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

Taking a leisurely drive in the peaceful, pastoral Central Park of 1900

March 20, 2023

By taking a drive, we’re not talking about automobiles. In 1900, the year this postcard dates back to, “driving” still meant driving a horse-pulled carriage…as these well-dressed and probably upper-crust New Yorkers demonstrate.

At the turn of the last century, Central Park still more closely resembled the pastoral retreat Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned when they completed the park in the early 1860s. Instead of ballfields and playgrounds, the park was a place of rolling hills, recreated nature, and drives.

Is that the Museum of Natural History in the background? It looks lonely out there on Central Park West, which had yet to become the beautiful avenue of elegant apartment houses as we know it today.

[Museum of the City of New York: X2011.34.1513]

A couple, a brownstone stoop, and an “unspoken question” in a 1956 Hopper painting

March 13, 2023

When I think of Edward Hopper, his etchings, prints, and paintings from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s come to mind—mostly images of the modern metropolis and the isolation fostered by the urban network of bridges, elevated trains, and concrete office buildings.

But Hopper continued to paint through the postwar decades, up until his death at age 84 in 1967 inside his longtime studio on Washington Square North.

“Sunlight on Brownstones” is one of these later works. Completed in 1956, it shows a young couple at the entrance of a brownstone, likely their own. The sterile brownstone row looks very detached from a dark green Central Park, presumably, across the street. The couple also seems disconnected and disengaged, like they were dropped accidentally into a landscape painting.

What are they looking at? The painting is part of the collection at the Wichita Art Museum, and I’ll let the caption on the website offer an explanation.

“The couple on the stoop appear to gaze upon something beyond the painting’s right edge, beg­ging the question of their interest,” the museum website states. “The answer appears to lie outside the paintings frame, both lit­eral and temporal. Like a movie still, Sunlight on Brownstones seems to have been removed from a larger narrative.”

The caption ends by suggesting that this couple, in their stillness and solitude, “seem to look expectantly toward the sun, as if searching for an answer to an unspoken question.”

A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion

February 20, 2023

You’re forgiven if you fail to see it as you rush to make your train: a neglected off-white plaque surrounded by filthy subway tiles at the 157th Street subway station.

But it’s a shame if this curious old sign doesn’t catch your eye, because it clues you in to Presidential history and New York City’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War.

In August 1776, George Washington, the commander of the fledging Continental Army, suffered a bruising defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. In September, he made his way to the Roger Morris mansion—a circa-1765 hilltop country house high above Harlem.

Roger Morris was a British army colonel who had left the city, so Washington made the Federal-style mansion his temporary headquarters before the battle of Harlem Heights. Washington then moved on to White Plains, and the now-vacant country estate became the headquarters of both British and Hessian commanders as the war progressed.

In 1810, two decades after Washington became the first U.S. President, a wealthy couple named Eliza and Stephen Jumel took up residence—hence the mansion’s current name, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Today, this oldest house in Manhattan is a museum on lovely Jumel Terrace in appropriately named Washington Heights.

I don’t think any museum visitors claim to have seen Washington’s ghost. But Eliza Jumel, an infamous social climber who later married Aaron Burr, supposedly haunts the mansion.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

When a public bathhouse opened on West 60th Street

December 5, 2022

By 1906, New York City had six free municipal-run public bathhouses operating throughout Manhattan. The seventh, at 232 West 60th Street—in a rough tenement enclave between 10th and 11th Avenues—formally opened its doors in June of that year.

A ceremony led by William H. Walker, superintendent of buildings, included a number of speeches. But “before the last orator had said his last word, a young army of West Side youth rushed for the plunges,” according to a New York Times article that covered opening day.

When the word was finally given to admit the 50 or so waiting boys, “there was a great rush, and in less than a minute the boys had undressed, donned their trunks, and were splashing about in the tank,” wrote the New-York Tribune.

