Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The 1931 London Terrace Apartments

photo by Beyond My Ken

Henry Mandel had big plans during Manhattan’s glitzy 1920’s. While sleek Art Deco hotels and office buildings were going up in Midtown he had his eye on a long row of pre-Civil War homes in Chelsea.

Mandel had started out years earlier building tenement buildings with his father. He soon lost interest in tenements, however - Henry Mandel wanted to make a bigger splash.  As the 20's dawned he built progressively larger and more elaborate projects. Sometimes referred to as "the Donald Trump of the ‘20's," he began buying up the properties on West 23rd and 24th Streets between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

When Mandel began buying up the 1845 Alexander Jackson Davis-designed London Terrace residences in the 1920s, they were mostly intact; some having been extended upwards -- photo NYPL Collection

Clement Moore, the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, “Chelsea.”  On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or “terrace.”  Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees.

He called his development “London Terrace.”

By October 1929, a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, Mandel had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave.

Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.

The Great Depression did not impede the indefatigable Mandel. Fond of the Tuscan-influenced designs of the firm of Farrar & Watmough, he commissioned them to design his gargantuan structure. In 1930 the central ten buildings were completed and a year later three of the four corner towers were finished. Mandel gave a nod to his project's venerable predecessor, giving it the name London Terrace.

photo NYPL Collection
The Tuscan-themed architecture used vertical rows of alternating red and cream-colored brick, terra cotta ornamentation, whimsical carvings and exuberant mosaics. Each of the entrances was different yet harmonious.

To describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.

In the 1930's, before ubiquitous telephones, a message center took incoming calls and delivered messages to tenants’ apartments. There was a free messenger service for hand-delivering notes or packages around the city. The tenants published their own newsletter, The London Terrace Tattler.

On May 1, 1933 The Tattler said “London Terrace is on historic ground, but, in its own way, it is establishing its own history and its own traditions. To those of us who have lived with it and in it from the first days of its construction it is the place we had always hoped to find in a crowded metropolis. There is nothing else quite like it.”

One interior during the 1930's --photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

While the London Terrace was being completed Mandel had Farrar & Watmough busy designing the equally immense Vendome apartments on West 57th which were completed in 1931.

The rooftop "Marine Deck"
He discovered, however, that he could ignore the Depression for only so long. In March of 1932 he filed voluntary bankruptcy with liabilities of $14 million and assets of $380,000. He owed $5.5 million on London Terrace alone. Unable to pay alimony to his ex-wife, he was jailed in 1933 – court papers showing his potential income at the time was $60 a week. Mandel died in 1942.

In 1948 the development was broken up and sold to independent concerns. The ten central buildings were sold to a partnership of four contractors while the corner towers were purchased by a separate management company.

The leviathan, aging development suffered during the 70's and 80's both inside and out. Tenants complained of leaks, mold and deteriorating window frames and the facade was in serious need of maintenance. In 1987 the corner towers were converted to co-ops and the center buildings, which remained rental units, were renamed London Terrace Gardens.

The sponsor of the co-ops initiated a $10 million renovation including new windows, new plumbing, restoration of the pool and façade restoration. In 1997 a two-year project headed by Sygrove Associates addressed the lobbies. That venture repaired seriously water-damaged ornate plaster ceilings, replacing damaged marble walls with new stone and bringing back period paint colors.

Although celebrated names like Chelsea Clinton, Debbie Harry and photographer Annie Leibovitz moved in, as late as 2005 maintenance problems still existed. But five years later the entire complex has undergone major repairs and renovations bringing it back to Henry Mandel’s big vision.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Shakespeare Comes Home to 23rd and 6th

Almost unnoticeable embedded in the second story façade of The Caroline apartment building is a wonderful bronze relief bust of William Shakespeare. The Caroline was built in 2001, designed by Richard Cook & Associates and Costas Kondylis & Partners. A sleek blend of red brick and masonry with huge rooftop pergolas, slightly reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts school, it is perhaps the least expected place to find Shakespeare.

The architects had a hard act to follow in building at 60 West 23rd Street. On this site, in 1869, the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth opened his grand theatre. Designed by Renwick & Sands it was a colossal Second Empire pile. Constructed of granite and extending 150 feet from 6th Avenue, it cost a staggering $1.5 million.

A masterwork of up-to-date technology, the building was cooled and heated with forced air. Electric sparks ignited the gas jets so the chandeliers and stage lights could be remotely turned on and off. Scenery was raised and lowered by an ingenious hydraulic system and it had a fire sprinkler system nearly a century ahead of its time.
print  from the NYPL Collection
The floor of the grand vestibule was Italian marble and above the patrons’ heads colorful frescoes covered the ceiling. Here a large statue of Booth’s father, the renowned actor Junius Brutus Booth stood. More statues adorned the marble pillars in the auditorium, and a statue of Shakespeare stood above the proscenium.

