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

What if the West Side Airport had been built?

June 29, 2015

Imagine if the entire stretch of Manhattan from West 34th Street to West 79th Street from Broadway to the Hudson River was an enormous airport runway.

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It could have happened in 1946—if flamboyant real estate developer William Zeckendorf had his way.

That’s when Zeckendorf unveiled plans for his West Side Airport, the city’s “dream” airport that would obliterate Midtown West and part of the Upper West Side.

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Handling 68 domestic commercial flights per hour, “the sprawling terminal, in effect, would bring air service right to the heart of New York City and eliminate the necessity of limousine travel to and from existing airports which are 10 miles outside the business districts,” states a May 1946 Life article.

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“[Zeckendorf’s] plan included the building of thirty-five 10-story buildings for industrial purposes, terminals for buses and trucks, commercial and freight railroad lines, and an airport standing above the buildings and streets on a sizable deck,” states one book on urban renewal.

WestsideairportinsideIt’s not exactly a surprise that the airport idea died a quick death. Though Zeckendorf was a successful developer who helped piece together land to build the United Nations, some of his other ideas—a 102-story tower on top of Grand Central terminal, a boulevard of apartment houses on 42nd Street leading to the U.N.—also tanked.

They join so many other ideas for New York City that also never made it past the planning stage, such as a speedway in Central Park, a 100-story housing development in Harlem, and moving sidewalks to whisk pedestrians to their destinations.

[Photos: Life]

The reason Morningside Park became a park

May 18, 2015

Morningside Park became a park for one inconvenient reason: 19th century park administrators believed the craggy peaks of Manhattan schist were too steep and rugged for the city to pave over.

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“In 1867 Andrew Haswell Green, Commissioner and Comptroller of Central Park, recommended that a park be located in Morningside Heights. He argued that it would be ‘very expensive’ and ‘very inconvenient’ to extend the Manhattan street grid over the area’s severe topography,” states nycgovparks.org.

Opened in the 1880s, Morningside still has a Victorian-era feel. Too bad St. Luke’s Hospital building no longer rises high over the park as it does in this circa-1900 postcard.

An apartment house evokes “memories of Paris”

May 4, 2015

Dorilton1902architecturalreviewWhen the Dorilton opened in 1902, the 12-story Beaux-Arts building at Broadway and 71st Street was one of many grand apartment houses designed to take advantage of all the new Upper West Side residents the coming subway system would bring.

With its curvy mansard roof and enormous arched entryway, it caught the eye of architectural critics, who generally loathed its florid, ostentatious details.

“[The Dorilton] was criticized as an ‘architectural aberration’ because of its grandiose scale and overly lavish ornament,” states Gwendolyn Wright’s Building the Dream.

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But that didn’t stop people from moving in. Consider the amenities: filtered water, free electricity, separate servant and passenger elevators, soundproof walls and windows, and long-distance telephone service and refrigerators in every apartment.

DoriltonfloorplansnyplThere was even a charger for the electric automobiles hitting the streets at the time.

If flamboyant ornamentation is your thing, then the Dorilton is a dream. The iron gates at the limestone entryway look like they belong in a European palace.

And don’t forget the sculptures on the Broadway side, “two greater than life size female figures whose handsome draped clothing enhances the motion expressed in their bodies,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The Dorilton wasn’t one of the few luxury buildings on Upper Broadway for much longer. But as the neighborhood declined after World War II, so did the Dorilton, with pieces of the cornices and other details falling off.

DoriltonupperfloorscloseupAfter it was landmarked in 1974—with the Landmarks Preservation Committee report describing it as evoking “memories of Paris”—the Dorilton rebounded, undergoing a renovation to return it to its glory.

Today, this “aberration,” as it was called, has some of the most sought-after co-op apartments in the city. And its pull-out-all-the-stops ornamental beauty stops pedestrians in their tracks.

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[Top photo: Architectural Review; third, NYPL; fourth: Wikipedia]

Holdout buildings that survived the bulldozer

February 16, 2015

They’re the survivors of New York City real estate—the walkups and low-rise buildings now dwarfed by shiny office towers and more contemporary residences.

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Each building probably has a different backstory that explains how the wrecking ball was avoided.

Maybe an owner refused to sell for sentimental reasons. This lovely Greenwich Village brownstone, sandwiched between two tall apartment houses above, looks like it could have been one person’s longtime romantic hideaway.

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Or perhaps an owner tried to hold out for a bigger offer, until a developer realized it wasn’t worth the payout anyway. That might have been in the case of this one-story space wedged between a 19th century tenement and 21st century box on Tenth Avenue.

