Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

Two mystery initials on a 125th Street building reveal a former department store

September 16, 2021

Sometimes the ghosts of New York City put clues about Gotham’s past right under your nose.

That’s what happened on a recent walk down busy 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. On an empty building partially hidden behind scaffolding and a blue tarp are two letters, entwined like a logo: KC.

The initials can be seen from the sidewalk, and they pose the question: What’s KC?

Turns out these initials stand for Koch & Co., a once-heralded department store with its roots in the city’s Gilded Age, when mass consumerism was born and the idea of shopping for leisure took hold.

Henry C.F. Koch, an immigrant from Germany, founded his eponymous emporium with his father-in-law in 1860, according to Walter Grutchfield. Their first store opened at Carmine and Bleecker Streets, then made the jump the Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in 1875.

At the time, the Sixth Avenue location put Koch & Co. squarely in New York’s burgeoning Ladies Mile Shopping District, which roughly spanned Broadway to Sixth Avenue and 10th Street to 23rd Street.

Koch & Co.’s competition on Ladies Mile would have been B. Altman’s on Sixth and 19th Street, Hugh O’Neill & Co. on Sixth and 21st, and Macy’s at Sixth and 14th Street. These and other department stores sold everything from fashion to furniture to food to women who were free to browse and buy without being accompanied by male escort, as was the usual custom at the time.

In 1892, perhaps taking note of population shifts and the elevated railroads that opened uptown Manhattan to residential development, Koch relocated his store to a new building at 125th Street.

“At that time the street was residential in nature, and H. C. F. Koch & Co. were pioneers in leading the changes that converted 125th St. into a shopping street,” Grutchfield wrote.

Koch & Co. certainly got good press. In a New York Times article from 1893, a reporter wrote: “The great store of H.C.F. Koch Co. in One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, is, par excellence, the emporium of the far uptown district, and consequently the announcement of its Fall opening is attracting thousands of buyers and seekers after the styles of the season.”

Still, it may have been hard at first to lure shoppers so far uptown, as this ad in The New York Times (above) from 1893 hints. Koch himself had moved to Lenox Avenue, and in 1900 he died, passing the business to his sons.

The department store continued until 1930, when it was bought out and closed. The stately building remains, with those CK initials and the name “Koch and Co” carved in stone high above the cornice.

[Third image: NYPL, 1936; fourth image: King’s Views of New York City, 1903; fifth image: New York Times, 1893]

The abolitionist history of a little wood house on Riverside Drive

September 13, 2021

When Berenice Abbott photographed 857 Riverside Drive near 160th Street in 1937, the small, wood-frame house in today’s Washington Heights was a charming relic from New York’s antebellum era.

Berenice Abbott’s photo of 857 Riverside, from 1937

Built in 1851 in the Italianate style, it boasted clapboard siding, wood shutters, a wraparound porch with decorative trim, and a roof topped with an octagon-shaped cupola. The cupola must have allowed for gorgeous views of the Hudson River in the unspoiled countryside of uptown Manhattan.

Today, number 857 retains little of its original beauty. At some point in the 20th century, the cupola was lopped off, the porch ripped away, and much of the clapboard siding removed, replaced by faux stone. The boxy shape of the house still exists, wedged between rowhouses.

But the renovation to the house’s facade couldn’t erase its noteworthy history: number 857 was owned by two New York abolitionists and may have been part of the Underground Railroad.

Dennis Harris, an English-born sugar refinery owner and ardent anti-slavery proponent, lived here between 1852 and 1854, according to a report by the Upper Riverside Residents Alliance, via a New York Times article from January by John Freeman Gill.

Harris originally owned a sugar refinery in today’s Tribeca, and one New York paper contains an 1885 story recalling how Harris helped hide a fugitive slave there and assisted in getting the man to Canada.

The house in 1939-1941, from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services

When that refinery burned down, Harris rebuilt it steps from number 857, at the foot of 160th Street and the Hudson River. He also began running a steamboat from Lower Manhattan to 160th Street and on to Poughkeepsie, which historians in the New York Times article suggest could have been a way to ferry enslaved people up the Hudson and closer to Canada.

Harris, who “gave impassioned antislavery sermons and held abolitionist gatherings” at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on King Street, per the New York Times piece, then sold the house to his friend and fellow abolitionist, Judge John Newhouse.

The Riverside Drive house certainly wouldn’t be the first in New York to have ties to the abolitionist movement. While the city itself was pro-slavery (largely because so many businesses depended on trade with the South), an impassioned abolitionist community thrived before the Civil War. Underground railroad stops are thought to have existed at 36 Lispenard Street, 339 West 29th Street, and 227 Duffield Street in Brooklyn.

An 1865 map of Upper Manhattan stops at 155th Street, revealing how remote 857 Riverside must have been.

