Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

The rural feel of an 1851 Harlem parish house

June 24, 2019

West 126th Street, in today’s Harlem, is an otherwise ordinary urban street of tenements and former factory buildings.

But cross Amsterdam Avenue, and you’ll find a simple wood parish house built in 1851 set back behind a lush front yard and shaded by tall trees.

Stop here for a moment, and you’ll be instantly transported back to mid-19th century Upper Manhattan.

The clapboard building is the former parsonage for St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

Founded in 1823 when West 126th Street was called Lawrence Street, St. Mary’s served the small village of Manhattanville.

Manhattanville itself (below, a depiction of the road to Manhattanville in 1865) has a interesting history.

Laid out in 1806 with its own street grid 8 miles from the downtown city, this industrial town had about 15 houses the year the church was founded.

The congregation was an outgrowth of the more affluent St. Michael’s Church to the south in Bloomingdale, according to the 1998 Landmarks Preservation  Commission report. (St. Michael’s is still here, on West 99th Street.)

The first St. Mary’s church (at left) was a simple white structure consecrated in 1826.

“Manhattanville’s founding families, many of whom were related by marriage, were the core of St. Mary’s early congregation, which also included the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, and Daniel F. Tiemann, mayor of New York in 1858-1860,” states the report.

But most of Manhattanville’s early 19th century residents were poor; they were mainly British and Dutch descendants as well as some African Americans.

This might be why the church became the first in the city to abolish pew rental fees—a normal and accepted practice in New York’s churches at the time.

As Manhattanville grew, so did St. Mary’s. The clapboard parish house was completed in 1851.

In 1908, the original St. Mary’s was replaced by the current church. It was designed by Carrere and Hastings, the architects behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, among other buildings.

Through the 20th century, Manhattanville was subsumed by the larger city. Some vestiges of the old village remain, and the parsonage is the most enchanting example.

St. Mary’s continues to serve the community, an oasis with a rural feel harkening back to a more bucolic Upper Manhattan that’s been lost to urbanization.

[Third image: nycago.org; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 193233.173.477]

A mystery studio building in Washington Heights

June 24, 2019

The tan and brown walkup at Broadway and 153rd Street isn’t particularly eye-catching.

But around the corner on the facade is something curious. Carved into a decorative, ribbon-like banner over the entrance are the words “Trinity Studio.”

Trinity would be for Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, the sloping burial ground that borders 153rd Street and stretches all the way across Broadway to Riverside Drive and 155th Street.

Opened by Trinity Church in 1843, this Trinity cemetery is the final resting ground of the city’s famous and infamous, from John Jacob Astor to Eliza Jumel to Ed Koch.

But Trinity Studio (above, in 1910) presents a mystery.

Did the church or burial ground have anything to do with the studio building?

Dedicated work-living spaces for artists popped up around the turn of the century, like this studio building overlooking Bryant Park.

Trinity Studio appears to be independent of the church, and not for artists necessarily but for “refined people” looking for a 2-3 room uptown pad.

An article in the New York Sun in 1910 states that the building “will be erected from designs by Emery Roth as architect at the southeast corner of Broadway and 153rd Street.”

As this ad illustrates, the main draws were the “perpetual north light” and “magnificent view of Hudson and Palisades.”

Today it’s a coop, and 1-2 room studios are a lot pricier than the $35 (a month, I imagine) going rate in 1910.

[Third image: MCNY, 1910: X2011.34.1275; fourth image: New York Herald]

The tragic story behind Harlem’s St. Clair Place

June 3, 2019

St. Clair Place is one of Upper Manhattan’s forgotten little roads; it cuts through a few low-rise blocks between the Henry Hudson Parkway and West 125th Street.

The street isn’t very pretty. But it’s a lovely name, and you might imagine that it belonged to a former church or old hotel in this once-bucolic stretch of the city once known as Manhattanville.

But the street name probably comes from something distressing: the death of a beloved young boy.

St. Clair (also spelled St. Claire) Pollack was a 5-year-old who lived in the late 1700s with his family on a large estate called Strawberry Hill.

On July 15, 1797, the child fell to his death from the bluffs onto the shore of the Hudson River. (The riverside as it looked in 1814, at left)

St. Clair’s family, prominent merchants in the area, buried this “amiable child,” as it said on his tombstone, on their estate.

The family didn’t stay long. In 1800, they sold the estate to a neighbor, Cornelia Verplanck. St. Clair’s father (or uncle, it’s not clear) requested in writing that his son’s grave not be disturbed.

“There is [a] small enclosure near your boundary fence within which lies the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument,” he wrote, according to a 1917 New York Sun article.

“You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey this enclosure to you, so that you will consider it a part of your estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn prepared to place on the monument which will not lessen its beauty.”

Verplanck did honor Pollack’s request, and so did later owners of the property. Eventually the land became part of Riverside Park.

Here, in a grassy stretch of park north and west of 122nd Street, the tomb of St. Clair Pollack—now the Amiable Child Memorial, under the care of NYC Parks—remains as his family wished two centuries ago.

