Tuesday, March 11, 2014

BIG OLD HOUSES: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About My Block

BIG OLD HOUSES: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About My Block
by John Foreman


At the end of the 18th century, what we call the Upper East Side looked like this — one gracious old country place after another, perched on bluffs or at the heads of long sloping lawns, enjoying unsullied vistas of glittering waters on the Sound, as the East River then was called. Much loved by generations of Knickerbockers with names like Beekman and Schermerhorn, Gracie and Astor, Rhinelander and Jones, these vanished waterfront estates stretched in an almost unbroken line all the way to Hell Gate.
Three generations in the same house lend an air of permanence to any locality. However, the pre-revolutionary look of Manhattan's countryside north of New York turned out to be very fleeting. Development along the shoreline had been mostly elite, but those acres immediately inland were sketchy from the start. Area-wide decline began in earnest with imposition of the infamous Commissioners Plan of 1811.

Devoid of even a whiff of imagination or sensitivity, the new street plan decreed that anything and everything old and/or charming be leveled, removed and/or demolished in the name of the almighty right angle. The plan was implemented in stages, and only over many years, but already by the 1830s Third Avenue had been laid out and fairly built up, in a desultory way, with wooden commercial structures, almost to Harlem Bridge. Then in 1837, the Harlem Railroad came along, spewing smoke and cinders into the dispirited fields and increasingly blowsy woods.

The railroad replaced a revolutionary era bridge over the Harlem marshes with a railroad trestle and, in the process, converted not just Harlem Village, but the single stop at 86th Street into a pair of commuter suburbs. Abandonment of the old waterfront estates was wholesale by the 1850s, when the "Forty Thieves" ran the city council and Manhattan's sordid shantytowns were being cleared, Mugabe-style, to make way for Central Park. By the close of the Civil War, when the idea of a waterfront country place on the East Side had become an absurdity, a new reality took form.

Boss Tweed's Dept of Public Works embarked on a furious and, yes, first class implementation of the Commissioners Plan as it applied to the East Side. Over a thousand laborers were plunged into construction of streets, lighting and sewers, not a one of which was on the West Side. Why the focus east of the Park? Not a decision made for the public good, you can be sure. Tweed and his cronies had a scam; they bought tracts of unimproved lots, Tweed then ordered construction of immediately adjacent streets, then the lots were sold for whopping profits. (A confession: my 3 vintage images are all of the same house — Mt. Pleasant, built by William Beekman in 1763, on a site adjoining today's Beekman Place. They capture the right mood, however, and the others were, after all, the same breed of cat).

Which brings me to the Madison-Park block of East 63rd Street, seen here looking east, on which I have lived — at least, during the week — for the past 14 years. From the late 1860s until the Panic of 1873, the East Side crawled with small time land speculators and independent builders, the latter erecting speculative brownstone-front rows of anywhere from 4 to 8 houses on practically every block. Fifth Avenue had big lots, big prices and big expectations. Third Avenue became the dividing line between the working classes to the east and the gentry to the west, a divide which, despite everything that has happened since, has never really been erased. The irony of the East Side, of course, is that during the 19th century, the gentry and the working classes swapped seats, so to speak. Despite the many luxurious buildings built east of Third Avenue since the 1954 demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated train, real estate customers still abound who, as we say in the business, "get nose bleeds if they cross Third Avenue."
After about 4 years of economic blood letting in the wake of 1873, the American economy staggered back to its feet. By the late 1870s, houses that had sat unsold were selling, and builders who had been licking their wounds were back building. To my archaeological eye, development on my block of East 63rd Street appears to have sprung from bare earth to unbroken street front in 3 to 5 years. Starting in the late 1870s, four separate rows of speculative middle class houses — two rows on the north side and two on the south — went up in rapid succession, or maybe even simultaneously.

