Posts Tagged ‘Black and Whites 72nd Street’

The charming “black and whites” of 72nd Street

July 9, 2018

The end of East 72nd Street is a lovely, almost secret spot. It’s a quiet cul-de-sac straight out of the Village or Brooklyn Heights with wide sidewalks, old school lampposts, and a pretty terrace overlooking the East River.

It’s also the site of four modest yet charming walk-up buildings known for decades as the “black and whites.”

With an illustrious name like that, you know these homes have an intriguing backstory.

Built in 1894 as eight separate tenements from 527 to 541 East 72nd Street between York Avenue and the East River, they were similar to other low-rise tenements in this once-gritty stretch of Lenox Hill.

At the time, this was a working-class neighborhood of waterfront industry and factories, plus rows of humble tenements for the people who toiled in them.

(The 1930 photo below shows East 72nd Street looking east from York Avenue; it’s unclear if they are the tenements from 527-541, but they give you an idea of what the street looked like.)

By the 1920s, living along the river on the East Side became very fashionable. The newly named and revamped Sutton Place had attracted wealthy residents, and Beekman Place and East End Avenue did as well.

This might have been the reason fashion doyenne Carmel Snow and her real-estate investor husband decided to buy these rundown tenements in 1938.

Snow was the rich and well-connected editor in chief of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Something of an Anna Wintour of her day, Snow’s social circle included artists and writers, as well as bankers and society people.

Later that year, Snow brought in a team of architects. They “designed an alteration that gutted and combined the eight tenements into four buildings with two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments of simple finish, many with wood-burning fireplaces,” stated a 1997 New York Times article.

Whether Snow had them painted in black with white trim or the tenements were originally black and white isn’t clear. But at some point the color scheme gave them their nickname.

“The Snows themselves left their apartment in the Ritz Tower at 57th Street and Park Avenue and moved to the easternmost building, facing the river. Five of the nine recorded tenants in 1939 were in the Social Register; this was a new building type, the Social Register tenement.”

Carmel Snow and her husband moved out in the 1950s; George Plimpton moved in, to Number 541, and he used the ground floor as the office for the Paris Review for the next four decades.

By that time, the black and whites had become co-ops. They also apparently survived the threat of being swallowed up by enormous office towers, according to this 1982 New York article.

Today, the black and whites feel like a wonderful New York secret, a surprise bit of beauty and history at the river’s edge. Walk east along 72nd Street; your spirits will lift when you stumble upon them.