Although The New York Times called Booth’s Theatre, upon opening, "the pride of the City, the resort of the educated, a school of art, a refined recreation and a benign contrast to the perverted amusements which have too long degraded the public taste,” Booth’s management was poor. His extravagant productions with costly scenery and costuming bankrupted him. After what The Times called “five brilliant but disastrous seasons” he lost his beloved theatre.

The theatre continued for a few more years under new management, one of its highlights being the introduction to America of French sensation Sarah Bernhardt in 1881. On her opening night thousands crowded 6th Avenue and 23rd Street. Electric lights were strung across 23rd Street to illuminate the throngs. The Times reported that “Elegantly attired ladies and their escorts were wedged in by hundreds at the great doorway.”
photo NYPL Collection
Nevertheless, the grand theatre was put up for sale in December of that year. It was purchased for a mere $550,000 by James W. McCreery and converted to McCreery’s Dry Goods, a retail store like the other emporiums lining 23rd Street’s Ladies’ Mile. It opened in 1895. In tribute to Booth’s grand theatre, McCreery commissioned a bronze relief bust of Shakespeare which was embedded into the façade.

The magnificent building lasted until 1975 as loft space. But then, in callous disregard for its historic and architectural importance, the Booth Theatre was demolished for a parking lot. Although the theatre was lost, tour guide Gerard Wolfe, a former New York University professor, single-handedly launched a movement to save the bust of Shakespeare. The University joined the cause and the bust was salvaged and displayed at the school.

When The Caroline was erected, Shakespeare went home again. He stares down at the passing crowds on 6th Avenue just as he did a century ago.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Benedick - New York's 1879 Bachelor Pad, 80 Washington Square East

In 1925, when this photograph was taken, The Benedick became New York University's Student Building.  original source unknown

It was  not always easy for Victorian bachelors to find acceptable lodging.  Unmarried men were often viewed with suspicion by many landlords and boarding house owners.  “That fortunate or unfortunate class,” said the New-York Tribune on August 8, 1879, were often “refused tenancy in the better class of flats.”  This problem did not escape the notice of Lucius Tuckerman, a wealthy iron manufacturer who lived at No. 22 Washington Place.

Intrigued by a new concept in apartment house management, Tuckerman contracted architects McKim, Mead and Bigelow (Stanford White would not join the firm for a few months) to design an apartment building exclusively for bachelors. He chose 80 Washington Square East as the site, just steps from his elegant townhouse.

Originally called the Tuckerman Building, it was completed in the fall of 1879; a restrained red brick structure with stone trim and cast iron bay windows on the three middle floors.  Tuckerman was vice-president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a life member of the National Academy of Design.  He owned a “fine collection of pictures,” according to one source.  It was most likely because of his passion for art that he had four artist’s lofts constructed on the sixth floor where natural sunlight could pour in.  In all there were thirty-three apartments marketed to unmarried men who would pay a yearly rent of between $350 and $550 (about $1,225 per month for the most expensive studio in today's money).

The tenants bathed using bowls and pitchers, the designers having opted against sinks and plumbing “for the sake of keeping out sewer gas,” as reported by The New York Tribune.  There was, however, a 24-hour elevator.  And to make life easier for the womanless males, the building offered maid service, a bootblack and, if the tenant desired, the janitor would provide breakfast from the basement.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Before long The Tuckerman became known by the tongue-in-cheek name, “The Benedick” – a literary nod to the confirmed bachelor in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Quickly, possibly because of the lofts, the building was filled largely with artists.  By 1880 Winslow Homer, John LaFarge, Alder Weir and George Maynard were living there.  Albert Ryder moved in and stayed for a decade.

A few years later Stanford White, whose wife preferred to stay at their Long Island estate, rented rooms here for a group calling themselves “The Sewer Club.”  The architect's friend, John LaFarge, was also a member.  Because of White’s reputation as a womanizer, historians hint that the rooms were used for “private parties and illicit encounters,” according to Emily Kies Folpe in It Happened On Washington Square.

It was still a bachelor apartment when, in 1906, the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity lost their meeting room at 28 East 11th Street where they had paid $1 a week rent.  Their rent jumped to over $1 a day when they took two rooms and a bath at The Benedick for $31.25 a month.  Four years later they added two more rooms to their lease at $51.50 a month.

In 1916 Scofield Thayer married Elaine Orr in Troy, New York.    It was a posh affair attended by Thayer’s best friend, poet Edward Estlin Cummings–better known as EE Cummings.  Soon afterwards Thayer became less than enthusiastic about the marriage and moved back to the Benedick; giving Cummings and Thayer’s wife the necessary latitude to carry on an affair–one by which Cummings fathered her child.  In his Benedick apartment, Thayer, at least once, wrote a check to Cummings to cover the costs of the poet's wining and dining of his wife.

New York University purchased The Benedick in 1925 and, after having proposed razing it, in 1927 converted it into the Pauline Goddard Hall dormitory.  At some point the wonderful cast iron bay windows were removed.  

Again, in 1969, the school planned demolition and, again, it escaped the wrecking ball.  Instead, it was renovated as the 80 Washington Square East Galleries in 1974.  Appropriately, it now spotlights the thesis exhibitions of MA and MFA candidates from the Department of Art and Art Professions.

