Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

The most elite apartment building in Harlem

May 15, 2013

Paulrobeson555EdgecombeavenueWhen the stately Beaux-Arts apartment building at 555 Edgecombe Avenue opened in 1916, it rented to white tenants only.

But the population of Harlem was already changing, from mostly Irish and Jewish residents to African-Americans.

By the 1940s, the building, located on 160th Street at the edge of the posh Sugar Hill neighborhood, was exclusively black.

Sitting high on a bluff and commanding gorgeous views of the treetops of Edgecombe Avenue and across the Harlem River, these 13 floors plus a penthouse were home to Harlem’s elite.

JoelouisThat included academics, entertainers, and athletes such as Count Basie, Joe Louis (below), Sonny Rollins, sociologist Kenneth Clark, and Paul Robeson (above).

And though today it’s officially within the borders of Washington Heights, 555 Edgecombe is historically identified as part of Harlem.

It’s not an especially distinctive building architecturally, but it is handsome and sturdy, an emblem of the neighborhood’s prime years as a center of artistic and activist achievement.

[Photo right: Property Shark]

Mysterious male names over tenement doorways

May 13, 2013

Ever notice that when a tenement building has a name, it tends to be female? Bertha, Florence, Rose, Sylvia—names popular at the turn of the last century, when so many tenements were built, are etched above doorways all over the city.

But a handful of tenements buck the trend and appear to be named for a man. Is it the developer himself, or just a random name that happen to appeal to circa-1900 ears?

Jerometenementname

I wonder if that’s the case with Jerome. It’s the name of a tenement in Morningside Heights, perhaps a nod to Leonard Jerome, a flashy 19th century financier whose name still graces a park and thoroughfare in the Bronx? He’s also the grandfather of Winston Churchill.

Theodoretenementname

Theodore, on the Upper East Side, could be a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt. Or the builder’s son or brother?

Rogertenementname

The Roger, on 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in Washington Heights, is named for Roger Morris, a British army colonel who fought in the French and Indian War.

In the 1760s, he retired to an Upper Manhattan estate (now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion) that still stands today.

Edgarcourttenementname

I don’t know who Edgar was or why a tenement on West 125th Street was named for him. But instead of the name being carved above the door, it’s laid in tile on the floor.

A riot sparked by a rumor erupts on 125th Street

April 18, 2013

DailynewsharlemriotheadlineThere are differing accounts of the violence and mayhem. But one thing seems clear: it all started because of a rumor.

In March 1935, a Puerto Rican teen was caught shoplifting a pen knife at the Kress Five and Ten store (“known for its reluctance to hire black clerks,”) on West 125th Street.

“A Negro woman saw store employees search the thief; she became hysterical and shouted that the prisoner was being beaten by his captors, although he was not harmed, and soon the word got about that a Negro boy had been killed,” summarized The New York Times that week.

Police Officer Leading Injured ManBy evening, Communist organizations and a group calling itself the Young Liberators gathered outside the Kress store, handing out flyers that claimed the boy had been brutally beaten.

Crowds grew, and Harlem simmered with rage. Mayor La Guardia urged calm, but at about 6 p.m., rioting had begun.

“Roving bands of Negros, with here and there a sprinkling of white agitators, stoned windows, set fire to several stores, and began looting,” reported a separate Times story. “By 1:30 a.m., the worst of the rioting was ended, but sporadic outbreaks occurred up until 4 a.m.”

The next day, order was restored. “Overall, three African Americans were killed and nearly sixty were injured,” reports Blackpast.org.  “Seventy five people, mostly blacks, were arrested by the police. The riot caused over $200 million in property damage.”

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An investigation found that widespread discrimination, police aggression, and racial injustice contributed to the violence.

What’s called the Race Riot of 1935 was a forerunner of riots in 1943 and 1964, and has been deemed a sign that the “optimism and hopefulness of the Harlem Renaissance was dead.”

[Above photo by Sid Grossman: Eighth Avenue and 125th Street, that site of the riot, in 1939. Second photo: Bettmann/Corbis; the teenage shoplifter and the police. Top: New York Daily News newspaper headline]

Outdated subway signs that still point the way

April 17, 2013

There are regular subway signs, and then there are the ones that give clear directions—in these cases, using names no longer widely used.

The Port Authority Building, the Art Deco structure built in 1932 that stretches from 14th to 15th Streets on Eighth Avenue, must have been important; it scored its own sign in the station at that corner.

Portauthoritysubwaysign

Google bought it in 2010, and it now serves as their famous New York City headquarters. I wonder what old-school Port Authority employees would think of the trick doors in the library and Lego play area.

Here’s a peek inside, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

I’d never heard of the B and D trains referred to as “concourse trains.”

Concoursetrainsignarrow

But they made up a branch of the IND called the Concourse Line, opened in 1933 and running from 145th Street (where the photo was located) and 205th Street in the Bronx, under the Grand Concourse.

Pennstationsubwaysignage

Penn Railroad sounds quaint, but it’s easy enough to decipher. I wonder how many tourists and new New Yorkers know what BMT and H&M mean—and no, it certainly has nothing to do with the store!

A fading reminder of Harlem’s farming history

April 15, 2013

Flour? Hay? Grain? It’s almost hard to believe that this faded advertisement, on the side of a building on West 128th Street in Harlem, is for real.

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But there it is, seemingly a reminder of the neighborhood’s long-ago incarnation as farmland.

It’s on the same block as the new St. Nicholas Park apartments, and if development trends in the area continue, the vacant lot that allows us to see the ad may not be empty much longer.

