Posts Tagged ‘Gilded Age Apartment Buildings NYC’

This 1883 apartment rental on Madison Avenue was one of Manhattan’s first co-ops

May 5, 2022

I’ve walked past 121 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 30th Street, many times, and it’s always puzzled me.

The red brick, the bay windows, the ornamental detailing along the facade—these architectural hints tell me that the building may have been a stunner when it made its debut, probably in the Gilded Age.

Set on the Gilded Age stylish border of Gramercy and Murray Hill, it was likely surrounded by brownstones and mansion row houses that enhanced its elegance. Thanks to the photo below from Andrew Alpern that shows the building in its early years, you can see it amid those brownstones on a tidy residential block.

121 Madison Avenue, courtesy of Andrew Alpern

Yet there’s something a little forlorn about it, as if it’s been stripped of its true beauty, its colors washed out somewhat. The heavy, block-like extra floors added to the original roof make it seem like the building is carrying the weight of the world.

As it turns out, number 121 does have a grander past. Completed in 1883 when “French flats,” aka apartment residences, were going up in Manhattan but had yet to catch on with the upper classes, the building is one of the city’s very first cooperative apartment houses—with residents owning a stake in the building rather than renting their unit.

The very first co-op building was the Rembrandt, constructed in 1881 at 152 West 57th Street but long demolished. Both the Rembrandt and 121 Madison Avenue were developed by Jared B. Flagg—described by Christopher Gray as a “clergyman-capitalist” in a 1991 New York Times article—and architect Philip Hubert.

The two were behind several other early co-op buildings, like the spectacular failure called the Navarro Flats on Central Park South, as well as the red-brick beauty at 222 West 23rd Street, which became the Chelsea Hotel in 1905. The co-ops were cannily marketed as “Hubert Homes” to help sell the idea of cooperative living as exclusive and homey, wrote Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

The marketing may have been slick, but the apartments inside 121 Madison Avenue sound quite elegant. The building featured “five grandly spacious duplex apartments for each two floors of the building,” stated Alpern. Each duplex apartment’s “entertaining rooms,” as Alpert called them, were on the lower floor, with the bedrooms on the upper level.

“The largest of the apartments had five entertaining rooms opening en suite via sliding mahogany and etched-glass doors: reception room, library, drawing room, parlor, and dining room,” explained Alpern.

This duplex design earned praise by the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide in 1883. “The elevator in this 11-story building stops at only five floors and each suite forms a complete two-story house in itself, entirely separate from any other apartment,” according to the Guide.

Early residents included bankers and lawyers, wrote Gray. But you know the story. When elite New Yorkers moved out of the increasingly commercial area around Madison Avenue and 30th Street, number 121 suffered as well. In 1940, the co-op became a rental, and its duplexes were carved into small units, wrote Alpern.

The facade was significantly altered as well, with the cornice and decorative balconies “lobotomized,” as Alpern wrote, and much of the ornamentation as well as the ground floor were gutted.

These days, 121 Madison Avenue is still a rental building, in the recently dubbed NoMad neighborhood. Its “historic, prewar luxury homes” are going for up to 10K per month, according to Streeteasy.

[Second photo: Courtesy of Andrew Alpert]

The magic of a ‘complicated, chaotic’ Central Park West apartment house

April 21, 2022

It doesn’t have the Gothic, French Renaissance-inspired fancy of the Dakota to the south on 72nd Street. Nor is it a balancing act of flamboyance and elegance like the St. Urban, at 89th Street, which looks right out of La Belle Epoque.

What the Braender, a 1903 apartment building at Central Park West and 102nd Street, does have is that kind of enchantment found in buildings that blend various design styles and come out looking eclectic and unique. These buildings are often found outside official historic district boundary lines and far from the trendy end of the avenue—and the Braender checks both boxes.

The Braender’s story begins at the turn of the century, when Central Park West was fulfilling its destiny as a grand thoroughfare of apartment residences. The builder, German-born Philip Braender, hired architect Frederick Browne to design his eponymous apartment house.

The result was a 10-story, 50-unit structure. The building was “fireproof,” as the ad below says, and it featured apartments of 5 to 12 rooms (with from one to 3 bathrooms per residence).

The Braender, from an early promotional booklet

Its style was quite a lovely mishmash. “The exterior of the Braender — residents pronounce the name to rhyme with gander — is a complicated, even chaotic mix of French Renaissance, Spanish and Baroque styles, all in light-colored stone, brick and terra cotta,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times column. Gray seemed to have a fondness for the building, deeming it “lovably awkward.”

I don’t know if awkward is the right word. On one hand, it has an inviting beauty, thanks to the gentle curves of the facade. Yet the figures carved into the entrance and the winged creatures that stare down at you from under a ninth floor balcony give it a Gothic, spooky feel.

The courtyard is accessed by walking through a wide arched entrance perhaps inspired by a Medieval castle. Two large terra cotta griffins are surrounded by greenery on the ground—casualties of a building renovation from the 1990s, according to the doorman.

Then there’s the lobby, with its marble walls, hand-tiled floor, and original light fixtures. You can just imagine late Gilded Age residents alighting from carriages on cold nights, then entering this sumptuous space and warming up by the fireplace before getting the elevator to one of those 12-room apartments.

By 1920, the Braender fell into the hands of Frederick Bangerter, an “inventor of automatic machinery” who planned to turn the building into a “cooperative home for people of moderate circumstances, and a home that will run easily and happily through co-operation of all its members, just as one cog in his automatic machinery runs smoothly with another,” according to a 1920 issue of the magazine Forecast.

If that cooperative plan ever panned out isn’t clear, and the Braender stayed under the radar in the news and real estate pages in the decades since.

“In the mid-1900s most of the large apartments in the Braender were cut up into smaller ones, and by the 1980s, when it was converted to condominiums, the building was in poor shape: its stone was battered and defaced, and the cornice and much its ornament had been removed,” wrote Gray.

The Braender in 1940, already minus its unusual cornice

Despite the stripped down ornamentation and the addition of a fire escape on the facade, the Braender maintains an old New York charm in the upper Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan Valley. The building is a condo now, and a two bedroom is currently on the market for $1.6 million.

[Third photo: NYPL; last photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]