Saturday, January 29, 2011

Behind the veil (1 of 3)

Last week's thoughts on old houses have brought Second Avenue to mind again. The Avenue from Houston to East 14th Street today styles itself a part of the East Village. When I was a boy, however, it was part of the Lower East Side. And if ever there was a dismal and forgotten part of town, it was the Lower East Side. This stretch of the Avenue was developed as an elite residential quarter in the late 1820s and 1830s, abandoned by fashion after the Civil War, and invaded by tenements and immigrants at century's end. An unlikely renaissance occurred in the early 20th Century when urban decay on the Bowery led to a wholesale relocation of New York's flourishing Yiddish theatre to this downtrodden precinct of vanished New York bluebloods. Upwards of 1100 legitimate Yiddish speaking theatrical productions were staged here every year, attended by an estimated two million persons. Besides theatres, cafes, music emporiums, costume shops, and tenements housing the likes of Emma Goldman and the Gershwin boys, Second AVenue was home to the famous Second Avenue Delicatessen, with a Yiddish Walk of the Stars embedded in the sidewalk out front.

This is the west side of Second Avenue looking south from 10th Street. Unless you're impecunious and/or young and/or hang out in East Village bars, you might consider this a pretty anonymous - maybe even depressing - example of the urban streetscape. Look more closely, however, and you'll see a block of formerly fine houses interspersed with much later - 1890s to circa 1910 - tenements and apartment buildings.

Here's the east side of the Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, showing what's actually an intact row of houses. Good lord, look what's happened to them.

See the sliver of house next to the Dentist's awning in the image above? This is a close-up of its surviving front door. The elegant engaged columns are highly characteristic of the Greek Revival style of the 1830s.

This poor old house has been "updated" by entombing the facade in corrugated metal sheets. Lots were wider when Second Avenue was developed - sometimes 25 to 30 feet wide. This house might have had a floor added to it. If so, it would originally have looked very much like the house illustrated below.

Picture this house, located on the east side of the Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, with its elegant Greek door surround in unpainted brownstone, dark shutters on the windows, floor length parlor windows with iron balconies, a beautiful iron fence along the sidewalk, and possibly (though not necessarily) an attic pierced with delicate dormer windows, and you've got a pretty accurate idea of what the corrugated house across the street once looked like.

Behind the veil (2 of 3)

In the heydey of the Yiddish Rialto, there were theatres all up and down this stretch of Second Avenue. The National Theatre alone had 2000 seats. The only survivor from the era is the Yiddish Art Theatre, reincarnated today as the Village East Cinema.

This is St. Mark's in the Bowery, once the aristocratic centerpiece of old Second Avenue. It sits at an angle to the Avenue because it was built on Stuyvesant Street, a roadway that predated the present street grid, and of which this one block survives. Peter Stuyvesant built a chapel here in 1660. The present church was erected in 1795, and the steeple added in 1828. For one block, between Second and Third Avenues, both Stuyvesant and East 10th Streets still preserve an air of Old New York.

Here's another building that most people on a stroll up Second Avenue probably wouldn't even see. In its day, however, it was a very fine house. At some point in the Victorian period the original dormer windows were replaced with a full fifth floor. A heavy cornice (way too ponderous for the 1830s) was then tacked onto the top. The storefront, the yellow and brown paint, and the institutional front door do a lot to disguise the original effect. Once it looked very much like the image below.

This house is right around the corner on St. Mark's Place which, but for the elegant sounding name, is the same as East 8th St. Note the similarity of the front door surround. Greek Revival houses from the 1830s usually have either engaged columns or free standing porches over the front doors. This particular treatment, evidently popular in and around Second Avenue, is very high styled for the period. The house may be beat up, but the full length parlor windows have survived, as have the dormers up top. The original cornice that ran below the dormers has been removed - assuming it didn't fall off. I'll confess I find this mixture of wistful bygone elegance and post-psychedelic crass commercialism oddly appealing.

These two houses, also on St. Mark's Place, were part of the same speculatively built row as the house above. If you've ever been to Society Hill in Philadelphia - since it's been restored, that is - you have a good idea of the architectural delicacy that once characterized this neighborhood. The door of the house on the left is not original, but the rest of the facade looks remarkably preserved.

Behind the veil (3 of 3)

Once you know what you're looking at, the streetscape becomes something entirely different. This is the west side of Second Avenue, looking south from 14th Street, clearly a block of what were once fine city houses.

This block, on the east side of the Avenue, has one remarkable survivor owned by the church next door.