Of course the kids wanted to get inside on that June afternoon. Behind the Beaux Arts-style limestone and brick exterior—featuring two terra cotta sea creatures with their tails entwined—was an upstairs bathhouse offering 80 showers (aka, “rain baths”) as well as something new and special: a ground-floor 35 by 60-foot “plunge,” or swimming pool.

Now, at the dawn of the Progressive Era, people residing on either side of West 60th Street—the mostly Irish Hell’s Kitchen to the south, and the now-defunct African-American San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north—had a place not just to cool down in hot weather, but to bathe all year round.

Even though the Tenement Act of 1901 mandated that all tenement apartment units have bathing facilities, many people occupying older tenements still lived without a bathtub. In the early 1900s around West 60th Street, “a majority of homes lacked indoor plumbing,” states NYC Parks.

The 60th Street public bath was one of 20 public bathhouses across four boroughs constructed in the early 20th century. This bathhouse-building on the part of Progressive reformers capped a series of initiatives dating back to the late 19th century that called for improved hygiene and sanitation: on city streets, in public buildings, and of people themselves.

“Government acceptance of its duty to provide for the cleanliness of citizens was what the reformers had been hoping for; they believed, as Jacob Riis wrote in his 1902 book Battle With the Slum, that soap and water were ‘moral agents of the first value in the slum,'” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2014 New York Times column.

The showers were not unpopular, but the pool may have been the main attraction. It could hold 250 people, featured a supply of continuously filtered water, and offered women-only swimming three days a week, per the New-York Tribune. (The sexes were rigidly separated, with distinct doors for males and females even at the main entrance, as the second image shows.)

While the place was packed in the summer, wintertime use wasn’t very high. “Robert E. Todd of the Bureau of Municipal Research found in 1907 that bathhouse patronage in the winter months fell to as little as 4 percent of capacity,” wrote Gray.

“The increased use of the baths in warm weather indicated to him that most people visited not for regular bathing, but to cool off,” he continued. “In Todd’s opinion, the need for personal cleanliness was felt more by reformers than by the poor and working class; adoption would be trickle-down.”

Within a matter of years, the 60th Street public bath, like others across the city, began to outlive their original purposes. More tenements were outfitted with bathtubs and showers, and the pool increasingly became a place for swim meets and competitions.

By the 1940s, its days as a public bathhouse were over. At some point one of the entrances was renovated into a window; the tenement next door fell to the wrecking ball.

In 2016, the bathhouse reopened as part of the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, which features not just swimming facilities but state-of-the-art fitness rooms and a new building addition.

Who was Gertrude Ederle? This West Side daughter of a butcher became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. Ederle was born in 1906—the same year the bathhouse that now bears her name opened its doors to kids like her.

[Third image: MCNY, 1925: X2010.11.6142; fifth image, 1939-1941: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The vintage interior of a 1927 bank building that’s now home to a CVS

October 31, 2022

Repurposed buildings are the story of New York City real estate. New businesses moving into and taking over the space of a defunct company is nothing unusual.

But sometimes it can be startling—especially when the old company was housed in a fortress-like brick and limestone building resembling a Greek temple and as tall as a tenement, and the new business is a CVS.

That’s the case with a former bank branch on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street. Opened in 1927 as the East River Savings Bank and enlarged in 1932, the building is the kind of imposing edifice popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries with financial institutions that banks don’t construct anymore.

Neo-Classical in style with columns facing the street on two sides, the sober, solid building was meant to convey that your money and valuable were safe. In an era with fewer financial regulations and more bank failures, this must have been quite reassuring to potential customers.

The inscriptions above the bank’s entrance were meant to reassure customers as well. “Quotations from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln celebrating the virtues of saving decorate the bank’s principal facade, while Theodore Roosevelt’s words graced the West 96th Street facade,” notes the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s report.

The exterior of the bank has had landmark status since 1998, not long after the East River Savings Bank and a subsequent bank closed their doors, leaving the building empty.

