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

For rent on the Upper West Side in the 1930s

January 11, 2021

Finding a relatively affordable apartment in a pricey Upper West Side building is no easy feat. But things appeared different in the late 1930s, as a peek at the real estate pages of the New York Times reveals.

The “for rent” section of the paper in August 1938 features dozens of oversize ads dripping with adjectives and images designed to lure tenants—and the vast majority of these ads are for elite Upper West Side addresses.

A combination of factors apparently led to a late 1930s glut of unrented units in the buildings constructed during the Upper West Side boom years of the early 20th century. The Depression must have been a factor, leading to an oversupply of luxury apartments developers were desperate to fill.

Taking a closer look at some of the ads offers an idea of what people were looking for from a New York City apartment in the 1930s—and it also proves that certain amenities never go out of style.

The Master Apartment Hotel ad (top image) is aimed at potential renters who want to “live in a home of art and culture,” with free “lectures and recitals.” One amenity is telling: “silent refrigeration.” Refrigerators became more common in homes in the 1930s, but maybe they sounded like jet engines?

This ad for both 450 West End Avenue and 5 Riverside Drive (second image) is designed for families with kids, and the real estate copy about the great schools is exactly what you’d find in an ad today. But about that second building overlooking the spectacular Schwab Mansion? Well, the mansion was torn down a decade later, so the view would have been of a demolition pit and construction site until a replacement went up.

I like the third ad, which covers five of the poshest buildings along the Central Park West of today. “Each building occupies an entire block and enjoys cool breezes and day-long sunshine,” the ad tells us. Clearly this is before air conditioning, and the cool breezes were a real selling point.

370 Riverside Drive was built in 1922, and the list of features—two and three baths, spacious closets, well managed—still have strong appeal. My favorite amenity is the “fine type tenants.” No riffraff here!

Twenty-plus blocks down Riverside Drive was number 100. Dropped living rooms, Venetian blinds, stall showers, concealed radiators, Kentile kitchen floors…and radio outlets!

Each of these buildings is still standing, and most (if not all) have been converted to co-ops and are part of protected historic districts. About the prices listed: unless otherwise indicated, I believe they cover an entire year.

[All ads are from the August 14, 1938 edition of the New York Times]

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

Free tickets to celebrate the history of suffrage—and the NYC women who fought for the vote

November 17, 2020

2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. This hard-fought battle began with the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848 and ended when women went the polls in 1920.

Between these years, history was made—thanks to the early “strong-minded” activists who popularized the suffrage movement, as well as the wealthy women who helped fund parades, pageants, and protests…and even paid the bail for women who were arrested while fighting for the vote.

Historian Nina E. Harkrader, in conjunction with the Upper West Side historic group Landmark West, is offering Ephemeral New York readers free tickets to “Upper West Side Women and the Long Fight for Women’s Suffrage.” It’s a virtual event that focuses on the New York City women who helped make voting rights happen.

Not surprisingly considering the neighborhood’s activist roots, many of these New York women (and some men too) hailed from the Upper West Side. Harkrader’s presentation uses photos and headlines to tell their stories.

The event is on Thursday, November 19, from 6:30-7:30 pm. If you’re interested in attending, just follow the link here. Sign up starts now, and Landmark West has set aside 10 free tickets. The event will happen via Zoom.

[Top image: MCNY 47.225.8; second image: MCNY x2010.11.8826; third image: MCNY x2010.11.10841]

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.”