Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

Walking Macombs Dam Bridge in Upper Manhattan

November 26, 2018

Completed in 1895, Macombs Dam Bridge is the third oldest bridge in New York City—a graceful metal truss swing bridge over the Harlem River linking West 155th Street in Manhattan to the South Bronx.

A walk across it doesn’t take long. But as you stroll along the pedestrian pathway at the edge of the span, past its 19th century stone towers, finials, and decorative lighting fixtures, you’re treated to a unique panorama of a city waterway few New Yorkers ever see.

It’s a view early 19th century residents who lived in the sparsely populated areas on both sides of the Harlem River knew well. They’ve been crossing the river at this point for more than 200 years.

The first Macomb’s Dam Bridge—it originally had an apostrophe—went up in 1814. (Above and below, about 1850.)

A few years earlier, a Bronx miller and landowner named Robert Macomb sought permission to build a dam here to help power his new grist mill on the Harlem side, states nycroads.com.

The state legislature gave the okay (the Bronx was in Westchester County at the time) with two stipulations: the dam had to allow ship traffic, and it couldn’t flood the salt meadows along the river.

So Macomb built his bridge, but it was a huge headache for local people. They didn’t like the toll they had to pay to cross it, first of all (half the toll fees were supposed to help the poor). Also, the bridge hindered other vessels.

In 1838, fed-up neighbors reportedly paid the crew of a coal barge to hack the dam with axes. Another story has it that one local resident used his own ship to sabotage the dam in 1839.

A court later determined that the dam and bridge were a “public nuisance,” and New York and Westchester County were told to build a new free bridge.

The second bridge was constructed in 1861 (above). Made of iron and wood, it was technologically advanced.

But the wood planking on the roadway wore out quickly, and it had to be repaired and partially rebuilt many times.

This was a major problem in part because upper Manhattan and the lower Bronx were rapidly filling up with people, hence more traffic.

“Macomb’s Dam Bridge, over the Harlem River, is a rickety old structure, and its vibrations when crowded with vehicles and people are alarming,” wrote the New York Times in 1883.

“On days when there are races at Jerome and Fleetwood Parks, between 3,000 and 4,000 carriages cross Macomb’s Dam Bridge,” another Times article from 1885 stated, referencing popular racetracks in the Bronx.

“If there is a more awkward, dangerous, and disreputable bridge across any stream within the city limits, an effort should be made to find it.”

Ultimately, the city decided that it would cost too much to fix the second bridge. The new one—the current bridge—made its debut 12 years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened.

Today, walking Macombs Dam Bridge can make you feel very exposed. Before you stroll high across water, you walk above what was once the Polo Grounds, and today is the Polo Houses.

Once you’re a hundred or so feet over water and closer to the Bronx side, the view is astounding. There’s Yankee Stadium straight ahead, and the glorious High Bridge, which leaps across the Harlem River about 20 blocks north.

[Top photo: Wikipedia, 2014; third image: MCNY 58.300.44; fifth image: NYC Bridges; sixth image: New York Times 1885; seventh image: N-Y Historical Society; eighth image: MCNY 2010.11.8556]

The loveliest lamppost in New York is in Harlem

November 26, 2018

New York has lots of landmarked buildings. But a landmarked lamppost?

About 100 posts have this designation. One beauty exists at a small triangular park at West 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and it continues to light the way in the Hamilton Heights section of the neighborhood, with its late 19th century feel.

Placed here in the early 20th century, it’s a rare twin-mast lamppost, made of cast iron and an example of a “flaming arc” lamp that was once more common Lower Fifth Avenue, according to a 1997 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

As enchanting as the twin design is, the post has another old-timey touch. Take a look at this insignia on the base of the post of a light bulb, or a “little globe of sunshine,” as one 1915 article about electric light dubbed it.

Thanks to David L. for pointing this out in a recent comment and inspiring me to see the lamppost for myself!

Hamilton Terrace is Harlem’s loveliest street

November 19, 2018

New York has no shortage of markers bearing Alexander Hamilton’s name: His grave is in Trinity Cemetery downtown, his statue graces Central Park, and Alexander Hamilton Bridge crosses the Harlem River.

But there’s a quiet stretch in Harlem from 141st to 144th Streets named for this founding father that feels almost like a secret passage lined with townhouse loveliness: Hamilton Terrace.

The street takes its name from Hamilton Grange, Hamilton’s former country house built in 1802 that currently sits atop a hill at West 141st Street.