The grave sits behind an enclosure. (At right, in 1897; left, in 1920). A newer funeral urn and tombstone replaced older ones that suffered under the elements.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh like a flower and is cut down he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not,” reads the stone.

In the late 19th century, with the construction of Grant’s Tomb nearby, there seemed to be great interest in finding out who St. Clair was. An account from the New York Times in 1900 presents a different family background.

The street was officially renamed St. Clair Place in 1920.

[Second photo: NYC Parks; fourth photo: NYH-S; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3159; sixth image: New York Times 1900]

Urban Harlem surrounds a 19th century mansion

April 15, 2019

When the Watt-Pinkney mansion was built on a small hill in early 19th century Harlem, this white beauty with the mansard roof and two-story columns was part of a vast colonial-era farm owned by John De Lancey.

This was the countryside, of course. The city of New York barely extended past Houston Street at the time.

The farm grew corn and potatoes, and the little hill sloped down to a pasture, which bordered the salt marshes of the Harlem River.

Changes came as the 19th century went on. The house was moved to the bottom of the hill so the city could lay out Seventh Avenue and 139th Street.

Elevated trains were extended to Harlem, bringing new residents, commerce, and industry. Parts of the “ancient manor,” as it was called by one newspaper, were carved up and sold off.

The salt marshes were filled in. By the early 1900s, apartment buildings began encircling the estate, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 139th and 140th Streets.

This was no abandoned mansion, though. The sole remaining occupant of the house was Mary Goodwin Pinkney, who was in her 90s.

Pinkney was the stepdaughter of Archibald Watt, a Scottish immigrant who came to New York in the 1820s. He married Pinkney’s widowed mother, whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family.

Watt believed that one day, the entire city would span the island of Manhattan. So he bought as much property as he could, including the De Lancey farm and its mansion.

When the Panic of 1837 hit, the ambitious Watt ran into financial trouble.

To help, Pinkney loaned him money from her inheritance, and in turn, “Watt taught her how to manage the estate,” the Times wrote in a 1908, “and at his death left her the whole of it, on condition that she would share it liberally with the other heirs.”

Watt died in 1843; Pinkey’s mother died in 1883. They and other Watts were buried in the family plot near the house.

Pinkney herself never married. By 1900, she was the only immediate family member left.

“In the old ‘White House’ she has spent her summers for half a century, growing vegetables for her own table on land so valuable that the price of a head of lettuce would probably amount to $5 or more if the interest on the investment were figured out,” wrote the New York Times in 1907.

When Pinkney died in 1908 in her late 90s, her death made headlines.

“For a number of years, Miss Pinkney was well known in the real estate business, having managed the large estate of her stepfather, Archibald Watt, after his death, and she became a noted figure in New York’s real estate development by her shrewd financing of her vast holdings.”

Within a few years, the heirs she was asked to share her fortune with put the property up for sale. The remains of family members buried in the Watt burial ground were dug up and reinterred in Woodlawn Cemetery, where Pinkney was laid to rest as well.

The estate sold fast to developers, and the house itself was gone in the 1920s—one of the last remnants of the remote village of Harlem before it was subsumed by New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6379; second image: painting of the Watt-Pinkney mansion, undated; third photo: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.6380; fourth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6359; fifth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6358; sixth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6383; seventh image: Los Angeles Times, 1908; sixth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6361; eighth photo: MCNY, 1910, x2010.11.6377]

Upper Manhattan once resembled a country town

February 11, 2019

It looks like a country scene: a slender iron bridge, green bluffs across the river, groups of women strolling while shielding themselves with straw hats and sun umbrellas, a couple wheeling a child in a stroller, two men in a carriage led by a single horse.

A Midwestern village? Actually it’s 155th Street on the Harlem-Washington Heights border circa 1900, after the Macombs Dam Bridge opened in 1895 and before this section of Manhattan attracted industry, traffic, and a tidal wave of new residents looking for space and better housing.

The wonderful thing is that Macombs Dam Bridge still stands today, flanked by the same stone sentry towers.

The writing on the wall of an East Side tenement

February 11, 2019

Sometimes in New York you come across a building that’s trying to tell you something. Take this red-brick tenement on the corner of Second Avenue and 109th Street.

At some point in the past, ads were painted on the facade—designed to catch the eyes of Second Avenue El riders and pedestrians in a neighborhood that was once a Little Italy, then became Spanish Harlem by the middle of the century.

Now, perhaps nine decades later, enough faded and weathered paint remains to give us a clue as to what the ads were about.

The ad on the right side of the facade might look familiar to faded-ad fans; that familiar script used to be painted all over the city.

Fletcher’s Castoria was a laxative produced by Charles Fletcher all the way back in 1871. The company promoted the product until the 1920s with ads on the sides of buildings, a few of which can still be seen today.

This photo taken by Charles von Urban (part of the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York) shows a similar ad on East 59th Street in 1932.

