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

The story of the house-size rock between two apartment buildings off Riverside Drive

October 18, 2021

West 114th Street between Riverside Drive and Broadway is a quiet sloping block of light brick rowhouses, similar to other side streets in the area.

But there’s one massive difference that sets West 114th apart: the 100-foot rock lodged between two houses and walled off behind an iron fence.

This hulk of Manhattan schist was nicknamed Rat Rock years ago by locals, who were understandably spooked by the rodents that used to enjoy nesting there, according to a 2000 New York Times article.

Like all the rock outcroppings found in Manhattan, the story of Rat Rock began hundreds of millions of years ago, when the bedrock that helps support skyscrapers was formed. Manhattan schist is a type of bedrock, and while most bedrock lurks beneath ground, geological fault lines forced some rocks to the surface, The Times piece explains.

Having big boulders above ground wasn’t a problem in Central Park. Though some were dynamited away when the park was being built, others were left behind to provide a rustic feel amid the lake, pond, and pastures.

Rat Rock in 1917

But when developers encountered rocks like this on the street grid, they either blasted them away or left them alone. For unknown reasons—perhaps because it’s just so enormous—Rat Rock remained, and builders worked around this break in the streetscape.

Apparently, it’s here to stay. The land is owned by Columbia University, and they have no plans to get rid of it. “The lot and development rights are incredibly valuable, but removing the rock could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” states The Times.

Enormous boulders like this didn’t get in the way of nearby development a century or so ago, however. The Museum of the City of New York has this 1903 photo in its collection of a similar rock thwarting the building plans of a row of houses on Riverside Drive between 93rd and 94th Streets.

I’m not so sure this photo is labeled correctly; it doesn’t look like the Riverside Drive of the era to me. But assuming it is, the rock has long been removed.

Over on the East Side, this undated photo shows rock outcroppings at Fifth Avenue and 117th Street, with modest houses built on top of them far off in the distance. The rocks here are no longer.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: MCNY x2010.11.3102; Fifth image: MCNY 93.91.367]

The faded ad that sent newcomers to the Hotel Harmony in Morningside Heights

October 18, 2021

So much of New York’s past can be gleaned from the faded ads on the sides of unglamorous brick buildings. Weathered by the elements but still somewhat legible, they featured a product, a place, or a service that offers a bit of insight into how city residents once lived.

Case in point is the wonderfully named Hotel Harmony. The color ad for this “permanent and transient” hotel can be seen on Broadway and West 114th Street.

Based on the ad, the Harmony sounds like a run-of-the-mill hostelry aiming to come off as a little high class, especially with that tagline, which is supposed to say “where living is a pleasure,” per faded ad sleuth Walter Grutchfield.

The Hotel Harmony in 1939-1941

The actual Hotel Harmony was a few blocks away at 544 West 110th Street. The tidy brick and limestone building first served as the headquarters of the Explorers Club, but by 1935 it was converted into a hotel, according to Landmark West!

What kind of people lived or stayed here? Based on how little activity from the hotel made it into newspapers of the era, I’m going to guess quiet types who blended into the neighborhood. Robbers held up the night manager in the 1950s and made off with cash; a resident described as a limo driver died at Knickerbocker Hospital, then on Convent Avenue in Harlem; his obituary stated.

The Hotel Harmony has been defunct since the 1960s, when Columbia University bought the building and converted it into a dormitory fittingly called Harmony Hall, Landmark West! reported. The repurposed hotel remains…and so does the spectacularly preserved sign that sent many visitors to the hotel’s doors for days, weeks, perhaps years.

[Second image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; third image: BWOG Columbia Student News]

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

The flimsy shacks where New Yorkers lived on a pre-luxury Riverside Drive

October 11, 2021

After “Riverside Avenue” officially opened in 1880, it was billed as Manhattan’s new elite thoroughfare, soon to rival Fifth Avenue as a street of Gilded Age mansions.