The façade was restored in 1987 (it had been painted white) and some tolerable modernization was effected. The interiors have long ago been destroyed. Overall, however, the old Benedick retains its 19th Century charm.

photographs by Alice Lum has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Unfinished Cornice of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By 1895 the red brick Gothic-inspired Metropolitan Museum of Art building in Central Park had become inadequate for its collection. Designed by park designer Calvert Vaux and his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould, it sat back from Fifth Avenue, a chunky Victorian building that blended well with other Central Park structures.

The museum trustees called upon Richard Morris Hunt, who had been busy designing massive Vanderbilt mansions, to plan an addition. Hunt designed a grand Beaux Arts palace to the front of the existing museum, rich with sculpture and monumental columns.

The architect envisioned the building executed in glimmering white marble. This was, unfortunately, the middle of the great depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897. Indiana limestone would have to do. Shortly after finishing his plans, Hunt died in 1895 never to see the completed structure.

The financial Panic of 1901 struck the year before the new museum building was completed. Albany was strapped for cash and the museum trustees were in no better shape. In 1902 the grand edifice was finally completed.

Except that it wasn’t.

Sculptor Karl Bitter had executed four limestone statues for the facade; allegories of Sculpture, Painting, Architecture and Music. High above the street atop the paired Corinthian columns Hunt had provided for monumental sculptural cornice groups. Great limestone blocks had been hoisted into place creating bulky, crude pyramids waiting to be carved. But then the money ran out.

The massive blocks sat unfinished. The same fate befell the huge circular stone blanks in the Great Hall which Hunt intended to be sculpted out as portraits.

In 1911 architects McKim, Mead and White added the north wing to Hunt’s Fifth Avenue facade. Then two years later they matched it with the south wing. The limestone pyramids, however, were ignored.

Starting in 1975 the Museum was greatly expanded with six additional wings being added by architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates. Vaux and Mould’s original structure was now completely engulfed by the additions, one section of the facade still being visible in the Lehman Wing.  And with all the additions and construction, the clumsy limestone piles atop the Fifth Avenue cornice remained.

Today thousands of visitors climb the grand sweeping stone stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art daily. Few, if any, of them notice the crude, unfinished blocks on the otherwise elegant Beaux Arts facade.


Friday, June 25, 2010

The Sloane Mansion - 9 East 72nd Street

Until 1882 Jessie A. Robbins was not a member of the elite Fifth Avenue social clique. Instead she lived across the East River at 29 Monroe Place in Brooklyn, a member of the fashionable “Heights Set.” Her father, Daniel C. Robbins was a successful partner in a drug firm. Jessie would longingly read newspaper accounts of the grand balls and dinner parties hosted by Mrs. Astor or one of the Mrs. Vanderbilts.

She was, as The New York Times, later dubbed her, “ambitious.”

Jessie Robbins’ Brooklyn days came to an end when she married Henry T. Sloane of the W. & J. Sloane carpeting concern. She now lived on 54th Street mere steps from 5th Avenue’s “Vanderbilt Row,” where the mansions of the Vanderbilt family lined up one after another. The new Mrs. Sloane relished her new role and entertained “with an enthusiasm which caused much remark.”

A decade later her wealthy neighbors were moving northward as Millionaires Row became increasingly commercial. In 1894 Henry Sloane purchased the site at 9 East 72nd Street in the newly-fashionable area just off Central Park. He commissioned Carrere & Hastings to design his French limestone mansion which was completed two years later towards the end of 1896.

The street level formed a rusticated base for the posh house, the second floor of which was dominated by four great French-style windows. A dormered slate mansard roof with copper trim sat behind a classic balustrade. Overall was exuberant ornamentation of carved swags and frothy decoration.

The architecturally complimentary house to the left is the 1899 Oliver Gould Jennings mansion.  

By the time they moved in, however, all was not idyllic in the the Sloane household. Henry had discovered that Jessie was carrying on an affair with the dashing and wealthy Perry Belmont, son of August Belmont.

When Jessie threw her gala opening party for over 200 in January of 1897 The New York Times deemed it “a much more exclusive affair than Mrs. Astor’s recent ball.” Guests filed in through “the gray room” where Mrs. Sloane received them before they entered the ballroom where Berger’s Gypsy Hungarian Orchestra played.

“Mrs. Astor wore a white satin gown and a dazzling display of precious stones and she was accompanied by Mrs. And Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV; the Stanford Whites were there…Mamie Fish was escorted by her husband, Stuyvesant, and Mr. and Mrs. Ogen Mills, Chauncey Depew, and William Kissam Vanderbilt also attended, along with several rising stars of the younger generation,” reported The Times.

What the reporter did not mention -- although noticed by everyone present -- was that the hostess’s husband was conspicuously absent.

Henry Sloane had moved into a hotel on upper Fifth Avenue.  In 1899 the Sloanes divorced amid much publicity and scandal. Within five hours of the divorce decree, Jessie married Perry Belmont. Although Sloane had earlier given Jessie the deed to 9 East 72nd Street, Belmont requested that his new wife return the property to her former husband.

