a sight to behold.

It’s affixed to a four-story building on First Avenue and 79th Street, an unusual place for such a lovely street clock.

They’re typically found anchored to stately or elegant buildings—hotels, luxury stores, and insurance headquarters.

Clocks are emblems of stability and certainty, like the 1853 clock carried by Atlas at the entrance to Tiffany & Co on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. There’s also the 1909 cast-iron sidewalk clock on Fifth and 23rd Street, once at the front of the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel.

But the one on 79th Street is in a low-key neighborhood, and the little building it hangs off of looks like a former tenement. Who put it there?

A bank did, and it dates to at least the 1930s. This 1951 photo above reveals that the building was a branch of Manufacturers Trust Company, a bank that began in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

Manufacturers Trust Company still had the bank in 1982, per this ad from New York magazine that year. In the 2000s it was a short-lived restaurant spinoff of Agata & Valentina, the specialty food store across the street. At some point it was also a rug store.

Today, it’s a Vitamin Shoppe franchise. Amazingly, the clock has managed to remain a lovely jewel on this quiet corner that still tells the time.

This page of street clocks contains an image from 2011 of the clock that’s clearer than mine.

[Third photo: MCNY 1951, x2010.7.1.9746]

Peter Stuyvesant’s last descendant died in 1953

July 16, 2018

Streets, schools, apartment complexes, statues—you can’t escape the Stuyvesant name in New York City.

These and other memorials pay homage to Peter Stuyvesant (at right), the director-general of New Amsterdam from 1647 to 1664, as well as other Stuyvesants who made a mark in the city over three centuries.

But there’s one Stuyvesant family member who made headlines for a different achievement: He was the last one, the final direct descendant of peg-legged Peter, dying at age 83 in 1953.

His name was Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr. Born in 1870 in his family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street, he grew up in an “imposing” house on East 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.

Wealthy and a resident of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhood at the time, Augustus lived the same life as the children from other old-money families did in the Gilded Age.

“Educated privately by tutors at home, Mr. Stuyvesant never went to school or college,” stated a New York Times article announcing his death. “In his youth, he and his two sisters led the normal social life of their class, spending summers at Newport, Southampton, or Tuxedo.”

Not only did Augustus not go to school, he never pursued a profession. And neither he nor his sisters married. As adults, the three of them lived together in their East 57th Street mansion.

The three siblings weren’t housemates for long. In 1924, the oldest, Catherine, died; youngest sister Anne’s death followed a decade later.

Augustus spent the next two decades in seclusion. He and Anne had sold the 57th Street mansion in the 1920s and purchased a spectacular French chateau (above) on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.

The reclusive bachelor’s “only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home,” wrote the Times. “He had no family or social life.”

His one regular haunt, however, was St. Mark’s Church at Tenth Street and Second Avenue, where eight generations of Stuyvesants had been buried in a family crypt.

“Once or twice monthly, also, a uniformed chauffeur would drive the tall, white-haired, black-clothed gentleman in an old Rolls Royce to visit the Stuyvesant tomb beneath St.-Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie,” stated the Times.

“Frequently, in the last ten years, the [St. Mark’s Church] staff would see the quiet, elderly man in black wandering the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombs or sitting in the Stuyvesant family pew in the silent church.”

After Augustus died—he was overcome by heat on an August day while on a stroll—he joined those 80 or so relatives in the family vault.

At his funeral at St. Mark’s Church three days after his death were some cousins, his lawyer, and his “ruddy-faced” butler, who “dressed in black, sat alone, weeping into his handkerchief” along with six elderly house servants, according to a second Times article.

Augustus was the last Stuyvesant to go into the crypt, which runs under the east wall of the church, after which it was sealed forever.

[Top image: Peter Stuyvesant in 1660; second image: Peter Stuyvesant Vault at St. Mark’s Church, wikipedia; third image: New York Times 1953; fourth image: Peter Stuyvesant statue at Stuyvesant Square, Alamy; fifth image: St. Mark’s Churchyard, 1979, MCNY X2010.11.4182; six image: New York Time 1953]

The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street

July 9, 2018

The end of East 72nd Street is a lovely, almost secret spot. It’s a quiet cul-de-sac straight out of the Village or Brooklyn Heights with wide sidewalks, old school lampposts, and a pretty terrace overlooking the East River.

It’s also the site of four modest yet charming walk-up buildings known for decades as the “black and whites.”

With an illustrious name like that, you know these homes have an intriguing backstory.

Built in 1894 as eight separate tenements from 527 to 541 East 72nd Street between York Avenue and the East River, they were similar to other low-rise tenements in this once-gritty stretch of Lenox Hill.

At the time, this was a working-class neighborhood of waterfront industry and factories, plus rows of humble tenements for the people who toiled in them.

(The 1930 photo below shows East 72nd Street looking east from York Avenue; it’s unclear if they are the tenements from 527-541, but they give you an idea of what the street looked like.)

By the 1920s, living along the river on the East Side became very fashionable. The newly named and revamped Sutton Place had attracted wealthy residents, and Beekman Place and East End Avenue did as well.

This might have been the reason fashion doyenne Carmel Snow and her real-estate investor husband decided to buy these rundown tenements in 1938.

Snow was the rich and well-connected editor in chief of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Something of an Anna Wintour of her day, Snow’s social circle included artists and writers, as well as bankers and society people.

Later that year, Snow brought in a team of architects. They “designed an alteration that gutted and combined the eight tenements into four buildings with two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments of simple finish, many with wood-burning fireplaces,” stated a 1997 New York Times article.

