Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion

February 20, 2023

You’re forgiven if you fail to see it as you rush to make your train: a neglected off-white plaque surrounded by filthy subway tiles at the 157th Street subway station.

But it’s a shame if this curious old sign doesn’t catch your eye, because it clues you in to Presidential history and New York City’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War.

In August 1776, George Washington, the commander of the fledging Continental Army, suffered a bruising defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. In September, he made his way to the Roger Morris mansion—a circa-1765 hilltop country house high above Harlem.

Roger Morris was a British army colonel who had left the city, so Washington made the Federal-style mansion his temporary headquarters before the battle of Harlem Heights. Washington then moved on to White Plains, and the now-vacant country estate became the headquarters of both British and Hessian commanders as the war progressed.

In 1810, two decades after Washington became the first U.S. President, a wealthy couple named Eliza and Stephen Jumel took up residence—hence the mansion’s current name, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Today, this oldest house in Manhattan is a museum on lovely Jumel Terrace in appropriately named Washington Heights.

I don’t think any museum visitors claim to have seen Washington’s ghost. But Eliza Jumel, an infamous social climber who later married Aaron Burr, supposedly haunts the mansion.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

The blazing colors and old-school design of two Manhattan store signs

December 26, 2022

It’s a special thrill to come across a vintage New York City store sign that’s never caught your eye before. The design, the typeface, the colors—it all hits you at once, making you feel like you’ve found a magical spot in Gotham where mom-and-pop shops aren’t the exception and time stands still.

That’s the feeling I had after happening upon these two time machine signs a while back, one on the Lower East Side and the other on the opposite end of Manhattan in East Harlem.

On Essex Street is the signage for fourth generation-run M. Schames & Son Paints. I don’t know how old the sign is, but M. Schames got its start in 1927, according to the company Facebook page. The business appears to have moved to 90 Delancey Street.

The sign for Casa Latina, on East 116th Street, is another portal to the New York of the 1950s or 1960s, when Italian Harlem transformed into Spanish Harlem and salsa music came into its own.

Family owned and operated for over 50 years, the shop sells Latin music, instruments, and collectibles, per their Facebook page. Actually, make that sold. According to, Casa Latina is no longer in business. At least the wonderful sign is still there.

Strange carriages on an unpaved, unknown stretch of Seventh Avenue

October 17, 2022

There’s a lot to unravel in this postcard of Seventh Avenue around 1900. First, what stretch of Seventh are we looking at? This doesn’t look like downtown, where Seventh Avenue would be lined with a mishmash of older walkup buildings.

This Seventh Avenue doesn’t look like the section below Central Park, which at the time had transformed into a luxury apartment house district.

Could the view be of Seventh Avenue above the park in Harlem, where rapid residential development at the end of the 19th century would explain the more uniform rows of apartment buildings? It could account for the yet-to-be-paved road as well.

Then there are the unusual vehicles with just a driver’s seat and four small wheels. They’re too small to be considered carriages or coaches, and the formation of them on the road suggests a race of some kind—with crowds on the sidewalk eagerly watching.

[MCNY: x2011.34.385]

Who carved a horse above the entrance to this East Side brownstone?

October 3, 2022

East 116th Street between Second and Third Avenues has a long history as a bustling shopping strip—first as a crosstown street between the Second and Third Avenue Els in the heart of Harlem’s Little Italy, and since the 1940s and 1950s as a main thoroughfare for predominantly Hispanic East Harlem.

235 East 116th Street

The brownstone-fronted houses on the north side of the street form a handsome, stately row. Built when Italian laborers began moving into an area already colonized by German, Irish, and Jewish residents, you can imagine that these homes were owned by more middle-class folks in what was otherwise a working-class and poor neighborhood.

But on Number 235, which borders a historic church, something curious is carved above the entrance. It’s the image of a horse, in motion with no saddle, framed by a rectangular space set inside an oval.

Underneath the horse are what look like Greek letters. Google tells me this translates into, well, “horse.”

Number 235, in 1929, is to the right of the church; see the oval above the door

I’ve found myself passing by this horse a few times in recent months, and it’s an unusual relic, something I’ve never seen on any other brownstone entrances. Based on the black and white images of the house below, it seems that the horse has been here since at least 1929.