Sloane never went back to 72nd Street, however.   He commissioned mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a home for himself and his daughters at No. 18 East 68th Street.  In the meantime he rented the 72nd Street house to Joseph Pulitizer who moved in with his wife, their five children and 17 servants. The Pulitizers lived there until 1901 when banker James Stillman purchased the house. A bachelor, Stillman remained in the house with his nine servants until his death in 1918. The next two decades saw John Sanford in the mansion, who made his millions in the carpeting business, just as Sloane had.

With Sanford’s death, Jessie Sloane’s grand palace ceased to be a private home for many years. It was taken over by a religious organization and then, in 1964, the Lycee Francais purchased it. Amazingly neither organization altered the building – inside or out – to any great degree; other than some instances of industrial-type lighting and fire-proof doors.

Photo Thornton Tomesetti

Original detailing down to the glass beaded light fixtures, the doorknobs and the chandeliers remained intact. The French paneled walls and the marble and parquetry floors are as they were the night of Jessie’s grand party.

The Lycee Francais joined the Sloane House with the French mansion next door and when the buildings were sold in 2010 for $26 million to the emir of Qatar, he brought in Thornton Tomasetti to blend them into a single grand residence.

Exterior restoration was undertaken on the slate roof, the copper trims, decorative iron, and the stone and brick façade. In a move of which Jessie Sloane may not have approved, the new owners had Thornton Tomasetti carefully excavate an in-ground, indoor pool. All the grand wooden windows were replaced with custom units, which demanded the meticulously matching of the decorative carving and the substitution of insulated glass.

Photo Thornton Tomesetti

When completed the joined mansions became one of the most sensational residential properties in New York City. Jessie Sloane would be envious.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Koster & Bial's-- 6th Avenue and 24th Streets

In the last half of the 19th Century 23rd Street was the theatre district of Manhattan – opera houses, music halls, theatres and vaudeville houses lined the street from 5th to 8th Avenue. At the northwest corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue was Bryant’s Opera House – the home of the highly elaborate and popular minstrel troupe, Bryant’s Minstrels, perhaps most remembered for premiering the song “Dixie” and other Stephen Foster songs. When it was put up for sale in 1878, German-born Albert Bial and John Koster, who ran German-style concert hall and beer garden next door, took it over.
The concert hall of Koster & Bial's -- photo NYPL Collection

The newly-named “Koster and Bial’s Music Hall” included a closed 1200-seat vaudeville theatre and open-air beer garden. Because there was a law against selling alcohol in a theatre, the stage curtain was removed and a folding screen put in its place. And with that the music hall became a restaurant offering entertainment rather than a theatre offering food and drink.

Moses King, in his 1892 Handbook of New York City referred to Koster and Bial’s as “high-class” and said that the “entertainments are of the vaudeville or variety order, like those given at the Alhambra in London and the Eldorado in Paris, with a burlesque to lead the programme…”

In 1886 Koster and Bial commissioned German architects Herman J. Schwarzmann and Albert Buchman to build a saloon and retail outlet for their beer bottling business a block north at the corner of 24th Street and 6th Avenue. Construction of the 4-story brick building with brownstone and terra cotta trim was completed on January 25, 1887.

The saloon was dubbed “The Corner” and an exuberant metal cornice proclaimed the name as well as KOSTER & BIAL. On the 2nd floor corner of the building brownstone plaques carved with whimsical late Victorian lettering reading “The Corner,” doubled as street signs. Patrons entered through an ornate entrance of cast iron, stained glass and polished wood. The music hall and the saloon were joined so theatre-goers could enter either through the main entrance at 23rd Street or through The Corner building.

The original corner entryway can be seen in this 1892 print -- NYPL Collection

Trouble started when Koster and Bial offered more than food, drink and vaudeville. They also offered gentlemen patrons the paid favors of women. The New York Times, in a 1902 article reminiscing about former theatres, remarked “While Koster & Bial were in Twenty-third Street the notorious 'cork room' existed in their theatre. The walls of this room were covered with stoppers from champagne bottles, and the affairs that took place in the room in the late hours after show time would have astonished the churchgoers. In fact, what happened in the 'cork room' did finally become so well known that the affairs had to be stopped.”

The "Sitting Room" at The Corner in 1892 -- NYPL Collection
The scandal of police raids forced John Koster to close the music hall on 23rd Street in 1893. Koster and Bial moved to 34th Street, partnering with Oscar Hammerstein I in the opening of a new Koster and Bial’s Music Hall.

A year later Josiah Belden took over “The Corner,” running a billiards parlor and grocery on the first floor and “lodge rooms” above.

At some point in the 20th century the beautiful saloon front was removed, replaced by a hum-drum commercial front. Various establishments came and went until Billy’s Topless moved in in 1970. For just over 30 years Billy’s was a neighborhood fixture, offering gentlemen patrons the paid entertainment of women – albeit more in line with the law than those of the former Cork Room.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shut down Billy’s Topless in 2001 as part of his quality of life initiatives.