Riverside Drive and 111th Street

On Riverside, “‘any ordinary millionaire’ could afford to construct what the Record & Guide considered a proper millionaire’s home; ‘a fashionable edifice surrounded by grounds and having such approaches in the way of lawns and walks that will heighten the architectural ensemble,'” quoted Peter Salwen in his 1989 book, Upper West Side Story.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Though Riverside Drive (the name was officially changed in 1908) never replaced Fifth Avenue in wealth and luxury, it came close—attracting monied Manhattanites who paid builders and architects big bucks to construct elaborate mansions overlooking Riverside Park with Hudson River views.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1905

But despite the high-class dwelling houses going up on this avenue of gentle curving carriage drives, many parts of the Drive still reflected a much poorer area, one where residents lived in flimsy wood houses that could be described as shacks or shanties.

Who lived in them? Probably longtime residents who were eclipsed by the Gilded Age economy. Before the late 19th century, this stretch of what became the Upper West Side was dotted with farms and industry from the Hudson River, and there were no developers interested in getting their hands on what eventually became expensive land.

One resident was a man known as “Uncle Jim” Miller. He made headlines when he died in his shack “on fashionable Riverside Drive opposite 170th Street,” as The New York Age put it in a 1922 story.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1892

Miller, a laborer, made the paper because he was the “last squatter” on Riverside Drive, dying in his “one-room board shack” strengthened by “sheets of tin” after 22 years living there. He was 73.

Riverside Drive opened in sections, with the Viaduct bringing the Drive to 135th Street by the turn of the century. What did the Drive’s wealthy residents think of their struggling neighbors, who they must have seen on strolls or bicycles, or from their motor cars?

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, 1897

Of course, the presence of rundown shacks in close proximity to multi-story mansions really wasn’t all that unusual at the time. Even Upper Fifth Avenue had its shanties and sad wood houses, such as this one on today’s 89th Street.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 17 or October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; third photo: The New York Age; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: New-York Historical Society]

This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park

September 27, 2021

When Ulysses S. Grant succumbed to throat cancer on July 23, 1885, the entire country, and New York City in particular, mourned a man considered to be a national hero.

Though he passed away at an upstate resort near Saratoga, the former US President and Civil War General had made Manhattan his home since 1881. He resided in a handsome brownstone with his wife, Julia, at 3 East 66th Street.

In the months before his death, as Grant finished his memoirs and battled a painful cancer, the press had something of a death watch going—writing front page articles about the doctors who came in and out of the brownstone, how well Grant had slept the night before, and what medications he was taking.

Crowds formed outside his brownstone all the way to Central Park, as this Harper’s illustration shows. “Expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand, and every one thought it marvellous [sic] that the General was able to continue the struggle for so long,” reported the New-York Tribune in April 1885.

Those same crowds were likely among the estimated 1.5 million people who lined city streets from City Hall through the Upper West Side to witness Grant’s funeral procession (above, at Bryant Park).

Before his death, Grant decided New York City would be his final resting place. “Mayor William R. Grace (who would later serve as president of the Grant Monument Association) offered to set aside land in one of New York City’s parks for burial, and the Grant family chose Riverside Park after declining the possibility of Central Park,” states

Riverside Park was a wise choice. The park, with its natural rock outcroppings and sloping hillside, had recently been developed, and the winding drive alongside it, then called Riverside Avenue, was to be a peaceful carriage road leading to the 18th century inn known as Claremont at 124th Street and beyond.

The problem was, the magnificent Grant’s Tomb we recognize today at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street—with its Doric columns and a circular cupola that can be seen from miles away—was not yet in the planning stages.

So a first tomb for Grant was built in Riverside Park a few blocks north (top two images). Much less grand, the original Grant’s tomb ended up housing his remains for 12 years.

The temporary vault was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, chief architect of New York City’s Department of Public Works. “With outside dimensions of 17’ x 24’, it consisted primarily of red bricks with black brick trim and a semi-cylindrical asphalt-coated brick roof,” wrote

The site chosen for the vault was described in The New York Times on July 29 as “a spot of rare natural beauty away from the noise and turmoil of the great and busy city.”