Stables and carriage houses in pre-automobile New York City often had an ornamental horse head or horse image outside the building, but this brownstone—built in 1879—doesn’t appear to have ever been used as a boarding space for horses.

From 1939-1941

Could someone involved in the carriage industry have lived here? Newspaper archives indicate the brownstone was home to Charles Schneider in 1907, profession unknown. In the 1910s and 1920s it was occupied by Salvatore A. Cotillo and his family. Cotillo was a Fordham-educated lawyer who immigrated from Naples as a boy and later became a state senator and then a city judge. Other owners and occupants haven’t been identified.

The horse could be a symbol of sorts, harkening back to ancient Greek or Roman mythology. Or maybe a resident created it on a whim? It’s here to stay, and I’d love to know the origins.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York City Department of Records & Information Services]

This decaying building was Central Harlem’s first apartment house

September 30, 2022

Apartment living was still a strange new concept to New Yorkers in the Gilded Age. But that didn’t stop developers from turning Seventh Avenue between West 55th Street and Central Park South into Gotham’s first luxury apartment house district.

Opening their doors to elite tenants between 1879 and 1885 were spectacular residences like the Van Corlear, the Wyoming, the Navarro Flats, the Ontiora, and the Osborne. (Only the latter two are still standing, unfortunately.)

The Washington Apartments

A few miles north, Seventh Avenue (now known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) in Central Harlem was also transforming into an apartment house district in the 1880s. Rather than hoping to lure very wealthy residents, developers in Harlem were aiming for a more middle- to upper-middle class clientele.

“Between the 1870s and 1910 Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of record numbers of new single-family row houses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1993.

From 122nd Street

Much of this new housing was intended for the emerging class of professionals who desired quality homes within easy commuting distance of the city’s main business and shopping districts. With three elevated train lines extending to 129th Street, and electricity and phone service set to arrive by the end of the decade, Harlem was moving from a sparsely populated enclave to a fully urbanized part of the metropolis.

One financier who profited from this speculative development in Harlem was Edward H.W. Just. Born in Germany, Just came to New York in the 1830s and co-founded the Just Brothers Fine Shirt manufacturing company. By the 1880s and 1890s, the company had stores on Ladies’ Mile—the Gilded Age city’s premier shopping district from Broadway to Sixth Avenue between 10th and 23rd Streets.

The Washington Apartments are on the right, recognizable thanks to its pediment

Just began investing in real estate in Harlem, purchasing land on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 122nd Street. He hired Mortimer C. Merritt—an independent architect who designed Hugh O’Neill’s Sixth Avenue department store, with its signature beehive domes—to draw plans for an apartment house.

“Edward Just was concerned about providing solid middle-class housing in Harlem and was an advocate of the large apartment house, a building type which in 1883 had only recently begun to gain popularity and enough cache to be acceptable to New York’s middle class,” states the LPC report.

Washington Apartments, 1940

Construction commenced in 1883, and one year later the building was completed. A harmonious, eight-story Queen Anne creation of red and light brick, stone, and terra cotta as stunning as any Midtown apartment house, the Washington Apartments was the first apartment residence in Central Harlem.

Thirty families made the new building, with its signature triangular pediment, their home. “The occupants included doctors, lawyers, bankers, public accountants, and builders, many of whom had servants who lived with them,” per the LPC Report. “A number of residents had offices in lower Manhattan and were able to live in Harlem and conveniently commute to work because of the recently constructed elevated railroad.”

The LPC doesn’t specify the ethnic backgrounds of these middle-class residents, but one can assume these were white New Yorkers. Central Harlem’s transition into a predominantly African American district didn’t begin until the early 1900s.

“The real estate bubble burst in 1904-1905 when people realized that no one was sure when the subway line would be completed, and that too many apartment buildings had been created, and there was not enough demand—and even if there was demand the rents were too high for most people to afford,” states CUNY’s Macauley Honors College. “Thus to avoid losing the investment, some landlords allowed blacks to move into the neighborhoods and pay high rents, as was the norm for black tenants in the city.”