The ad—or ads—on the left side of the tenement are harder to figure out. “Lexington Ave” is on the bottom, and it looks like the word “cars” is on top.

A garage? A gas station? For a while I thought the word in the middle might be Bloomingdale’s, a good 60 or so blocks downtown on Lexington. There was—and maybe still is—a very faded Bloomingdale’s ad on a building at 116th Street and Lexington.

Exactly what riders and walkers saw when they passed this corner is still a mystery.

[Third image: MCNY 3.173.367]

A mystery copper-topped building in East Harlem

February 4, 2019

Second Avenue in East Harlem is a wide stretch of road lined mostly with century-old tenements.

Makes sense—most of them date back to when the Second Avenue Elevated opened up northern Manhattan to developers, who built row after row of walkup buildings for New Yorkers desperate to escape the slums of the Lower East Side.

But there’s one building on the southeast corner at 109th Street that’s always come off as more elegant and distinguished along this longtime working class avenue.

With its wide arched windows on the third floor, decorative garlands and wreaths, and green copper facade at the top corner, this was a building meant to impress.

So what was it? A bank, apparently.

Though the department of buildings website doesn’t confirm exactly when the building went up, it certainly looks like a bank from the early 1900s, with refined aesthetics meant to inspire confidence and trust.

It’s also a little unclear what kind of bank this was. In 1918, a man named F.M. Ferrari and his partner, Giuseppe D’Onofrio, applied to operate a private bank here, with the address listed as 2112-2114 or 2118 Second Avenue.

The city refused their application. Yet by the 1920s, Ferrari was running a bank called the Harlem Bank of Commerce at this address.

This was the center of Italian Harlem, at the time Manhattan’s biggest Little Italy—with 89,000 residents by 1930.

That was three times the number of people in the Little Italy on Mulberry Street. With so many working people, Ferrari’s bank likely had plenty of customers.

In 1928, Ferrari changed the name to City Trust Company, advertising bank vaults and other banking services.

At some point, the bank disappeared, and the building was occupied by a mystery store (see the 1940s tax photo, above left), a small factory, and offices.

Today, East Harlem’s copper-topped building seems unoccupied—its large first-floor windows covered up, and its side entrance at 300 East 109th Street looking abandoned.

[Fourth image: NYC Tax Photos database; Fifth Image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1928]

The haunting outlines of old New York buildings

January 28, 2019

Anyone who walks the streets of the city comes across these ghosts. They’re the faded outlines of what was once a New York home or building, sometimes still with the demarcations separating rooms—as the side of an empty tenement on Third Avenue and 109th Street shows in the image below.

Knocked down or uncovered during construction, they usually reveal themselves only for months, maybe a few years, before they are quickly covered up again when a new structure is built over it.

My favorites are the edges of the kinds of buildings New York doesn’t build anymore, like this second one above, what looks like a squat, three-story walkup with a small chimney. It was once attached to the side of a larger tenement on West 96th Street near Riverside Drive.

A peaked roof (above) at Franklin Street and one-block Benson Place north of City Hall piques my interest. Was an old Dutch or Federal-style building here in the 17th or 18th centuries, when Benson Place was still a dead-end alley?

This tenement-looking outline is an unusual one (above); it’s on Lexington Avenue in the 50s. I wonder what the view from the back must have looked like, and how easy it was to see what the neighbors in other tenements were doing.

On Madison Avenue and 31st Street, an old-school tenement that blended in with its neighbors was torn down (above). It looks like it was set back a bit from the sidewalk, and it too probably had a wooden water tower on top.

I noticed this phantom outline in Tribeca several months ago (above), but I still am not sure what kind of building stood here. Something appropriately low and squat, maybe a stable? The dark smudges on the brick building that used to be its neighbor look like smoke stains from a chimney.

This last one, I believe from Greenwich Street downtown, is also a mystery. The angle of the roofline makes me think it’s a remnant of an old Manhattan structure of some kind when the city was concentrated below today’s Soho.

The Beaux-Arts arch deep beneath 168th Street

January 7, 2019

New York has many subway stations with artistic touches meant to enchant and inspire. But I’m not aware of any station with a beaux-arts arch like the one on the 1 train platform at 168th Street.

The white tiles, as well as a decorative wreath at the arch’s highest point, give an ordinary subway ride an air of celebration and glory. (If you look past the grime, of course.)

So why is there an arch at 168th Street? Perhaps it’s structural rather than purely decorative.

The uptown IRT stations at 168th Street, 181st Street, and 191st Street run along what’s called the Washington Heights Mine Tunnel.

At the turn of the century, workers cut through bedrock to build these stations, and the platforms are several stories below ground.

They’re the deepest three stations in the entire subway system, according to the ever-informative nycsubway.org.

Perhaps engineers decided that an arch was needed to keep the station from caving in. And in an era when city buildings were designed to be inspiring, architects chose to make the arch something artistic and uplifting.

The third photo shows the arch as well as one of the terra cotta light fixtures still in the station, another wonderful original touch!

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.