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

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

Updated info on Talks and Tours From Ephemeral New York!

May 19, 2022

I’m excited to let everyone know that two more dates have been added in June for Ephemeral New York’s Gilded Age Mansions and Monuments walking tour. On the tour, we step back to the avenue’s 18th century roots in the Bloomingdale section of Manhattan, and then revisit it in the Gilded Age, when Riverside Drive was set to become New York’s newest “millionaire colony.”

The first tour is on Sunday, June 5 from 1-3 pm; tickets can be purchased here. The second tour is scheduled for Sunday, June 19 from 1-3 pm; tickets available here. These tours are in conjunction with the New York Adventure Club.

I also want to give an update on the Tea Talk originally scheduled at the Salmagundi Club for Thursday May 19. Because of the uptick in Covid cases in New York City, the talk has been postponed until fall.

[Images: NYPL]

The amazing survival story of the last 3 single-family row houses on Central Park West

May 9, 2022

If you find yourself facing the corner of Central Park West at 85th Street, you’ll see three stunning row houses, each with different Queen Anne-style touches. They’re charming, confection-like holdouts from the Gilded Age, dwarfed (but not outshined) by their Art Deco apartment tower neighbor.

247-249 Central Park West

But before 1930, these three beauties were part of a row of nine spanning the entire block. While their sister buildings met the wrecking ball, they managed to survive—and now are thought to be the last remaining single-family row houses on all of Central Park West.

Their story begins with the Dakota. When this Gothic-inspired apartment building several blocks south was completed in 1884, Gilded Age real estate developers began to imagine Central Park West as a parkside avenue of similarly grand, luxurious apartment buildings.

One builder who apparently didn’t share that vision was a speculative developer of other properties on today’s Upper West Side named William Noble. In 1887, Noble hired architect Edward L. Angell to construct nine single-family row houses between 84th and 85th Streets along what until 1883 had been known as Eighth Avenue.

The “Noble houses,” as numbers 241-249 Central Park West were later called, spanned the entire block, which Noble outfitted with six ornamental lampposts. The fairy tale-like Queen Anne style served as an antidote to the cookie-cutter brownstones lining so many Gilded Age Manhattan streets.

The original nine Noble houses are in the background, 1925

“Not only did [Angell] vary his designs for the houses, but he varied the materials too, from red brick to buff-colored brick, from brownstone to carved limestone,” wrote Margot Gayle in 1979 in the New York Daily News.

“The corner houses were the most elegant, each having two exposures, windows with panels of stained glass and a bay-windowed tower terminating in a peaked roof.” Though each row house had different architectural bells and whistles, the gables and chimneys of all the houses reflect the design of the Dakota, the article pointed out.

By 1928, streetcars were long gone from Central Park West

Central Park West as a luxury thoroughfare was in its infancy, and a horsecar line ran up and down the avenue. Still, the Noble houses were pricey. “The houses were at the upper end of the market—they cost $37,000 each in construction alone, exclusive of decoration—and the first occupants were all prosperous,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

Among the first occupants was William Noble; he took number 247 for himself, per a 2014 New York Times article. His neighbor at number 248, a wealthy colonel named Richard Lathers, made news by arranging a reception in his home where relatives of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant were invited to bring “North and South together in an informal and quiet way,” according to a biography.

Number 248’s beautiful detailing

As the decades went on, the Noble houses changed hands. Meanwhile, Central Park West’s fortunes boomed. Stylish, modern Art Deco apartment buildings that scaled new heights and commanded high prices lined the avenue.

The 1920s marked the beginning of the end for six of the Noble houses. “In 1925, Sam Minskoff, a builder, sued to break the private house restrictions so he could build what was ultimately erected in 1930 as the tall apartment house that replaced 241-246 Central Park West,” wrote Gray.

Number 247 stained glass loveliness

Why didn’t the entire row of Noble houses get demolished? Thank the strong-minded holdout owner of number 249. “Probably all would have been taken down had not the owner of the northernmost of the remaining houses stubbornly refuse to sell,” wrote Gayle. “A neighbor recalls him as a man who knew his own mind, liked to view the park from his windows, wore a bowler, and walked a poodle twice a day.”

