Posts Tagged ‘Upper West Side Apartment Buildings’

The Wild West-inspired apartment house designed for urban cliff dwellers

November 22, 2021

In Gilded Age New York, a new term popped up to mock a certain type of Manhattanite: cliff dweller.

“By about 1890 the growing number of residents in apartment houses were sardonically called cliff dwellers, after the image of the cliff-dwelling Native Americans in the Southwest,” wrote Irving Lewis Allen in his 1995 book, The City in Slang.

Inspired by the new slang term as well as Southwestern images and motifs, a new residential building opened its doors on Riverside Avenue and 96th Street in 1916: the aptly named Cliff Dwelling.

The 12-story Cliff Dwelling, situated on a flatiron-shaped plot only roughly eight feet deep on one side, opened as an apartment hotel high up over Riverside Park on posh Riverside Drive.

Unlike the restrained elegance that characterized similar new buildings on the Drive, the Cliff Dwelling had a playful, inventive facade unique in New York City.

Buffalo or cattle skulls, two-headed snakes, and mountain lions in terra cotta decorate the front of the building, along with images of corn, spears, and masks. Raised bricks form geometrical patterns and zigzags that mimic Aztec and Mayan design motifs.

Credit for the wildly original design goes to architect Herman Lee Meader, according to a 2002 New York Times article by Christopher Gray. “[Meader] was intensely interested in Mayan and Aztec architecture and made regular expeditions to Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán and other sites,” wrote Gray.

The Cliff Dwelling continued the Southwestern theme on the inside as well, stated Gray: “The lobby was furnished with Navajo rugs; tiles of tan, green, black and blood red; and zigzag designs on the lamps and elevator cages reminiscent of American Indian designs.”

By 1932, the Cliff Dwelling was converted to apartments, according to Carter Horsely at, with kitchens added to the already small rooms. Since 1979, the building—which lost its marquee at some point, visible in the above 1939 photo—has been a co-op.

I’ve never been inside the Cliff Dwelling, but I imagine there’s still a sense of living high above an urban canyon, with a view to the Hudson and perhaps the New Jersey Palisades.

One recent change, however, may make the Cliff Dwelling feel more like a typical squeezed-in city structure: In the early 2000s, a new residential building was built inches away from the Cliff Dwelling’s eastern facade.

At least the western facade still has those wonderful tongue-out faces at eye level.

[Fourth photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

A West Side apartment house that transports you to Renaissance England

September 20, 2021

So many of the side streets of the Upper West Side are lovely architectural time capsules, with uniform groups of townhouses and majestic apartment buildings reflecting the fashionable styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But sometimes you come across a building that feels like a design unicorn. Case in point is Red House, on West 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

This delightful six-story confection of English and French-inspired Gothic details feels more like an Elizabethan manor house, with its white terra cotta, crown cartouche, and red brick—which gave the building its name, according to The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Why architects Herbert S. Harde and R. Thomas Short were inspired by Renaissance-era England and France isn’t clear. But Red House is the first upper-class residence the two collaborated on, and it serves as something of an advertisement for their work—which departed from the stately Beaux-Arts style and offered delight and whimsy. “A six-story romantic masterpiece,” the AIA Guide to New York City calls it.

Harde himself lived at Red House with his wife through the 1910s. The building can boast of another notable tenant: a young Dorothy Rothschild—the future Dorothy Parker, states Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York.

“An early example of Harde & Short’s elaborate and luxurious apartment buildings, Red House established many of the recognizable elements which were to become the firm’s calling card,” stated the 1982 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, designating the building a historic landmark.

“The building indicates the acceptance of the apartment building as a desirable housing form, and reflects the impact of this change in the physical development of the Upper West Side.”

After completing Red House in 1904 (above), Harde & Short went on to design the Gothic renaissance-inspired 44 West 77th Street. They’re also the creative geniuses behind 45 East 66th Street as well as Alwyn Court, at Seventh Avenue and 55th Street. All three buildings still grace the cityscape with lots of visual eye candy, such as cathedral-like flourishes and flamboyant detailing.

There’s one unusual design feature that both Alwyn Court and Red House share, courtesy of Harde & Short: both buildings have terra cotta salamanders on the facade. The Red House salamander wears a crown.

Why a salamander? It’s the emblem of Francois I, the king of France from 1515 to 1547—another Renaissance-inspired touch.

[Third image: MCNY; X2010.7.1.395]