A founding father’s country home in Harlem

April 8, 2013

Today, wealthy New Yorkers boast of luxury estates upstate and in the Hamptons. But two centuries ago, prominent residents chose Upper Manhattan as the location of their grand manors.

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These scenic estates had names like Pinehurst, Minniesland, and Mount Morris (former home of Aaron Burr and his wife and now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion).

Hamiltongrangeengraving1880Ex-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, the face of the $10 bill, also had an uptown estate, which he called the Grange, after his father’s ancestral home in Scotland.

In 1802, disenchanted with Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, he “threw himself into building a house in northern Manhattan nine miles from town,” writes Richard Brookhiser in Alexander Hamilton, American.

Hamilton commissioned architect John McComb Jr. (the designer of Gracie Mansion) to build a Federal-style mansion on 32 acres near today’s 143rd Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem.

ThegrangesecondlocationIt was a simple, dignified house on a high foundation amid fields and woods.

“The bay windows had sweeping views of the Harlem River to the east and the Hudson River to the West,” writes Brookhiser.

Front and rear porticos were complemented by side piazzas. On the lawn, Hamilton planted 13 sweet gum trees (for the 13 colonies), gifts from George Washington.

Hamilton only had the house for two years. In 1804, he was fatally wounded during his infamous dual with political rival Burr.

AlexanderhamiltonportraitYet the Grange lived on. After changing owners several times, it was moved to Convent Avenue and 141st Street in 1889.

There, sandwiched between a church and an apartment building (above photo), it fell into disrepair as Harlem became urbanized.

In 2008, the Grange was trucked to its third location: inside St. Nicholas Park at the end of brownstone-lined Hamilton Terrace, with the Gothic City College campus overhead.

Maintained by the National Park Service, the Grange has been beautifully renovated and is open to the visitors.

[Second and Third photos: NYPL Digital Collection]

A mystery bridge in a Harlem subway station

April 1, 2013

It’s a shame that the mosaics lining the walls of the 125th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station are so caked in grime. They depict a version of Harlem very different from its gritty urban image.

HarlemIRTbridgemosaic

There’s a white church steeple, a house or two set among green hills, and a tidy little bridge stretching over a gentle river.

The steeple and houses seem to reflect Harlem’s past as a mostly rural village from the 17th century until the late 19th century. But what bridge are we looking at?

Harlemriverbridge1861

This New York times article calls it a steel-girder bridge.

And while it might depict one of the steel bridges that crossed the Harlem River at the time (or still cross it), I wonder if the image in the mosaic is actually based on the above illustration of the Harlem Bridge in the 1860s.

Subway mosaics like this one decorate many of the original IRT stations in Manhattan. The 125th Street station opened in 1918—just about when nostalgia for Harlem’s small-town past might be in vogue.

[Bridge illustration:New York Public Library Digital Gallery]

The long-gone ironworks of an older Manhattan

March 29, 2013

You don’t always notice them underfoot as you walk down New York’s sidewalks. But these old manhole and coal chute covers—the ones with the name and address of the ironworks company that created it—provide clues about an older, vanished city.

IClamanstoverepairscover

Take this one above, made by the homey-sounding I. Claman Stove Repairs company. It was spotted on Washington Place in the West Village.

I. Claman was located at 94 Orchard Street, an address now occupied by a craft brewery that caters to a young, social, moneyed crowd.

BMasormanholecover

B. Masor & Co. used to make manhole covers like this one, found off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, at 721-31 East 133rd Street.

I’m not sure if the address is for Manhattan or for the Bronx. Either way, the business is kaput.

Abbotthardwaremanholecover

Abbott Hardware, once at Columbus Avenue in the West 90s, created this coal hole cover. It’s still part of the sidewalk on St. Luke’s Place off Seventh Avenue South.

But the days of upper Columbus Avenue housing an ironworks company are long over. The old tenements there were razed decades ago to make way for big-box apartments—strangely all in the same shade of beige.

An anonymous valentine sent to East 121st Street

February 13, 2013

I wonder who mailed this sweet yet message-less card to Miss Elsie Mangels, who apparently resided at 447 East 121st Street in February 1910?

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Her residence looks like it no longer exists; a housing development and some empty lots occupy that address today.

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The card comes from the New York Public Library’s digital collection—a treasure of old ephemera, including vintage Valentine cards.

Sugar Hill: once Harlem’s most glamorous enclave

January 28, 2013

Harlem has lots of lovely, little-known streets and micro-neighborhoods. One of the grandest is Sugar Hill, an area rich with beautiful row houses, handsome apartment buildings, and a towering view of upper Manhattan.

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Bounded roughly by 145th Street to the upper 150s and Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues, it was developed in the early 20th century for well-to-do white New Yorkers.

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But after a real-estate recession, the neighborhood soon become home to a black elite, a place synonymous with money and the sweet life.

409Edgecombeave“By the late 1920s, an area that had once been part of Washington Heights was gradually becoming Sugar Hill,” according to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.

“This new upscale neighborhood would eventually become home to black celebrities such as Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, and A’Lelia Walker and would have an influence on the Harlem Renaissance because the writers, musicians, athletes, civic and political leaders, and others who came to live on Sugar Hill sponsored and participated in talks, soirees, and literary gatherings there.”

SugarhilledgecombeaveviewA century later, the architectural treasures of Sugar Hill remain, like the neo-
renaissance houses in the top photo, built from 1896 and 1898 on St. Nicholas Avenue.

At 409 Edgecombe Avenue is a 1917 apartment residence (above). It’s the former home of W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. The view across Jackie Robinson Park is pretty incredible (right).