This stubborn neighbor was identified in Gray’s article as W. Gedney Beatty, an “architect-scholar.” As a result, “247, 248 and 249 have since survived in the shadow of their taller neighbor,” he wrote.

The 3 remaining Noble houses in 1975

They were expensive when they were new, and the prices of the remaining Noble houses in today’s real estate market are mind-blowing.

In 2014, number 247—beautifully restored and with its own lap pool—sold for $22 million. Number 248, also renovated to its original beauty, just set an Upper West Side real estate record earlier this year by finding a buyer at $26 million, according to Ilovetheupperwestside.com.

Number 249 Central Park West

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: NYPL; seventh image: MCNY 2013.3.1.34]

Upcoming Talks and Walking Tours with Ephemeral New York!

May 6, 2022

I want to let everyone know about three events happening this month, May 2022, featuring Ephemeral New York. All are open to the public, and it would be great to meet readers of this site!

Photo: Salmagundi Club

On Thursday May 19 at 3:30 pm, I’ll be speaking at the Salmagundi Club as part of their Afternoon Tea Talks monthly series. Inside this art and social organization’s beautiful brownstone parlor at 47 Fifth Avenue, host Carl Raymond and I will be talking about Gilded Age New York City, as well as how Ephemeral New York got its start, insider info about the site, and more.

After the talk, tea, sandwiches, and cookies will be available to cap off this casual and fun event. Many of you probably know Carl through his popular podcast, The Gilded Gentleman, plus his historical talks and tours exploring Gotham. Click the link for tickets!

Image: New York Adventure Club

On Sunday May 15 at 1 p.m. and again on Sunday May 22 at 1 p.m., I’ll be leading a walking tour through the New York Adventure Club, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive.” The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 107th Street. In between we’ll walk up Riverside and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, which became a second “mansion row” and was set to rival Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.” The tour will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball.

Tickets for May 15 can be bought here, and tickets for May 22 at this link. Hope to see a great turnout on a lovely May day!

[First image: Salmagundi Club; second image: New York Adventure Club]

The magic of a ‘complicated, chaotic’ Central Park West apartment house

April 21, 2022

It doesn’t have the Gothic, French Renaissance-inspired fancy of the Dakota to the south on 72nd Street. Nor is it a balancing act of flamboyance and elegance like the St. Urban, at 89th Street, which looks right out of La Belle Epoque.

What the Braender, a 1903 apartment building at Central Park West and 102nd Street, does have is that kind of enchantment found in buildings that blend various design styles and come out looking eclectic and unique. These buildings are often found outside official historic district boundary lines and far from the trendy end of the avenue—and the Braender checks both boxes.

The Braender’s story begins at the turn of the century, when Central Park West was fulfilling its destiny as a grand thoroughfare of apartment residences. The builder, German-born Philip Braender, hired architect Frederick Browne to design his eponymous apartment house.

The result was a 10-story, 50-unit structure. The building was “fireproof,” as the ad below says, and it featured apartments of 5 to 12 rooms (with from one to 3 bathrooms per residence).

The Braender, from an early promotional booklet

Its style was quite a lovely mishmash. “The exterior of the Braender — residents pronounce the name to rhyme with gander — is a complicated, even chaotic mix of French Renaissance, Spanish and Baroque styles, all in light-colored stone, brick and terra cotta,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times column. Gray seemed to have a fondness for the building, deeming it “lovably awkward.”

I don’t know if awkward is the right word. On one hand, it has an inviting beauty, thanks to the gentle curves of the facade. Yet the figures carved into the entrance and the winged creatures that stare down at you from under a ninth floor balcony give it a Gothic, spooky feel.

The courtyard is accessed by walking through a wide arched entrance perhaps inspired by a Medieval castle. Two large terra cotta griffins are surrounded by greenery on the ground—casualties of a building renovation from the 1990s, according to the doorman.

Then there’s the lobby, with its marble walls, hand-tiled floor, and original light fixtures. You can just imagine late Gilded Age residents alighting from carriages on cold nights, then entering this sumptuous space and warming up by the fireplace before getting the elevator to one of those 12-room apartments.