(The house was actually built down the block on today’s West 143rd Street before being moved here in 1989, once part of Hamilton’s vast estate.)

Hamilton only occupied the Grange (“a sweet asylum from care and pain,” he called it) for a few years before his life ended in that infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

When urbanization came to the bucolic enclave of Harlem in the late 19th century, developers seized his name—and Hamilton Terrace was born.

“The initial construction on the north-south street—which most New Yorkers have never heard of, let alone seen—was for well-to-do owners,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2004.

“But Hamilton Terrace was transformed during the Depression by the expansion of the black population from central Harlem, and many of the new owners changed their buildings into rooming houses.”

Parts of Harlem don’t conform to the city street grid, and some of its streets feel like they were once isolated country lanes, like Convent Avenue on the West and St. Nicholas Avenue on the right, which surround Hamilton Terrace.

That gives the road its isolated, almost forgotten feel. The many row houses reflecting everything from traditional brownstone style to Romanesque to Gothic also make you think you’ve stumbled into some kind of turn of the century time warp.

“The isolation of Hamilton Terrace gives it a character distinctive from its surroundings,” wrote Gray. “Its 50 or so houses were almost all built in a single burst of activity, from 1895 to 1902.”

These days, Hamilton Terrace is a sought-after location once again. Now part of the Hamilton Heights Historic District, townhouses here are commanding hefty prices.

In 2017, Curbed pointed out that the corner mansion at 72 Hamilton Terrace, with a modern renovated interior, was going for more than $5 million.

[Fifth Image: New-York Tribune, 1899; sixth image: MCNY 2011.22.1336. All other images by Ephemeral New York]

What remains of an East Harlem pharmacy sign

October 1, 2018

Today, 2268 First Avenue is a brightly lit 99 cent store selling all kinds of household goods, party supplies, and colorful balloons.

But decades ago, in a different New York with independent drugstores on just about every block, this storefront was home to what appears to have been called the Purity and Accuracy Pharmacy.

I’m a fan the nifty Rx symbol—old pharmacy designs and icons are fun, like this mortar and pestle on the Upper East Side—and the cursive font reserved for the “pharmacy” part.

I don’t know when the pharmacy opened, nor is it clear when it closed.

But who doesn’t love coming across these bits and pieces of the city’s past hiding in plain sight, ready to tell a story of a long-gone drugstore and the people who shopped there?

An artist paints the end of rural Upper Manhattan

October 1, 2018

Upper Manhattan was the last part of the island to be developed, and well into the late 19th and even early 20th century, large swaths of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood still retained a rural character—with woods, fishing boats, even cow pastures.

That unspoiled, bucolic feel is apparently what drew Gustav Wolff to the upper reaches of the city.

Wolff, a German-born landscape painter who studied in St. Louis with Impressionist Paul Cornoyer, arrived in New York in 1917, according to the St. Louis Historical Art Project.

His turned his eye toward “grittier scenes of industrial and urban landscapes,” according to the SLHAP. But it’s his landscapes of a more natural Upper Manhattan that stand out.

The painting at top, “Close of Day, Harlem,” gives us a snow-covered tract of land, with a row of new, encroaching tenements not far behind.

The second image, “Harlem River Factories, New York,” dates to 1894, likely done during an early visit to Gotham. On the eve of the 20th century, Wolff captured a few smokestacks and warehouses amid tugboats and small houses dotting the shoreline.

The steel arch Washington Bridge is clearly recognizable in the next painting, “Washington Heights Bridge, New York.” Opened in 1888, it still stands, linking 181st Street to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.

Dyckman Street was a country road in colonial New York—named after the Dyckman family, the Dutch farmers who built the sandstone Dyckman Farmhouse on Broadway and 204th Street, now a museum.

In Wolff’s painting above, “Dyckman Street Docks, Manhattan,” the farms are gone, but urbanization hasn’t yet arrived.

Fort Tryon Park is one of the last vestiges of Upper Manhattan’s rural past. Here, Wolff painted what appear to be children on the rock outcroppings at the Overlook, with tenements and creeping industrialization in the distance.

The overlook lent its name to Overlook Terrace in Hudson Heights, and thanks to the Fort Tryon Park Trust, you can experience it without getting up from your screen.

The most beautiful block of row houses in Harlem

September 10, 2018

With their wood porches, front yards, and Victorian touches, the 28 red brick houses on the south side of West 130th Street look like they belong in a Southern city like Savannah.

