Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

East 70th Street’s pinkish neon coffee shop sign

October 14, 2019

In this photo, some of the letters look red, others are definitely pink.

No matter what colors the letters are, this gorgeous glowing sign for Neil’s Coffee Shop on 70th Street and Lexington Avenue is proof that New York bars and restaurants still feature the city’s iconic iridescent neon store signage.

Neil’s is an under-the-radar kind of place, opened in 1940. And happily, the inside decor and menu are as old-school New York diner as it gets.

The man behind a manhole cover on 78th Street

September 16, 2019

Just when you think you’ve seen every old-school manhole cover that still remains in New York, you discover another you’ve never noticed before—with a new name embossed on it and a different design.

This lid, made by M. Dattner, is a new one for me—spotted on East 78th Street between First and Second Avenues.

That’s less than five blocks from where Dattner had his hardware store at 1585 First Avenue, which for a time was also his home, according to Walter Grutchfield’s wonderful website.

Who was Dattner? According to Grutchfield, Moritz “Morris” Dattner immigrated from Austria in 1903. He went into business with a brother who had a hardware company at 1210-1212 First Avenue, then began his own concern.

He registered for the World War I and World War II drafts, and by the 1940s he had moved to Brooklyn. He died in 1963, and I like to think that this manhole cover is something of a memorial.

More manhole covers from across the city can be found here.

The 57th Street mansion built as a wedding gift

September 2, 2019

The happy couple were the children of two of New York’s wealthiest Gilded Age families.

Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard (right), the 21-year-old great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, married William Jay Shieffelin, 25 (below), in February 1891.

Louise, as she seems to have been known, came from a family that made its riches in the shipping industry and by investing in railroads.

William’s family operated a wholesale drug company founded in 1793, and he was also a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice.

The joining of two prominent families through marriage called for an extravagant wedding, and the couple enjoyed quite a celebration at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on February 5 of that year.

The next day, a “wedding breakfast” for 600 guests was held in the “grand picture gallery” of Louise’s grandfather W.K. Vanderbilt’s magnificent triple-wide, three-family mansion at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, wrote author Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions.

The breakfast netted the newlyweds incredible gifts; an article covering the wedding in the New York Times noted the “many articles of silver and jewels.”

But perhaps the most amazing gift was the one Louise’s mother gave the couple: A fully furnished house (above and at right).

That house is the building still standing at 35 West 57th Street. Images of it from the 1890s weren’t available, but these photos from 1940 show it off nicely: a brownstone beauty with Beaux Arts touches, like the two-story bow window, ornamental carvings, and the petite balcony on the fifth floor.

When the couple moved in, the East 50s off Fifth Avenue was a residential enclave crawling with rich Vanderbilt family members, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose spectacular mansion was just down the block at One West 57th Street.

Amazingly, the couple only lived in their extravagant wedding gift until 1898.

“William and Louise lived in the West 57th Street house throughout the 1890s, until the hustle and bustle of that area made the residence undesirable,” wrote Craven.

Louise’s mother purchased their next home as well, a Richard Morris Hunt–designed mansion on East 66th Street. At some point, the two left that house too and took up apartment living, which was now in vogue.

The Shepard-Shieffelins had eight kids and remained married for 57 years, until Louise’s death at age 78 in 1948.

And what about their wedding present on West 57th Street?

The 20th century wasn’t kind to it. At some point, the first two floors were turned into commercial spaces, and the decorative touches left to the elements. Now that the neighboring townhouses to the east are gone, the house clings to the building on its right, looking unloved and alone.

The fate of 35 West 57th Street remains to be seen. But what a joyous start it had 128 years ago!

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second image: Find a Grave; third and fourth images: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photos; eighth image: NYPL, 1928]

When modern buildings come to old-school blocks

September 2, 2019

Brownstones and tenements are New York’s iconic residences, and an unbroken line of either type of housing stretching from block to block is a classic feature of the city.

But sometimes those perfect lines of windows, stoops, fire escapes, and cornices are broken—interrupted by a modern upgrade one could see as fresh and dynamic or as an ugly interloper disturbing the 19th and early 20th century architecture.

Case in point: 277 Mott Street near Prince Street, flanked by tenements in what used to be Little Italy and now is Nolita.

The building was designed by Toshiko Mori, who “conceived a twisting street facade composed of torqued glass and CNC milled stone,” according to City  Realty.

Another reinterpretation of a brownstone or townhouse is this one on an Upper East Side street. I’m not sure what’s going on here or what the inspiration was, but the slightly cylinder-like facade could be a fun feature.

Which “East River Park” is in this 1902 painting?

August 5, 2019

When William Glackens painted “East River Park” in 1902—contrasting the serenity of a city green space with the noisy industrial riverfront—the park that currently stretches along the riverfront called East River Park had yet to be created.

So what East River park did he depict here? Perhaps Corlears Hook Park, at the bend where Manhattan tucks under itself between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges?

This was certainly a smoggy, ship-choked channel at the turn of the last century. The city purchased land here in the 1880s for the creation of a park, completed in 1905.

Neighboring East River Park didn’t exist until the 1930s, and according to the Brooklyn Museum, which owns the painting, a label on it indicates that the Brooklyn waterfront is depicted.

Or maybe his “East River Park” (closeup of the women and girl above) was farther upriver in Yorkville at today’s Carl Schurz Park—with a view of the factories and ship traffic of Hell Gate and Queens?

