Archive for the ‘Upper West Side/Morningside Hts’ Category

The many lives of Riverside Drive’s River Mansion

November 12, 2018

Sometimes you come across a house in New York City that you just sense has a good backstory.

The red-brick house at 337 Riverside Drive is such a place—and its fortunes reflect more than a century of changes on a winding street that began as the West Side’s answer to Upper Fifth Avenue.

Built in 1902 along with its restrained neighbor to the east on 106th Street, it’s an “opulent Beaux-Arts brick and limestone mansarded mansion,” reported the AIA Guide to New York City.

The curves above the bay windows give it something of an Art Nouveau feel too.

The name inscribed above the front door, “River Mansion,” is perfectly fitting; the oversized home sits on a corner high point beside Riverside Park with enchanting Hudson River views.

Of course, the first occupant of such a spectacular place couldn’t be any old titan of industry.

It was purchased in 1903 by Julia Marlowe, a famous Shakespearean actress whose life at the time had all the trappings of modern day celebrity: divorce, talk of a nervous breakdown, and loneliness.

Marlowe—known for taking long walks in Central Park to practice her lines—probably didn’t spend much time here though, writes author Daniel J. Wakin in his book, The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block.

She was on the road a lot, and in 1906 she sold River Mansion to the wife of businessman Lothar Faber, whose Greenpoint pencil factory is now a residence.

The Fabers already lived on Riverside Drive, and in a few years they left River House, which took on a succession of short-term owners.

By the time the Depression hit, River House had been converted to a rooming house, wrote Wakin, one tinged by tragic stories.

A fourth-floor apartment was the home of a doctor who committed suicide by jumping out the window. An Italian-born painter also had a room here; he made a meager living and died poor and alone in Bellevue Hospital of a brain tumor.

“As the neighborhood continued to decline, River Mansion changed hands several more times in the 1940s,” wrote Wakin, adding that a woman named Mrs. Dickmann ran a boardinghouse here in the 1950s.

River House’s bounce back started in the 1970s. It was part of a newly created historic district, and the house went back to being a single-family residence; a music school operated here.

In 1978, Seagrum heir Edgar Bronfman, Jr., bought River Mansion and turned it into his family home. He’s since moved out, but the house remains a personal residence.

The Riverside Drive of the early 1900s (seen above at left) is no longer. But Riverside Drive once again thrives today—and River Mansion still stands.

The facade and structure don’t appear to have changed very much. And as a treat, the original cast-iron fence from Julia Marlowe’s time continues to encircle the place, according to the Riverside-West 105th Street Historic District Designation Report.

[Fifth photo: University of Cincinnati; sixth image: NYPL]

The artist and scholar gargoyles on 121st Street

November 12, 2018

Copper bay windows, grand arches, juliet balconies and a sloping roof: As university housing goes, the 8-story Bancroft Apartments are pretty fanciful.

Preeminent architect Emery Roth designed the building, which opened at 509 West 121st Street in 1910.

By 1920, it had been acquired by Columbia University’s Teachers College, just a block away in the city’s new Acropolis neighborhood, so named for the many schools in the area.

Considering that what’s now called Bancroft Hall ended up housing educators, it makes sense that the gargoyles decorating the facade are nods toward higher learning.

Behold the building’s wonderful painter and scholar (a writer perhaps, pointing to letters in a book?). I don’t think these characters represent any specific people but instead symbolize creativity, education, and imagination.

Walter Grutchfield has more on the Bancroft Apartments, including an amazing shot of an inscription on the upper wall. For more Morningside Heights gargoyles, check out these goofy gargoyle examples.

[Top photo: Columbia University]

The sailing ships of the Columbus Circle subway

October 8, 2018

Whether you consider Christopher Columbus a hero or a villain, there’s one thing we can all hopefully get behind: some circa-1904 artistic images at the Columbus Circle subway station.

Behold the blue, green, and off-white faience plaques depicting the Santa Maria, the largest of the three sailing ships Columbus commanded on his first voyage in search of a shorter route to the Far East, according to this 1979 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

These restored sailing ship reliefs (the second image dates to 2011, as the restoration was in progress) line the platform of today’s 1 train, one of the original stops on the IRT that opened in 1904.

City subway stops celebrate all kinds of nautical images—like at Fulton Street, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat is immortalized on the platform of the 4 and 5 trains.

New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

September 24, 2018

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY 90.13.4.320]

Why a West Side park is named for an Italian poet

August 20, 2018

New York City parks and playgrounds don’t just honor the usual city founders and war heroes—they’re named for artists, singers (Diana Ross Playground, anyone?), even vaudeville comedians.

But unless you count the Shakespeare garden in Central Park, not many are named for poets.

So how did a postage stamp of green on the Upper West Side in 1921 become a monument for Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet of the Middle Ages best known for the Divine Comedy, completed in the 14th century?

It wasn’t just a concession to the growing Italian-American population in Manhattan at the time. But the growth of this immigrant group was instrumental in naming the park and erecting the bronze statue of Alighieri that still stands.

“The New York branch of the Dante Alighieri Society had intended to erect a Dante monument on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912,” states the New York City Parks Department website.

“Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso (the first Italian daily newspaper in the United States), urged subscribers to contribute towards the creation of the statue.”