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And thanks to real estate rules governing landmark structures and historic districts, some of these buildings probably couldn’t be torn down, like the gorgeous carriage house on a Gramercy side street.

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It’s hard not to root for these underdogs. This ivy-covered walkup on East 60th Street gives bustling 59th Street near Bloomingdale’s the feel of a smaller-scale city.

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Doesn’t this stately red townhouse do a good job breaking up the monotony of a block of Murray Hill terraced high-rise apartment buildings?

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I can’t be the only New Yorker happy to see a Gilded Age limestone mansion holding its own in the middle of a stately Upper West Side block.

New York City’s “open-air” schools for sick kids

September 13, 2014

Despite advances in sanitation, New York City at the cusp of the 20th century was a breeding ground for illness, especially in the city’s crowded downtown slums.
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Trash- and manure-filled streets combined with dark, dank tenements enabled the spread of a host of communicable illnesses, with tuberculosis among the most dreaded.

Outdoorschooljacobriis1910mcnySo education officials launched an unusual type of school for children thought to have or be predisposed to the White Plague: outside classrooms.

Holding class outside, or in an unheated indoor area with all the windows wide open, meant exposure to fresh air and light, and both were thought to combat tuberculosis.

The idea came from a German “open air” school started in 1904. Other cities adopted them, and New York’s first outdoors school launched in 1908 on an abandoned ferry.

Over the next few years, other outdoors schools opened their doors to tuberculosis kids, malnourished kids, even kids described as “nervous, irritable, or anemic.”

One school was located on Carmine Street, on top of a public baths building. Another opened at Public School 33 (which may have been on West 28th Street).

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Horace Mann, the private school then in Morningside Heights, also started a rooftop school, described as “closed on three sides only, the south side being entirely open with a drop curtain to close that side in time of storm,” explains a 1914 report.

Outdoorschoolsittingoutbagbeals“The floors are made of wood. Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary in exceptional cases.”

Kids handled the bracing weather by wrapping themselves in “sitting out bags” (right).

Well-meaning as it was, this educational movement apparently died out quickly. In 1914, the medical director of New York City’s open-air schools came out against them, citing bad weather and the expense of building truly stable structures on the roof.

“With the changeable climate of New York City, and the extremely raw weather in the winter, I am distinctly in favor of keeping classes within buildings,” he says in this 1918 book on open-air schools.

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[Top three photos: Jacob Riis, 1910, MCNY Collections Portal; fourth photo: Jessie Tarbox Beals, Library of Congress; fifth photo: PS 51 “anemic classes” from the Library of Congress]

A Riverside Park Holocaust memorial never built

August 18, 2014

Riverside84thstsign“On Sunday, October 19, 1947, fifteen thousand people gathered in the rain to witness the dedication of the site for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial in Riverside Park,” wrote Wayne Jebian in the Columbia Journal of American Studies in 1995.

On that gray day, Mayor O’Dwyer spoke; Jewish leaders and 100 survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau appeared at the ceremony.

RiversideparkmemorialnytThe stone plaque placed in the ground was supposed to be the cornerstone of a larger Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, one of the first Holocaust monuments planned in the United States.

But it was never built, and 67 years later, the cornerstone and the plaza surrounding it have become the memorial.

Considering that the postwar Upper West Side was home to many concentration camp survivors and Jews who fled war-torn Europe, what happened?

“Over several decades sculpture proposals for this location were submitted by Jo Davidson, Percival Goodman, Ivan Mestrovic, and Erich Mendelsohn and Nathan Rapoport, among others, but none received funding,” states the NYC Parks Department website.

Riversideparkholocaustmemorial

That’s because city officials in charge of approving sculptural monuments rejected the proposals as “too ugly, too depressing or too distracting for drivers on the West Side Highway,” wrote The New York Times in 1993.

One sculpture that did get city approval. “On June 17, 1951, the New York City Art Commission unanimously backed the design by Mendelsohn and Yugoslav sculptor Mestrovic,” wrote rememberwomen.org.

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“The sculpture was to be of an eighty-foot pylon of two tablets on which the Ten Commandments would be inscribed, a 100-foot wall of bas-relief depicting humankind’s struggle to fulfill the Commandments, and a giant carving of Moses. When Mendelsohn died in 1953, the momentum seemed to die with him.”

The idea for a memorial was scrapped in the 1960s. These days, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is commemorated every April at the cornerstone, the Upper West Side’s de facto public Holocaust monument.

How Columbus Circle almost became Hearst Plaza

July 28, 2014

For miles up Broadway, New York pays tribute to its greatest newspaper and media figures, from Newspaper Row near City Hall to Herald Square, Greeley Square, and Times Square.

