Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

In 1886, this East 77th Street house was a church

August 10, 2020

The lovely little house caught my eye while I was walking a few blocks south of Yorkville toward First Avenue.

The enchanting Romanesque style, the peaked chapel-like roof, the two tall arched windows that looked like they were designed to hold stained glass—in this tiny dwelling’s earliest years, it had to have been a church.

Turns out, 429 East 77th Street was originally a church, built in 1886.

And up until it was sold and made into a private residence a decade ago, this simple sanctuary appears to have housed up to four different congregations, reflecting the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood through the 20th century.

Dingeldein Memorial Church of the Evangelical Association of North America was its earliest incarnation.

Dingeldein Memorial’s congregation drew from the German immigrants who had moved to this working- class tenement part of the Upper East Side in the late 19th century.

After the General Slocum disaster in 1904, much of New York’s Little Germany neighborhood (today’s East Village) dispersed to Yorkville, which became the city’s new Kleindeutschland. The church likely remained heavily German.

Change came in 1920. The Dingeldein Memorial Church congregation sold the little building to the New York City Baptist Mission, an organization with the goal of promoting “churches, missions, Sunday-schools, vacation schools, settlements, and other missionary and charitable work.”

It may have been the New York City Baptist Mission that renamed the church the Czechoslovak Baptist Church.

A Czech church on East 77th Street? It made perfect sense at the time.

In the early 1900s, the blocks in the far East 70s were ground zero for New York’s Czech population, with thousands of immigrants patronizing Czech businesses, entertainment spaces, and churches—only a few of which exist today. (Bohemian National Hall, on East 73rd Street since 1896, is a remnant of the neighborhood.)

In 1961, with the Czech population receding, the church decamped. The next occupant was the First Russian Baptist Church; this congregation may have been the one to paint the little house cream with brown trim (above, in a 2010 photo).

By that year, the First Russian Baptist Church’s days were over. A listing hit the market that included the church itself and a small building behind it, according to Curbed.com, which had already been renovated into a residence.

Together, both buildings sold for 2.1 million. The church-turned-house has a roof deck now, and the dwelling is stripped of any religious symbols or icons (like the cross on the roof, at left, and the wooden pews, top).

But this charming house still resembles a chapel, and its spiritual past can’t be entirely erased.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, 1920; fourth, fifth, and sixth images: Streeteasy.com]

Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan

July 27, 2020

You can learn a lot about New York’s makers and inventors just by coal hole covers—the decorative iron lids that lead to a storage space beneath the sidewalk where coal for heating a house or building was stored.

This beauty embossed with stars sits at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street.

“Dreier Safety Coal Hole Cover” it reads, listing an address in today’s East Village and a patent date, April 1919.

What’s a safety coal hole cover? A 1979 New York Times obituary for Abraham Dreier, the Polish immigrant who founded the Dreier Structural Steel Company in 1917, doesn’t explain it. But the obituary does say that Dreier patented the cover after he began his career making fire escapes.

Dreier’s company had an earlier address on the Lower East Side’s now-defunct Goerck Street.

What’s better than a coal hole cover than a coal hole cover with vault lights? This one was made by the Brooklyn Vault Light Company, once located on Monitor Street in Greenpoint. (The company had several addresses in the neighborhood, the ever-informative Walter Grutchfield says.)

Vault lights are basically glass skylights that allow sunlight into a space, though I’m not sure why that would be advantageous in a hole designed to store coal.

This coal hole cover is also a safety cover, patented in August 1905. The company operated from 1896 to 1958, according to Glassian. The company is gone, but the cover remains at East 73rd Street near Lexington Avenue, a quiet monument to the ironworks of another New York.

A British writer visits a NYC resort hotel in 1829

July 20, 2020

In 1828, James Stuart, a British lawyer and politician, took a trip to the United States. He journeyed to various East Coast cities, traveled through Georgia and Alabama, then went west to Missouri and Illinois before heading back east.

In his 1833 book documenting his travels, Three Years in North America, Stuart seemed to take a liking to the young nation. He described cities and states, the customs of people he met, as well as current events of the era, such as slavery.

But it’s his stay in Manhattan that I want to focus on here, especially his time at what was then an elite riverside retreat called the Mount Vernon Hotel, at today’s 61st Street between First and York Avenues.