What an exquisite old house this is, with its high style free-standing front entry porch complete with ionic columns, unaltered parlor floor windows with original iron balcony, and possibly even the original "6 over 6" double-hung windows from the 1830s. The half-floor on top might have replaced a pair of dormer windows; if so, it was done a long time ago. Or, the cornice and top floor windows might all be original. The second scenario seems more likely to me. Over the years the original shutters disappeared, victims no doubt of deferred or non-existent maintenance. They made a big difference in the way the house looked, as the next image shows.

A few blocks away, on East 4th St just west of Second Ave., is the so-called "Old Merchant's House," built in 1832 by a fellow named Joseph Brewster, sold to merchant Seabury Tredwell in 1836 and occupied by Tredwell's daughter Gertrude until 1933. Boy, did she ever see changes in a neighborhood. The house is a museum today and in immaculate restored condition, so if you're wondering what all those now vanished front doors, and dormer windows, and cornices and so forth used to look like, you can see them all here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The March of Commerce

Thoughts Thereon

A deadly pursuit - a sort of figurative fox hunt - began on Manhattan in the 18th Century and didn't really stop until the 1920s. This was the juggernaut of commerce nipping at the heels of north-fleeing residential fashion. The process picked up serious speed in the 19th Century, when contemporary observers marveled how fine residences were being abandoned to trade - or, worse, to demolition - sometimes less than 20 years after construction. Luxury spec builders and individual owners alike were satirized for essentially outfitting the cheap rooming houses of the next generation. Most New Yorkers know that Fifth Avenue used to be lined with fine private houses. Not many realize that Second Avenue south of 14th St. was once equally grand. There was a time when New Yorkers conscious of social position worried at length whether to live on Fifth or Second. Blocks of much abused but still extant city mansions survive on Second Avenue today, their lower floors long ago given over to commercialism. The practice of converting two floors to commercial use and leaving the rest of the house intact became common along changing residential avenues and double wide cross streets. The fate that befell Second and Fifth Avenues also befell Madison, once an elite thoroughfare only a notch or two below Fifth Avenue itself. North of 60th Street, Madison retains a residential air today, even though it's hard to envision it as a street of private houses. That is, unless you look. A few days ago, I walked north up the avenue from my apartment on 63rd St., photographing the odd house that caught my eye. Many of the store conversions are pretty basic, others attempted an aesthetic of sorts, still others effected a change of use with barely any architectural change at all. Even in today's disguises, it's a comfort to me that the old houses are still here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Some Good, Some Bad

I saw a friend the other day who looked absolutely terrific. Leaning forward confidentially, she told me she'd just had a face lift. Most of the face lifts visited upon old houses have historically been pretty bad. Lately, however, things have been changing.

Image 1 - This poor old house at 11 East 66th Street has really taken it on the chin. The original stone steps to the front door have been torn away, the door itself replaced with a poorly scaled and clumsily proportioned window. Surrounding the former service entrance with polished granite slabs was probably the cheapest way to cover up demolition damage. Judging from the divided windows in the middle of the facade, the original interior has likely suffered similar heavy-handed destruction.

Image 2 - Hard to believe, but this fine looking house at 9 East 67tgh Street was, until recently, in virtually identical condition to 11 East 66th. The majority of the transformation - for those of us who can only see it from the street - stems from the reconstruction of an historically harmonious front door, and a well proportioned exterior stair. The facade has been rebalanced, and the visual harmony of the architectural elements restored. One hopes the interior has fared as well.

Image 3 - If there's one fault with this new stoop, it lies with the slightly under-scaled - and, let's face it, not very original - iron railings.

Image 4 - At some point in history, this grand and well maintained old house at 44 West 10th Street had its heavy brownstone trim work removed, its windows simplified, and its original red brick facade stuccoed over and painted white.

Image 5 - This house, built in 1852 and located at 47 Fifth Avenue, has been occupied by the Salmagundi Club since 1917. Over the years, the original window surrounds were scraped off, probably in the same quest for aesthetic "simplicity" that motivated whoever "simplified" 44 West 10th. Fat brownstone balusters on the parlor floor balcony met the same fate. A couple of years ago, the club reinstalled correct period window surrounds, restoring to the facade a much missed surface texture and play of light and shadow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Some lovely details

The big old houses to which my heart responds embody a sort of density of design and decoration. Absent modern machines, much more work used to be done by hand. A good design in the hands of a good craftsman results in a custom-made look that is altogether appealing. Fine old houses are as valuable for the execution of their details as they are for overall design or historical significance. Here are a few snapshots of things I noticed the other day while strolling around my East Side Manhattan neighborhood - Egyptian capitals on a Park Avenue porch; the "Monopoly" millionaire over a real millionaire's front entrance; the door to a society wedding gift; an entirely original facade resurfaced in stucco; and a detail of the latter, looking very much like a cameo of Dutch maidens under Peter Stuyvesant's famous pear tree.