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William Randolph Hearst (right) must have realized this after he came to town in the 1890s.

HearstbuildingAlready a San Fransisco newspaper baron, he arrived to take over the New York Journal and build a media empire here too.

But waging war with against other papers with his sensationalist journalism wasn’t enough. He also began buying real estate at sparsely populated Columbus Circle, near the New York Journal offices (at left, in 1912).

His intention: to add to the map of the city something called “Hearst Plaza,” which would be the headquarters for his growing company and would rival Herald Square and Times Square in size and prestige.

Williamrandolphhearst“William Randolph Heart envisioned a headquarters building as early as 1895, and began purchasing huge amounts of property—in and around 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Columbus Circle area,” states the Hearst Corporation website.

He finally broke ground for a Hearst headquarters building on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in the 1920s.

“The selection of this site was directly related to the commercial and cultural development in the Columbus Circle area and to Hearst’s intention to establish Hearst Plaza in the area.”

HearsttowerThe headquarters (above), a six-story Art Deco beauty with allegorical figures representing art and culture, opened in 1928.

But what happened to the great plans to turn Columbus Circle into a monument to his empire?

The Depression hit, and then World War II, both of which made a huge dent in the Hearst Corporation’s bottom line.

Columbus Circle didn’t need the Hearst name to thrive; it went on to become a bustling commercial center and gateway to the Upper West Side.

Hearst headquarters was built to support a skyscraper on top, in anticipation of the development of Hearst Plaza.

Newyorkjournal1898Yet wasn’t until 2006 when a skyscraper was actually completed there—the glass trapezoidal Hearst Tower (above).

Hearst did make one other contribution to Columbus Circle: he made the call for funds to build the Maine Monument, completed in 1913, honoring the battleship that exploded in 1898 off Cuba.

Is this patch of green New York’s smallest park?

June 27, 2014

Septuagesimounonycparks2If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss Septuagesimo Park.

At .04 acres, this slender gap in a row of brownstones on West 71st Street (hence the name) has been called the city’s smallest official park.

By contrast, Central Park has 843 acres, and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is three times Central Park’s size.

This postage stamp of a park, originally known as “71st Street Plot,” owes its existence to Mayor John Lindsay.

“New York City acquired this property through condemnation on March 28, 1969,” explains the Parks Department website. “Mayor Lindsay’s vest pocket park initiative supervised the landscaping of the parcel.”

Septuagesmiounonycparks

By 1981, as the Upper West Side was emerging from decades of decline, it was put under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. In 2000, commissioner Henry Stern gave it an illustrious new name that sounds like a cafe in Rome.

In New York, of course, small is good. Septuagesimo Park’s one bench-lined lane is framed by gardens and a few shady trees—all you really need to take in summer in New York.

[Photos: NYC Parks Department]

Summer night enchantment on Riverside Drive

June 9, 2014

Ashcan School painter and social realist George Bellows recreates the magic and mystery of one moment in time from a summer’s night in 1909.

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What a glow from both the street lamp and the moonlight! The light and colors are similar to this Bellows’ painting, done in 1920 closer to his home turf inside Gramercy Park.

The sad decline of an Art Deco movie theater

May 22, 2014

Metrotwinmidtown1933nyplIt started out in 1933 with great promise in the cinema-crazed Depression.

The auspiciously named Midtown was a gem of a movie house on Broadway and 99th Street that played first-run films (Ann Harding! William Powell!)

By the 1950s and 1960s, it had switched to foreign movies, showing European flicks like Belle de Jour, Breathless, Repulsion, and other non-mainstream fare.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The neighborhood was still rebounding after decades of decline, and the Metro took on second-run films, then porn flicks, according to Cinema Treasures.

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After a resurgence as an art house venue in the 1980s (and a name change to the Metro), it served as a first-run theater in the 1990s, only to shut its doors in 2004.

MetrotheateremblemSince then, it’s been abandoned, a shuttered eyesore in a neighborhood of higher-end development.

Over the years, new tenants were announced—including retail outlets and a movie theater chain that serves beer—yet never moved in.

Metrotheater2014At least the unique facade, with its Art Deco emblem representing comedy and tragedy amid two female figures, scored landmark status back in 1989.

A piece of another era, the theater haunts the upper Upper West Side, a reminder of something lovely that entertained the community.

A word about the theater’s original name, the Midtown: I suppose the owners thought that this corner at 99th Street and Broadway would soon be the city’s new midtown?

[Photos: top, New York Public Library Digital Collection; second: New York Architectural Images]


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