Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pet Peeve

I have a pet peeve - aside from Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Mit Romney - and it pertains to top floor alterations on vintage townhouses. The building above is located on East 69th St. between Park and Madison Avenues, a very fine block on which, coincidentally, I represent a townhouse one-bedroom exclusive which I hope to sell some day before I die. The house in this picture is a one-family residence and whatever they've done inside, the original facade remains intact. How handsomely the architect has composed that facade. To simply walk by and look at it is a source of joy.

Here's a house on the Fifth Avenue block of East 78th St. When built, this house had a similar setback fifth floor lit with dormers. Omigod...what have they done? I'll tell you what they've done; they've wrecked it.

This pair of limestone mansions with matching terracotta roofs and hipped dormers is on the north side of East 76th Street just off Fifth. How elegant and well proportioned they look. Honestly now, how much additional rentable space would an owner get by hacking off the dormers and erecting a vertical wall?

This one's back on 69th St. across from my exclusive. The location of its former roof line is clearly visible, and the new top floor looks perfectly awful. Could they have made it look worse? Obviously no one tried to make it look good.

Same house from across the street. This sort of thing brings tears to my eyes, sensitive soul that I am.

If you need more room up top, I say do it the way it used to be done. Examples abound on neighboring streets.

This is the best added floor in the neighborhood, and even here the windows are too big. The issue is proportion, which Edith Wharton called the "good breeding" of architecture. Good proportion is that hard to quantify relationship between length and width, height and depth. When it's right, the eye knows it immediately. When it's not, the result will fall somewhere on a scale between "not great" and "perfectly dreadful."

The house in the middle of this frame is OK, but not great.

The house on the left is only slightly terrible. At least some effort was made to harmonize the new fenestration with the original. The brick house next door is an eloquent reproach.

I don't know what to say about this one. It ain't great, but it might have been worse.

I'll just bet someone was perfectly prepared to tear off that Gothic gable in order to raise the top floor on this superb mansion. This is a case of "it might have been much worse."

This is worse. Who lives up there, Dr. No?

To my eye, this is a grievous mutilation of a magnificent old house. Located on the same block - East 78th St - as Mamie Fish's house, it is one of a string of very big houses. Not many have survived in single family use, which is usually the best protection against ham-handed alterations.

I've been in that top floor apartment with the terrace and I didn't like it.

These three houses were originally identical spec-built brownstones dating from the late 1860s. All three had high stoops and predated the high tide of fashion on the East Side. Sometime in the early twentieth century - I'd guess before the First World War, but possibly after - someone with sophisticated taste renovated the middle house and added precisely the mansard roof and dormers that have been so wantonly destroyed elsewhere. A good note on which to end what has been, I'll admit, a self-indulgent rant.

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.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Checking Up

All my life, I have had recurrent dreams in which I find myself walking through northern Manhattan during its rural-suburban period. This would have been around 1880 to 1900. I remember one in particular which was so vivid I was convinced I was looking at a house in the woods at 181st Street for a specific and mysterious reason. I actually made an appointment at the New York Historical Society to see if I could find a picture of it. (No luck, alas). The drawing above is a newspaper illustration from the period of my dreams showing the Grange, Alexander Hamilton's country place in the Harlem Heights. When built in 1802, it stood at what is today the intersection of 143rd Street and Hamilton Place. The same year this house was finished its architect, John McComb Jr., and his partner Joseph Mangin, won a competition to design New York's new City Hall. Hamilton loved his house but didn't enjoy it for long. Aaron Burr shot him dead in 1804.

Hamilton bought thirty-two craggy, largely un-farmable rural Manhattan acres in 1799. His architect gave him a delicate, not-very-big, Federal style retreat notable for fine proportions, welcoming porches, and an elegant roof-line railing. Quite a number of these graceful old places once commanded fine river views from woodsy heights on old Manhattan. By the time the photo above was taken, however, Hamilton's Grange had been encircled by the booming city.

By 1889, St. Luke's Episcopal Church had despaired of staying in its longtime West Village neighborhood. The old streets were suddenly awash with new immigrants and increasingly disfigured with tenement houses. The wholesale collapse of northern Manhattan country estates was simultaneously under way, so the church jumped in, purchased the Hamilton property, and subdivided it into lots on which they encouraged a better class of dwelling. The result was Convent Avenue, a beautiful street to this day. In 1895 the new St. Luke's rose on the corner of Convent and 141st. Until it did, however, the congregation held services in the Hamilton house, which they had relocated to a skinny lot on the east side of Convent just north of 141st. The image above shows the old house squashed between the new church on the south and a lot line on the north.

When Hamilton Grange was first moved, its front door faced south onto an empty lot that soon would be the site of the new St. Luke's. When that building went up, the Grange's original entry porch was shaved off and the front door blocked. What faced Convent Avenue for over a century was the side wall of the Grange, whose porch in 1802 no doubt gazed across the glittering Hudson to the virgin cliffs of New Jersey. The view above shows the house in the 1960s, looking about as battered as the rest of the neighborhood did then. Note the disappearance of the roof-line railing and how that changes the look of the place.

For most of the last century, everybody involved with - or living near - the Grange knew its location was perfectly terrible. The decision to move it into nearby (a half block away) St. Nicholas Park seems so obvious one wonders why it didn't happen generations ago. This shot shows the house approaching its new foundation, located just below 141st St. on the north side of the park. That's St. Luke's in the left background. The bow window with the ghost of the missing porch is on the facade that faced Convent Avenue. The original front door will be reconstructed on the right side facade, which was pressed against the wall of the church for over a century.

Here's what the house looked like last March, settled on its new foundation, original front door back in operation, but much work remaining.

Here it is before last week's blizzard. Pretty remarkable, no?

They're paving the drives....

...which need it.

The house last March.

The house today.