Instead, Astor Row, as this stretch is called, is located in uptown Manhattan between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. Though not all are in top shape, their singular loveliness arguably makes this block the most beautiful in Harlem.

Astor Row was built by an Astor, of course: William Backhouse Astor (below), who between 1880 and 1883 used land owned by his grandfather, John Jacob Astor, to build these speculative houses—among the first speculative residences in the sparsely populated village of Harlem.

“Numbers 8-22 were built in freestanding pairs, while the remaining twenty houses are linked at their rear sections,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.

Going for $1,100 a year, the homes were so popular, potential renters had to put their name on a waiting list. This was in an era when wealthy New Yorkers insisted on living in a single-family house, and apartment living had not caught on yet with the rich.

Astor Row was owned entirely by the Astor family (who owned huge amounts of land in the city, and many of the houses built on it) until 1911, when some parcels were sold off.

The new owners soon defaulted at about the time Harlem’s population went from white to black—and so did the tenants of Astor Row.

As the 20th century went on, the block remained one of Harlem’s elite enclaves, positioned between the new apartment houses to the north and west in Sugar Hill and the brownstone-lined streets near Marcus Garvey Park.

Over the decades, though, Astor Row slipped into disrepair. Through a combination of private and public funds, an effort (led in part by Brooke Astor) was made in the 1990s to restore them to their original beauty and rebuild many of the wood porches.

Today they’re a striking stretch of residences opposite some extraordinary row houses on the block’s northern side.

But imagine them in the 1880s when Harlem was untamed and unurbanized—and renters here could relax in their front gardens and on their porches and take in the open space!

The last days of a Victorian mansion in Harlem

August 27, 2018

The beginning of the end of the Victorian mansion at Fifth Avenue and 130th Street commenced in August 1936.

“Civic and fraternal organizations, individuals of prominence, as well as private citizens of Harlem have separately and in groups given voice to their objections to the City of New York, through the department of Parks, to use the site of the MacLean residence and property at 2122 Fifth Avenue for a playground,” wrote the New York Age on August 8.

“Popularly called the ‘Pride of Harlem,’ it is certainly one of the most beautiful of the old landmarks in the city.”

Beautiful it was: A red brick, three-story Victorian confection with a mansard roof, lacy ironwork, and a wide, welcoming front porch surrounded by lovely gardens.

Built in the 1870s when Harlem was still a village dotted with the country mansions of the city elite, it spanned the block and had been occupied since the 1880s by the family of Jordan Mott.

Mott was a descendant of the Mott Haven Motts; a prominent businessman who ran his family’s Bronx-based iron works.

After the turn of the century, Harlem became urbanized, and the mansion increasingly surrounded by apartment buildings.

By the 1930s, only Mott’s widowed daughter, Marie MacLean, remained.

Upon hearing the news about the demolition of her house, MacLean tried to fight back.

She spoke out through reporters, asking city officials that her home be converted “into a museum for Negro history,” stated the New York Age on October 10, and the gardens “be maintained intact for [the] benefit of aged women and small children.”

She also asked that she be allowed to “spend the remainder of her aging days in the reminiscent atmosphere of the home given to her by her father,” stated one letter to the editor published by the New York Times.

But her wishes were ignored. By October, she was forced out, moving south to 1081 Fifth Avenue as her house was condemned. The mansion soon met the wrecking ball.

A playground was built and named after Courtney Callender, Manhattan’s first African-American deputy commissioner of cultural affairs.

These days it’s a lovely respite of trees, swings, and jungle gyms—all of which hide the destruction of an old woman’s Victorian-era home and a neighborhood point of pride 80 years ago.

[Top three photos: Library of Congress, 1933]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

A Harlem hotel’s holiday gift for New York City

December 24, 2017

This piece of Harlem street art on the side of the Park Avenue Hotel at 125th Street says it all. Season’s Greetings from Ephemeral New York!

This photo is a good six or seven years old, but Google tells me the mural is still there. Can anyone confirm?

What did the FA phone exchange stand for?

December 11, 2017

While enjoying the views along Edgecombe Avenue in Upper Manhattan, I spotted this rusted sign containing an old two-letter phone exchange, once ubiquitous in New York until they were phased out in the 1960s.

The FA exchange is a mystery. Gun Hill is a road in the Bronx, and the Gun Hill Fence Company, founded in 1959, still operates in the Bronx, now in a site on Boston Road.

Fordham is my best (but probably not accurate) guess. These old two-letter telephone exchanges are fun to find in hidden pockets of New York City.