The Corner stands relatively unnoticed today; however the floors above street level, including the marvelous cornice and wonderful brownstone street markers, are in a remarkable state of preservation.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The John Purroy Mitchel Monument

Among the long list of monuments in Manhattan dedicated to persons no one has ever heard of, the John Purroy Mitchel Monument must rank near the top.  The monument is part of the Engineers' Gate to Central Park, a striking neo-classical stone wall and sweeping staircase that leads to the Reservoir above.  Central to the wall, designed by Thomas Hastings and Don Barber, is the memorial featuring a gilded bust of Mitchel.  It is one of the most unusual and impressive of the Central Park memorials.

Mitchel remains the youngest elected mayor of New York City, coming to office at the age of 35 in 1913.  He was graduated from New York Law School in 1901 and immediately started making a name for himself.  Determined to break up the Tammany Hall corruption, his investigations ended the careers of John F. Ahern, Manhattan Borough President, and Louis Haffren, Bronx Borough President, in 1906.

Recognized nation-wide as a reformer, he was elected Mayor in 1913.  With his appointment of Police Commissioner Arthur Wood, Mitchel took steps to clean up the corrupt New York Police Department, longtime time bedfellows with the Tammany gang.  Tammany Hall wouldn't go down without a fight, though.

John Mitchel strongly believed in vocational schools for the underprivileged to help them become employable.  Tammany used his intended educational reforms in a wide-spread smear campaign; insisting that Mitchel was making it impossible for poor children to receive a free, liberal arts education.

Mitchel lost his re-election bid in 1917 and immediately joined the Air Service to fight in World War I.  He never got that chance, however.  On July 6, 1918 while flying a training flight in his single-seater scout airplane at Gerstner Field in Louisiana he fell 500 feet to his death.

John Purroy Mitchel had failed to fasten his safety belt.

The New York Times reported the following day "One of the mechanicians had said a few days ago: 'It makes my hair stand on end to see Major Mitchel fly.  He takes risks and seems to think nothing of it.'"

Mitchel's wife accompanied his body, alone, back to New York for his funeral and burial.  Mitchel Field in Long Island was named after him, now the site of Hofstra University and the Nassau Coliseum.

The Mitchel Memorial Committee retained Hastings and Barber to design the gate and commissioned sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman to execute Mitchel's bust.  It was unveiled in 1926.

Today the memorial to the great reformer who forgot to fasten his seat belt creates an impressive entry to the park.  And nobody knows who he was.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The 1899 University Club

The University Club shortly after opening
In the first year of the Civil War, a group of former college pals started a club in order, for one thing, to continue their social contact. The first meeting of the new University Club was held at the Columbia College Law School where Theodore Dwight, the first president, was a professor.   In their charter, written that year in 1861, they laid out the club’s purpose: “promotion of Literature and Art by establishing and maintaining a Library, Reading Room and Gallery of Art, and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper for such purposes.”

After moving from one temporary club house to another, the group leased the former Leonard Jerome mansion at 26th and Madison Avenue on December 3, 1883 for $22,500 per year. This was the heyday of the gentlemen’s club – quiet, posh dens where men of means could relax, smoking cigars and discussing business and current events.  Female intrusion into a men's club was unthinkable.

The University Club was not only successful, it became prestigious. Ten years after settling into the Jerome mansion, spacial restrictions caused membership to be capped at 1500 New York members and 900 members living elsewhere. No fewer than 600 gentlemen waited impatiently to join. A larger facility was necessary.

On the west side of Fifth Avenue the Vanderbilt family had recently built six grand mansions that stretched from 50th Street to 58th.  In the center of “Vanderbilt Row,” however, was St. Luke’s Hospital between 54th and 55th, sitting back from the avenue and encircled by a lawn. In 1893 the hospital announced its intentions to move north to 113rd Street.

After intense negotiations and even more intense fund raising, the plot was secured and a new club house planned. Three members of the University Club, conveniently, were Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White. Their firm’s design of the $1 million structure would set the bar for gentlemen’s clubs going forward.

Charles McKim designed an Italian Renaissance palace similar to the Strozzi Palace in Florence. The club opened in 1899. Built of pink granite rather than the expected white marble, its six stories successfully pretended to be only three. With large arched windows attracting the eye, smaller windows set in the friezes beneath the cornice and the two stone courses become nearly unnoticeable.

Enhancing the facade are bronze balconies and carved seals of eighteen universities. The schools were chosen after lengthy and deliberate discussions. The prestige of having its crest represented on the facade of the University Club was so great that Annapolis, which had no official seal, created one. After the building was completed, inaccuracies were noticed in two of the seals (which the club has no intention to correct).

The interior of the club was remarkable even to its wealthy members. The large central entry court is lined by huge, 25-foot high green marble columns. The full length of the Fifth Avenue side is taken up by the grand lounging room with rich woodwork and crimson brocade wallcoverings. Above is the library – modeled after the Vatican apartments -- with a complex vaulted ceiling decorated with frescoes by H. Siddons Mowbray. The elegant dining room sits behind the highest level of arched windows, in a more English style of polished, paneled wood.

