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

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]

The lovely Art Nouveau window grille on a Riverside Drive row house

November 15, 2021

There’s a lot of enchantment on Riverside Drive, the rare Manhattan avenue that deviates from the 1811 Commissioners Plan that laid out the mostly undeveloped city based on a pretty rigid street grid.

Rather than running straight up and down, Riverside winds along its namesake park, breaking off into slender carriage roads high above the Hudson River. (We have Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who also conceptualized Riverside Park and what was originally called Riverside Avenue, to thank for this.)

But the surviving row house at number 294 deserves a closer look. More precisely, it’s the beautiful wrought iron grille protecting the wide front parlor window that invites our attention.

Number 294 was originally a four-story, single-family home completed in 1901. It’s a wonderful, mostly untouched example of the Beaux-Arts style that was all the rage among the city’s elite at the turn of the last century.

“The most striking features of the facade of 294 Riverside Drive—the orderly, asymmetrical arrangement, the finely carved limestone detailing, the graceful Ionic portico, the slate mansard roof, the elaborate dormers, and the ornate ironwork—eloquently express the richness embodied in the Beaux-Arts style,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1991 document, which designated the house, built in 1901, as a city landmark.

That unusual front window grille, however, seems to be the one part of the house that aligns more with the Art Nouveau style, which emerged in Europe in the early 1900s and wasn’t widely adopted in New York City.

Take a look at the the graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimic flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature. This grille is original to the house, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which called it “intricate and naturalistic.” The AIA guide to New York City pays homage to its Art Nouveau beauty, calling it “remarkable.”

Why such a fanciful window grille (below on the house in 1939-1941) became part of the house likely has to do with the man who commissioned number 294 and was its first owner.

William Baumgarten, born in Germany and the son of a master cabinetmaker, was one of the most prominent interior designers in Gilded Age New York City. Baumgarten designed the inside of William Henry Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansion; along with his firm, Herter Brothers, he was responsible for the interiors of other mansions and luxury hotels.

He and his wife, Clara, occupied the Riverside Drive row house until first William and then his wife passed away. In 1914, their survivors family sold it off. It was soon carved up into apartments, as it remains today. (The photo above has a “for rent” sign on the facade, but I just can’t make out a price.)

Baumgarten was known for his creative genius and talent. He would certainly want to live in a row house mansion (now known as the William and Clara Baumgarten House) of his own that reflected the beautiful design touches of his era.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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 grantstomb.org.

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 grantstomb.org.

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, 93.1.1.7829; 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]