Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

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

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

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.

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

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]