From the pink marble and gold leaf lobby a staircase leads below street lobby to the 48-foot long pool. At one end of the white marble swimming pool, water spills from a brass lion’s head. Overhead, a painted sky fills the ceiling.

photo nypl collection

With the new building came the previously unspoken question of allowing ladies into the club. Membership, of course, was out of the question; however some gentlemen wanted to show off the new facility to their wives. And so a few days were set aside for this purpose immediately after the opening.

In his A History of the University Club of New York, 1865-1915, James W. Alexander remembered, “The wisdom of providing an annex with restaurant, for the wives and other ladies of members’ families was discussed when the new Fifth Avenue Club House was contemplated, but the question was decided in the negative.”

Some members were adamant. George Augustus Sala asserted that “a club is a weapon used by savages to keep the white woman at a distance.”  Mr. Sala’s opinions would not be appreciated following the Women’s Rights Movement half a century later.

Members were expected to conduct themselves with the deportment demanded by their social position. “Much stress is laid upon the orderly conduct of members in the Club House,” noted Alexander. Although there were instances of “infringement of rules or the canons of good breeding,” he wrote, “such cases…have been rare, and the members of the Club who unanimously desire its life to be untainted by noise, disorderly behavior, or breach of rules in any respect, have had little occasion to complain.”  To this day no member is admitted without coat and tie.

The atmosphere of undiluted masculine retreat was shattered when, in 1987 the Human Rights Commission filed gender-discrimination charges because of the male-only membership. After a century and a quarter, in a move that would certainly have chagrined George Augustus Sala, membersip was opened to women. Being included did not mean receiving deferential treatment, however, as Hillary Clinton and Cindy Adams, columnist of the New York Post found out in 1997. When Adams made a cell phone call – cell phones being against club rules – the pair was escorted out.

Aside from its superb architectural features – which caused LeCorbusier in 1935 to say “in New York I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance” – the University Club boasts one of the most important private art collections in New York.  Paintings by the likes of American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam line the walls.

The University Club is considered the grandest of the New York City private clubs and one of the most important architectural treasures of Fifth Avenue.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The 1817 James Brown House

There are those who claim that James Brown, the former slave who built the Federal-style house and shop at 326 Spring Street, was a Revolutionary War veteran and former aide de camp to General George Washington.  Census records and common sense make that claim hard to substantiate (the 55-year old Brown who sold the house in 1830 would have been 8 years old at the end of the war).  Whatever the case, Brown had sufficient means to build a home and open a business; and he erected his two and a half story brick Federal house approximately five or six feet from the Hudson River around 1817.

The area was then known as "Lower Greenwich" -- being just south of Greenwich Village -- and was a working-class, mixed-race neighborhood filled with homes similar to Brown's.  His was a comfortable home with a gambrel, dormered roof and Flemish-bond brickwork, assessed at the staggering amount of $2,000 in 1817.  Stone keystone lintels capped the windows.  Brown opened a tobacco shop in the first floor, catering to the sailors and dock workers along the river.

In 1830 Brown sold the building and it became two subsequent apothocaries and a grocery.  Robert Nixon and Charles Lowere took over the building in 1851 and shared the shop area.  Nixon was a bootmaker and Lowere a "packer."  Neither lived on Spring Street and the rooms upstairs were rented out.

The area was bustling with river-related shops and businesses housed in similar buildings -- selling oysters, crockery and tins for example.  By 1870 George Hays, with his wife and daughter, lived in the building while he ran his crockery business from the shop.  Two boarders, or possibly employees, also lived there.

By now landfill had made 326 Spring a block and a half from the river.   Piers were added and improved and ship traffic on the Hudson was dense.  Vessels left Spring Street piers for California and Asia and longshoremen and sailors filled the streets.

photo NYPL Collection
For that reason in 1890 Thomas Cloke, an Irish immigrant, purchased the building and opened a tavern.  Upstairs William Haskins, a tobacco stripper, and his family lived.  Things went well enough for Cloke until 1919 when he recognized that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution might very well be passed, outlawing the sale of liquor.  Cloke sold the building that year, not a moment too soon.  The Amendment was passed on January 16.

Undaunted, the new owners opened a "restaurant" and continued serving alcohol.  The upstairs, reportedly, was used as "a boarding house, a smuggler's den and a brothel."  When Prohibition was repealed, the speakeasy continued on as a tavern but for years never hung a sign -- simply being known as "The Green Door."

In the 1970s Columbia student Richard Wayman finagled a deal with the bar owner to live upstairs for a small rent while doing repairs on the building -- which by now exhibited the bright neon sign BAR outside.  Wayman, who later became publisher of a music magazine "Ear," took over the lease in 1977 with two partners.  He bought the old house in 1979.

photo by The New York Daily News
With a can of black paint he covered parts of the neon tubes so that the old sign now reads EAR.

