Posts Tagged ‘New York Then and Now Photos’

From brownstones to business: 3 centuries on a West 57th Street block

November 7, 2021

New York City developers went on a brownstone-building frenzy from the 1860s and 1880s. Block upon uptown block began teeming with these iconic row houses that first symbolized luxury but eventually were derided for their mud-brown monotony.

West 57th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenue was one such brownstone block. Here it is around 1890, about the time when this fashionable stretch south of Central Park was home to wealthy residents with names like Roosevelt, Auchincloss, and Sloane, according to Edward B. Watson in New York Then and Now.

Interrupting the low-rise block are church spires. “The church with the tall spire between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is the Calvary Baptist Church, built in 1883,” wrote Watson. Beyond the Sixth Avenue El is the 11-story Osborn apartment building, constructed in 1885, and the faint spire of the wonderfully named Church of the Strangers.

What’s not in the photo on the right at the corner of Fifth Avenue extending all the way to 58th Street is the Alice Vanderbilt mansion—where the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II lived until the 137-room Gilded Age relic was torn down in 1927 (above, in 1894, with brownstones looming on the left).

Fast forward 85 years to the 1970s. In the 1975 photo of the same block (below), West 57th’s days as a stylish residential enclave were mostly over.

Brownstones were bulldozed in favor of tall commercial buildings, including the curved reflective glass tower at Number 9 (completed in 1973, per Watson). The Sixth Avenue El is just a memory.

And though luxury residences like the Osborn survived (visible at the way far left, I believe, if you really squint), few brownstones made it. One in the photo to the right of the reflective glass tower is 7 West 57th Street. This is the former home of financier and philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn, according to Watson, though the facade has undergone a redesign.

Lewisohn might best be remembered as the man who funded CUNY’s Lewisohn Stadium between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues from 136th to 138th Streets, which met the bulldozer in 1973.

Here’s the same stretch of West 57th Street today, with traffic, glassy towers, and many empty spaces where brownstones and other lower-rise buildings used to be.

Bergorf-Goodman has long since taken the place of the Vanderbilt mansion at the corner of Fifth, Lewisohn’s home is either swathed in black glass or gone altogether, and supertall luxury condos stretch higher than the ambitious builders of the Osborn could have imagined.

[Top photo: New York Then and Now; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: Edmund V. Gillon, Jr/New York Then and Now]