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

The vintage interior of a 1927 bank building that’s now home to a CVS

October 31, 2022

Repurposed buildings are the story of New York City real estate. New businesses moving into and taking over the space of a defunct company is nothing unusual.

But sometimes it can be startling—especially when the old company was housed in a fortress-like brick and limestone building resembling a Greek temple and as tall as a tenement, and the new business is a CVS.

That’s the case with a former bank branch on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street. Opened in 1927 as the East River Savings Bank and enlarged in 1932, the building is the kind of imposing edifice popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries with financial institutions that banks don’t construct anymore.

Neo-Classical in style with columns facing the street on two sides, the sober, solid building was meant to convey that your money and valuable were safe. In an era with fewer financial regulations and more bank failures, this must have been quite reassuring to potential customers.

The inscriptions above the bank’s entrance were meant to reassure customers as well. “Quotations from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln celebrating the virtues of saving decorate the bank’s principal facade, while Theodore Roosevelt’s words graced the West 96th Street facade,” notes the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s report.

The exterior of the bank has had landmark status since 1998, not long after the East River Savings Bank and a subsequent bank closed their doors, leaving the building empty.

The interior, however, is a different story. Off to the sides of the store shelves are some remnants of the former bank—perhaps very decorative entrances, or maybe areas where customers queued up for bank tellers.

A row of vintage wood phone booths (minus the phones, unfortunately) with those iconic folding doors are hidden behind an umbrella rack and halloween candy.

A bank clock with Roman numerals is set inside a lovely iron railing above the ice cream section, under florescent lighting and security cameras.

The CVS moved into the former bank building at least a decade ago, so it’s odd that they never bothered in all that time to renovate the interior. I’m not complaining; it’s a treat to see these remains of early 20th century New York City.

This isn’t the only old bank building repurposed for a drugstore chain. Downtown on Spring and Lafayette Streets, Duane Reade colonized another stunning old-school bank…also once home to an East River Savings Bank branch.

The West Side school perched on top of a massive rock pile

October 10, 2022

Not many cities have a type of rock named after them, but Manhattan has Manhattan schist—an ancient bedrock formed roughly 450 million years ago.

Manhattan schist generally lies underground, providing the ideal strong foundation for the skyscrapers clustered in Lower Manhattan and Midtown, where the schist is closer to ground level and better able to anchor massive buildings.

But some schist lies above ground in the form of giant amazing rock outcroppings. Case in point: this high pile of gray, grainy schist on West 123rd Street east of Amsterdam Avenue in Morningside Heights.

Even in New York City, which from its very beginnings flattened and filled in the natural topography to fulfill real estate needs and dreams, schist like this was tough to deal with. For most of the 19th century, the pile was the site of blockhouse number 4–one of several small stone forts built to hold munitions if needed to defend Gotham during the War of 1812, per Harlem + Bespoke.

By the end of the 19th century, the schist and the unused blockhouse were part of Morningside Park. This steep, schist-filled green space became a park in part because Parks commissioner Andrew Haswell Green thought it would be “very expensive” and “very inconvenient” to extend the Manhattan street grid to such a rocky area, according to NYC Parks.

123rd Street looking east from Amsterdam: the remains of the 1812 Blockhouse are on top of the rocks

In the 1960s, however, the city was casting about for a site to build a new elementary school in or around Harlem. “The state legislature and mayor supported the construction of a school on the north part of Morningside Park, where the ruins of Blockhouse 4 were,” states the website for the Margaret Douglas School, also known as PS 36.

Construction of the school began in 1965, the ruins of the blockhouse were bulldozed away, and a new elementary school rose on this prehistoric heap of Manhattan schist.

The school is still in use, a Brutalist-style building stacked on top of the massive rocks with the help of concrete risers. It’s not far from another Manhattan schist outcropping: the enormous rat rock on West 114th Street, which was apparently too expensive to dynamite away and remains wedged between two apartment buildings.