Over the years Wayman made seriously-needed structural repairs to the building.  In the sandy basement -- reminiscent of when the house sat on the shoreline -- old crocks from the Cloke era stamped "326 Spring St." surfaced

Amazingly, to the right of the door an ancient night shutter still hangs; once used to cover the shop windows after closing.  In the attic of the peg-and-beam constructed house are charred axe-hewn beams which prompt some historians to feel that the James Brown House was constructed partially of beams salvaged from the Great Fire of 1776.

The New York Landmarks Commission, in designating the James Brown House a landmark, noted it as "a modest example of an early Nineteenth Century Federal house with some of its original architectural features, and that after a hundred and fifty years, it is still serving a useful purpose and that it adds charm, intimate scale, and a provocative change of pace to our city life and scene."

Whether James Brown fought in the Revolutionary War is irrelevant.  What is important is that his 1817 house still stands, a rare relic of the Federal period.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Gothic Ruins of Blackwell's Island

photograph via
Thousands of motorists driving along the FDR Drive do a double-take when they glance across the East River to Roosevelt Island and see the brooding grey, Gothic ruins across the water.  Totally out of place and time, they look more like a scene created by Emily Bronte or Mary Shelley.

In the decade before the Civil War, smallpox was a deadly and terrifying disease, a "loathsome malady."  Its rapid spread among the new immigrant population and the poor resulted in more stringent isolation of the victims.  Drawing on the centuries-long tradition of quarantining contagious victims on islands, a wooden hospital was erected on Blackwell's Island in the East River. 

The conditions were subpar, according to resident physician William Kelly, who called the hospital "a pile of poor wooden out houses on the banks of the river."  In 1850 plans were underway for a more adequate facility.

James Renwick, Jr., who had already designed the beautiful Grace Church on Broadway and in a few years would complete his masterwork, St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, drew up the plans for a new smallpox hospital.  The island would soon be filled with Renwick-designed institutions: the Workhouse, the Lighthouse, the Charity Hospital and the Smallpox Hospital.

Because the grey gneiss stone was quarried on site with labor of inmates from the Workhouse, the cost of the structure was kept at $38,000.  354 feet long and 122 feet wide, the three story hospital was topped by a crenellated cupola and could accomodate up to 1200 patients.  Visitors would enter through an impressive, heavy stone porch. 

from the collection of the New York Public Library
A devastating fire necessitated the transfer of the one hundred patients of the original wooden hospital to the new building while it was still under construction.  Dr. William Sanger  assessed the unfinished building and decided it was "admirable."

Unlike the other institutions on Blackwell's Island, the Smallpox Hospital was not just for charity cases.  Because of the contagiousness of the disease, paying patients were admitted as well.  The charity cases were housed in wards on the lower floors -- men to the east, women to the west -- while the upper floor had private rooms for the paying patients.

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1871 another smallpox epidemic raged through New York City straining the adequacy of the hospital and endangering the general population of Blackwell's Island.  A year later, 7,000 patients were being treated of whom 450 died annually. 

That year on March 3 hearings were held on the corruption and mismanagement of the Smallpox Hospital.  Patients received little or no care without paying the nurses or doctors.  Relatives of the deceased were extorted a fee for a last look at the dead.  Former patients and relatives lined up tell stories of the horrors endured there.

Margaret Rich testified that "washing was impossible as more than a cup of water could not be obtained except by payment."  Although her husband regularly brought food, she "never saw an apple, an orange or a cake in the Hospital," and "The nurses were nearly always drunk, and none of the night nurses were ever sober."

A new facility was built on North Brother's Island and in 1875 the Board of Health took charge of the Renwick building.  It was converted to the Home for the Nurses and the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School.

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1904 the large south wing was added. The architects York and Sawyer admirably blended it to Renwick's original design making the addition nearly seamless.  A year later a matching north wing was added by Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen, the successor firm to James Renwick, Jr., creating a U-shaped complex.

By the 1950s the buildings on what was now known as Welfare Island were becoming obselete.  New, modern facilities were erected in Queens and the grey, stone Renwick Smallpox Hospital was abandoned.  Empty, with no maintenance and left to vandals and the weather, the hospital rapidly deteriorated.  A decade later, with no floors or roof, it was in serious danger of collapse.   The Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed it worthy of preservation and the New York State Urban Development Corporation hired architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to direct efforts to reinforce the walls.

photograph via
Despite this, in 2008 a section of wall collapsed, drawing the wrath of preservationists.  Speaking to The New York Times, Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said “This is a real failure of stewardship. They shouldn’t get by, saying, ‘We don’t have enough money’ or ‘It’s too late.’ They should bring in the cavalry and fix this important landmark.”

A chain-link fence surrounds the property today and climbing vines cover its stone walls.  It has become a romantic, picturesque ruin on par with any found in an English setting.  On November 25, 1975 the Smallpox Hospital ruins were designated landmark status -- the only such structure so designated..