The abolitionist backstory of 857 Riverside Drive matters right now, as the developers who own it are planning to tear it down and put up an apartment building. The Alliance is hoping to stop that by getting the house landmarked.

The little house that captured Berenice Abbott’s fancy may be stripped of its historical trappings, but the ghosts of its 19th century history remain.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 3 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Berenice Abbott/NYPL; second photo: WABC; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fourth image: LOC]

The mystery location of a hillside landscape in Harlem

September 12, 2021

In the 1920s and 1930s, Aaron Douglas was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, developing his signature style of painting two-dimensional graphic images of Black men and women that revealed “self-determination and defiance,” as The Art Story described them.

At an unknown date, he also painted this moody landscape of Harlem. In a departure from his better-known work, Douglas depicts a row of dramatic buildings high on a hillside, the riverfront dotted with modest dwellings below.

But where exactly is this scene?

Douglas and his wife lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, a 13-story apartment house in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem with a commanding view of the Harlem River Valley, according to a 1994 article by Christopher Gray in the New York Times. Other elite tenants included Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter White.

Though none of the hillside buildings in the painting resemble number 409, I wonder if this scene isn’t farther north on Edgecombe (officially in Washington Heights), where the avenue overlooks Coogan’s Bluff and the Polo Ground Towers, former home of the Polo Grounds.

The topography there is steep and thick with trees. Then again, this could be West Harlem overlooking an entirely different river, the Hudson. The derrick in the water is another mystery, perhaps it’s for drilling a subway tunnel.

The last colonial-era mile marker remaining on a Manhattan Street

September 6, 2021

Traveling to and from New York by land in the 1700s was not for the faint of heart. The city of about 18,000 people was generally huddled around or below Wall Street, and the few roads that ran north through the wilds of Manhattan were primitive and hazardous.

To help guide hearty travelers by foot, horseback, and stagecoach, city officials installed a series of stone mile markers on the Old Post Road that let people know how far they were from city hall.

The Old Post Road, or King’s Highway, as it was known before the Revolutionary War, followed a preexisting Native American trail into today’s Westchester and then up to Albany or Boston. As its name indicates, the road was used for mail delivery, and Postmaster Benjamin Franklin himself supervised the placing of the mile markers.

Over the years, the mile markers—the first at Rivington Street and the Bowery, and the last in the Bronx near Spuyten Duyvil, according to a 1915 document from the City History Club—disappeared from the streetscape.

Yet one of these “battered and broken milestones,” as an 1895 Sun article put it, still exists today in Upper Manhattan. Amazingly, it’s embedded in a stone retaining wall just steps from Broadway between 211th and 212th Streets.

The milestone, which used to tell travelers that they were 12 miles from the main city, has been part of this stone wall (photo, about 1910) since the end of the 19th century.

How did it end up here? Well, this wasn’t the milestone’s original exact location. According to the Sun, it used to stand on a nearby road called Hawthorne Street, which is the former name of 204th Street.

When construction crews were building roads and otherwise modernizing Inwood, they came across the mile marker that had outlived its purpose. William Isham, a wealthy leather merchant and banker with a nearby estate and mansion (above), took the mile marker and had it embedded into the wall.

“Mr. Isham had the stone marker moved and installed in the wall next to his gate when it was tossed aside by road workers on Broadway,” explains NYC Parks.

“When roadway workers were removing a red sandstone mile marker, William Isham had it installed at the right side of his entrance gate on Broadway,” echoed the Historic Districts Council.

After Isham’s death, his family donated the land from his estate, including the retaining wall with the mile marker, to the city in 1911 to create Isham Park.

Sadly the 12-mile marker has lost its inscription. But it’s still an amazing remnant of the early days of Gotham, when getting far out of the main part of town could be treacherous and disorienting.

Though it’s the only milestone technically on a Manhattan street, there’s at least one other Old Post Road mile marker preserved in Manhattan: the 11-mile marker. It’s on the grounds of the Morris-Jumel Mansion on 160th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue and is noted with a small plaque.

Brooklyn, on the other hand, has its own mile marker relic still visible on a street. (Or at least it was several years back.) A stub of granite with the number 3 carved into it is on Ocean Parkway and Avenue P. That’s 3 as in three miles to Prospect Park, where Ocean Parkway begins.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYC Parks via Volunteers for Isham Park; fourth image: Wikipedia]

The Medieval-like reformatory for “fallen” women on Riverside Drive

August 23, 2021

In 19th century New York, benevolent societies began springing up. These groups were typically founded by religious leaders or citizens of means to help the less fortunate or end a social evil like alcoholism, gambling, and prostitution.

The Magdalen Asylum in an undated photo

Among these new organizations was the New York Magdalen Benevolent Society, launched in 1830. The Society’s mission, according to 1872’s New York and Its Institutions, was to promote “moral purity, by affording an asylum to erring females, who manifest a desire to return to the paths of virtue, and by procuring employment for their future support.”