[Third image: MCNY, F2011.22.1574]


Country houses left behind on Riverside Drive

September 23, 2022

After the first section of Riverside Drive—from 72nd to 126th Street—opened in 1880, this winding avenue that followed the gentle slope of Riverside Park became a study in contrasts.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Up and down the Drive, wealthy New Yorkers and the developers who catered to them spent the next decades building well-appointed row houses, mansions, and early luxury apartment buildings. Yet on the fringes of this new millionaire’s colony stood crudely built shanties and shacks like the one in the photo above, homes to those whose fortunes didn’t rise during the Gilded Age and were forced to the margins.

Another type of dwelling also held out here and there on Riverside Drive: country houses. These wood-frame houses with clapboard shutters and welcoming front porches may have been typical family homes in the early to mid-19th century, when the Upper West Side of today was a sparsely populated collection of small farming villages.

Development encroaches on this house, at Riverside Drive and 111th Street, in 1909

That changed after Central Park was completed and the new elevated trains made the West End much more accessible. As the 20th century continued, Riverside Drive was extended into Upper Manhattan—threatening the handful of country houses that predated the Drive but were now in its way.

A pretty house at Riverside Drive and 86th Street, 1896

None of these country homes pictured here survive today. Riverside Drive, with its unbroken lines of elegant apartment houses, doesn’t seem to miss them. Like so many early New York City houses, the stories of these anachronisms seem to be lost to the ages.

Join Ephemeral New York on Sunday, September 25 at 1 p.m. on a walking tour of Riverside Drive, which delves into the backstory of the country estates, mansions, and monuments of New York’s most beautiful avenue.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; second, third, and fourth photos: New-York Historical Society]

Check out these upcoming talks and tours with Ephemeral New York!

September 17, 2022

I’m pleased to let everyone know about upcoming tours and a program I’ll be leading this fall. All are open to the public and offer a portal to some of the most dynamic eras in New York City history. It would be wonderful to meet Ephemeral readers at these events!

First, new dates for Ephemeral New York’s popular Riverside Drive walking tour, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive,” are on the calendar in September and early October. The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 108th Street.

In between, we’ll stroll the gentle curves of the avenue and delve into the history of this beautiful drive born in the Gilded Age, which became a second mansion row and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s millionaire colony. We’ll look at the mansions that remain, the families and characters who lived there, and the stories told by spectacular monuments.

Tours run from 1 pm to 3 pm and are in conjunction with the New York Adventure Club. Here’s the schedule so far:

Sunday, September 18
Sunday, September 25
Saturday, October 8

On November 9 at 6 pm, I’ll be presenting a Zoom program: “Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers,” in conjunction with West Side preservation organization Landmark West. Using newspapers, photos, and guidebooks of the era, the program will explore how the upper classes navigated the domestic side of life, why “the servant girl question” was such a vexing topic of the age, and how a staff of maids, coachmen, and other servants managed the households inside the sumptuous mansions and brownstones of the Upper West Side and other areas of Manhattan.

Tickets for this program are not yet available, but I’ll provide a sign-up link and more details when it’s live!

[Top image: New York Adventure Club; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY, 204627]

The tabloid drama after a rich Riverside Drive businessman goes missing

August 29, 2022

On March 30, 1903, Adolphe Openhym exited his posh row house at 352 Riverside Drive (below, right) and took his usual morning horseback ride along the Riverside Park bridle path.

Adolphe Openhym’s Beaux-Arts townhouse at 352 Riverside Drive, right

Afterward, the successful silk merchant at William Openhym & Sons and real estate investor returned to the home he shared with his wife and two sons, had breakfast, and then left the house again in “usual good health and spirits,” wrote The Sun on April 2. Reportedly he was clad in a top hat and frock coat and carried a cane or umbrella.