The interior, however, is a different story. Off to the sides of the store shelves are some remnants of the former bank—perhaps very decorative entrances, or maybe areas where customers queued up for bank tellers.

A row of vintage wood phone booths (minus the phones, unfortunately) with those iconic folding doors are hidden behind an umbrella rack and halloween candy.

A bank clock with Roman numerals is set inside a lovely iron railing above the ice cream section, under florescent lighting and security cameras.

The CVS moved into the former bank building at least a decade ago, so it’s odd that they never bothered in all that time to renovate the interior. I’m not complaining; it’s a treat to see these remains of early 20th century New York City.

This isn’t the only old bank building repurposed for a drugstore chain. Downtown on Spring and Lafayette Streets, Duane Reade colonized another stunning old-school bank…also once home to an East River Savings Bank branch.

The West Side school perched on top of a massive rock pile

October 10, 2022

Not many cities have a type of rock named after them, but Manhattan has Manhattan schist—an ancient bedrock formed roughly 450 million years ago.

Manhattan schist generally lies underground, providing the ideal strong foundation for the skyscrapers clustered in Lower Manhattan and Midtown, where the schist is closer to ground level and better able to anchor massive buildings.

But some schist lies above ground in the form of giant amazing rock outcroppings. Case in point: this high pile of gray, grainy schist on West 123rd Street east of Amsterdam Avenue in Morningside Heights.

Even in New York City, which from its very beginnings flattened and filled in the natural topography to fulfill real estate needs and dreams, schist like this was tough to deal with. For most of the 19th century, the pile was the site of blockhouse number 4–one of several small stone forts built to hold munitions if needed to defend Gotham during the War of 1812, per Harlem + Bespoke.

By the end of the 19th century, the schist and the unused blockhouse were part of Morningside Park. This steep, schist-filled green space became a park in part because Parks commissioner Andrew Haswell Green thought it would be “very expensive” and “very inconvenient” to extend the Manhattan street grid to such a rocky area, according to NYC Parks.

123rd Street looking east from Amsterdam: the remains of the 1812 Blockhouse are on top of the rocks

In the 1960s, however, the city was casting about for a site to build a new elementary school in or around Harlem. “The state legislature and mayor supported the construction of a school on the north part of Morningside Park, where the ruins of Blockhouse 4 were,” states the website for the Margaret Douglas School, also known as PS 36.

Construction of the school began in 1965, the ruins of the blockhouse were bulldozed away, and a new elementary school rose on this prehistoric heap of Manhattan schist.

The school is still in use, a Brutalist-style building stacked on top of the massive rocks with the help of concrete risers. It’s not far from another Manhattan schist outcropping: the enormous rat rock on West 114th Street, which was apparently too expensive to dynamite away and remains wedged between two apartment buildings.

[Third image: MCNY, F2011.22.1574]


Country houses left behind on Riverside Drive

September 23, 2022

After the first section of Riverside Drive—from 72nd to 126th Street—opened in 1880, this winding avenue that followed the gentle slope of Riverside Park became a study in contrasts.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Up and down the Drive, wealthy New Yorkers and the developers who catered to them spent the next decades building well-appointed row houses, mansions, and early luxury apartment buildings. Yet on the fringes of this new millionaire’s colony stood crudely built shanties and shacks like the one in the photo above, homes to those whose fortunes didn’t rise during the Gilded Age and were forced to the margins.

Another type of dwelling also held out here and there on Riverside Drive: country houses. These wood-frame houses with clapboard shutters and welcoming front porches may have been typical family homes in the early to mid-19th century, when the Upper West Side of today was a sparsely populated collection of small farming villages.

Development encroaches on this house, at Riverside Drive and 111th Street, in 1909

That changed after Central Park was completed and the new elevated trains made the West End much more accessible. As the 20th century continued, Riverside Drive was extended into Upper Manhattan—threatening the handful of country houses that predated the Drive but were now in its way.