Barsotti had already helped erect monuments honoring other Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi in Washington Square, Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, Giovanni Verrazano in Battery Park, and composer Giuseppe Verdi in Verdi Square—not far from the soon-to-be site of Dante Park, which was then known as Empire Park at 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue.

Money was raised, but according to NYC Parks, the sculptor didn’t finish the imposing bronze statue of a robed Alighieri wearing a garland and holding a copy of the Divine Comedy until 1921.

Another source has it that the original monument was too big and in too many pieces, so the city rejected it. Funds were again collected, and a second statue arrived in 1921—past the anniversary of Italian unification yet marking the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Whatever happened, the dedication was held that year. The statue (described as “dour and grumpy” by the AIA Guide to New York City) was officially “a gift of citizens of Italian descent.”

[Second photo: MCNY X2011.34.3603; third photo: Wikipedia]

The story of a Gilded Age anti-noise crusade

August 6, 2018

It was the incessant blasting of tugboat horns that ultimately got to Julia Rice.

Rice (right), a doctor, mother of six, and wife of wealthy lawyer and investor Isaac Rice, inhabited a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street in the early 1900s.

This was the kind of palace that promised peace and quiet. Her husband even named the magnificent freestanding house with its lovely gardens “Villa Julia” (below left) after his spouse.

But the constant noise from ships just beyond her landscaped property was too much for Rice. So she did what any fed-up and influential New Yorker would do: formed an organization funded by her own money and rallied lawmakers.

That’s the genesis of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.

Rice established the group in 1905 to fight the disturbing sounds of river traffic, especially “against tugboat pilots who would use whistles and sirens for personal messages at all hours,” reported the New York Times in 1997.

Admittedly, Rice sounds like a bit of a crank. But maybe not.

New York is loud today, but it was arguably louder at the end of the Gilded Age—with elevated trains screeching, horse hoofs incessantly clip-clopping, and factory whistles, fire engine sirens, and disorderly humans making earsplitting racket.

“Armed with research documenting the health problems caused by the sleep-shattering blasts, Rice launched a relentless lobbying campaign that took her to police stations, health departments, the offices of shipping regulators, and ultimately the halls of Congress,” stated a New Republic article from 2010.

“Initially ignored, her pleas finally reached sympathetic ears in Washington—and she won her battle. New York and other East Coast cities placed tough new restrictions on the blowing of horns and whistles by tugs.”

Emboldened, Rice extended her campaign “to every form of noise that jars the nerves and is not essential to the commerce of the city,” explained the New-York Tribune in 1907.

Rice lobbied for quieter street vendors, less traffic, and rubber tires on milk wagons. She opposed “factory whistles, firecrackers, and boys clacking sticks along iron fences,” according to the 1997 Times article.

It’s unclear how far she got waging those fights. But with the help of none other than Mark Twain, she did get schoolchildren to agree to be quieter when they walked or played near hospitals.

Rice and her anti-noise crusade quieted down after 1910. New Yorkers were still noisy, but cars replaced horse-drawn modes of transportation—and the din of the city died down.

[First image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Riverside Drive looking down from 93rd Street, MCNY, F2011.33.94; fourth image: Reade Street, 1898, MCNY, 93.1.1.17155]

The doctor’s summer home on West 94th Street

June 4, 2018

Today, the rich and distinguished summer in the Hamptons. In the mid-1800s, they summered on the Upper West Side.

The “delightful palazzo” above was the summer mansion of Dr. Valentine Mott, the most prominent physician in 19th century New York—a pioneer of heart surgery who at the age of 75 helped Civil War battlefield hospitals implement anesthesia.

His year-round residence was on fashionable Gramercy Park. But when summer hit, he hightailed it to today’s West 94th Street and the former Bloomingdale Road.

Built in 1855, the country house “was at almost the farthest reach for summer residences away from the city,” according to Old New York in Early Photographs.

Today, the house would be smack in the middle of Broadway. Back then, this was the country; the Upper West Side as we know it today was a collection of estates and small villages in the mid-1800s, like Harsenville and Strycker’s Bay.

Dr. Mott died here in 1865—but his summer house lives on in a photo taken by French-born New York photographer Victor Prevost the year the house was built.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: Wikipedia

The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

May 28, 2018

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]

The Ninth Avenue El curving by Morningside Park

September 18, 2017

These are the tracks of the Ninth Avenue Elevated making an S curve beside Morningside Park—which is what this 1908 postcards says.

To my eyes, it’s difficult to recognize the park of 2017, which is one of the city’s least appreciated but most beautiful. (The bear and fawn statue, the rock formations, the turtles….sigh.)

Here’s a photo very similar to the image in the postcard. RIP Ninth Avenue El, which ceased operation in 1940.

An Upper West Side Art Nouveau–like subway sign

June 19, 2017

You don’t have to be a typeface nerd to appreciate loveliness the letters and numerals affixed to plaques and signs in the city’s earliest subway stations.

My favorite is the “96” at the Broadway and 96th Street station. Opened in 1904 as part of the original IRT line, it looks like the numerals were created by hand, not a printing press.

Thanks to the rosettes, green coloring, and what look like two tulips framing the numerals, this plaque across from the platform also looks like a rare examples of the naturalistic Art Nouveau design style—which swept Europe in the early 20th century but didn’t make much of an impression in New York, save for some building facades.