By 1920, the Braender fell into the hands of Frederick Bangerter, an “inventor of automatic machinery” who planned to turn the building into a “cooperative home for people of moderate circumstances, and a home that will run easily and happily through co-operation of all its members, just as one cog in his automatic machinery runs smoothly with another,” according to a 1920 issue of the magazine Forecast.

If that cooperative plan ever panned out isn’t clear, and the Braender stayed under the radar in the news and real estate pages in the decades since.

“In the mid-1900s most of the large apartments in the Braender were cut up into smaller ones, and by the 1980s, when it was converted to condominiums, the building was in poor shape: its stone was battered and defaced, and the cornice and much its ornament had been removed,” wrote Gray.

The Braender in 1940, already minus its unusual cornice

Despite the stripped down ornamentation and the addition of a fire escape on the facade, the Braender maintains an old New York charm in the upper Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan Valley. The building is a condo now, and a two bedroom is currently on the market for $1.6 million.

[Third photo: NYPL; last photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’

April 18, 2022

Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th century.

110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905

“Little Coney Island,” as this quickly developing enclave of Morningside Heights was dubbed by residents, police, and politicians, consisted of a few blocks of newly opened pleasure gardens set in wood-frame buildings that attracted carousing crowds of fun-seeking men and women.

A “pleasure garden” sounds pretty saucy, but it was simply a venue or “resort” where working class New Yorkers, often immigrants, went to drink, listen to popular ballads, watch vaudeville acts, and otherwise entertain themselves with the same kind of lowbrow attractions found on the Bowery or at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, minus the rides.

In a city of tight quarters and without air conditioning or paid vacations for working people, pleasure gardens were popular. Thanks to its breezy open roof and proximity to the Ninth Avenue El, one of the most frequented at Little Coney Island was the Lion Palace, spun off from the Lion Brewery on 110th Street and Broadway.

Little Coney Island’s dance halls and beer gardens existed in wood buildings like these

“While it’s unclear as to exactly when the Lion opened, by the end of the century the Palace had a summer roof garden and performers were regularly covered in newspaper entertainment listings,” wrote Pam Tice on the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group site in 2016. “It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men.”

Soon, saloons, music halls, and casinos sprang up, like Waldron’s Dance Hall at 216 West 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, per a 2021 piece by E.L. Danvers on I Love the Upper West Side. The Imperial Garden and Columbus Casino drew hundreds of revelers each night.

Berenice Abbott took this photo of a 110th Street wood house in 1938; it would have been in the center of Little Coney Island

Of course, such a concentration of “entertainment houses” also raised the hackles of neighborhood associations and social reformers. After a fire broke out at Philip Dietrich’s resort in March 1900—during a performance by an act called the Fowler Sisters, who sang the ballad, “Farewell, Love’s Dream Is O’er,”—the crackdown on Little Coney Island seemed inevitable.

First, liquor licenses were turned down. A year later, police raided Waldron’s and a dance hall owned by Herman Wacke on the grounds that it was illegal to dance on Sundays.

“The dance halls that remained open entertained only a few straggling patrons, and these were not allowed to dance,” wrote the New York Times on March 18, 1901. “The musicians sat listlessly around their instruments and watched the police as they sauntered through the rooms.”

A bill passed by the state prohibited the operation of a dance hall serving alcohol within half a mile of a church. The Riverside and Morningside Heights Association petitioned to get rid of Little Coney Island, saying the proprietors violated liquor tax laws and “brought a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality,” per a June 1900 Times writeup.

110th Street and 8th Avenue in 1898, up the street from Little Coney Island

In 1901, a judge deemed a series of law enforcement raids at Little Coney Island to be “police persecution.” But the end was near. Ultimately, Little Coney was a victim of real estate development.

“Here is a section which was notorious a few years ago as New York’s ‘Little Coney Island,'” stated a New York Times story from 1910 about the new apartment residences going up along 110th Street. “Both sides of 110th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were lined with old wooden houses, groggeries, and summer beer gardens….”

“The cheap resorts managed to exist, however, until the natural order of things the builders saw that the land was better suited to towering edifices of stone and brick, and today but scant evidences remain of the former conditions.”

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Real Estate Record and Guide, 1911, via Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group; third image: MCNY 43.131.1.582; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: NYPL]

A stunning Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive—and the tabloid drama of its first owners

March 7, 2022

If you’re keeping up with HBO’s The Gilded Age, you might conclude that New York’s richest families of the era only lived on Fifth Avenue. There’s some truth to this, as old and new money New Yorkers with names like Astor and Vanderbilt built fancy fortresses for themselves on this premier avenue south and east of Central Park.

330 Riverside Drive, aka the Davis Mansion

By the turn of the century, however, another millionaire mile in Manhattan was giving Fifth Avenue a run for its money. Riverside Drive was booming with spectacular mansions mostly of the then-popular Beaux-Arts style—some elegant row houses; others stand-alone palaces with sloping yards and river views. (No brownstones, which were entirely out of fashion.)

Riverside Drive never did overtake Fifth Avenue as the city’s millionaire colony. It was too far from the action at Delmonico’s, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the elite hotels and clubs where business was done and deals were made. (It also didn’t have the same kind of foot traffic as Fifth, and what was the point of living on a street where you couldn’t see and be seen by those who mattered in society?)

Still, plenty of rich New Yorkers lived well in these new Riverside Drive mansions in the early 20th century. One stunning house that looks like it belongs in the Belle Epoque still stands at 330 Riverside Drive, on the corner of 105th Street (above).

This five-story Beaux-Arts beauty that fronts 105th Street and also overlooks a narrow stretch of Riverside recalls “a great Parisian mansion,” according to the Riverside-West 105th Street Historic District Designation Report from 1973. The same builder of 330 also put up numbers 331, 332, and 333 Riverside—three slender, harmonious, equally expensive row houses.

Completed in 1902, this example of light brick and limestone loveliness features a “richly ornamented recessed doorway,” decorative balconies, dormer windows, “three tiers of triple windows,” a mansard roof, and a one-story “conservatory” (above) on the east side of the mansion, per the Historic District Report.

It’s a knockout for sure. But the beauty of the mansion belies the unsavory story of a Gilded Age tycoon and his wife, who were the first occupants. You know this businessman—or at least you know his name, which is emblazoned on the product he packaged in a red and orange cylinder and is still sold in supermarkets everywhere.

Lucretia Davis, Jennie Davis, and Jennie’s divorce lawyer, Delphin M. Delmas

Robert Benson Davis, a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union, was the man behind Davis Baking Powder, which he began manufacturing around 1880. The product made him a fortune and earned him the name “baking powder king.” (Interestingly, at 176 Riverside lived John H. Matthews, known as the “soda water king” for manufacturing soda fountains.)

Davis moved into the mansion in 1905 with his wife Jennie (who he married when he was 38 and she just 18 years old), and their adult daughter, Lucretia. Perhaps it was their age difference, or maybe the corrupting influence of money. But this was an unhappily married couple. Davis left for Los Angeles, where he sued his wife for divorce in 1910.

330 Riverside Drive in 1925

The allegations about their marriage were perfect for the tabloid era. According to Daniel J. Wakin, author of the lively book The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block, “Davis charged that Jennie tried to have him declared insane so she could seize his business, accusing her of telephoning executives of the company to say he was losing his mind. She intercepted his mail while keeping him trapped in his house under the surveillance of nurses.”

Davis also alleged that Jennie held him captive in the house. “Once, he said he dropped a letter to a friend from a fourth-floor window, asking for help,” wrote Wakin. “The friend sent a car, and Davis said he slipped out when the servants were distracted by clearing his dinner dishes, and headed for another home he owned, in Summit, New Jersey.”

The mansion in roughly 1940

Of course, the affair Davis supposedly had with his nurse didn’t help his case. Jennie hired the same lawyer who helped get Harry K. Thaw a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict at Thaw’s infamous trial for shooting Stanford White on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906.

Jennie was awarded some financial support and remained at 330 Riverside with Lucretia. She appealed the divorce case for years, seeking a bigger financial settlement, until she unexpectedly died in 1915.

330 Riverside Drive facing Riverside Drive

Davis died five years later. Lucretia and her husband (who took over the Davis Baking Powder company) inherited the mansion. They lived in it together until the husband passed away in 1951. Lucretia held on, then left the house. At the time, some of the other mansions on Riverside had been carved up into apartments or rooming houses, and the elite feel of the area took a downward turn.

Number 330 may have survived so long because of the Roman Catholic order that purchased the mansion and turned it into a school. Today, Opus Dei occupies the house, according to Wakin. It’s an outpost of quiet and peace more than a century after the bitter divorce and tawdry allegations of the original homeowners.

[Fourth photo: Los Angeles Herald, 1911; fifth photo: NYPL; sixth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Filling in the ghostly outlines of former buildings in Manhattan

January 3, 2022

There’s something about New York City in winter that makes ghost buildings come out of hiding. Trees no longer obscure their faded outlines, fewer people on the sidewalks allows for less distraction, and the enchanting late afternoon light throws a spotlight on the forms and shapes we usually miss.

You may have passed some of these phantoms before, but now, in January, they call out to you, wanting to tell their stories. It takes a bit of digging to fill in all the blanks in the current cityscape, but here are some that didn’t ask to be erased.

Above is what remains of 12-14 West 57th Street, remnants of a time when West 57th Street was a residential enclave of elegant, single-family brownstones.

12-14 West 57th Street, 1918

Here’s a view of at least one of the brownstones in 1918, already a survivor in a rapidly commercialized West 57th Street.

The outline above is at 13 East 47th Street in the Diamond District, peeking out above the 2-story block of a building that replaced it. In the early 1900s the building was owned by A. Lowenbein’s Sons, Inc., an interior design company whose showroom stood here.

13 East 47th Street, 1920

Here’s the Lowenbein building in 1920. Perhaps the building started out as a brownstone or rowhouse built in the late 19th century, then was converted to commercial use when 47th Street lost its luster as a residential block.

Back on West 57th Street closer to Sixth Avenue is another hole in the cityscape. All that’s left of 32 West 57th is this outline, with the upper floor looking like it was pushed back.

32 West 57th Street, 1939-1941

What a delightful Romanesque Revival house we lost when number 32 met its fate with the wrecking ball! Too bad the outline that remains doesn’t include those top triangular windows.

The ghost building that used to hug 308 West 97th Street is more of a mystery; an image of what stood here was elusive. With its rectangular shape and chimney, my guess is a rowhouse, part of a lovely line built by one developer around the turn of the 20th century, when so much of the new Upper West Side was filled with gorgeous rowhouses.

The phantom outline above is what’s left of several demolished buildings, leaving East 60th Street from Lexington to Third Avenues looking like a toothless smile. Of course it was a residence, a brownstone in a former elite area that became commercialized during the 20th century.

Lexington Avenue and 60th Street, 1930

In this 1930 photo, the corner building that houses Cohen’s Fashion Optical has just been completed. To the right are the uniform residences that decades later were erased (almost) from the cityscape.

[Second image: MCNY, MNY238872; fourth image: MCNY, MN119720; sixth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; eighth image: MCNY, MNY240548]

A bronze statue that survived Hiroshima has a message for Riverside Drive

January 2, 2022

What cements Riverside Drive as one of Manhattan’s most beautiful streets is its architecture. The avenue is a winding line of elegant 1920s and 1930s apartment houses, with some surviving rowhouses and a few stand-alone mansions that reflect the beaux-arts design trend of the Gilded Age—lots of limestone, light brick, and marble.

But every so often, the Upper West Side portion of Riverside has a surprise. Case in point is the 15-foot, 22-ton bronze statue that has stood outside 332 Riverside Drive, between 105th and 106th Streets, since 1955, according to Japan Culture NYC.

The statue is of Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist monk in Japan who founded a sect of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu in the 13th century. The monk is depicted in missionary robes, his face mostly obscured by his hat. (Originally he carried a cane, presumed stolen in the early 1980s, per Japan Culture NYC.)