While Grant’s coffin rested there, the city worked on the design and financing of the spectacular permanent tomb, which opened with great pomp and fanfare on April 27, 1897—a city holiday named Grant Day.

Grant’s remains were quietly transferred inside. Meanwhile, the first tomb was being dismantled, and the bricks became souvenirs.

“In 1897, when Grant’s coffin was transferred to the permanent tomb, the bricks from the dismantled structure became a hot item,” wrote Michael Pollack in a 2006 New York Times FYI column. “As many as 1,000 were acquired by the mayor’s office and distributed to former generals, dignitaries and others.”

And about the old joke about who is buried in Grant’s tomb, the answer is…nobody. Grant’s remains, as well as his wife’s, are entombed (but not buried) in the sarcophagi, viewable from the main entrance.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY,; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL]

A West Side apartment house that transports you to Renaissance England

September 20, 2021

So many of the side streets of the Upper West Side are lovely architectural time capsules, with uniform groups of townhouses and majestic apartment buildings reflecting the fashionable styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But sometimes you come across a building that feels like a design unicorn. Case in point is Red House, on West 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

This delightful six-story confection of English and French-inspired Gothic details feels more like an Elizabethan manor house, with its white terra cotta, crown cartouche, and red brick—which gave the building its name, according to The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Why architects Herbert S. Harde and R. Thomas Short were inspired by Renaissance-era England and France isn’t clear. But Red House is the first upper-class residence the two collaborated on, and it serves as something of an advertisement for their work—which departed from the stately Beaux-Arts style and offered delight and whimsy. “A six-story romantic masterpiece,” the AIA Guide to New York City calls it.

Harde himself lived at Red House with his wife through the 1910s. The building can boast of another notable tenant: a young Dorothy Rothschild—the future Dorothy Parker, states Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York.

“An early example of Harde & Short’s elaborate and luxurious apartment buildings, Red House established many of the recognizable elements which were to become the firm’s calling card,” stated the 1982 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, designating the building a historic landmark.

“The building indicates the acceptance of the apartment building as a desirable housing form, and reflects the impact of this change in the physical development of the Upper West Side.”

After completing Red House in 1904 (above), Harde & Short went on to design the Gothic renaissance-inspired 44 West 77th Street. They’re also the creative geniuses behind 45 East 66th Street as well as Alwyn Court, at Seventh Avenue and 55th Street. All three buildings still grace the cityscape with lots of visual eye candy, such as cathedral-like flourishes and flamboyant detailing.

There’s one unusual design feature that both Alwyn Court and Red House share, courtesy of Harde & Short: both buildings have terra cotta salamanders on the facade. The Red House salamander wears a crown.

Why a salamander? It’s the emblem of Francois I, the king of France from 1515 to 1547—another Renaissance-inspired touch.

[Third image: MCNY; X2010.7.1.395]

A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children

September 16, 2021

When Isaac Rice and his wife, Julia, decided to build a mansion at Riverside Drive and 89th Street for themselves and their young family in 1901, they turned to builders who gave them a house with lots of architectural elegance.

The four-story dwelling, completed in 1903, was a mix of Georgian and Beaux-Arts styles, with an arched second-floor entrance, Spanish roof tiles, doric columns, and a porte chochere—likely for Mr. Rice’s new electric vehicles, according to a 1979 Historic Preservation Commission report.

But the couple also commissioned something especially unique on the facade: a bas relief sculpture that portrays six children as unique individuals playing, reading, and otherwise looking happy and engaged.

Though the identities of the children aren’t known for sure, it’s almost certain that they are the six kids of Isaac and Julia Rice. This marble ode to their offspring on such a visible part of the facade reflects the pride and joy they took in their large family.

