Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Old Ladies Come Down

When you live in Manhattan you're judged, partially, on the view from your apartment.

So when I moved from my 32nd floor apartment with its million-dollar vistas of the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge and uptown Manhattan to my new fourth floor condo overlooking the backsides of two decrepit 19th century brownstowns, I rapidly purchased wooden-slatted blinds and kept them pulled down and only slightly tilted open -- just enough to let in the sunlight but not enough to draw attention to the "view."

The brownstones faced onto 23rd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues on the south side of the street. The glory days of those old ladies were long past. I had seen them from the street and dated the to the late 1880s or 1890s. Long ago the stoops had been removed and storefronts were added on street level. Little remained that would let the passerby know these had once been homes.

The backyards, once green and planted with flowers and herbs, were built over with brick and concrete extensions for the commercial establishments that had taken over the street level floors early in the 20th Century. On the black-painted rear brick walls hung rusted fire escapes and heavy iron security shutters.

Friends came over for cocktail parties and Christmas dinner -- as they were drawn to the windows I'd whisk them away. "Oh! Did I show you the pictures from Maine?"

A friend from Florida remarked that I had purchased an apartment that was Lisa Douglas-worthy. Unfortunately the view from the living room was the urban Green Acres equivalent.

Then a year after moving in I noticed changes. The windows were boarded. Then unboarded.

They were preparing to tear down the old houses.

Coming home each night and looking out at the progress was like watching a slow-motion time lapse film. There was no heavy equipment involved in the dismantling, the workers crawled over the buildings like ants with hand tools. So daily there would be only a little less of the structures. And daily I could see a little more into them. I was fascinated; first by the heavy hewn beams that emerged and the lathe work that had been hidden there for a century and a half. It was nothing that would excite most people, but to me it was like architectural forensics.

Daily as I passed them on my way to work, I watched the progress from 23rd Street. In the uppermost windows the original solid-paneled shutters were still in place. I imagined the original builders choosing the warm, walnut panels.

Then one morning I looked out to see that the parlor floor was exposed in the building nearest mine. There on one wall was one of the heavy, ornate brackets that had once held up the archway between the parlor and dining room. Astonishingly, it was still there.

And in the dining room wall was an arched niche. These two details, along with traces of the crown molding where the ceiling once was, told me I was wrong in dating the houses. They were earlier -- from the mid-19th Century. I imagined the thrill those first housewives felt on moving day. The fresh smell of paint. The new draperies and carpets.

What originally sat in that niche. A statue? An urn? Whoever built that house had sat in that very parlor and read about Lincoln's assassination in the newspaper. How many Christmas trees stood there? How many bodies were laid out in that parlor?

The houses came down very slowly. Little by little I could see more of the second house. Another niche mirrored the one in the first dining room. And one morning, passing by on 23rd, I stopped to gawk at that the second house. The front wall had come down on the second floor. The entire archway was still there. The staircase in the entrance hall still clung to the wall, although the banister was gone. I wondered what the newel post had looked like. Undoubtedly walnut or mahogany. Possibly rosewood. It was like mentally walking into the house.

Through the decades those stairs felt the brush of voluminous Civil War period skirts and 1890s bustled dresses. Men in 1920s boaters were followed by 1960s bell bottoms. The ghosts of a century and a half were being released into the Manhattan air.

Bit by bit the houses melted to the ground. The last section of paneled wainscoting, never painted, clung to a wall a story above the dirt lot where the houses had stood. A day later it had disappeared. And now the lots look almost exactly as they did in the 1860s before the first bricks were laid. The same dirt that was there then awaits another structure.

Two more pages of New York history are gone, remnants of a 23rd Street that is inconceivable to 21st Century Manhattanites.

Tomorrow a new page starts.