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

A home for Swiss immigrants on West 67th Street

March 11, 2019

New York was a city of immigrant benevolent societies in the 19th and early 20th century.

These private organizations provided temporary lodging, job help, and social connections to new arrivals (and struggling older residents) who hailed from a specific country of origin.

Some of the first of these “foreign relief” societies, as one 1892 guidebook called them, were set up in the early 1800s by New Yorkers of English, French, and German descent.

In 1832, the Swiss Benevolent Society joined them. Though fewer immigrants from Switzerland came to America than from other European nations, Swiss people did settle in New York—and like all newcomers, they benefited from ties to their home country.

The organization funded a home for Swiss immigrants first on Bleecker Street in 1873, then in a converted brownstone at 108 Second Avenue a decade later.

But downtown Manhattan was becoming a little too commercial (and downscale), so the society decided to build a new home uptown.

In 1905, the Swiss Home (at right) celebrated the opening of its new Gothic-inspired building at 35 West 67th Street. It was designed by a Swiss-born architect, John E. Scharsmith.

Supposedly modeled after the town hall in Basel, this four-story lodging house—still extant on this lovely Upper West Side block—is a “Beaux-Arts interpretation of the Northern European Renaissance,” states the AIA Guide to New York City.

It may be a blend of styles, but the exterior of the home is quite delightful, with arched, cathedral-like windows and a gabled roof.

Befitting a home designated for Swiss immigrants, the underside of the cornice features shields representing different regions of Switzerland.

Note the boot scrapers flanking the first-floor entrance, each decorated with an S and an H.

Based on the opening day ceremony, which included singing societies and dedications in German, French, and English, the Swiss Benevolent Society was quite proud of the building.

It could accommodate 80 residents and featured sitting rooms, a reading room (above), a smoking room, a kitchen, a dining hall, 29 bedrooms (below, separated by sex), and interestingly, a fumigator.

The Swiss Home fulfilled its mission, but empty rooms were often available. In 1912, the home took in 14 survivors of the Titanic from various nationalities.

At some point, it was converted into a residence for women, referred to in this 1982 New York Times article as “Swiss Town House.” Today, it’s owned by CUNY and is home base for Macaulay Honors College.

[Second, fourth, and fifth photos: Swiss Home Dedication Program; Third Photo: NYPL 1913]

The Dakota almost alone on the Upper West Side

March 4, 2019

Completed in 1884, the Dakota might be the most famous (and most visually spectacular apartment) house in New York City.

It’s even more incredible when you see it standing alone with the trees of Central Park in the distance—at a time when the “West End,” as the Upper West Side was called in the 1880s, was being parceled out for development.

Only a lovely row of townhouses a block over hint at what this part of Manhattan would soon become.

Photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The New Republic, which ran a thorough overview of the building’s early history a few years ago.

Join Ephemeral New York for “Home Sweet Mansion” on March 5!

February 25, 2019

It was good to be a prosperous New Yorker in the late 19th century: beautiful clothing, expensive furnishings, well-kept parlors, and tables laden with food.

But someone had to do the hard work of actually cooking and cleaning, and it certainly wasn’t the prosperous New Yorker.

Join Ephemeral New York on Tuesday, March 5 at 6:30 p.m. for “Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek Into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers,” in partnership with the Upper West Side historic advocacy organization Landmark West.

This lively talk at 35 West 67th Street will look at how the upper classes navigated the domestic side of life—and how a staff of maids, coachmen, and other servants managed the households inside the Upper West Side’s sumptuous mansions and elegant brownstones.

Details and tickets here! These programs are a lot of fun, and I hope to see Ephemeral readers there.

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

Magnificence and magic at 1920s Columbus Circle

February 4, 2019

Since last week’s Columbus Circle painting turned out to mislabeled (it was actually Madison Square), I thought I’d make up for the error with this Impressionist kaleidoscope of the Circle, as it was called, by Colin Campbell Cooper.

This must be around 1920. The trolleys circling the Columbus monument are joined by automobiles, and pedestrians seem to cross wherever they can—though it looks like a police officer is directing traffic. (Has Columbus Circle ever been pedestrian friendly?)

The streets look slicked with rain, giving them a soft, magical quality. But blue skies peek through the clouds, perhaps a nod to the magnificent early 20th century city.

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]