In other words, the Magdalen Benevolent Society catered to “fallen women,” so-called “magdalens” who found themselves in the clutches of vice and needed to be reformed.

The asylum building in 1915, surrounded by the Riverside Drive extension and new apartment buildings

In the 1830s, the Society took over the upper floors of a building on Carmine Street and then moved to a larger site far from the city center at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street.

By the late 19th century, the group was looking for new quarters for the 50-100 women they took care of at any one time, who ranged from 10 to 30 years old, states the 1872 guidebook.

In the 1890s, a larger space for a new asylum far out of town in West Harlem was secured. Built specifically for the Society between 138th and 139th Streets, this secluded, fortress-like institution overlooked the Hudson River.

“Designed by architect William Welles Bosworth (1869-1966), the attractive neo-medieval building stood on extensive grounds that led all the way to the edge of the island where railroad tracks traced the Hudson River,” wrote Bronx Community College’s Andrea Ortuño, PhD, in a post for Urban Archive.

“The new building included room for 100 inmates as well as a chapel. Adjacent to the chapel was a separate building that functioned as a laundry––the proceeds from which partially supported the operation of the Magdalen Asylum.” 

The “inmates” (a word used at the time for anyone living in an institutional setting, not just prison) worked the laundry and attended prayer sessions. They also made headlines when they escaped, as these two Evening World articles from June and July 1894 attest.

Slated for demolition in 1961

The asylum on 139th Street was short-lived. “Despite the Magdalen Asylum’s uptown relocation, continued urban development, namely plans to extend Riverside Drive, had an adverse impact on the isolation of inmates,” wrote Ortuño.

“In order to maintain the city’s grid of streets, 139th had to be extended to meet the path of Riverside Drive and hemmed in the south side of the building. The wide sidewalks planned for the east side of Riverside Drive abutted the rear of the asylum and would eventually expose the female inmates to all manner of passersby on the street.”

A replacement is announced: a new apartment complex

The Magdalen Benevolent Society thought it better to relocate once again. By 1904 they’d left for a more remote location in Inwood. Stories of dramatic escapes on the part of the inmates at this new spot, later renamed Inwood House, have been collected from newspaper archives by myinwood.net.

The former asylum building was then turned into the House of the Holy Comforter, which accommodated “incurables,” according to a 1905 New-York Tribune article. After a period of abandonment, the asylum was knocked down in the early 1960s. An apartment complex called River View Towers is on the site now…and no trace of the fallen women once sent there remains.

Riverside Drive has a fascinating history. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour Sunday, August 29 that explores the history of Riverside Drive’s mansions, monuments, and more!

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image: MCNY F2011.33.53; third image: Evening World; fourth image, Evening World; fifth image MCNY x2010.11.3146; sixth image: x2010.11.3145]

6 photos show the dramatic transformation of an 1884 Harlem bank building

August 9, 2021

When the Mount Morris Bank Building was completed in 1884, it was an early showstopper in rapidly developing Harlem, which was starting its makeover from uptown suburb to part of the urban cityscape.

The Mount Morris Bank Building in the 1880s

Some Romanesque Revival, mostly Queen Anne, this six-story beauty at 125th Street and Park Avenue boasted red sandstone blocks, bold arched doorways, and terra cotta ornament on the ground floor and half-basement exterior.

The upper floor apartments looked over the railroad tracks that brought new residents and businesses to the neighborhood. These fashionable flats featured balconies, bay windows, and storybook-like stepped gables.

Now the Corn Exchange Bank, in 1934

The building underwent changes over the years: an 1890 addition doubled its size along Park Avenue, the apartments were renovated into office space at the turn of the century, and the Mount Morris bank became a branch of the Corn Exchange Bank in the 1900s (and the building took on this new name).

A building this delightful should have been celebrated and maintained through the decades.

The building in the 1980s

Instead, this brick and mortar piece of Harlem history was eventually abandoned and sealed off in the 1970s. Landmark status arrived in 1993, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission noting that the building “retains its architectural integrity to a surprisingly high degree.”

With the top floors demolished in 2011

The LPC also made light of Mount Morris Bank’s “historic role as the financial hub of Harlem during the 1900s building boom there,” wrote Newsday.

Unfortunately, a fire on the roof and upper floors in 1997 made the deteriorating structure unsafe. The city bulldozed it down to its ground floor a decade ago, a final insult for a piece of Harlem history. “The Corn Exchange’s signature masonry is at risk of falling, especially since the railroad rumbles only a few feet away,” stated the New York Times in 2009.

Rebuilt and reborn, 2021

This story of deterioration and demolition has an uplifting ending. In the early 2010s, a developer bought the bank building, renovated the ground floor, and rebuilt the upper floors with red brick.

