Sunday, November 20, 2011

Old houses in general, Astoria in particular

Here's Hamilton Grange again, Alexander Hamilton's country house, built in 1802 and photographed last fall in its new location on the south side of 141st Street east of Convent Avenue. No small number of country places, looking remarkably like this one, once ornamented the craggy landscape of rural Manhattan.

They weren't just in Manhattan, of course, but all over the Eastern seaboard, and particularly on Long Island. This vanished old pensioner once stood in Astoria, Queens. I've been researching Astoria in the course of writing about Mamie Fish, a Gilded Age social queen whose family was driven from Manhattan to Astoria by sudden financial reverses. This image, and all the vintage images that follow, are courtesy of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. What struck me most about this one was the similarity between it and Hamilton Grange.

Here's the Grange a month ago, restoration nearly complete, original decorative railings re-installed. And what a difference those railings make, especially the one above the cornice. It looks like a different house.

Here's another old place that stood in the Astoria countryside. It's slightly bigger than the Grange, but very much cut from the same metaphorical fabric. I'll bet it once had a railing along the roof line too, which would have made it look like the house below.

This is Gracie Mansion seen from the side. Before it was enlarged, the front door was on this elevation. The roof line railing almost completely disguises the fact that, to my eye anyway, this is a very similar house to that poor beat up old manse in Astoria.

So... now my consciousness is raised on the impact of cornice railings. It's also been raised somewhat on the subject of Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood I've visited only a few times. Astoria is a nice place, but it is not a charming place. It is a land of semi-detached 2-story early to mid-twentieth century brick houses on pleasant tree-lined streets. The wonderful architectural inventory that once characterized it, however, has been eradicated. Well, there are a handful of cool old houses in Astoria, but I mean that literally - like five, or maybe six. (OK, maybe eight). Everything else is gone. The house in the image above stood on Shore Road opposite Roosevelt Island.

How wonderful is this? How could anyone have brought himself to tear it down? Astoria enjoyed an elite fashion in the 1830s, and retained an appealing rural/suburban feel through most of the nineteenth century.

I doubt this imposing Greek Revival building was a private house, however, it speaks eloquently to the era of the 1830s. Would that it were still standing.

This looks to me like a grand Dutch era farmhouse that was transformed into a country estate by gentlemen descendants of the original farmer. The Greater Astoria Historical Society has a wealth of fascinating images on its website, unfortunately very few of which include location.

All of us in the northeast who have - or visit - places in the country still see plenty of houses like this. Here's one that stood right in the middle of Astoria Queens. That brick building on the left is a harbinger of things to come. Buildings just like it probably cover the entire site today.

The past is so tender and perishable. A palpable sense of waiting for the end envelops this old Astoria farmhouse. Kind of sad, but I like the cyclists in front.

Some Astoria houses were quite grand. This one was on Shore Road, although the Historical Society's watermark obscures the exact location.

The grandest of them all is miraculously still extant. It's known as the Steinway mansion, the name commemorating the famous piano manufacturer who, while building a company village in the area, occupied the house in the 1870s. Built in 1858 this fine Italianate villa originally stood in the middle of a sprawling waterfront estate. The house remains in mint condition, although the property has shrunk to half an acre. It's for sale for under $2 million but so far nobody has wanted a mansion in the middle of a warehouse district in Queens.

As the rural past faded, parts of Astoria developed into upscale suburban neighborhoods.

This house was already starting to decay when this photo was taken. No doubt there's a row of brick semi-detached on the march just out of sight.

There are plenty of houses like this around, I suppose, but not in Astoria. Well, maybe there's one.

I thought I'd end with this lovely image of a country road in Astoria. The picture wasn't taken all that long ago, not with those utility poles. I'd date it somewhere around 1900.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny to think that such houses were also still to be found in midtown as late as 1850. (I have a painting of one, c 1830, that stood on ten acres between Fifth Avenue and Broadway.)

    BTW, have you ever seen a good or detailed picture of the building that's now called Butler Hall but was once the Mali Estate in the West Bronx/University Heights? What remains of the building today is quite sad.