The ethnic makeup of the residents of the Washington Apartments, however, remained the same until the 1920s. “With all the changes occurring nearby, the Washington Apartments maintained its white, middle-class residents through the 1920s,” per the LPC report. “Interior changes made from 1915 through 1920 did, however, create smaller apartments so that the building, which had been constructed to house 30 families in 1883, was home to 63 families and a restaurant in 1932.”

Over the next decades, ownership of the Washington Apartments changed hands several times, allowing the building to fall into disrepair. In 1977, the city of New York purchased the almost 100-year-old dowager. “Rehabilitation began in the late 1980s,” the LPC report says.

No longer owned by the city these days, the Washington Apartments desperately need another rehabilitation. CBS News aired a report in early September on the building’s broken locks, nonworking security cameras, vandalism, and elevator problems, among other troubling issues. The residents of this early apartment house, which influenced the development and feel of Central Harlem and was landmarked by the city in 1993, deserve better.

[Third image: MCNY, F2011.33.1577; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collections]

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

An awe-inspiring arch in Central Park’s North Woods

June 13, 2022

Most of Central Park is a pleasure ground of playgrounds, pathways, gentle hills, and rolling meadows. As you head north at about 102nd Street, however, much of the terrain transforms into a woodland wildlife landscape with thick woods, waterfalls, and a ravine.

Amid this more rustic, secluded environment—intentionally designed by co-creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to feel like the deep woods of the Catskills or Adirondacks—is Central Park’s most incredible bridge.

Huddlestone Arch isn’t the biggest of the park’s 36 bridges, and it’s not necessarily the prettiest. But it’s the one that takes its stones straight from the park itself and earns top prize as an engineering feat.

The enormous boulders that make up the arch, placed together by hand, stay in place not because of mortar or other supporting material but gravity.

The boulders are arranged so they “huddle” together and keep their place, making the bridge strong enough to support the East Drive above it and act as a gateway to the Loch, the stream that winds its way through the ravine.

Huddlestone Arch in 1895

“Only gravity and pressure keep the massive boulders in place,” explains the Central Park Conservatory.

Huddlestone Arch was completed in 1866, and it’s parallel to roughly 107th Street closer to Fifth Avenue. On the other side of the arch is the Lasker Rink and Harlem Meer. The Rink is currently under construction, and right now the arch is fenced off. The footpaths to the arch are accessible.

Much of Central Park may be an illusion; Olmsted and Vaux brilliantly recreate unspoiled nature across the park’s 843 often rocky acres. But if you’re feeling adventurous and can’t get to New Paltz, this awe-inspiring engineering marvel is waiting for you.

[Third image: MCNY X2010.11.1274]

The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

June 10, 2022

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

The last “vulgar” survivor of a row of four Fifth Avenue mansions

May 30, 2022

First there were four. Built in 1901 by brothers William and Thomas Hall as speculation developments, the row of mansions from 1006-1009 Fifth Avenue each featured six stories of eclectic Beaux Arts details and a premier address in the late Gilded Age city’s millionaire colony.

Today only one remains. Number 1009, on the corner of 82nd Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stands like a long slender ghost of New York at the turn of the last century. It’s one of a handful of row house mansions left on upper Fifth Avenue.

As much as New Yorkers today admire Gilded Age mansions like Number 1009, with its fairy tale balconies, mansard roof, romantic bays, and fanciful facade carvings, not everyone back then was a fan.

Critic Montgomery Schulyer, writing in Architectural Record in October 1901, singled out Number 1009’s “sheet-metal cornice painted to imitate stone,” according to Christopher Gray in a 1995 New York Times article.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Schuyler wrote, via Gray’s article, “that, when a man goes into ‘six figures’ for his dwelling house, he ought not to make its upperworks of sheet metal. That is a cheap pretense which nothing can distinguish from vulgarity.”

1006-1009 Fifth Avenue in 1925

The criticism didn’t put a dent in sales; the Hall brothers sold all four mansions. Number 1006 went to bank president William Gelshenen and his wife, Katherine, according to the 1977 Landmarks Preservation Commission report for the Metropolitan Museum Historic District. Henry and Kate Timmerman, professions unknown, purchased Number 1007, while a William Augustus and Sarah Hall purchased Number 1008.