“The building is an entirely new steel-frame structure set within and rising over the 19th-century masonry base, which is all that remains of the original after years of troubles, fire, decay, and gravity,” wrote David Dunlop in the New York Times in 2014.

In 2015, when the new building was completed, East 125th Street and Park Avenue got its showstopper back—a harmonious structure that evokes Harlem’s architectural heritage.

[Top photo: Cornell University Library via Wikipedia; second photo: NYPL; third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: Wikipedia]

This country clapboard house was a 19th century Harlem holdout

August 2, 2021

Back in May, Ephemeral New York published a post about Manhattan’s most charming holdout buildings—the small 19th century walkups that managed to evade the wrecking ball and remain part of the contemporary cityscape.

In the comments section, a reader sent in a link to a photo of another holdout I’d never seen before. It’s a little relic of mid-19th century New York, a clapboard two-story dwelling with a rustic porch, wood shutters, and picket fence with a gate at 109 West 124th Street in Harlem (above, in 1932).

It doesn’t exist anymore; the storybook-like house between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard disappeared in the mid-20th century (below, 1939-1941).

Exactly when it met its end is a mystery, as is how the house successfully hung on for so long. For the century or so that it existed, Harlem went from a bucolic village to a middle class suburb and by the 1920s was the center of Black New York—a magnet for people seeking better opportunities and an incubator of music, art, writing, and culture.

Luckily, some information about the people who lived there gives us something of a narrative. Though it’s unclear when it was built (I’m estimating the 1850s, as it resembles these East Side 1850s houses), by 1876 it was occupied by a Theodore van Houten, according to a New York City directory. “Agent” was listed after van Houten’s name, a clue to his occupation.

In 1887, the Real Estate Record and Building Guide wrote that an Eliza van Houten—likely Theodore’s widow by that time—sold number 109 to a Charles Rilling. The selling price? $10,000. (Above, in an undated photo.)

After the turn of the century, a man named Stanley Lewinsky Corwin resided at the home. Corwin is listed as a delegate to the Second New York City Conference of Charities and Correction in 1911. Perhaps he was a solidly middle class civil servant.

Interestingly, the house spent some time as an art school called the Lenox Art Academy. Several newspaper references in the early 1900s note the classes the school offered and gallery exhibitions.

The trail for number 109 gets cold after that. A tax photo of the house was taken by the city between 1939-1941—the last dated reference I found. It’s a shame this little piece of pre-Civil War Harlem, slipped away from the cityscape. What a story about Harlem’s evolution (above, Lenox Avenue and 124th Street) it could tell!

[Top photo: MCNY 33.173.458; second photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society]

A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view

June 14, 2021

On a dreary stretch of Third Avenue at 121st Street in East Harlem is a block-long, two-story building emptied of tenants, waiting for the wrecking ball.

But hiding behind a metal frame on the exterior is a throwback to a very different New York: the faded imprint of a Woolworth’s sign against that iconic red backdrop: “F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Before Amazon, before Target, and before Walgreens there was Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime store chain that sold everything from underwear to goldfish to school supplies to sewing patterns throughout the 20th century.

Some had lunch counters, popular places to grab a cheap bite before the era of fast food and Starbucks. (Those lunch counters often attracted the down and out and lonely, as I recall from many, many trips to a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s as a kid.)

Woolworth had a strong presence in New York City. In Manhattan alone Woolworth’s occupied storefronts on Eighth Street, both ends of 14th Street, and all the major cross streets up to 125th Street.

Woolworth’s was once a regular shopping stop for all kinds of necessities; in New York City, they even played a role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet in it’s final decades, the store came off as shabby and doddering.

When the store at 2226 Third Avenue was built and then closed is something of a mystery. The last Woolworth’s in the US shut its doors in 1997.

I have a feeling this Woolworth’s disappeared long before that—though it existed in the 1930s, as the NYPL photo shows above, and it made it into the 1940 NYC tax photo, too.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover?

April 27, 2020

Manhattan still has several manhole covers that mark the Croton Aqueduct, the 1842 engineering masterpiece that fed fresh water to the 1840s metropolis from a series of gravity-powered pipes and city receiving reservoirs.

Dated 1862, this one hiding in plain sight on the grimy corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street is thought to be the oldest in the city. It’s might also be the most southerly one, since the Croton manhole cover once on Jersey Street in Noho has disappeared.

But unless it was removed recently (and that’s certainly possible), an almost identical cover, also dated 1862, lies underfoot in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, at First Avenue and 112th Streets.

In the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, it’s a fitting time to take a moment and celebrate what the Croton Aqueduct did for New York City: it brought clean drinking water to an unsanitary city where fresh water was hard to find.

Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted.

A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem

April 20, 2020

Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many residents were infected.

Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in “TB Harlem,” from 1940.

“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its collection.

Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by removing a rib.

“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental,” continues the NMWA. “While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.”