A pretty house at Riverside Drive and 86th Street, 1896

None of these country homes pictured here survive today. Riverside Drive, with its unbroken lines of elegant apartment houses, doesn’t seem to miss them. Like so many early New York City houses, the stories of these anachronisms seem to be lost to the ages.

Join Ephemeral New York on Sunday, September 25 at 1 p.m. on a walking tour of Riverside Drive, which delves into the backstory of the country estates, mansions, and monuments of New York’s most beautiful avenue.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; second, third, and fourth photos: New-York Historical Society]

Check out these upcoming talks and tours with Ephemeral New York!

September 17, 2022

I’m pleased to let everyone know about upcoming tours and a program I’ll be leading this fall. All are open to the public and offer a portal to some of the most dynamic eras in New York City history. It would be wonderful to meet Ephemeral readers at these events!

First, new dates for Ephemeral New York’s popular Riverside Drive walking tour, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive,” are on the calendar in September and early October. The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 108th Street.

In between, we’ll stroll the gentle curves of the avenue and delve into the history of this beautiful drive born in the Gilded Age, which became a second mansion row and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s millionaire colony. We’ll look at the mansions that remain, the families and characters who lived there, and the stories told by spectacular monuments.

Tours run from 1 pm to 3 pm and are in conjunction with the New York Adventure Club. Here’s the schedule so far:

Sunday, September 18
Sunday, September 25
Saturday, October 8

On November 9 at 6 pm, I’ll be presenting a Zoom program: “Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers,” in conjunction with West Side preservation organization Landmark West. Using newspapers, photos, and guidebooks of the era, the program will explore how the upper classes navigated the domestic side of life, why “the servant girl question” was such a vexing topic of the age, and how a staff of maids, coachmen, and other servants managed the households inside the sumptuous mansions and brownstones of the Upper West Side and other areas of Manhattan.

Tickets for this program are not yet available, but I’ll provide a sign-up link and more details when it’s live!

[Top image: New York Adventure Club; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY, 204627]

The tabloid drama after a rich Riverside Drive businessman goes missing

August 29, 2022

On March 30, 1903, Adolphe Openhym exited his posh row house at 352 Riverside Drive (below, right) and took his usual morning horseback ride along the Riverside Park bridle path.

Adolphe Openhym’s Beaux-Arts townhouse at 352 Riverside Drive, right

Afterward, the successful silk merchant at William Openhym & Sons and real estate investor returned to the home he shared with his wife and two sons, had breakfast, and then left the house again in “usual good health and spirits,” wrote The Sun on April 2. Reportedly he was clad in a top hat and frock coat and carried a cane or umbrella.

But instead of going to his office downtown on Mercer Street, 49-year-old Openhym was seen taking an uptown streetcar on Amsterdam Avenue, according to the Eagle. Around 11 a.m., a man matching his description was spotted by a “bridge tender” walking to the middle of the High Bridge—the 1848 bridge connecting Upper Manhattan to the Bronx across the Harlem River.

Adolphe Openhym

On the High Bridge, Openhym put down his hat, climbed a guardrail, and then leaped into the river, the bridge tender said, his body disappearing into the murky depths.

New York City’s rapacious tabloid dailies couldn’t resist the story—the apparent suicide of a wealthy business leader who possessed all the trappings of a charmed Gilded Age life. Reporters jumped into action, first seeking insight from Openhym’s family. They reported nothing amiss.

The High Bridge, 1900

“I do not believe that my father has committed suicide,” one of Openhym’s sons told a reporter at the Evening World on April 1. “He has not been ill or suffering any kind of mental trouble. His home life was perfectly happy.” Reporters also visited his business partners, who were similarly puzzled and described their colleague as having “good mental health.”

