Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

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]

What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say

June 3, 2019

New York streets are still dotted with 19th century manhole covers—decorative, sometimes artistic portals that lead to the gritty underground city of electrical wires, gas lines, and water pipes.

But you’re less likely to stumble upon coal hole covers. By popping the lid, a coal delivery company could easily get coal for heating into the basement of a home, then be on its way to the next house on the block.

This cover, by the former M.J. Dempsey Iron Foundry in the far West 50s on 11th Avenue, is embedded into the sidewalk on East 70th Street, a pristine monument to Manhattan’s departed foundries and how houses were heated before steam.

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.]