In the early 1800s, Mount Vernon was located far from the city, which barely existed past 14th Street. The hotel was originally built as the carriage house for the planned country estate for Abigail Adams Smith (President Adams’ daughter, below right) and her husband. After the Smiths’ fortunes dwindled, the carriage house fell into other hands and was transformed into a hotel.

Stuart and his party visited Mount Vernon after traveling by steamboat from New Haven in May 1829.

During his stay, he took note of the habits of the New Yorkers who soon surrounded him—habits that might seem familiar to contemporary city residents.

“We immediately set about obtaining a comfortable lodging-house in the neighbourhood of the city, and at length pitched our tent at Mount Vernon, about four miles from New-York, on the East River or Long Island Sound, a good house in an airy situation, from the door of which a stage went to New-York two or three times a day.”

“The house is placed upon the top of a bank, about fifty feet above the river; and the view of the river and of the gay sailing craft constantly passing, and tossed about by the eddies in every direction, is very interesting.”

Mount Vernon had first-class amenities, including a ladies parlor and a men’s tavern. Stuart noticed the hotel’s trotting course next door. He also wrote that it was the custom for people to stop into Mount Vernon from the city for “a little spirits or water or lemonade.”

Warm weather in Manhattan meant dealing with crowds. “We bargained from the beginning to have our meals in our own parlour, and had many pleasant walks for exercise in the neighboring parts of the island of Manhattan, at times when they were free from the crowds of people who came out of the city in the evenings.”

Stuart observed that in the summer, “the great mass” of New Yorkers liked to “leave the town in carriages, gigs, or on horseback, for an hour or two before sunset, which, at the longest day, is at half past seven.”

These New Yorkers “drive and ride very fast,” he noted, “and the number of carriages of all descriptions on the various outlets of the city, especially toward the beautiful parts of the island, is such as I never saw but in London or its immediate vicinity.”

Stuart remarked about the quiet East River area where Mount Vernon was located. “The bustle, however, of this house is over before or very soon after sunset, and we are not in the slightest degree subjected to noise or intrusion,” he wrote.

He also touched on crime in the city, finding that at Mount Vernon, there was little need to be cautious about theft. “Near as we are to New York, and within 300 yards of the high road, there is neither a shutter nor a bar to a window in the house. Clothes are laid out to bleach all night without the slightest fear of their being carried off.”

Stuart eventually left for Philadelphia. Mount Vernon lasted until 1833, when it was turned into a country house. In 1905 it passed into the hands of a local gas company, which in turn sold it to the Colonial Dames of America in 1924.

In the 1980s, the Dames set about restoring Abigail Adams Smith’s one-time (and short-lived) carriage house. They renamed it the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, recreating the feel of the hotel resort Stuart wrote about during his travels to early 19th century America.

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden still operates as a museum. Here you can stop in and imagine what it was like for Stuart as he lounged in his room and enjoyed river breezes, or took to the men’s tavern for spirits and conversation. The sailing crafts on the river are still interesting; the neighborhood still quiet and off the beaten path.

[Second image: Mount Vernon in 1850; Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden Collection via Wikipedia; third image: Google Books; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: The Evening Post, 1827; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: New-York Historical Society]

A 20-story condo subsumes a Yorkville tenement

July 20, 2020

It’s hard not to cheer on a holdout building. You’ve seen these underdogs: the old, unfashionable walkups that stand their ground against modern apartment house developers, forcing the big guys to build around them or thwarting new development altogether.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a holdout building quite like the tenement that appears to be subsumed by its newer neighbor at 408 East 79th Street, just east of First Avenue.

The tenement, at number 412 for at least a century (at right in 1940), is a 5-story brick building with a fire escape on the facade; it’s the same small apartment building still found all over Manhattan neighborhoods.

The newer neighbor, the Arcadia, is a condo completed in 2005 and designed by Costas Kondylis. The spacious, lovely apartments in this 20-story residence sell for millions.

I wasn’t able to uncover the backstory, but it looks like the tenement stood down the Arcadia…which then swallowed the little building whole.

[Second photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.

The brick beauty of a 1902 East Side power plant

June 29, 2020

Walk along the East River Greenway on the Upper East Side—the breezy riverside path beside the FDR Drive—and you’ll pass hospital buildings, apartment residences, and parks.

But a remnant of a different New York appears as you approach 74th Street.

