Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

April 29, 2019

Today, the former Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street is a spectacular art museum featuring Frick’s extensive collection of Old Masters paintings and 19th century decorative arts, among other treasures.

Frick always intended his mansion to become a museum after both he and his wife (bottom right) died—and as he planned, the museum opened to the public in 1935. (Frick died in 1919; his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931.)

Since then, the second-floor family rooms where Frick lived with his wife and daughter, Helen (with her father at left in 1910) have been off-limits to the public, and just about all remnants of the family life of this titan of industry have vanished.

But there is one reminder of the private life of the Frick family, and it’s hiding in plain sight in the museum’s West Gallery.

In the middle of the hall, under Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening,” are five small white buttons built into the wood molding of the wall. (Above, center)

The Fricks pressed these buttons to discreetly summon one of the dozens of servants who resided in the home with them. (The servant quarters were on the third floor.) Each button calls a specific servant or part of the house: butler, housekeeper, secretary, valet, and pantry.

Having buttons like these in every main room was probably totally normal among the extraordinarily rich the late 19th or early 20th century.

A typical wealthy household would employ a small army of servants—including a chef, cook, governess, gardener, driver, laundress, an all-purpose “useful man,” and a team of maids all taking care of different parts of the residence.

Next time you’re browsing the Frick, consider the servant buttons a ghostly reminder of the family that made their incredible art collection public. It’s also an emblem of a way of life that vanished when most rich New Yorkers abandoned single-family mansions for apartment house living by the 1920s.

[Top image: portrait by Edmund Charles Tarbell; second photo: courtesy of Caitlin Henningsen and the Frick Collection; fourth image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

A 1940s handbag store sign comes back into view

February 18, 2019

There’s a handsome building on Lexington Avenue at 73rd Street built in the late 1890s with a ground floor now hidden behind scaffolding.

That’s bad news for the retailers trying to attract street traffic along this slender retail stretch of Lenox Hill.

But it’s good news to fans of old New York store signs, which often reemerge from behind newer signage during construction.

That’s the case with the shop on this corner, which sold handbags—or as the sign painted on the window says, “ladies hand made bags.”

“Custom made,” another painted window sign tells us, hard to see behind the building’s decorative storefront.

How far back does this long-gone bag store date to? Here it is in a 1940 tax photo from the online gallery of the New York City Municipal Archives.

It’s not the best image, but you can make out the same signage that’s at this corner store today, spotted by Ephemeral reader Robert C. Thanks for sending it in!

A remnant of Avenue A on the Upper East Side

January 28, 2019

Contemporary New Yorkers know Avenue A as a downtown-only street spanning 14th Street to Houston.

So it’s a shock to the system to be faced with evidence that in the 19th and early 20th century city, Avenue A actually picked up again and ran 34 blocks through the Upper East Side, from 59th to 93rd Street.

Proof, aside from several old Manhattan maps? (Like this one, from the 1870s).

Check out the address engraved into the corners of P.S. 158, an elementary school on today’s York Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets.

“Ave. A” it clearly reads. And it should, because when the school opened in the 1890s, this was Avenue A.

York Avenue didn’t get its name until 1928, when the city officially decided to rename Avenue A uptown in honor of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York (who was actually from Tennessee, but was feted by the city after the war ended).

The renaming had another purpose: It was hoped that a new name would be “symbolic of the rehabilitation of the East Side,” according to a New York Times article.

As far as I know, this is the only remaining vestige of Avenue A’s uptown stretch.

[Second image: NYPL]

The coral model tenement on an East Side corner

January 21, 2019

Something special sets the apartment building on York Avenue and 65th Street apart from so many other walkup buildings in New York. And it’s not just its coral-red color.

The abundance of small and large windows is one thing. Then there’s the arched, carriage-size entrance leading to an interior airy courtyard, where four separate doors open to wide, bright interior stairwells.

The courtyard isn’t huge, but it offers light and a sense of space—two rare commodities in a city where decent affordable housing was (and still is) hard to come by.

At the turn of the century, when this building was conceived, two thirds of New Yorkers crammed themselves into dank, dark downtown tenements built by quick-buck developers.