But instead of going to his office downtown on Mercer Street, 49-year-old Openhym was seen taking an uptown streetcar on Amsterdam Avenue, according to the Eagle. Around 11 a.m., a man matching his description was spotted by a “bridge tender” walking to the middle of the High Bridge—the 1848 bridge connecting Upper Manhattan to the Bronx across the Harlem River.

Adolphe Openhym

On the High Bridge, Openhym put down his hat, climbed a guardrail, and then leaped into the river, the bridge tender said, his body disappearing into the murky depths.

New York City’s rapacious tabloid dailies couldn’t resist the story—the apparent suicide of a wealthy business leader who possessed all the trappings of a charmed Gilded Age life. Reporters jumped into action, first seeking insight from Openhym’s family. They reported nothing amiss.

The High Bridge, 1900

“I do not believe that my father has committed suicide,” one of Openhym’s sons told a reporter at the Evening World on April 1. “He has not been ill or suffering any kind of mental trouble. His home life was perfectly happy.” Reporters also visited his business partners, who were similarly puzzled and described their colleague as having “good mental health.”

Two days later, however, the Evening World changed the narrative. A front page story on April 3 claimed that the day Openhym went missing, there was a “tremendous row in the family.” Family servants who were interviewed described him as “cross” and that “nothing could be done to please him.” An unidentified business partner said that for two weeks, Openhym complained of “pains in his head.”

Nothing lurid came from these accounts, so newspapers focused on the search for Openhym’s corpse. For the next few weeks, the missing man’s family chartered boats and hired searchers to look for the body. Other searchers came to the Harlem River on their own with grappling hooks, anxious to gain the $5,000 reward the family offered for his remains.

Days passed. Without a body to confirm his death, rumors hit the news cycle: that Openhym didn’t really jump off the bridge, that he was spotted in restaurants in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Newburgh. “Is Adolph Openhym alive?” asked the Brooklyn Standard Union on April 8, spelling his name without the e at the end. “Since the offering of a big reward for information on his whereabouts, many persons have come forward to declare they have seen him since the day he disappeared.”

An AP story stated that detectives learned Openhym “had several hundred thousand dollars in cash where he could get it at a moment’s notice.” The story described him as “a man who has a keen appreciation of the good things of the world….He is a frank advocate of the luxurious life, and knows how to spend money royally.”

On April 22, even without a body, Openhym’s family accepted that he killed himself by leaping from High Bridge, a lawyer representing the family told the Evening World. Reporters asked the representative about the possibly that Openhym faked his death. “My God!” the lawyer replied angrily. “They will be charging the unfortunate man with murder next! They have already accused him of every crime in the calendar.”

Finally on April 27, Openhym’s body was found floating in the river. His pockets contained some bills and change, business letters, the photo of a child, a gold watch, a scarf with a pearl stick pin, gold cuff links, and a gold penknife, among other unsuspicious objects reported by various newspapers.

“The body was in a remarkably good state of preservation for one that had been in the water so long,” the New York Times stated. “It was completely dressed, even to the gloves, and the only mark upon it was a bruise across the face, which was believed to have been caused by striking the water as the man leapt from the bridge.”

His family held funeral services at their Riverside Drive home. About 300 people attended, but “the widow was too ill to be there,” the New-York Tribune reported. The contents of his will were also published. His estate was valued between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on the newspaper reporting on it, and he bequeathed money to the Society for Ethical Culture and Mount Sinai Hospital, among other charities.

The final stories about this tragedy focused on the coroner’s conclusion: that Openhym killed himself because his mind was “temporarily imbalanced.” According to the Brooklyn Times Union on May 1, “Openhym committed suicide while temporarily insane,” per the coroner’s official report. After that, the reporters moved on.

New York’s newspapers did their job—investigating leads, suggesting scandal, then following up with the dollar amount of the dead man’s estate and where his money would be going. What reporters couldn’t do is explain why such a fortunate man ended his life. Only Openhym could answer that, and he took his reasons to his grave.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society]

Join a Walking Tour of Gilded Age Riverside Drive With Ephemeral New York!

