Archive for the ‘Upper East Side’ Category

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]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

A tiny wooden house in Yorkville that time forgot

May 4, 2020

Outlawed south of 86th Street in 1866, wood-frame houses are a rarity in Manhattan. So when you find one tucked into an otherwise ordinary Upper East Side block, it’s hard not to fall for its charming cornice and clapboard shutters.

That’s what happened when I found myself in front of 450 East 78th Street. This two-story wooden house hiding between two red-brick tenements was built in 1855, according to the AIA Guide to New York City.

Who built the house and all of the stories contained between its walls is something of a mystery. But like the handful of other surviving wood-frame houses from the same era on the far East Side, it may have been put up by a person of rather modest means who wanted a free-standing dwelling far from the action of the city center, which barely extended past 23rd Street in the decade before the Civil War.

The AIA Guide dubbed the house a “Manhattan miracle” because it managed to evade the wrecking ball. How did that happen? A little luck, plus the changing demographics of Yorkville.

Yorkville in the antebellum age was a hamlet of farms and well-spaced wealthy estates. But after the New York and Harlem railroad opened a stop at 86th Street and Park Avenue in 1834, and horsecar lines began running up and down Second and Third Avenues by the 1850s, the neighborhood transformed into a “low-density” residential enclave, according to the Historic Districts Council.

“With the increase in railroad access to the area, carpenter-builders constructed rows of wood frame houses for middle-class families,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

As the 19th century continued, Yorkville filled up with working-class immigrants, and that may have been the saving grace for 450 East 78th Street.

“Wood frame houses survived longer in Yorkville because the area was not generally favored by the wealthy for their residences, due in large part to the industries, transportation lines, and working class character of much of Yorkville,” stated the LPC.

At some point before the 1930s (above left), it gained two ground-floor storefronts; the second floor is a rental apartment, and the facade looks similar to the way it appeared in 1975 (at right).

The entire building changed hands about four years ago. For $2.2 million, someone bought this little piece of Manhattan’s wood-frame history.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.856]

This Upper East Side school still has boot scrapers

April 20, 2020

It’s hard not to be charmed by New York’s turn of the century schoolhouses—those handsome buildings with oversize windows and proud entryways.

One of my favorites is PS 158 in Yorkville on 77th Street (above in 1920). The cross streets on the school’s facade still say “Avenue A,” the old name for York Avenue. It’s a wonderful anachronism.

But there’s another old New York relic at the school’s side entrances: boot scrapers.

Boot scrapers were a sanitary necessity in the muddy city without paved streets. How else could you remove from your boots the dirt, manure, and garbage found all over New York roads until late in the 19th century?

You can still find boot scrapers on the iron railings on front stoops of 19th century brownstones and townhouses. (At left, a boot scraper on a Morton Street walkup.)

Some are plain and functional, others decorative and unique, like the boot scrapers below on West 67th Street, at a former home for Swiss immigrants.

Though houses and public buildings like churches had (and some still have) boot scrapers, I’ve never seen them at the doors of a city schoolhouse. I don’t know if these boot scrapers as old as the school itself, but it’s hard to imagine administrators installing them in the last half century or so.

If the kids at what’s now called PS 158 Bayard Taylor Elementary School actually use them, it must be the most hygienic school in Manhattan.

[Top photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

Ghost buildings standing out in the desolate city

April 13, 2020

There’s something about New York right now, with its (mostly) emptied streets and deserted sidewalks, that makes the phantom buildings of an earlier Gotham come out of hiding.

You know these phantom tenements and walkups—their faded outlines tend to reappear at construction sites, giving us a glimpse of the low-rise city of another era.

Sometimes they’re a longtime ghostly imprint overlooking the empty lot left behind when the building was torn down—like the one above on East 45th Street, with its distinctive chimney.

This one above, on Lafayette Street, is another unusual one, perhaps it’s the ghost of a Federal-style house from the first half of the 19th century, when many of these little homes were built (and still survive) in Lower Manhattan.

Here’s another stubby building at the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, its chimney just visible against the lovely and much taller Bayard-Condict Building, constructed in 1899.

What will take the place of this low-rise walkup on York Avenue and 86th Street, old enough to have been dwarfed by century-old tenements?

This phantom building down at Hudson Yards might be gone by now. The building it left its outline on may have met the bulldozer, or a shiny new tower is obscuring it once again.

The slight slope to the top floor of this outline makes me think it was once a stylish brownstone or rowhouse, probably one in a group built in the late 19th century on a block in Midtown East.

Finally, on East 57th Street is this little guy, likely a 19th century apparition clinging to a more modern apartment building while haunting the bright busy Whole Foods at street level.

The walled-in settlement house by the East River

April 13, 2020

You can see one side of it from the FDR Drive at 76th Street. High above the roadway overlooking the East River is a Georgian-style red brick building and what must have been an entrance with a faded plaque above it.

Squint and you can make out what it says: East Side House Settlement.

Settlement Houses began popping up in New York City in the 1890s and early 1900s. Born out of the benevolence movement of the Gilded Age, they were built by social reformers who “settled” into a poor or working-class community, launching a home base where the community could go take advantage of classes, recreational activities, and cultural offerings.

Many of New York’s settlement houses were built in Lower Manhattan. The East Side Settlement House (as it was known early on) got its start in 1891, founded by a lawyer, Everett Wheeler, according to the house’s web page.

Perhaps Wheeler saw the need for a settlement house in Yorkville, which was becoming a dense tenement neighborhood for a new wave of German immigrants, along with newcomers from Hungary and today’s Czech Republic.

The first house for the East Side Settlement House was an old clapboard house (below).

The one still standing today opened in 1903, privately funded by wealthy New Yorkers who hoped the facility would become a “contagion of good morals,” according to a New-York Tribune article covering the opening day ceremony. (Below, in 1903)

To spread those good morals, the house had separate “clubrooms” for boys and girls, an assembly room, a cooking skill with gas ranges, two gyms (one for men and one for boys), a billiards room, and various other rooms for events.

It must have been an inspiring place in the first half of the 20th century, with John Jay Park opening next door, along with a public bathhouse and then an outdoor public swimming pool in the 1940s.

But as the century went on, the house’s days were numbered, especially as Yorkville changed and the East Side (FDR) Drive and industry (below, in 1926) obstructed river access. In 1963, the East Side Settlement House relocated to the South Bronx, where it remains today.

“Its genteel Georgian building, perched on a river-lapped greensward, had been battered and bruised by decades of hard use and imprisoned by the East River Drive, later F. D. R. Drive, which gobbled up Exterior Street in the 1940s,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2012.

The Town School took it over, and in the 1980s a towering apartment building hemmed the former settlement house in, blocking its facade.

“Now part of the old south-facing Georgian facade survives within a Town School hallway, and part of an old factory is visible in the auditorium,” explained Gray. What remains of the facade faces east, between the apartment tower and a new Town School wing to the north.”

But you can still catch a glimpse of part of the settlement house, with 1891 and 1903 carved into the side (above)—a remnant of the city’s progressive movement and a very different Yorkville.

[Third image: East Side House Settlement; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

Let the Subway Inn’s neon sign inspire you

March 16, 2020

We’re in a challenging moment in New York history; how things will unfold in the coming weeks is uncertain.

So take a moment to behold the strange allure of the gorgeous neon sign outside the Subway Inn, at Second Avenue and 60th Street since 2014, and allow yourself a moment to feel inspired.

Yep, it’s the same sign the Subway Inn had when this old-school dive was located a few blocks west on 60th Street near Lexington, a site the bar had occupied since 1937. Here’s a flashback photo from 2012.