“The southern portion of the park was set aside by the City as East River Park in 1876,” according to NYC Parks. “The former Gracie estate was added in 1891 and a new landscape design by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons was completed in 1902.”

Model tenements named for a forgotten bishop

August 5, 2019

Few modern-day New Yorkers recognize the name Henry Codman Potter. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Potter was a towering public figure.

Born in 1834, Potter (right) became the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 1883. He served as a rector at Grace Church, the city’s elite house of worship, and laid the cornerstone at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1892.

In such a prominent position, his name was regularly in newspapers. Yet Potter made headlines not for proselytizing but for tackling the city’s social ills and assisting the “lowest and the least cared for classes.”

“Potter not only believed that the wealthy were responsible for using their resources to meet the needs of the poor; he also believed that they should do so in a way that decreased the dependence of the poor on help from others,” wrote Michael Bourgeois in his book about Potter, All Things Human.

Potter visited midnight missions and ministered to inmates on Blackwell’s Island.

He took on temperance by recognizing that the saloon was the “poor-man’s place of resort and recreation.” Rather than shutting down bars, he advocated reforming them so they served no alcohol. (That didn’t work, as his Subway Tavern experiment proved.)

He also addressed the problem of housing, leading the fight “of providing comfortable, healthful homes to the poor of the city,” according to the New York Sun.

So it makes sense, then, that four years after Potter’s death in 1908, “his friends raised money to erect the City and Suburban Homes Company’s Bishop Potter Memorial, a pair of model tenements on East 79th Street,” wrote Andrew Dolkart.

City and Suburban Homes was a housing company with prominent backers dedicated to building livable, affordable apartments for working-class families in the early 1900s—in contrast to the airless, cramped firetraps that passed for housing at the time.

The model tenements they built along with the Bishop Potter Memorial buildings stand between York Avenue and the FDR Drive. Each 2-4 room flat has windows in every room, fireproof walls and doors. The 6-story buildings feature wide, dignified courtyards that let in light and air. (Average weekly salary for each family who rented one of these apartments: $15.73.)

Codman may be forgotten, but these model tenements, now landmarked and perhaps simple and plain by our standards today, remain.

[Second photo: Wikipedia]

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

The gods of good health on a Fifth Avenue facade

July 22, 2019

You could spend hours taking in the visual feast that is the New York Academy of Medicine building on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

Completed in 1926, it’s a blend of Romanesque and Byzantine styles with an exterior complete with Latin quotes, figures of gods and goddesses, and some impressive gargoyles and bas reliefs—all apparently relating to health and medicine.

“The exterior features a panoply of medical symbolism, including figures of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health standing watch together over the front door,” states one online source.

Asclepius and Hygeia (top image) are carved into the grand entrance on 103rd Street. They’re united by a medical caduceus with a single snake wrapped around it, a symbol of healing.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with some of the other reliefs—or the cheeky gargoyles. They animals could symbolize medicinal treatments; the figures may be other gods and goddesses.

But all of these symbols, figures, and grotesques were certainly added to the facade with intent.

The New York Academy of Medicine got its start in 1847, founded by a group of prominent city physicians in an era of rampant disease outbreaks, poor nutrition, and a 50 percent mortality rate for babies under age one.

The Academy pioneered the idea of public health—and today they continue to advocate for public health education and reform, particularly with their impressive library.

A sweet remnant of a Lenox Hill ice cream shop

July 22, 2019

The northwest corner of First Avenue and 66th Street looks like an ordinary Manhattan intersection, with a Dunkin’ Donuts inside an old tenement building.

But what a treat to see that the entrance to the shop continues to say “Peppermint Park” in tile!

It’s all that remains of the Peppermint Park Cafe, once a kid-friendly restaurant serving crepes, ice cream, and other goodies and then in the 1980s just an ice cream parlor churning out its own additive-free flavors.

I couldn’t find any information about when Peppermint Park started or what year it closed up shop. I bet Upper East Side old timers know.

Of course, you can still get ice cream at the Baskin Robbins part of Dunkin’ Donuts…but I’m guessing it’s not quite the same.

These tile sidewalk signs at store entrances are fast disappearing in New York City; here are some others still marking their territory.

Other ice cream store ghosts remain around New York, too.

The pretty country house on a 75th Street estate

June 10, 2019

Today’s 75th Street and Third Avenue is an unbroken stretch of postwar apartment houses and turn of the century tenements.


Now imagine this intersection 150 years ago—when it was the site of a three-story, clapboard-windowed country house surrounded by a wooden picket fence and acres of green grass and trees.

This was the Grenseback Estate, and an 1866 illustration (at top) from Valentine’s Manual captured the pretty scene that resembles something out of the antebellum South.

(At left, a 1935 painting of the estate house by Helen Miller from the National Gallery of Art—perhaps painted from the 1866 image?)

Who were the Grensebacks, and how did they come to own such a spectacular estate? That’s something of a mystery.

Books and newspapers from 19th century New York City mention members of the family and refer to the estate, which was apparently near “two separate Schermerhorn houses” situated “near the East River and about four miles from the City Hall.”

The Riker house, the estate home of another old New York family, was also close, as was Mount Pleasant, the Beekman family mansion on 50th Street and today’s Beekman Place.

These large homes amid the fields and forests of primeval Manhattan almost entirely vanished by the turn of the century. But how lovely it must have been in the 1800s to enjoy clean fresh air away from the city center!

[First image: NYPL; second image, National Gallery of Art]