August 4, 2022

This month, I’ll be leading two more fun, insightful walking tours through the New York Adventure Club: “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansions and Memorials of Riverside Drive.”

The tours start at 83rd Street and end at 108th Street. In between we’ll stroll up winding, lovely Riverside Drive and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, when the Drive became a second “mansion row” and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.”

The tours will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive, as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball. We’ll also take a look at at the wide variety of people who made Riverside Drive their home, from wealthy industrialists and rich business barons to actresses, artists, and writers.

Though the tour covers a lot of territory, we go at a breezy, conversational pace, with a few dips into Riverside Park and then back again on the shady side of the Drive. It’s a wonderful way to experience the history of New York City. All are welcome!

Tickets remain for the Riverside Drive tour for Sunday, August 7—tickets can be purchased here.

Tickets are also available for Sunday, August 21—here’s the link for this date.

Hope to see a great turnout on either of these quiet end-of-summer days!

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Ebay; third image: NY Adventure Club]

The blissful Upper West Side garden hiding on top of a condo garage

August 1, 2022

Neighborhood gardens planted on vacant lots and between buildings are magical places. Walking around the city, I’ve stumbled upon many of these, each with their own enchanting landscape and walkways, sitting areas, and koi ponds.

The Lotus Garden, on 97th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue on the Upper West Side, has these delights as well. What sets this lovely green space apart, however, is that you can’t really stumble upon it from the sidewalk.

This tranquil garden is up a tall staircase and spread out over the garage roof of a luxury condo residence, the Columbia. If you’re not looking for it, you might walk right past—which strangely makes the Lotus Garden more appealing, as if it’s a secret only a few insiders know about.

So how did a 7,000 square foot garden end up on top of the garage? Before the condo and garage were built, volunteer neighborhood gardeners had turned what was an empty lot (once home to two historic movie theaters torn down in the 1970s) into a community garden.

In 1981, developer William Zeckendorf bought the vacant lot, according to a 1984 New York Times piece. His intention was to build a luxury condominium, which met with some neighborhood opposition. After meeting with the local gardeners, he went ahead with his plans and also agreed to spread soil on top of the garage and provide drainage.

Volunteer gardeners then took over. They built “winding paths, installed two fish ponds, and planted fruit trees and flowering shrubs,” the garden’s website states. “At last in the spring of 1983, a group of local residents, including new residents of the Columbia, began to plant flowers and herbs beneath the north facing windows of the Columbia’s tower.”  

The Lotus Garden was born—a hiding-in-plain-site respite from the scorched streets of the Upper West Side in the summer.

The Wild West street names once proposed for the Upper West Side

July 25, 2022

Edward Clark, a lawyer by trade, made a fortune in the mid-19th century as one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. With that fortune, Clark launched a second career as a New York City real estate investor and developer.

Matthew Dripps/Valentine’s Manual 1865

In 1880, he and architect Henry Hardenbergh (later of Plaza Hotel fame), were ready to start construction on a Victorian Gothic apartment building. The luxury residence was set to rise on land Clark purchased at 72nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Today, Eighth Avenue is famously known as Central Park West, but in the Gilded Age it was still a mostly undeveloped thoroughfare bordering the west side of Central Park.

When Clark’s building was completed in 1884, it would be called the Dakota and celebrated for its beauty and grandeur. But before that, it was dubbed “Clark’s folly,” because the idea of putting up a spectacular residence in the slow-to-urbanize Upper West Side was considered ridiculous.

The Dakota, aka Clark’s Folly, on Eighth Avenue post-construction

Still, Clark was nothing if not a risk taker. He had a vision for what the “West End” should become and what its new avenues should be called. And he had no qualms about bringing his vision to the West End Association, the group tasked with ensuring that the area developed into a high-class district of fine homes and suitable businesses.