Despite elaborate disguises acquired during the last century-plus, they mostly survive. The building on my northeast corner is actually part of a 5-house row fronting Madison Avenue. It was a middle class product, perhaps a little bigger and better than its mid-block sisters. When Madison went commercial after the First World War, shops invaded ground floors up and down the avenue, bedrooms above were chopped into apartments and the owner of the house on my corner expanded it into a former rear yard on 63rd St. It stands today much as it has for almost a century, its ground level now occupied by Roberto Cavalli, an uber-chic clothing store for women who wear 8-inch heels and, if I am to believe the fashion blowups usually in the windows, keep cheetahs for pets.
I can safely date the Cavallo house to the late 1870s due to the deeply incised decoration in the window surrounds called Eastlake motifs. These are specific to a genus of mid- to late-1870s brownstone house labeled, for reasons obscure to me, as "Neo-Grec." Charles Eastlake (1836-1906) was a Brit who in 1868, at the age of 32, wrote a runaway best seller titled "Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details." Eastlake's ubiquitous influence is to blame for much of the Victorian era's dispiriting taste. The machine made geometry of Eastlake motifs is like a computer chip in your dog's shoulder — its result is instant identification.
Edith Wharton described the New York of her childhood, unlike our soft focus perception of it today, as shrouded in a "universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried." Between the death of the Greek Revival and the bloom of the Queen Anne, Manhattan and Brooklyn underwent almost 40 years of brownstone fronted Italianate rowhouse construction, resulting in tractless urban neighborhoods of startling uniformity. Many of these neighborhoods still exist, in Harlem and especially in Brooklyn. However, streetscapes on the East Side, once equally brown and militarily regular, have, as a result of wandering fashion in early 20th century, undergone significant individual rebuilding. The image below shows the north side of 63rd between Madison and Park. You may not believe it — and perhaps you may not care — but what you're looking at started life as a uniform row of practically identical high stoop heavily corniced brownstone row houses. Edith would have hated them.
Two separate builders erected these houses. The westerly row was more upscale, each 3-bay house sitting on a 20-foot wide lot. The cornice second from the left in the image below is the only remaining piece of original construction fabric that survives in this row. The original 1880s facade of the house behind the construction netting was replaced long before my arrival with a sort of ersatz stucco Georgianization. I cannot guess what's coming next.
I find this house, the second in the row, of particular interest. When I came in 1999, its facade was faced with brownstone ... well, faced on the upper stories, at least.

Back when it was chopped into apartments (probably in the 1930s), the original high stoop was torn off (a depressing practice of the time) in order to provide more rentable space on the parlor floor. The demolition of ponderous stone stoop and ornate front door surround required reconstruction of the ground and parlor floor facades.

Houses like this typically got new bibs made of brown-tinted stucco designed, as far as proportion goes, with an often unsteady hand. Deprived of heavy front door and window surrounds, the reconfigured parlor floor windows suddenly appeared under-scaled, not that anyone cared.

During my time on the block, this house has been gutted not once but twice for single family owners, in the course of which its rooming house facade has been carefully recreated in marble.
The other three houses in the row had degenerated into similarly nondescript stoop-less brownstone apartment buildings. They were bought by one owner (not all at once), demolished (in apparently unplanned stages), and reconstructed as a single luxurious rental building that only looks like 3 separate houses. A "premier pre-school" (according to the web) called the Garden House occupies not just the ground floor, but an enormous rear winter garden as well. The latter is sunk so deep in the earth that I honestly wondered, after observing the 30th or maybe the 40th container of dirt being hauled away, if the owner was expecting to reach Beijing. Upstairs are a few $10,000/month 1-bedrooms, plus a triplex on top which is bigger than the marble house next door.
The quality of construction in this building is about as good as it gets. The design aesthetic, however, has a slightly brutal, non-hand-drawn quality to it. Compare its door to the door on the house in the image below on the right, also on the block, also once a high stoop brownstone, but renovated at the beginning of the 20th century.
The easterly row was more modest than its competition to the west, each house being only 16-feet as opposed to 20-feet wide. This allowed for only 2 windows per floor overlooking the street instead of 3.
Stoop removal (below, left), notwithstanding the negative vicissitudes it has inflicted upon many an old house, has some respectable antecedents. In 1911, Elsie de Wolfe and Ogden Codman tore the stoop off a typical brownstone house at 123 East 55th St. and replaced it with a formal lobby on the ground floor and an entrance court outside. The house was famous in its day and, in addition to its fashionable cachet, was a lot brighter indoors. The Georgian Revival facade of the Leash, a low profile club for aficionados of shooting and hunting dogs, looks to me like it dates from the period of the First World War.