Two days later, however, the Evening World changed the narrative. A front page story on April 3 claimed that the day Openhym went missing, there was a “tremendous row in the family.” Family servants who were interviewed described him as “cross” and that “nothing could be done to please him.” An unidentified business partner said that for two weeks, Openhym complained of “pains in his head.”

Nothing lurid came from these accounts, so newspapers focused on the search for Openhym’s corpse. For the next few weeks, the missing man’s family chartered boats and hired searchers to look for the body. Other searchers came to the Harlem River on their own with grappling hooks, anxious to gain the $5,000 reward the family offered for his remains.

Days passed. Without a body to confirm his death, rumors hit the news cycle: that Openhym didn’t really jump off the bridge, that he was spotted in restaurants in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Newburgh. “Is Adolph Openhym alive?” asked the Brooklyn Standard Union on April 8, spelling his name without the e at the end. “Since the offering of a big reward for information on his whereabouts, many persons have come forward to declare they have seen him since the day he disappeared.”

An AP story stated that detectives learned Openhym “had several hundred thousand dollars in cash where he could get it at a moment’s notice.” The story described him as “a man who has a keen appreciation of the good things of the world….He is a frank advocate of the luxurious life, and knows how to spend money royally.”

On April 22, even without a body, Openhym’s family accepted that he killed himself by leaping from High Bridge, a lawyer representing the family told the Evening World. Reporters asked the representative about the possibly that Openhym faked his death. “My God!” the lawyer replied angrily. “They will be charging the unfortunate man with murder next! They have already accused him of every crime in the calendar.”

Finally on April 27, Openhym’s body was found floating in the river. His pockets contained some bills and change, business letters, the photo of a child, a gold watch, a scarf with a pearl stick pin, gold cuff links, and a gold penknife, among other unsuspicious objects reported by various newspapers.

“The body was in a remarkably good state of preservation for one that had been in the water so long,” the New York Times stated. “It was completely dressed, even to the gloves, and the only mark upon it was a bruise across the face, which was believed to have been caused by striking the water as the man leapt from the bridge.”

His family held funeral services at their Riverside Drive home. About 300 people attended, but “the widow was too ill to be there,” the New-York Tribune reported. The contents of his will were also published. His estate was valued between $500,000 and $1 million, depending on the newspaper reporting on it, and he bequeathed money to the Society for Ethical Culture and Mount Sinai Hospital, among other charities.

The final stories about this tragedy focused on the coroner’s conclusion: that Openhym killed himself because his mind was “temporarily imbalanced.” According to the Brooklyn Times Union on May 1, “Openhym committed suicide while temporarily insane,” per the coroner’s official report. After that, the reporters moved on.

New York’s newspapers did their job—investigating leads, suggesting scandal, then following up with the dollar amount of the dead man’s estate and where his money would be going. What reporters couldn’t do is explain why such a fortunate man ended his life. Only Openhym could answer that, and he took his reasons to his grave.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society]

Join a Walking Tour of Gilded Age Riverside Drive With Ephemeral New York!

August 4, 2022

This month, I’ll be leading two more fun, insightful walking tours through the New York Adventure Club: “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansions and Memorials of Riverside Drive.”

The tours start at 83rd Street and end at 108th Street. In between we’ll stroll up winding, lovely Riverside Drive and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, when the Drive became a second “mansion row” and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.”

The tours will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive, as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball. We’ll also take a look at at the wide variety of people who made Riverside Drive their home, from wealthy industrialists and rich business barons to actresses, artists, and writers.

Though the tour covers a lot of territory, we go at a breezy, conversational pace, with a few dips into Riverside Park and then back again on the shady side of the Drive. It’s a wonderful way to experience the history of New York City. All are welcome!

Tickets remain for the Riverside Drive tour for Sunday, August 7—tickets can be purchased here.

Tickets are also available for Sunday, August 21—here’s the link for this date.

Hope to see a great turnout on either of these quiet end-of-summer days!

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Ebay; third image: NY Adventure Club]