1006-1009 in 1940

Number 1009 went to major money: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Duke. Duke was one of the brothers who ran the American Tobacco Company and funded Duke University. The Dukes didn’t stay very long, moving to the Plaza Hotel in 1909, wrote Gray.

The mansions, upper right, in a 1925 postcard

Benjamin Duke’s brother James and his family lived there next, until James Duke relocated to his own new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street. Incredibly, a succession of Duke family members lived in the house at one time or another through the 1970s, when it received landmark designation.

Numbers 1006, 1007, and 1008 weren’t so lucky. “The two houses at numbers 1006 and 1007 were demolished in 1972, amid strong protest, at a time when the Landmarks Preservation Commission was unable to hold public hearings and landmark proposals,” according to the LPC report. Meanwhile, “the much-altered house at number 1008 was demolished in February [1977].”

The entrance on 82nd Street

A 22-story building, 1001 Fifth Avenue, replaced all three.

Number 1009 Fifth Avenue, known today as the Duke-Semans House or the Benjamin N. Duke House, has had a few colorful owners since the turn of the 21st century. In 2006, a billionaire named Tamir Sapir bought the house for a reported $40 million, according to Forbes. In 2010, he flipped it for $44 million to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Slim put the townhouse on the market in 2015 for $80 million. Some interior shots made it online, though it’s unclear if it sold or is still up for grabs.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: MCNY x2011.34.3703]

Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera

January 31, 2022

On the surface, Robert Bracklow probably appeared to his customers and neighbors to be a typical New Yorker.

Canal Street Between Laight and Varick Streets, 1897

Born in 1849, he immigrated to Gotham with his family when he was a child. He grew up during the Civil War and early Gilded Age, then made his living as a stationer and printer—owning his own legal stationary shop in Lower Manhattan, according to the New-York Historical Society.

He lived in Brooklyn, and though he never married, he seemed devoted to his lady friend of many years, a schoolteacher.

14th Street West of Fifth Avenue

But beneath the ordinariness of his life, Bracklow had a special passion for photography, which he discovered in his early 30s.

During early morning outings around Manhattan and sometimes to outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bracklow, nicknamed “Daylight Bob” because he was afraid of the dark (and darkrooms too), “created a picture history of New York’s growth at the turn of the century,” according to a 1984 article in Photography.

Brighton Beach, 1895

Contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz (a fellow member of the Camera Club of New York in the 1890s) were pushing the boundaries of photography as a fine art form.

Yet Bracklow “never embraced Stieglitz’s more abstract artistic vision, nor did he use his photography to expose social ills or make a clear political statement, like his contemporary Jacob Riis,” wrote the New-York Historical Society.

Corner saloon, 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

Instead, most of the thousands of photos Bracklow took were documentary-style, unsentimental glimpses of New York.

His camera captured horse-pulled wagons meandering along rundown streets, new skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, shantytowns and shacks, corner saloons, beachgoers at Coney Island, and other scenes in a changing city.

Dutch Street

The fascinating part about Bracklow’s photography is how all the images he took of a 19th century city shifting into the modern era made it into the hands of museum curators.

It didn’t happen until decades after he passed away. Bracklow died in 1920, and his possessions went to his lady friend, including “3,000 glass plates and 715 platinum prints in 28 scrapbooks,” states Photography.

Church of the Messiah, 34th Street and Park Avenue

“After the house she lived in was sold 30 years later, the collection came to the attention of Alexander Alland, Sr., who bought the negatives from a second-hand furniture dealer and made silver prints from them,” per Photography.

“In 1982, the scrapbooks were given to the New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the photographer’s sweetheart.”

Boy using a water pump on Edgar Street

In 2015, the New-York Historical Society and Metropolitan New York Library Council digitized the entire collection.

Here are some of Bracklow’s images: They aren’t romantic or necessarily artistic, but they perfectly document with composition and clarity the New York he lived in, which was in flux.

Robert Bracklow’s last known photograph of himself

[All photos New-York Historical Society Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection]