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

Five ghosts who supposedly haunt the Dakota

October 26, 2020

New York City has no shortage of reportedly haunted houses—from the East Fourth Street home of 19th century merchant Seabury Tredwell and his large family to the Morris-Jumel mansion in Washington Heights, where a rich widow born in the 1770s lived out her days.

But when it comes to haunted houses that truly look spooky, the Dakota wins hands-down.

This landmark 1884 luxury apartment building on Central Park West and 72nd Street—with its steep roof, dormer windows, corner pavilions, and other architectural features that blend German Renaissance and Gothic Revival styles—is exactly the kind of place you would expect spirits to be hanging around.

One of these Dakota spirits is that of a strange little girl, reportedly first seen by workmen sometime in the 20th century.

“A beautiful blond child suddenly appeared in the corridor, wearing high white stockings, patent leather shoes with silver buckles, and a dress of yellow taffeta that seemed to come from another century,” wrote Stephen Birmingham in Life at the Dakota.

“She was bouncing a red ball. ‘It’s my birthday’ she said and, still bouncing her ball she disappeared down the corridor. The description of the little in the yellow dress matched no child then in the building, and she has never been identified.”

The little girl is still seen by residents today, “greeting them with a smile and a wave” from lower floor windows, reported a 2015 ABC News article.

Another ghost, “the man with the wig,” might have been that of the man who developed the Dakota, Edward Cabot Clark (above, left).

This apparition—with a short beard, large nose, and wire glasses, not unlike Clark’s—visited an electrician in the basement in the 1930s four times.

Each time, “the man glared fiercely at [the electrician] for several moments, then reached up, snatched off the wig he was wearing and shook it angrily in [the electrician’s] face,” wrote Birmingham, adding that Clark indeed wore a wig.

A ghost with a little boy’s face also apparently paid a visit to the building as well. It happened in the 1960s, when a “construction worker who was working near the apartments stated he saw a figure with the body of a man but the face of a young boy,” reported nyghosts.com.

This creepy specter didn’t say anything but made the workers feel “like they were being closely watched,” according to the site.

Finally, one Dakota ghost is also the building’s most famous former resident: John Lennon.

Some time before he was shot to death in the archway of the Dakota on December 8, 1980, Lennon himself reported seeing a woman he dubbed the “crying lady ghost,” which other residents supposedly spotted as well, according to the 2010 book, Ghosthunting in New York City.

After Lennon’s death, two people claimed to see his spirit at the entrance of the Dakota in 1983 “with an eerie glow about him,” stated Ghosthunting. One of the ghost spotters wanted to talk to John, but because of the way he looked at her she decided not to approach him, the book explained.

That wasn’t the only Lennon ghost experience. “Surely the most reliable and believable sighting of John Lennon’s ghost comes from his wife, Yoko,” Ghosthunting continued. “She saw him seated at his piano in their apartment. He looked at her and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am still with you.'”

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.401; sixth image: MCNY 2013.3.2.1759; seventh image: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images; eighth image: Office of Metropolitan History]

All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household

August 10, 2020

Whether you were an old money matron like Mrs. Astor or one of the “new rich” (hello, social climbing Alva Vanderbilt), all super wealthy New Yorkers during the city’s Gilded Age had one thing in common: a large staff of household servants.

While the man of the house tended to business concerns on Wall Street and enjoyed the company of other well-off men at private clubs, the woman of the house was tasked with overseeing multiple maids, butlers, and cooks, as well as nursemaids, coaches, and groomsmen, among others.

Depending on the family bank account and how large their mansion was, a newly minted millionaire household could employ 20 or so servants, who generally lived in the home on a floor devoted to servant rooms.

These rooms were typically near the roof, which was sooty and either too hot or cold, so not a choice place in the home for a family member.

During the Gilded Age, with fortunes being made and immigration high, a reported 16% of the population of New York City worked as a servant. They came from all ethnic groups, but many were Irish, German, or Scandinavian.

The “servant girl question” was often debated in the society pages of newspapers. Where do you find good help? How can you communicate a servant’s duties better? What should you pay them? (These concerns sound snooty, but they’re still being asked today when it come to domestic workers.)

Luckily, some informative writers put out books on the topic, including Mary Elizabeth Carter, who in 1903 published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy.

Here, Carter laid out all the rules, particularly all the servants a rich family should employ (though that varied depending on a family’s needs), and what to pay them.

At the top of the hierarchy is the Superintending Housekeeper. Typically a woman, she oversees the rest of the household staff: she checks with the cook about the day’s menu, inspects all rooms for cleanliness, and she can take the place of the mistress of the household by hiring and firing other servants. Her monthly pay: $50-$150.

Next up is the Lady’s Maid, who worked hard for her $25-$40 a month. This servant handled her mistress’s toiletry needs, her clothes, and various tasks associated with her social engagements.

“However luxurious the surroundings, that is not an ideal life where one must constantly at the beck and call, or subject to the caprice, of another during all the 24 hours, day in and day out,” warns Carter.

The next level of maid is the house maid, or chambermaid. This servant would be assigned to a specific room or suite of rooms, responsible for dusting, bed-making (plus airing out bed linens), cleaning, and sweeping embers from the fireplace. Her salary is $18-$25 per month.

The Parlor Maid and Dining Hall Maid round out the maid list.

The parlor maid kept the parlor and family rooms in tip-top shape, while the Dining Hall Maid assisted in the servant dining room; she might be the only servant who served other servants. For their labor, they made $20-$30 monthly.

No functioning mansion could do without laundry workers, who washed not just clothes but rugs and bedcovers via boiling them and then laying everything out to dry (or pinning them up). A head laundress could expect $30 per month, while assistants might score $18 monthly.

On the male servant side, the Butler was of primo importance. “In every household of any pretension to fashion, the butler looms up an imposing figure,” notes Carter. “His dignity must never be impeached.”

The butler needed managing skills (for his staff of up to four assistants), good handwriting, and the ability to do basic bookkeeping. Carter leaves out his ideal monthly salary, but it must be comparable to the Superindending Housekeeper’s, I imagine.)

The “Useful Man” is a curious servant who functioned as a jack at all trades who brought wood for the fireplace, fixed things, and handled the hard labor of turning the wet laundry in the laundry room, among other duties. His monthly salary: $30-$40.

The Chef is the “gastronomical director” of the house, Carter writes, and his take-home would be $100. He might be French, as French food was quite faddish at the time. The chef could also be a female cook, as this illustration from Puck shows.

It was the chef’s job to go to markets and purchase the raw materials for the dishes he or she would whip up for the family—or for special dinners or social events that may require he bring in assistants to help.

Last but not least is the Valet. The valet’s counterpart is the lady’s maid; he’s a kind of personal assistant to the wealthy man of the household, pressing his clothes and preparing his bath. He will go everywhere with his master, even on trips. Carter leaves out his monthly salary, but it’s probably in the range of the lady’s maid.

There were other servants, of course: coachmen for the carriage, footmen, and grooms (who typically lived upstairs in the family stable). If children were in the household, a nursemaid would devote herself to their care. Scullery maids did the dirty work in the kitchen.

After the Gilded Age, the need for such an enormous servant staff wasn’t as great. Many of the early apartment buildings had staff servants of their own, and appliances took the place of a laundress, for example.

Though plenty of households employ “help” today, the line between servant and those being served is much blurrier than it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These days, you often hear a person boast that their nanny or live-in housekeeper is “part of the family.” The nanny or housekeeper, however, might feel differently.

[Top photo: MCNY, 93.1.1.20444; second and third images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Emily Holt; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY. 45.335.21; sixth and seventh images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette; eighth image: Puck; ninth image: unknown; tenth image: New York Herald, 1870s]

A West Side hospital meant to look like a castle

August 3, 2020

When the cornerstone of the New-York Cancer Hospital—at 106th Street and Central Park West—was unveiled in an 1884 ceremony attended by wealthy benefactors like John Jacob Astor III, “cancer was still a disease synonymous with shame, believed to be as contagious as syphilis,” wrote the New York Times in 1984.

By the time the hospital began treating its first patients in 1887, former president and city resident Ulysses S. Grant had lost his very public battle with throat cancer, and the mystery surrounding the disease gripped New Yorkers.

An illness as feared as cancer deserved a building that would inspire and uplift.

That might be one reason architect Charles C. Haight chose to model the new facility—a Gothic red-brick collection of five round towers with cathedral-like windows—on a Renaissance chateau in France’s Loire Valley called Le Lude (at left).

Sure, there’s a resemblance. Yet the Renaissance design was about more than aesthetics.

Haight designed the circular hospital buildings in part because “it was thought that the shape prevented air stagnation and the accumulation of dirt and germs in corners,” states Guide to New York City Landmarks. With so much not known about how cancer forms and spreads, germ control was definitely something to consider.

New York Cancer Hospital (above, in 1916) wasn’t the only circular hospital of the era. The former Gouverneur Hospital, on Water Street, also features two sphere-like towers.

This 1901 facility ended up with spherical shapes because “it was believed that tuberculosis bacilli hid in corners, so the shape was an early attempt at preventive medicine,” according to a 1993 New York Times article.

New-York Cancer Hospital has long sense decamped Central Park West; it evolved into today’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Today the chateau-like building is a condo residence. I don’t know what it’s like inside, but the exterior is spectacular.

[First image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.7.1.5196; fourth image: Wikipedia]

The mystery manhole cover on Central Park West

June 1, 2020

The most interesting manhole covers are the ones that tell us who made it and when it was put in place: the name of an ironworks company, the initials of a city department, a date.

This cover, on Central Park West south of 86th Street, doesn’t offer much in the way of clues.

The two decorative stars feel very 19th century. “Water Supply” could certainly mean it was part of the Croton Aqueduct system; its location outside Central Park could be evidence that it had something to do with the receiving reservoir that existed in the park.

It looks like no other manhole cover I’ve encountered in Manhattan. But there is an identical one in Brooklyn (above). It’s on Eastern Parkway near Prospect Park.

Defunct city hospitals and their amazing buildings

March 9, 2020

These days, New York’s hospitals are consolidating and shrinking. But in the late 19th century city, hospital building was on the upswing—inspired by a rapidly growing population, the benevolent spirit of Gilded Age society, and a better sense of how to treat disease and illness.

“There are nearly 80 of these ‘inns on the highway of life where suffering humanity finds alleviation and sympathy,’ and many of them are among the largest and most magnificent buildings in the city.” stated King’s Handbook of New York City in 1892.

Recently the New York Academy of Medicine digitized 118 postcards of New York City hospitals. They’re part of the Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection, which includes about 2,000 postcards—many of 19th and early 20th century hospitals that have either been demolished and forgotten, repurposed for other uses, or are still (partially at least) standing, but with a different name.

Hahnemann Hospital (top image) is one that no New Yorker today would recognize. This spectacular hospital building opened in 1878 at Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets. “In addition to its free beds, the hospital provides a quiet and comforting home for the sick and suffering of all classes under homeopathic treatment,” stated King’s. It was sold in 1919 and an apartment building went up on this site in the 1920s.

City Hospital, on what was then called Blackwell’s Island, is another stunning structure (second image)—built by inmates serving time in the island’s prisons. James Renwick, Jr. designed the building, which opened in 1861. Closed in the 1930s and abandoned, City (later called Charity) hospital was bulldozed in 1994.

In 1874, an English surgeon described The Roosevelt Hospital, at 59th Street and 10th Avenue (third image), as “Without exception the most complete medical charity in every respect,” according to King’s. It owes its existence to James H. Roosevelt, who left his estate to create “a hospital for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons, and for its permanent endowment.”

Today, what eventually became St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital has been rebranded Mount Sinai West. I believe most of these original buildings are gone, but the early surgery theater still remains.

Morningside Heights’ Woman’s Hospital (above) moved to this spot near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1906. It merged with St. Luke’s Hospital in 1952, though this incredible Gothic building remained until the mid-1970s.

Originally located on Madison Avenue and 29th Street and then Park Avenue and 51st Street, Women’s Hospital was founded by surgeon Dr. Marion Sims—whose reputation has been called into question and a Fifth Avenue statue dedicated to Sims removed in 2018.

[All postcards belong to the New York Academy of Medicine/Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

A Manhattan train station had a potbelly stove

January 13, 2020

Imagine how much better your winter workday commute would be if your station had a potbelly stove—which you could wait beside in toasty comfort?

Train riders at this West Side station had that luxury, as seen in one of the wonderful photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her legendary book, Berenice Abbott’s New York.

The potbelly stove photo was captured on February 6, 1936. We know the exact date—but which train station is this?

Over the years, it’s been misidentified as a subway station. But it’s actually an above ground El station, per Abbott’s photo caption: “”El station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.”

The lavish porte cocheres of Gilded Age New York

January 13, 2020

When New York’s first luxury apartment residences were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developers added all kinds of fabulous amenities to entice the city’s wealthy.

After all, the idea of apartment living—”living on a shelf,” as Mrs. Astor reportedly called it—was a hard sell in a city where the elite preferred the status symbol of their own freestanding mansion.

Electric lights, wall safes, private restaurants, billiards rooms, servant quarters, a chauffeurs’ lounge, even a rooftop farm were among the offerings developers used to lure potential buyers.

And there was one other convenience well-heeled New Yorker desired: a porte cochere.

What’s a porte cochere? It’s a recessed entrance—sometimes covered, sometimes not—that allows a vehicle to enter into a building’s private courtyard, so a resident alighting from a car or carriage wouldn’t have to step out on the street.

The porte cochere (it’s in French, so of course it connotes luxury) brings the vehicle to an interior door instead, which was the ultimate in comfort and privacy.

So in the early days of opulent apartment houses, the best buildings all featured porte cocheres. Many of these buildings are still with us, and so are their delightfully old-world porte cocheres, though not all are in use.

Two of the loveliest are—where else?—Sutton Place. The top two photos show the exterior porte cochere and the interior driveway at 2 Sutton Place, at 57th Street. The third photo is the three-entrance porte cochere at 1 Sutton Place across the street.

The fourth image is the beautiful porte cochere of the St. Urban, a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Prague but was actually constructed in 1906 on Central Park West and 89th Street.

Beneath it is the porte cochere at 1185 Park Avenue and 94th Street, completed in 1929 and so luxurious, this residence doesn’t even have a name.

Finally, here’s a throwback photo showing off the wide, high-ceiling port cochere at the Paterno, the magnificent building at 440 Riverside Drive and 116th Street, built in 1909.

Supposedly porte cocheres are all the rage once again, in what some people call New York’s second Gilded Age. The New York Times ran an article last month about how these are the new must-have feature potential buyers want in a co-op or condo.

The demands of the uber rich apparently have not changed very much since the first Gilded Age.

[Last photo: MCNY, 1910]

Columbus Circle’s original IRT subway kiosk

October 14, 2019

No matter what you think of Christopher Columbus, I think we can all agree that the original subway kiosk at the circle named after him is an iconic and inspiring piece of street architecture.

And the trolleys, the lamppost, the dune buggy–like early car in this 1910 postcard of Columbus Circle…sigh.

This kiosk would be for entering the subway. The old-school rule: Domed-roof kiosks were for going into the station, while peaked-roof kiosks were for exiting, according to Tom Range’s 2002 book, New York City Subways.

[Postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2391]

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]