The bas relief, carved into the first floor beside the porte cochere, is thought to be the work of Louis St. Lanne, a French-born sculptor who also designed a statue of a boy outside Isaac L. Rice Memorial Stadium in Pelham Bay Park, states the HPC report. The stadium was a gift to the city from Julia Rice after Isaac died in 1915.

Isaac and Julia Rice made many headlines in their day. Mr. Rice was a financier, inventor, and diehard chess enthusiast (he had a chess room in his mansion and is the genius behind a move called the “Rice gambit”).

Mrs. Rice, a non-practicing medical doctor, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and campaigned in the early 1900s to put a stop to tugboat horns, factory whistles, and other sources of noise pollution in the Gilded Age city.

It seems that their children stayed out of the limelight. But a 2012 article about the Rice mansion by Marjorie Cohen in West Side Rag prompted a comment from a reader who said the Rices were her great-grandparents.

“Their six children were comprised of two boys and four girls,” the reader wrote. “The girls were nicknamed Dolly, Polly, Molly, and Lolly. My grandmother was Lolly, the youngest of the daughters. The six children were quite interesting in their own right!”

The Rices moved out of their mansion and into an apartment in the nearby Ansonia, on Broadway and 73rd Street, after the panic of 1907 forced Isaac to sell his house, according to Cohen.

Amazingly, the family only lived in their Riverside Drive mansion for about four years. More than a century later, it’s one of only two surviving freestanding mansions on a curvy former carriage drive that once featured dozens of them. Through all the changes over the years, their marble memorial to their children remains.

[Fourth image: Rice Mansion, about 1905; MCNY X2010.7.2.25109]

The 18th century farm lane preserved in a Riverside Drive courtyard

August 30, 2021

The mostly unbroken line of elegant apartment buildings along Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side appear from afar like early 20th century residential fortresses.

But look closely past the black iron fence at one building on the corner of 92nd Street. You’ll catch a glimpse of a sliver of colonial-era Manhattan that isn’t on modern-day maps and doesn’t adhere to the circa-1811 street grid.

The 7-story residence is 194 Riverside Drive (below), completed in 1902 and designed by Ralph Samuel Townsend, an architect who lived on 102nd Street and designed buildings all over the city—including the richly detailed Kenilworth on Central Park West.

“The wide alleyway on the south side of the building is the remnant of a path or lane that once led from the old Bloomingdale road (slightly off line with Broadway) to Twelfth Avenue,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in their 1989 report designating this stretch of Riverside Drive a historical district.

The unnamed lane, which runs on the north side of 190 Riverside next door, “separated the farms of Brouckholst Livingston to the south and R.L. Schieffelin to the north.”

These farms and others were part of the village of Bloomingdale (image above), a once rural swatch of today’s Upper West Side that served as farmland, then the site of estates and institutions, and by the late 19th century was absorbed into the larger city.

An 1890s map of the neighborhood (below, click the link to zoom in) shows us exactly where this farm lane once ran.

Between 91st and 92nd Streets, you can see faintly outlined blue lines going from the river to the former Bloomingdale Road—which opened in 1703 and offered access to and from the rest of Manhattan to this beautiful part of Gotham. (Bloomingdale came from the Dutch Bloemendaal, which meant “valley of flowers.”)

Today, the lane would extend from the courtyard on the south side of 194 Riverside Drive, through the backyards of row houses past West End Avenue. Google maps allows us to trace the path, and then imagine the colonial-era farmers and estate owners who traversed it centuries ago.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL; fourth image: LOC]

Does this Riverside Drive mansion really have a tunnel to the Hudson River?

August 9, 2021

In the early 1900s, Riverside Drive almost eclipsed Fifth Avenue as New York City’s most opulent millionaire’s row. Many free-standing mansions were built along this breezy, leafy road for Gilded Age business barons and titans of industry, with unspoiled views of Riverside Park and the Hudson River.

More than a century later, only two of those free-standing mansions still stand. One is at West 107th Street. Stand might not be the right word; its pristine white marble facade glistens like a jewel.