“In 1880, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on a meeting of the West End Association, as it examined the future of what was thought to be the area’s most impressive boulevard, then known as Eighth Avenue but now called Central Park West,” recounted Christopher Gray in a 2007 New York Times article.

“Most of the people at the meeting favored renaming it West Central Park, but Edward Clark, then at least six months away from starting work on the Dakota, was opposed. He said he thought the avenues should be named ‘after such of the states as have well-sounding names,'” wrote Gray.

Edward Cabot Clark in 1850

What avenue names did Clark propose? He suggested the very frontier-focused “Montana Place for Eighth Avenue, Wyoming Place for Ninth Avenue, Arizona Place for Tenth Avenue, and Idaho Place for Eleventh Avenue,” stated author Deirdre Mask in 2020’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

The West End Association ignored Clark’s suggestions. In 1893, Eighth Avenue officially became Central Park West. In 1890, Ninth Avenue was changed to Columbus Avenue, and Tenth Avenue turned into Amsterdam Avenue. (Riverside Drive and West End Avenue already had been named, and Broadway would replace the Boulevard by the end of the century.)

Why did the planners in charge of urbanizing the Upper West Side nix the numbered avenues in favor of more descriptive street names?

“Part of the rationale was that new names would distinguish the haut-bourgeois West Side from the lower part of the city through which the numbered avenues ran, particularly the undistinguished factories, flats and tenements of the West 30s, 40s and 50s,” wrote Gray.

More than a century has passed since all of the naming and renaming, and it seems that the Upper West Side’s six major avenues are set in stone.

[Top image:; second image: Office for Metropolitan History via The New Republic; third image: Wikipedia]

An Upper West Side apartment house’s facade of flowers

July 18, 2022

The 18-story brick apartment residence at 40 West 86th Street was designed by J.M. Felson, and like so many prewar buildings in New York City, it’s a study in classic, if understated, elegance.

But this seemingly staid apartment house has something that gives it a little sparkle. Spread out on the facade of the lower floors are colorful terra cotta florals. The bright green hues, the curlicues of the petals—these panels are the perfect motifs for a lush, humid New York summer.

What remains of the horses that powered Gilded Age New York City

July 11, 2022

If you could time-travel back to the 1880s, you’d notice all the horses first. (Second would be all the horse manure, but that’s another story.) At the time, an estimated 170,000 horses pulled the streetcars, delivery wagons, and carriages that allowed New Yorkers to get around the metropolis.

Cedarhurst Stables, 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues

But the era of horse-powered transportation was coming to a close. Elevated trains were whisking passengers across Manhattan and Brooklyn; cable cars began replacing some horse-drawn streetcar lines. The subway arrived in 1904, and by the 1910s, the motor car (or “devil wagon,” as haters called it) sidelined horses from Gotham’s streets.

Considering that much of New York’s infrastructure was built when horsepower ruled the roads, surprisingly little of the equine era remains.

The carriage roads of Riverside Drive are still with us, as are horse water fountains in some city parks. Manhole covers with patterns to prevent horse hoofs from skidding exist as well. Stable blocks and mews where the wealthy once parked their broughams have been converted to (pricey) homes for humans.

The former stable at 49 Market Street

Yet sometimes you see an ornamental ghost from the horse-powered past. Look up at 157 West 83rd Street to the red brick car garage—and a handsome horse head on the facade will delight you.

The garage used to be Cedarhurst Boarding Stables. Cedarhurst first appeared in city directories in 1892, according to Walter Grutchfield. Just 16 years later, the four-story stable became Cedarhurst Garage, for automobiles.

Another decorative horse head can graces 49 Market Street on the Lower East Side. The site is a lot less illustrious than the Cedarhurst, but it too was home to a stable in the Gilded Age—in 1894, according to Bowery Boogie.

And like the Cedarhurst, the stable didn’t last long, as the automobile era took hold. By 1915, “the two-story brick structure as we know it today was already in place,” per Bowery Boogie. The horse head—complete with bridle—remains high above this old New York street.