Whether Snow had them painted in black with white trim or the tenements were originally black and white isn’t clear. But at some point the color scheme gave them their nickname.

“The Snows themselves left their apartment in the Ritz Tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue and moved to the easternmost building, facing the river. Five of the nine recorded tenants in 1939 were in the Social Register; this was a new building type, the Social Register tenement.”

Carmel Snow and her husband moved out in the 1950s; George Plimpton moved in, to Number 541, and he used the ground floor as the office for the Paris Review for the next four decades.

By that time, the black and whites had become co-ops. They also apparently survived the threat of being swallowed up by enormous office towers, according to this 1982 New York article.

Today, the black and whites feel like a wonderful New York secret, a surprise bit of beauty and history at the river’s edge. Walk east along 72nd Street; your spirits will lift when you stumble upon them.

An 1877 Park Avenue mansion funded by beer

June 25, 2018

The titans of industry in the Gilded Age built spectacular mansions for themselves on today’s Upper East Side.

George Ehret also built an Upper East Side mansion. But unlike men like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Frick who made their money in steel, railroads, or on Wall Street, Ehret’s showstopper of a home was funded by a decidedly old-world product: beer.

Ehret was the German-born founder of the Hell Gate Brewery, opened in 1866 in a massive brick clock-tower structure on a mostly rural stretch of East 93rd Street between Second and Third Avenues.

(Below, the view from Ehret’s mansion in 1882, with Hell Gate Brewery in the background close to the East River.)

Like thousands of other German immigrants, Ehret arrived in Gotham in the middle of the 19th century, part of the first wave of mass immigration from Europe.

While beer had been a popular beverage in the city since colonial days, this sudden population surge fueled a demand for beer that led to the opening of several huge breweries in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“The Germans who came during and after that period were mostly beer drinkers, and the demand for that mild beverage became so great that the speedy erection of additional breweries proved to be a manifest want,” Ehret wrote in his 1891 history of brewing.

Thanks to all the beer gardens and saloons popping up in the Gilded Age, Ehret made a fortune. In 1877 he bought land on newly landscaped upper Fourth Avenue between 93rd and 94th Streets, then commissioned an architect to construct a fabulous mansion for himself, his wife, and their many children.

Architecture critics may not have loved it, but the brownstone-style mansion built on a hill certainly stood out, especially since the Ehrets didn’t have many neighbors at the time. (Above, from the mansion roof in 1882)

Over the decades that changed, and by the time Ehret died in his home in 1927, Park Avenue was turning into an enclave of tall, stately apartment houses.

His family sold the mansion to a developer who built 1185 Park Avenue on the site (above). Ehret’s brewery ceased production two years later, a casualty of Prohibition.

[Top photo: NYPL, 1928; third and fourth photos: MCNY 2001.72.10; MCNY 2003.26.4]

The relics on tenements at a Lenox Hill corner

June 4, 2018

On the east side of First Avenue at 69th Street are two tidy tenements—and each one has a curious remnant of old New York on its facade.

The tenement on the north side has the cross streets carved into it at the corner. Look up to the second story, and you’ll see “1st Ave 69th St.”

These cross street carvings used to be very common in tenement neighborhoods, and many can still be found, if mostly faded and crumbled.

Perhaps they functioned as streets signs on poorer blocks that didn’t have actual signs in the early 20th century, when the tenements went up.

I’d heard that some of these signs were meant to tell elevated train riders where they were—but that’s not the case with these, since First Avenue never had an elevated train.

The cross street signs on the tenement across the corner is more unusual.

This one has two handmade “69st” signs etched in, as if finger-painted on the plaster.

More tenements with cross streets on them can be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn—especially in older neighborhoods like Williamsburg, downtown Brooklyn, the East Village, and the Lower East Side.

The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

May 28, 2018

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]

The spider in the web on a 57th street building

May 28, 2018

Owls, bats, elephants, rats, rams, horses, squirrels—there’s a Noah’s Ark of animals decorating New York’s prewar buildings and apartment houses.

But I’ve never seen anything quite as whimsical as the spider webs at 340 East 57th Street, between Second and First Avenues.

The windows and doors along the ground floor all have cast iron webs, and they’re a wonderful touch on a stretch of elegant and exclusive co-ops with kind of a staid and sedate feel.

Even better, one of webs on a utility door has a spider in it, although whoever designed it gave the predator just six legs, not eight.

But just like in real life, this spider is hiding and waiting, hanging out until prey gets stuck in his trap.

340 East 57th has another fun animal ornament higher up on the facade: sea dragons (or sea horses?). A pair of pheasants welcome tenants and guests on the lobby doors.

An East Side sign with an old New York address

May 14, 2018

Outside a pretty walkup building at 242 East 60th Street is a postwar-style sign for an apartment building called Ambassador Terrace, a white-brick highrise in the East 40s.

I’m sure the interiors and lobby at the Ambassador have undergone upgrades over the years. But you wouldn’t know it from the sign, with its wonderful two-letter prefix on the management office’s phone number.

LO for Longacre, a reminder that Times Square was Longacre Square until 1904.

What’s also great is the two-digit zip code: 18.

These short postal codes were instituted in the 1940s to help speed mail delivery. They were replaced by the 5-number zip codes we use today in the 1960s.

Here’s more examples of old phone exchanges found around the modern city. And postal codes too: this one was hiding on East 10th Street.