Sheer chance has preserved a great deal of the original architectural fabric of this row. The vintage looking facade (below, right), however, is a recent reconstruction. Stripped in the 1940s (or maybe the '30s, hard to tell) of cornice, stoop and window surrounds, it was smooth, featureless and dull until 2010, when everything was reapplied. Indoors, it's still very "Hollywood Regency."
The cornice on the left is from 1882; the one on the right from 2010.
The private house on the left in the image below gives a good idea of what the whole block used to look like. The early 20th century extension on the house next door illustrates how totally that look has been obscured.
Shortly after completion of its new Grand Central Terminal in 1913, the New York Central embarked on a massive beautification of Park Avenue, decking the railroad yard behind the terminal and converting its partly covered sunken tracks into a landscaped boulevard. Construction of upscale apartment houses, and even a spate of private mansions, promptly ensued. In 1923 J.E.R. Carpenter designed 580 Park, which anchors my block on its northeastern end. 580 is a superbly maintained coop with interesting layouts and a movie palace lobby. Fortunately, no one can any longer mutilate its facade with through-the-wall A/C, although that's probably more a function of landmark law than coop policy.
570 Park, facing 580 across 63rd Street, was an early entrant on the avenue, designed in 1915 by Emery Roth. Like most Park Avenue buildings it was built as a rental, but Roth designed it with admirable sensitivity to Delano and Aldrich's Colony Club under construction at the same time next door. (Hear that, Frank Lloyd Wright?) The bricks are redder than they look in this photo, and make a nice contrast with the white trim, which is marble at street level and glazed terracotta above.
Here's the south side of my block, with signature Upper East Side architectural variegation.
My apartment is in one of two old houses hiding behind that vaguely Art Modern facade. They were originally part of a row of five, although some may have been demolished to make room for 570 Park.
The most easterly in the row looks like the house across the street, before the facade facelift. No one seems to know where the stone lion comes from. My guess? A demolished ramp on the old elevated West Side Highway, but that's just a guess.
Years ago, while showing a back apartment at 45 East 62nd Street, I glanced out the window and was surprised to see that my building on 63rd, at least from behind, still looked like two old houses. The pair of brownstones to the right of my building have largely preserved their original facades — minus the stoops, of course. Judging from the sort-of-Arts-and-Craftsy 16-over-1 windows, I imagine the house with the oriel underwent a stylish update sometime around 1900.
Despite its aristocratic Federal Revival facade, the narrow lot on which this very good looking house stands makes me pretty sure it started life as a modest brownstone row house that was renovated in the early 20th century. The difference in floor levels makes me also think it was part of a now demolished spec row that extended to the right.
The brilliant looking mansion in the images below could be on Beacon Hill. It is a house today, but was designed in 1929 by Cross and Cross for a group of amateur flyers who called themselves the Hangar Club. Note Mercury wearing his winged cap under the pediment above the front entrance.
The Hotel Lowell, designed by Henry Churchill in 1925, replaces what was probably the rest of the Hangar Club row.
Rounding out my block is the Leonori on the corner of Madison Avenue, now a condo but designed in 1901 as an apartment hotel, a species seriously out of date for most of the last century. Layouts in the Leonori suffer from an ailment afflicting most former hotels; namely, it is full of hotel rooms. The period heft makes those of us who don't actually live in it grateful for it anyway.
I love my little apartment on 63rd St., which is as extremely small as my house in the country is extremely big.
I love my little terrace as well, which is full of blooming things in the summer, and from which I can gaze upon my block and understand what it is and what it was.
Soon after moving in, my terrace provided me with a ringside seat to a peculiarly "New York" story. It unfolded during construction of that rental building across the street, the one that looks like 3 new townhouses. There were, of course, rent regulated tenants in the original buildings, some of whom were disinclined to move. The owner eventually thinned their ranks to one pair of obstreperous holdouts who occupied the front and rear apartments on the 4th floor of the middle building.

Having consolidated his remaining tenancy the owner began demolishing not just the 2 flanking houses, but also the facade of the occupied house, plus most of the 3 floors below the occupied apartments. Then the man in the front died, after which his apartment was obliterated literally overnight. There was an expected flurry of anti-landlord tabloid articles, which noted that the World War II vet in the back had still refused to move. Meanwhile, steel beams were being hoisted and riveted for new floors at different levels than those in the old buildings. This necessitated hanging a sort of sling that would support the remaining half-floor occupied rent controlled apartment while the original floor supports beneath it were removed. It hung there for a while, accessed via the original public stair, now in the middle of a construction site and open to the elements. Finally the tenant left, and in less than a day his former apartment disappeared as well.
Time to go inside ...
... sit at my computer, and write all this up.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
 
Contact John Foreman here
Click here for NYSD Contents