Image 1 - 686 Park Avenue
Image 2 - 38 East 68th St.
Image 3 - 5 East 66th St.
Images 4 & 5 - 130 East 65th St.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brackets and balconies

This afternoon I walked around my East Side Manhattan neighborhood looking at big old houses. Once I owned a house in town myself, a mid-1880s spec house on West 81st Street. In its early days my block between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues was home to half a dozen doctors. By the time I arrived in 1970, it had degenerated into a sinister hispanic slum. No matter; I was charmed by No. 143's congested Victorian aesthetics. It was a far cry, however, from the limestone palazzi that surround me on the Upper East Side today. In lieu of photographing entire facades, I decided today to focus on a single design element of each - bracketed balconies, to be specific.

Image 1 - This fine bow front limestone house is located at 57 East 64th St.

Image 2 - We don't always notice the abundance of fine wrought ironwork and high quality carved stone on these streets. This house is at 47 East 68th St.

Image 3 - This fine stone balcony is above the front door of 11 East 66th Street. The original parlor level entrance to this house has unfortunately been removed and replaced with an aluminum door at basement level.

Image 4 - In lieu of brackets, a frieze of dolphins and seashells runs along the bottom of this superb iron balcony on the facade of 48 East 68th St.

Image 5 - This wasn't actually a balcony, but rather the overdoor above the former entrance to 740 Madison Avenue. The crispness of the carving is really terrific, and I love the little stone angels holding the cartouche.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Not really a House (1 of 3)

In 1890, a millionaire pioneer of the Millbrook Colony named Henry J. Davison, dropped dead boarding a steamship in Liverpool, England. His eldest son, Harry, inherited not only his father's Millbrook estate, but also the funds necessary to indulge in our community's biggest boondoggle to date - to wit, the construction of a 200-room luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere. "If an English country home could entertain several hundred guests on a weekend," Harry explained to the Poughkeepsie Journal, "then a replica could be made for American enjoyment." It's doubtful Harry Davison ever did a business plan, or he would have realized so big and expensive an investment would never yield a decent return. Indeed it didn't. The Halcyon Hall, designed by James E. Ware, was a nothing-but-the-best construction project brimful of plush, gilt, mahogany, potted palms and "art." It opened in September of 1893 with what the New York Times called "a brilliant ball," and closed in 1903, after bankrupting its owner. The building stood empty - and lightly vandalized - until 1907, when Miss May Bennett bought it and moved her school for young ladies here from Dobbs Ferry. Until the 1950s, Bennett College was essentially a finishing school for upper crust women. An attempt in the 1970s to broaden the curriculum failed, and the college closed. The campus has since been developed into a condominium complex, but the best building on the site - namely the Halcyon Hall - has eluded preservation or redevelopment. Everybody in town feels badly about it, but nobody can figure out what to do. And it looks like it's too late now.

Image 1 - Here's what it used to look like.

Image 2 - Here's what it is today

Image 3 - It's becoming slightly Dali-esque.

Image 4 - The other side of the building, as it was

Image 5 - The other side, today.

Not really a House (2 of 3)

The Victorian aesthetic was roundly - really "rabidly" - excoriated through much of the 20th Century, and the designs of architects like Ware were regularly dismissed as "horrors." However, to look at the Halcyon Hall with eyes un-blinkered by the prejudices of modernism, is to see a building that is vigorous, inventive, sophisticated in its parts and an extremely interesting composition. It's hard not to want to rush right in and explore it.

Image 1 - There's a lot going on here - dormers, gable ends, brilliant stonework, half timbering with stucco infill, shingles - but the seeming surfeit of architectural mobility is charmingly balanced and (its greatest attribute) infinitely interesting.

Image 2 - A detail of the same view. Clever design work lurks beneath the accumulated ruin and institutional fire escape. How dull two floors and a chimney might otherwise have been.

Image 3 - Honestly now, when's the last time you saw a building with chimneys on its corners?

Image 4 - Ware's details don't clamor for attention, they just hang together with period dignity. What a lot is going on here too - varied chimney tops, shingles, stucco, classical columns, vaguely Colonial dormer windows - but it all works.

Image 5 - Note the carved panel underneath the window, a nice touch.

Not really a House (3 of 3)

Image 1 - A view from the porch, approaching the front door

Image 2 - The door is boarded up, but...

Image 3 - There is a way in.

Image 4 - The main hall and grand stair, as they looked in better days.

Image 5 - Thankfully, I could just lean in and take the picture, without risking my life by standing under that ceiling.