This is the Schinasi mansion at 351 Riverside Drive. A French Renaissance mini-palace, it was built in 1909 for Morris Schinasi, an immigrant from Turkey who made a fortune importing Turkish cigarettes with his brother, Solomon.

(Solomon also moved into a palatial mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street, which was originally built for the Rice family. Coincidentally, Solomon’s house is the second surviving free-standing mansion on Riverside.)

The exterior of the Morris Schinasi mansion was and is stunning. Designed by William B. Tuthill, the architect behind Carnegie Hall, the house features fancy dormer windows, a green tiled roof, and bronze balcony grills, according to Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

The Schinasi mansion in 1909, just completed

But there’s one feature inside the house that’s truly unique, even for a Gilded Age millionaire’s mansion: a tunnel from the basement that supposedly leads to the Hudson River.

The tunnel isn’t mentioned in newspaper articles or in the Landmark Preservation Commission report designating the mansion as a historic landmark. But apparently, it really does exist.

Morris Schinasi, Turkish tobacco baron

In 2007, the New York Times mentioned the tunnel in a writeup about the mansion, which at the time was put on the market for $20 million by a Columbia University professor. (The professor bought it for an astounding $325K in 1979.)

“Its three floors included an Egyptian marble hall inlaid with Turkish glass, a Louis XVI drawing room, a library, a smoking room and a reception hall,” wrote Lily Koppel in the Times piece. “The pineapple, a traditional symbol of hospitality, is found throughout the house, set into the moldings in gold and bronze. Among the house’s unusual features is an underground passage to the Hudson River, now sealed.”

A second Times story in 2012 by Constance Rosenblum even featured a photo of what might be the tunnel or perhaps a basement passageway leading to it.

Schinasi mansion in 1932

When the tunnel was built, however is puzzling—as is the tunnel’s purpose. The Times wondered as well.

“The mansion’s most beguiling feature is a tunnel in the basement that was thought to have extended west to the Hudson River,” wrote Rosenblum. “But exactly what had the tunnel been used for? To smuggle in Turkish tobacco, or perhaps alcohol or hashish? Or as a conduit for ladies of the evening?”

Every house in New York has its mysteries.

Curious about the Gilded Age mansions that once lined Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side? Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour Sunday, August 29 that explores the history of Riverside Drive and the short period of time when Riverside rivaled Fifth Avenue as New York City’s millionaire colony. Click the link for more details.

[Third image: MCNY, 1909; x2010.28.118; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

The last sidewalk phone booths in New York City

July 29, 2021

Once upon a time, public phone booths were ubiquitous on the sidewalks of New York City. “Outdoor phone booths made their first entrance in the early 1900s, and became commonplace in the 1950s when glass and aluminum replaced difficult-to-maintain wood as the building material of choice,” explained Time magazine in 2016.

But the invention of the cell phone sealed the fate of the phone booth, with its folding door and often a small seat as well, where you could drop your shopping bags while you fished around your pocket or purse for coins to make a call. (Or used a calling card, or called collect.)

Now, New York City has only four outside public phone booths. Interestingly, they’re all on the Upper West Side on quiet stretches of West End Avenue.

The first one is at 66th Street (top photo), then 91st Street (second photo), 100th Street, and 101st Street (bottom).

If these icons of another New York appear to be in surprisingly good shape, that’s because they aren’t the original phone booths that existed on each corner. Each is a relatively recent replacement of an older booth that was battered or marked by graffiti, according to a 2016 New York Times article.

Though these phone booths lack doors, they’re reminiscent of the iconic phone booths that were utilitarian and functional but also had an air of romance, mystery, even danger.

New York phone booths often played pivotal roles in movies—remember in Rosemary’s Baby, when a very pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse goes into the privacy of a phone booth to dial Dr. Hill so he could deliver her baby instead of her doctor and neighbors, all of them witches?

Residents of West End Avenue are charmed by their phone booths, so charmed that in 2010 one author even published a children’s book about one specific booth.

The book’s title is still fitting: The Lonely Phone Booth.