Posts Tagged ‘Turtle Bay NYC’

The story of the hidden garden inside a Turtle Bay tenement block

November 1, 2021

East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues in Turtle Bay is a block with a backstory.

During the 17th century, this was farmland owned by Dutch settlers; in the 18th century, a stagecoach stop on Boston Post Road was established here. By the Civil War, the farms vanished, subsumed into the urban city and turned into brownstones and tenements.

But the story in this post concerns something that came to Turtle Bay in 1946: a hidden romantic garden of shady trees, decorative flower pots, stone block walls and paved walkways unseen from the street and accessed through a thin-slatted iron gate.

That courtyard, Amster Yard, was the brainchild of interior decorator James Amster (below). Two years earlier, Amster had heard that a cluster of buildings on East 49th Street were for sale. Constructed around 1870, the buildings were now dilapidated and the neighborhood not quite as desirable as it once had been, especially with the elevated train still roaring along Third Avenue.

Amster purchased these buildings, which included “a boarding house, a carpenter’s workshop and the home of an elderly woman with 35 cats,” according to a New York Times article from 2002.

He then enlisted the help of friends to “create a garden complex surrounded by offices and apartments renovated from the shells of the original buildings,” wrote Pamela Hanlon in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

The result: “a picturesque cluster of one- to four-story brick houses around an L-shaped garden courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery,” stated the New York Times in 1986.

“You go through a thin-barred iron gate down a long flagged corridor till you’re midway between the north side of 49th Street, but perhaps 40 feet short of 50th Street, and you’re in a cool, ailanthus-shaded garden restored to look much as it was, say, 150 years ago,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1953.

Amster Yard was also something of an artists’ enclave, home to interior designer Billy Baldwin and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

In the 1960s, Amster Yard became a New York City landmark, a “pleasant oasis in the heart of Manhattan” that altered the original buildings but recreated the feel of an Old New York garden. Amster himself was a presence there until he died at age 77 in 1986.

Amster Yard still exists, and it’s semi-open to the public. But while today’s Amster Yard looks like the courtyard James Amster designed, it’s actually a recreation.

In the early 2000s, Amster Yard’s new owner, the nonprofit cultural group Cervantes Institute, found that the buildings surrounding the garden were structurally dangerous. The group decided to demolish them, then built reproductions.

Wander into Amster Yard now, and you’ll experience an illusion of Amster’s buildings, which were recreations of the original dilapidated circa-1870 houses. It’s a little convoluted, but the courtyard itself is romantic and delightful, a peaceful respite that blocks the sounds of the modern city.

It’s not the only lovely garden hidden from the street in the neighborhood. Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century rowhouses restored for the elite in the 1920s, also has a secret garden…but that one is residents-only.

[Third photo: Wikipedia]

A hidden city park named for a murdered activist

October 29, 2018

Walk to the far end of East 51st Street, past the bishop’s crook lamppost of lovely Beekman Place, and you’ll find yourself at a dead end blocked off by a cast iron fence.

The high, spectacular views of the East River are enchanting. But there’s more to this spot than immediately meets the eye.

To your left beside the Gothic-style entrance of a prewar apartment building, you’ll see the beginning of a stairway—then steep steps surrounded by brownstone. They’re like a portal to a mysterious part of Turtle Bay few know about or visit.

The steps take you to Peter Detmold Park, a quiet strip of gazebos, park benches, and a dog run beside the river, with trees partly shielding the FDR Drive.

The serenity of this hidden park stands in contrast to the tragedy that inspired its name.

Peter Detmold (below) was a World War II veteran who made his home in Turtle Bay Gardens, the beautifully restored brownstones spanning East 48th and East 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues.

As president of the Turtle Bay Association, he led the fight in the 1960s and early 1970s to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“When landowners began to rent out office space in residentially zoned areas, Detmold defended the rights of tenants and homeowners, protecting the quiet, neighborly spirit of the area, now a designated historic district,” states the NYC Parks website.

But Detmold’s time as a community activist was cut short.

On the night of January 6, 1972, after walking home from a Turtle Bay Association meeting with two colleagues, Detmold was murdered in the stairwell of his apartment building.

“According to police reports, the 48-year-old Detmold was stabbed as he entered his five-story walk-up building,” explained Pamela Hanlon in her book, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: The Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“He struggled to reach his top-floor apartment, but collapsed on the stairwell, where a neighbor found him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.”

The park was named for Detmold later that year. Almost half a century later, his murder remains unsolved.