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Day the Music Almost Died -- The Naumburg Bandshell

Included in the 1851 plans for Central Park was a Concert Grounds. Calvert Vaux and his talented assistant Jacob Wrey Mould designed a fairy-tale setting consisting of fountains, wooden benches, lacy cast iron birdcages and a wisteria-entwined pergola.  A temporary bandstand provided free concerts.  It was replaced by a permanent structure in 1862, an oriental, cast iron pagoda-style gazebo designed by Mould.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Vaux and partner Frederick Olmstead felt that “the effect of good music in the park is to aid the mind in freeing itself from the irritating effect of urban conditions.”  To this end, no popular music was allowed to be performed that appealed to the baser of instincts.

As the new century neared, the parks commissioners relaxed the constraints, and choral and folk music were permitted.  Around the turn of the century John Philip Sousa performed his marches from here.

In 1905 German immigrant and banker, Elkan Naumburg, who founded the Oratorio Society of New York, began funding the concerts.  Hundreds of New Yorkers congregated in the Concert Grounds to hear waltzes, shortened operas, arias and portions of symphonies.  They would often picnic on the grass and, as night fell and the gas lamps were lit, would waltz under the stars.

In 1912 the beautiful old Concert Grounds were no longer adequate for the size of the crowds the concerts attracted. Naumburg offered to donate a new bandshell.  In 1916 he called upon his nephew, architect William G. Tachau to design it.

Mould’s unique cast iron pagoda was razed, the filigree birdcages were scrapped, and the Concert Grounds paved over. Construction began on Tachau’s plans in 1921 and the bandshell was completed two years later, opening on September 29, 1923.

The striking new Naumburg Bandshell was constructed of  Indiana limestone; a neo-classic half-dome with a coffered interior. Ten thousand people attended the dedication which included a 60-piece orchestra and the soprano soloist from Chicago Opera Company. Naumburg told the crowd, according to The New York Times, that “…there was nothing more to say than was contained in the inscription on the building itself: ‘To the City of New York and its Music Lovers.’”

When Eklan Naumburg died the following year, his sons Walter and George took up the cause and continued funding the Central Park concerts.  Both left provisions in their wills to endow the concerts going forward.

The summer concerts were a favorite with park goers who came to hear the likes of Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and even The Grateful Dead.  In 1949, children’s writer E. B. White–author of Charlotte’s Web–called the concerts “a magical occasion.   And it’s all free.”

From its stage the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, as did Fidel Castro.  And it was from here that John Lennon’s eulogy was given.

By the end of the 1980s, however, trouble was brewing for the aging band shell.

Lack of regular maintenance had taken its toll.  The homeless, drug dealers, and vandals took it over.  Rather than restore the neo-classical half dome, the Parks Commission decided to raze it.  Betsy Gotbaum, Commissioner of the Parks and Recreation Department, called the bandshell “a maintenance nightmare,” and The New York Times reported that “Parks officials saw the band shell…as an obsolete intrusion on the landscape.”

Despite heated protests by Elkan Naumburg’s family, preservation groups, and New Yorkers in general, the New York City Art Commission authorized demolition of the bandshell in January 1992.  Naumburg’s great-grandson, Christopher London was crestfallen.

“The band shell has played an important role in the history of free public concerts and it’s part of people’s lives.  To rip it down denies and eradicates that history for a misguided esthetic concept of purity that anyone who lives in New York knows doesn’t exist,” he said.

London, an architectural historian, led preservationists in a drawn-out court battle.  Finally, in July of 1993, the New York State Court of Appeals blocked the demolition citing a city law requiring protection of municipal gifts.

The Parks Commission was not pleased.  Gotbaum grumbled, “It stands out like a sore thumb, but the band shell will stay.  But we will be gracious losers and now try to make the best of a bad situation.”  She added that the Parks Commission would now try to “work around the band shell.”

Work "around it" they did. A $3 million restoration of the concert grounds was completed which did not include the band shell.  It sat barely used and unmaintained for another ten years.

The bandshell was allowed to fall into serious disrepair.

Still fighting in 2002, a frustrated Christopher London complained, “Even though I won the court case, it was a Pyrrhic victory.  It is demolition by neglect.”  Citing vegetation growing out of the limestone and tools stored in the back stage area, he added, “They are trying to erase the memory people have of enjoying concerts here.”  The restoration costs that were estimated at $250,000 in 1993 had now climbed to as much as $2 million.

With a new administration came changes.  In 2003 restoration efforts began.  Structural engineer Robert Silman was brought in to assess water damage and a possible shifting of the dome.  With little money available from the city, fund raising efforts were initiated by the Central Park Conservancy and other preservation groups.

Today Elkan Naumburg’s vision of free public concerts is up and running again.  Among the concerts offered in his bandshell are fully-staged grand opera productions by the New York Grand Opera.  The striking bandshell has appeared in numerous motions pictures such as Hair, I'm Not Rappaport, Breakfast at Tiffanys, and Mighty Aphrodite.

Once referred to as Central Park’s “sore thumb” the Naumburg Bandshell is treasured by millions of New Yorkers.