Posts Tagged ‘Yorkville Upper East Side’

The walled-in settlement house by the East River

April 13, 2020

You can see one side of it from the FDR Drive at 76th Street. High above the roadway overlooking the East River is a Georgian-style red brick building and what must have been an entrance with a faded plaque above it.

Squint and you can make out what it says: East Side House Settlement.

Settlement Houses began popping up in New York City in the 1890s and early 1900s. Born out of the benevolence movement of the Gilded Age, they were built by social reformers who “settled” into a poor or working-class community, launching a home base where the community could go take advantage of classes, recreational activities, and cultural offerings.

Many of New York’s settlement houses were built in Lower Manhattan. The East Side Settlement House (as it was known early on) got its start in 1891, founded by a lawyer, Everett Wheeler, according to the house’s web page.

Perhaps Wheeler saw the need for a settlement house in Yorkville, which was becoming a dense tenement neighborhood for a new wave of German immigrants, along with newcomers from Hungary and today’s Czech Republic.

The first house for the East Side Settlement House was an old clapboard house (below).

The one still standing today opened in 1903, privately funded by wealthy New Yorkers who hoped the facility would become a “contagion of good morals,” according to a New-York Tribune article covering the opening day ceremony. (Below, in 1903)

To spread those good morals, the house had separate “clubrooms” for boys and girls, an assembly room, a cooking skill with gas ranges, two gyms (one for men and one for boys), a billiards room, and various other rooms for events.

It must have been an inspiring place in the first half of the 20th century, with John Jay Park opening next door, along with a public bathhouse and then an outdoor public swimming pool in the 1940s.

But as the century went on, the house’s days were numbered, especially as Yorkville changed and the East Side (FDR) Drive and industry (below, in 1926) obstructed river access. In 1963, the East Side Settlement House relocated to the South Bronx, where it remains today.

“Its genteel Georgian building, perched on a river-lapped greensward, had been battered and bruised by decades of hard use and imprisoned by the East River Drive, later F. D. R. Drive, which gobbled up Exterior Street in the 1940s,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2012.

The Town School took it over, and in the 1980s a towering apartment building hemmed the former settlement house in, blocking its facade.

“Now part of the old south-facing Georgian facade survives within a Town School hallway, and part of an old factory is visible in the auditorium,” explained Gray. What remains of the facade faces east, between the apartment tower and a new Town School wing to the north.”

But you can still catch a glimpse of part of the settlement house, with 1891 and 1903 carved into the side (above)—a remnant of the city’s progressive movement and a very different Yorkville.

[Third image: East Side House Settlement; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

East Side kid Harpo Marx recalls his tailor father

June 12, 2014

Young Groucho and Harpo Marx with a DogBefore he and his brothers hit comic paydirt, Adolph “Harpo” Marx (left, with Groucho) spent his early 1900s childhood in a tenement on East 93rd Street.

Though his family of 10 struggled, he credits his parents for not letting poverty make “any of us depressed or angry,” he wrote in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…about New York.

While his mother, Minnie, set out to make her boys stars, it was father Sam “Frenchie” Marx, an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine, who helped keep the family together.

With Father’s Day approaching, here’s Harpo recalling his father’s warmth and magic in their tenement kitchen:

“Frenchie was the family housekeeper and cook. He was also the breadwinner. Frenchie was a tailor by trade. He was never able to own his own shop, and during the day his cutting table and sewing bench took up the whole dining room with lengths and scraps of materials overflowing in the kitchen.”


“At six o’clock he quit whatever he was working on, in the middle of a stitch, and stashed his profession in the hall, materials, tools, tables and all, and turned to the task of making dinner for ten or eleven or sixteen people.”

Sammarxheadshot“With food he was a true magician. Given a couple of short ribs, a wilting cabbage, a handful of soup greens, a bag of chestnuts and a pinch of spices, he could conjure up miracles.”

“God, how fabulous the tenement smelled when Frenchie, chopping and ladling, sniffing and stirring and tasting, and forever smiling and humming to himself, got the kitchen up to full steam!”

Frenchie Marx (above in 1915, third from right) died in 1933 at age 73. He watched his sons become big stars, and he even had a cameo role in 1931’s Monkey Business.

Harpo Marx: a poor street kid on East 93rd Street

November 21, 2011

As many New Yorkers know, the Marx Brothers, including Adolph “Harpo” Marx, grew up in a crowded tenement at 179 East 93rd Street, off Third Avenue.

That’s in upscale Carnegie Hill today. But in the 1890s, during Harpo’s childhood, it was “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the South in Yorkville,” he writes in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

His recollections offer a glimpse into life as a poor Manhattan street kid circa 1900, when ethnic background determined everything.

“If you were caught trying to sneak through a foreign block, the first thing the Irishers or Germans would ask was “Hey kid! What Streeter?” he recalls. “I learned it saved time and trouble to tell the truth. I was a 93rd Streeter, I would confess.”

“The worst thing you could do was run from Other Streeters. But if you didn’t have anything to fork over for ransom you were just dead.”

“I learned never to leave my block without some kind of boodle in my pocket—a dead tennis ball, an empty thread spool, a penny, anything.”

Life in New York at that time wasn’t all about being bullied. After quitting P.S. 86 when he was eight, Harpo watched tennis games in Central Park, went sledding with a dishpan, and swam off the East River docks.

He also dodged the ticket takers on trolley cars so he get around without paying the fare, and he watched Giants games for free at Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds near 155th Street.

And he learned to tell time by “the only timepiece available to our family, the clock on the tower of Ehret’s Brewery (above) at 93rd and Second Avenue, which we could see from the front window, if Grandpa hadn’t pulled the shade.”

[Image of Ehret’s Brewery:]