But this building wasn’t put up by a greedy developers. It was part of the First Avenue Estate, a multi-building project run by a housing corporation called City and Suburban Homes and constructed between 1898 to 1915.

City and Suburban was founded by members of some of New York’s most prominent families. They agreed to limit the return on their investment to 5 percent in order to build clean, modern dwellings for blue-collar workers.

The First Avenue Estate was more than just this one building. The project spanned First to York Avenues between 64th and 65th Street, a once-gritty stretch of the city known as Battle Row (at left, about 1915)

A similar group of model tenements developed by City and Suburban went up at York Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets.

The amenities were enviable. “Every room has quiet, light, air, and an abundance of ventilation,” stated the 1905 pamphlet for the development, via the 2016 book Affordable Housing in New York.

“Stairways and stair wells are entirely fireproof….Flats have steam heat radiators, private hall, private water closet….two porcelain tubs, large sink and drain board, large dresser with shelves, closets, and drawers.”

Each four-room flat also had something novel: a gas range that did not require a deposit or rent to be paid to the gas company before use.

These model tenements were among several built by other groups in the early 20th century.

The Phipps model tenements were down in the East 30s and the West 60s, and the Shively Sanitary tenements, designed for people with tuberculosis, occupied a site on Cherokee Place in the East 70s.

Though demand for affordable housing didn’t wane, the model tenement movement died down as the century went on, with many buildings becoming market-rate rentals.

A different fate could still await the York Avenue model tenement. Despite having landmark status, the owner has waged a fight to tear it down because it doesn’t generate enough money, according to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.

[Third image: First Avenue Estate circa 1915, via Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts; last image: New-York Tribune, 1910]

What remains of 3 old-school corner drugstores

January 14, 2019

Neon signs, decorative mortar and pestles, brass chandeliers, wood shelves with sliding ladders…there’s a lot to love about New York’s longtime independent pharmacies.

Many of these corner stores have been in business for over a century, yet have somehow resisted getting steamrolled by Duane Reade.

I don’t know how long M&M Pharmacy has been on Avenue M and East 19th Street in Midwood. But the signage, at least, dates to the 1940s.

The corner neon sign with the Rx is a wonderful relic—and when was the last time you saw the word “toiletries” on a store sign?

The English lettering on M&M’s weathered neon sign looks very 1940s (the Cyrillic script, clearly, is not quite as old).

But inside the store, past the wood shelves, are Art Deco–inspired signs at the prescription counter that look like they’re from the 1920s or 1930s. (Thanks to D.S. for getting the inside and outside views.)

Another old-school corner drugstore that caught my eye is Health Wise, on York Avenue and 79th Street.

The website says this pharmacy has been run by the same family since 1992. But based on the gorgeous neon sign that casts a lovely glow at York Avenue and 79th Street, I wonder if the store has been there a lot longer.

Also in Yorkville on First Avenue and East 65th Street is Goldberger’s, in business since the Spanish American War. It’s the signage on the sides of the store, however, that make me feel like I’ve stepped into a noir.

Cosmetics, drugs, prescriptions…and then the fanciful Goldberger’s lettering, in script. New York drugstores had everything. Now if only this sign still lit up in neon!

[Top 3 photos: D.S.]

The East Side corner in The Odd Couple credits

November 19, 2018

Spotting real-life New York locations in The Odd Couple‘s opening and closing credits is a favorite Ephemeral New York pastime.

The apartment house entrance where Felix uses his umbrella to pick up Oscar’s cigar butt is at 1049 Park Avenue; the go-go bar Oscar peeps into was once on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

Now comes word that another closing-credit location has been identified: the corner where Oscar turns around to follow a pretty young woman and almost gets run over by oncoming traffic.

An Ephemeral reader brought it to ENY’s attention on Facebook on Tuesday, November 13, which was Felix Unger Day. (The day he was asked to remove himself from his place of residence, of course!)

Turns out Oscar’s traffic run-in is at Second Avenue and 66th Street.

Here’s a Google map image of the corner today. Compare it to the scene in the credits shot more than 45 years ago. Looks like a match to me. You can see more of the corner by watching this clip of the closing credits.

[Thanks to Ephemeral Facebook fan George Mole for delving into the mysteries of this seminal New York City sitcom.]

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]