[Third photo: Getty]

The bishop’s crook lamppost on Beekman Place

April 30, 2018

The bishop’s crook isn’t the only old-school style New York lamppost. But it might be the most beloved.

Named for the fanciful staff bishops carried, cast-iron bishop’s crook lampposts first hit the streets around 1900, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“Made from a single iron casting up to the arc, or ‘crook,’ it incorporates a garland motif that wraps around the shaft,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Because bishop’s crooks are so charming, the city began putting up reproductions of cast-iron originals in 1980.

But the one on the southeast corner of East 51st Street and Beekman Place is an authentic oldie.

Beekman Place is a quiet two-block stretch in Turtle Bay lined with townhouses and stately apartment buildings. The street features bishop crook reproductions, but this one is an original, according to the LPC report, The Landmarks of New York, and The New York Times.

Amid steel and aluminum modern lampposts this old New York streetlight and dozens of others through the city continue to illuminate dark corners.

This gas lamp at the end of West Village alley Patchin Place might be the oldest in New York.

The twin wood houses time forgot in Turtle Bay

March 12, 2018

It’s 1866 in the Turtle Bay neighborhood in Manhattan.

What was once verdant farmland bisected by Eastern Post Road far from the city center was now humming with new houses and industry. Soon, the Second Avenue Elevated would start clanging nearby on enormous iron trestles.

And two men listed as “builder-carpenters” decided to build twin clapboard houses on the old Eastern Post roadbed, getting these wood frame homes up at today’s 312 and 314 East 53rd Street just before the city passed a law banning wood houses up to 86th Street.

(Wood tended to go up in flames, and fire was a major concern of the 19th century city, of course.)

Amazingly, these wood homes have remained here for 152 years, as Turtle Bay shifted from a mixed-use neighborhood with factories, tenements, and slaughterhouses to one with lots of quiet enclaves and posh residences.

From the outside, these sister houses are like the homes time forgot. Built in the French Empire style (very fashionable after the Civil War), they feature mansard roofs, bracketed cornices, and round-hooded dormer windows.

While they match each other nicely, they’re startling to see on the block—it’s like coming across a country house in the middle of the city.

Brooklyn has its share of wood houses, especially in Brooklyn Heights. But these simple beauties are two of just a handful surviving in Manhattan, like this one in the West Village and this farmhouse wedged into 29th Street.

“Relatively few wooden buildings survive in Manhattan, and the majority are found in the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, particularly in Greenwich Village,” states the Landmarks Preservation Committee Report from 2000.

“The Upper West Side has only one frame building, and no. 314 East 53rd Street and its twin, no. 312, are among only seven frame houses of note on the East Side.”

The interior isn’t quite as shabby chic. Check out these photos from a recent Streeteasy listing at no. 312.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.350; Third photo: NYPL]

Turtle soup: the hottest dish on New York menus

July 3, 2017

In 1783, George Washington feasted on it (washed down with punch, according to later accounts) at Fraunces Tavern during his farewell banquet for Continental Army officers.

Early 19th century tavern owners took out newspaper ads letting the public know when a fresh pot would be whipped up.

And it was on the menu at New York’s biggest and best restaurants until the early 20th century, when it almost entirely disappeared from bill of fares all across the city.

What dish was such a delicacy? Green turtle soup, and New Yorkers of the 18th and 19th centuries couldn’t get enough of it.

“In 19th century New York, the only dish that could rival a juicy beefsteak or a dozen plump oysters on the half shell was turtle soup, and it’s partisans were legion,” writes William Grimes in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.

Two restaurants vied for turtle soup supremacy: the Terrapin Lunch on Ann Street and Broadway and Bayard’s, at 11-13 State Street.

Bayard’s turtle soup was recalled by an old New Yorker, Charles Haynes Haswell, in his Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, published in 1896.

“Here turtle soup was dispensed which was worthy of the animal of which it was made; not the puree of this time, which is served at some of our leading restaurants and clubs; not a thin consomme of that which might be calves’ head or veal, but bona fide turtle, with callipash, callipee, and forced-meat balls.”

It stands to reason that the first turtles and terrapins who ended up in New Yorkers’ soup bowls came from the waters around the city (like Turtle Bay, perhaps). Into the 19th century, however, they arrived here from the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean.

Why did turtle soup fall out of fashion? Maybe it had to do with the fact that turtles themselves were almost harvested to extinction, says Leslie Day in Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City.

Or perhaps it was just a food fad that lost its buzz.

[Top photo: Saveur magazine; second image: Evening Post, 1807; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post, 1812]

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

hessiansoldierkipsbaylanding

Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

hessianswordtudorcity

Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]