Riverside Drive has always been an avenue of grand statues. But how did the statue of a Japanese monk end up here?

The story begins in Japan in 1937, when a businessman in the metal industry commissioned his factories to make six identical bronze statues of Shinran Shonin, according to fascinating research by Sam Neubauer at I Love the Upper West Side. “The statues were spread across Japan, with one standing on top of a hill overlooking Hiroshima,” Neubauer wrote.

Once war broke out, the Japanese military turned three of the statues into scrap metal for ammunition. “A similar attempt was made in Hiroshima but after significant protests over the importance of the statue, the government allowed Shinran Shonin to remain on his hilltop,” stated Neubauer. 

Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Street, about 1903

“It was from the hilltop that, on August 6, 1945, the statue witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city,” he continued. “Although the epicenter of the blast was just 1.5 miles away, the statue somehow survived.” An estimated 80,000 people perished in immediate aftermath of the atomic blast.

In 1955, after the New York Buddhist Church moved to Riverside Drive from its original home in a brownstone on 94th Street, the church’s minister and the businessman who commissioned the statue decided to bring it to New York.

“The statue of Shinran Shonin was unveiled in the front garden of the New York Buddhist Church, where it remains today,” wrote Neubauer. “A carved stone plaque along the sidewalk describes the statue as ‘a testimonial to the to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.'”

Apparently radiation was a concern when the statue was unveiled. According to Atlas Obscura, the statue “has been free from radiation since it began its stay in the United States and has never posed a danger to visitors.”

Japan Culture NYC has a slightly different take. “The statue still bears red burn marks on its robes and a trace of radioactivity as a result of the blast from the atomic bomb,” the site stated.

[Third photo: MCNY, MN122632]

The Wild West-inspired apartment house designed for urban cliff dwellers

November 22, 2021

In Gilded Age New York, a new term popped up to mock a certain type of Manhattanite: cliff dweller.

“By about 1890 the growing number of residents in apartment houses were sardonically called cliff dwellers, after the image of the cliff-dwelling Native Americans in the Southwest,” wrote Irving Lewis Allen in his 1995 book, The City in Slang.

Inspired by the new slang term as well as Southwestern images and motifs, a new residential building opened its doors on Riverside Avenue and 96th Street in 1916: the aptly named Cliff Dwelling.

The 12-story Cliff Dwelling, situated on a flatiron-shaped plot only roughly eight feet deep on one side, opened as an apartment hotel high up over Riverside Park on posh Riverside Drive.

Unlike the restrained elegance that characterized similar new buildings on the Drive, the Cliff Dwelling had a playful, inventive facade unique in New York City.

Buffalo or cattle skulls, two-headed snakes, and mountain lions in terra cotta decorate the front of the building, along with images of corn, spears, and masks. Raised bricks form geometrical patterns and zigzags that mimic Aztec and Mayan design motifs.

Credit for the wildly original design goes to architect Herman Lee Meader, according to a 2002 New York Times article by Christopher Gray. “[Meader] was intensely interested in Mayan and Aztec architecture and made regular expeditions to Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán and other sites,” wrote Gray.

The Cliff Dwelling continued the Southwestern theme on the inside as well, stated Gray: “The lobby was furnished with Navajo rugs; tiles of tan, green, black and blood red; and zigzag designs on the lamps and elevator cages reminiscent of American Indian designs.”

By 1932, the Cliff Dwelling was converted to apartments, according to Carter Horsely at cityrealty.com, with kitchens added to the already small rooms. Since 1979, the building—which lost its marquee at some point, visible in the above 1939 photo—has been a co-op.

I’ve never been inside the Cliff Dwelling, but I imagine there’s still a sense of living high above an urban canyon, with a view to the Hudson and perhaps the New Jersey Palisades.

One recent change, however, may make the Cliff Dwelling feel more like a typical squeezed-in city structure: In the early 2000s, a new residential building was built inches away from the Cliff Dwelling’s eastern facade.

At least the western facade still has those wonderful tongue-out faces at eye level.

[Fourth photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]