Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

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.

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]

The glorious mansions on a lovely Harlem block

November 27, 2017

Nineteenth century New York had lots of freestanding, single-family mansions.

Few survive today, but one Harlem block is host to four. These bells-and-whistles monuments to wealth and status do a pretty good job blending in with the walkups that surround them.

You’ll find these mansions at St. Nicholas Place and 150th Street, in the middle of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

Sugar Hill is roomy and lovely, but I don’t think the name was in use when James Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) decided to build this magnificent castle of a home in 1888 (below, in 1895).

It’s a Medieval limestone mansion with 64 windows of mosaic glass and 30 rooms at 10 St. Nicholas Place—an offshoot of St. Nicholas Avenue, a high and wide road popular among the Gilded Age rich who went coaching there.

“Bailey thought that St. Nicholas Place would be lined with other mansions and would develop into a Harlem version of lower Riverside Drive,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2001 New York Times piece.

“But Bailey was disappointed by apartment construction in the area in the 1890s,” Gray stated, and he sold the home in 1904. In 2014 after years of use as a funeral home, the Bailey house underwent a renovation.

Next door to the Bailey Mansion and visible in the above photo is another castle of a home, one whose backstory isn’t quite clear.

The AIA Guide to New York City noted it but didn’t provide any detail; a family named Alexander occupied the wood and stone Queen Anne beauty, with its unusual porch and gumdrop turret, early in the 20th century.

Across 150th Street is 6-8 St. Nicholas Place. Once it was two separate mansions: Number 6 is the Romanesque-inspired rowhouse built in 1895 by Jacob Baiter, a yeast manufacturer.

Number 8 (below) is the John W. Fink House, a Queen Anne from 1886.

“Now used as a hotel, these two buildings were connected in a conversion to a psychiatric sanitarium in 1912,” states Carolyn D. Johnson in Harlem Travel Guide.

At the end of short 150th Street on Edgecomb Avenue and with commanding views of upper Manhattan is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House.

This fortress of loveliness went up in 1890—when Harlem “still resembled a country village,” the Landmarks Preservation plaque on the front of the home says.

Nicholas Benziger was a successful publisher of religious texts. “The mansion features a flared mansard roof pierced by numerous gabled dormers and a richly colored iron-spot brick facade,” the plaque informs us.

In the 1920s, it became part of a sanitarium, and then in 1989 became permanent housing for formerly homeless adults (above).

[Third photo: MCNY x2012.61.22.37; seventh photo: New York Times; ninth photo: mrmhadams.typepad.com]

A view of New York’s oldest and loveliest bridge

October 9, 2017

The Brooklyn Bridge is a beauty, yes, but for architectural grace and historical enchantment (and as a place for long late-night walks, as Edgar Allan Poe discovered), you just can’t beat High Bridge—the 1848 span built to bring city residents fresh water from the Croton Reservoir upstate.

Standing 84 feet above the Harlem River, the High Bridge’s 15 arches were an elegant sight for people on ships below or on the Bronx or Manhattan side above.

A pedestrian walkway was added in the 1860s—and it’s open again after being closed to the public for 40 years.