It’s a dirty red brick and stone fortress, a massive edifice with enormous Romanesque arched windows, the rare building that comes off as hulking and massive while also graceful and elegant.

This citadel could be a former factory or armory. But it’s actually a power plant—something of a companion to a similar power station built across Manhattan at roughly the same time on 11th Avenue and 59th Street.

Completed in 1902 and still in use today, the 74th Street coal-powered generating plant enabled elevated train steam locomotives running on Manhattan’s avenues to switch to electricity.

The debut of electric-powered el trains marked a huge shift in health and safety.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, the powerhouse enabled the transition from steam locomotives to cleaner electric trains, fundamentally improving conditions in the city,” states Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, about a 2014 New York Transit Museum exhibit focusing on the 74th Street power station.

“Before the switch, smoke, cinders, and soot from steam-powered elevated trains plagued Manhattan, blackening the air and dirtying the streets. With the opening of the Manhattan Railway Company’s 74th Street Powerhouse in 1902, those irksome steam engines soon became a thing of the past.”

I’ve passed this powerhouse several times recently, and though I didn’t know its backstory, it always looked familiar to me.

Turns out the red-brick building is in this 1934 painting of the East River, a favorite of mine. Painter Jara Henry Valenta gives us a still and solitary view of the coal boats waiting at the water’s edge, with no FDR drive in the way.

“Though the 74th Street Power Station is still in use today, it is no longer coal powered,” states the Museum of the City of New York.

“In 1959 the plant was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company and it continued to supply coal power to substations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In 1999 new boilers and gas turbine generators replaced steam ones and the station continues to contribute to the city’s electric power grid.”

MCNY’s digital collection of photos of the plant under construction is fascinating, as well as the images revealing the inside of this cavernous monument to power and energy.

[Third image: MCNY, F2012.53.270A; Fourth image, MCNY, F2012.53.308A]

What did this old NYC phone exchange stand for?

June 1, 2020

You see these two-letter old phone exchanges around occasionally—often on old signs off the beaten path, even though New York City phased out the letter exchanges in the 1960s.

In the East 80s of Yorkville, I spotted a mysterious one: a parking garage sign with a phone number that begins with “TW.”

TW? It’s one I’d never seen before, and I can’t figure out what local landmark or old neighborhood lent its name to a phone exchange that could be as old as the 1920s.

Of course, the garage door company that used the number might have been located in any part of New York City. If anyone knows or wants to throw out a guess as to what TW stands for, I’d love to hear it!

The most famous summer house in Manhattan

May 25, 2020

You might not immediately recognize this elegant, two-story wood mansion, with its large windows and wide porches—perfect for capturing cool East River breezes.

But in the post-colonial New York of the early 19th century, the house stood out among the other posh summer estates built in the bucolic countryside of today’s Yorkville.

This was the summer home of Archibald Gracie. Born in Scotland in 1755, Gracie (at left) arrived in New York in 1784 with a cargo of goods that netted him enough money to invest in a mercantile.

By the 1790s, he was a very rich merchant and shipowner. His regular residence was a State Street townhouse so impressive it was known as “The Pillars,” according to a 1973 New York Daily News article.

But like other wealthy city residents, he wanted a summer house, too.

For $3,700, “he bought 11 acres of rolling land at Horn’s Hook, facing the Hell Gate,” a 1981 Daily News explained, referring to the treacherous section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Island that claimed hundreds of ships by the late 19th century.

The house, built on a high bluff facing the East River next to a towering cottonwood tree used as a landmark for sailors, was designed for the enjoyment of his family, elite friends, and notable guests.

“In 1799, Gracie began construction of his mansion, a sumptuous building of 14 rooms and eight bathrooms, replete with hand-carved fireplaces and priceless furniture,” wrote the Daily News. “There was a large dining room and a broad, white pillared porch that overlooked the East River—in all ways, an ideal site for holding large receptions.”

At the time, it took an entire day to sail from the Battery to reach his house at today’s East 88th Street.

But Gracie and his family made the trip often, entertaining political and literary figures such as Alexander Hamilton (a business partner of Gracie’s and the owner of a lovely summer estate in Harlem), James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and Washington Irving.

Irving, in particular, was struck by the beauty of the house and Gracie’s hospitality.

“I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I found this retreat, pure air, agreeable scenery, profound quiet,” Irving (below left) wrote in 1813 in his diary, according to the Daily News.

Of the Gracies, he wrote, “Their country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

The summer house wouldn’t stay in the Gracie family. Gracie lost much of his fortune by 1819. “The craggy-faced Scot,” as the Daily News called him, died at age 94 in 1829.

Through the mid- to late-19th century, the house changed owners at least twice. As the area’s summer estates were sold off and parceled out and Yorkville became more urbanized, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1894, the city took possession of Gracie’s house and built East End Park—now Carl Schurz Park—around it. The dwelling was home to the Museum of the City of New York from 1923 to 1936, when the museum decamped to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.

It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who suggested revamping the house and turning it into the official residence of New York City’s mayors.

Gracie Mansion, as it’s known to New Yorkers, is probably the city’s best-known summer house. Once a country retreat for one of New York’s richest men, it now serves as the designated home for city mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia was in office…and sadly is hard to see behind an ugly tall fence.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1923; second image: Wikipedia; third image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; fourth image NYPL, late 19th century; fifth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; sixth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; seventh image: Wikipedia; eighth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923]

The stunning first white brick apartment house

May 18, 2020

New York City has about 140 white brick apartment houses. (Seems like the number should be higher, right?)

But these residences dating back to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—with their glazed facades that tend to look gray and grimy—don’t always get a lot of love.

The exception to the rule is magnificent Manhattan House, considered to be New York’s first white brick building.

Spanning East 66th Street from Second to Third Avenues, Manhattan House opened in 1951 in a city undergoing a building boom to meet the housing needs of its 7.8 million residents.

The house’s 21 stories quickly filled with renters, who eschewed the limestone and red brick apartment buildings of old in favor of sleek, European Modernist-inspired design—which included “large windows and projecting balconies, as well as landscaped driveways and a block-long rear garden,” stated the Guide to New York City Landmarks.

From its earliest days, Manhattan House has had an aura of luxury. But its origins were more humble.

It was built in the shadow of the Third Avenue El (above, in 1952) by the New York Life Insurance Company, replacing a former car barn.

Because insurance companies at the time were “only allowed to invest in limited-revenue rentals,” according to a 2015 article in Observer, Manhattan House wasn’t built with all of the trappings of a luxury building. 

“The complex had a wing of maid’s rooms, but no central air,” stated Observer, adding that the ceilings were only nine and half feet high, as opposed to the 10-foot ceilings in more posh residences.

Of course, many of the amenities designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft (who liked his creation so much, he moved in) were pretty sweet, like wood-burning fireplaces and air pressure in the halls that made it less likely cooking odors would waft into another apartment.

“A private garden spanned the property’s length (the second-largest private garden in the city after Gramercy Park) and the complex’s layout—five towers arranged in a cruciform shape along a shared central lobby—provided a sense of airy continuity while ensuring that the interiors never felt cold or cavernous,” wrote Observer.

Rather than middle class residents, Observer noted that “Manhattan House attracted eminent architects, designers, ad execs, prominent journalists, musicians, and assorted culturati.” Grace Kelly was an early resident, as were Benny Goodman, Jackie Robinson, and Frank Hardart—of Horn & Hardart Automat fame.

Making Manhattan House even more of a showstopper is the strip of land with a stone wall in the middle of 66th Street. It’s something of a moat, a demarcation line separating the building from the rest of the cityscape.

Throughout the decades, Manhattan House has preserved its pedigree. One major change happened in 2005: a condo conversion that took 10 years to complete.

Perhaps the fact that the building was landmarked in 2007 adds to its appeal, and price tag. This airy and lovely apartment is going for $12 million.

[Top image: MCNY 2010.7.1.9773; third image: MCNY 2013.3.2.2344; fourth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9812; sixth image: X2010.7.1.10115]

A vintage neon garage sign lights East 76th Street

May 11, 2020

Fellow fans of New York City in gorgeous neon: feast your eyes on this vertical vintage beauty on quiet East 76th Street between First and Second Avenues.

The glowing sign tells us that the blond-brick garage is open to “transients.” That must mean short-term parkers, but it’s a word you don’t see on city garages anymore.

I don’t know how old the sign is. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s almost as old as the garage, which dates to 1930.

This might be part of the garage, in a 1940 tax photo. It’s on 76th Street but the building number is slightly off…possibly a typo? The smaller sign is to tiny to read.

[Third photo: Department of Records and Information Services]