Archive | February, 2014

Lexington Avenue & 57th Street

23 Feb

Okay, so it’s the “little house” on the corner that really gets me here (sure, it’s not a house and at 6 stories it’s not really little, but you know).  As I’ve said many a time, seeking out the juxtaposition of old and new is one of the endless joys of living in this city – and perhaps one of the unique joys that New York especially provides.  I guess it’s one of the positives of living in the real estate capital of the world (it is the real estate capital of the world, right?), which by its very nature means shits not too regulated (don’t ask a Republican though).  New stuff goes up, old stuff goes down, and sometimes they’re standing right next to each other.  It’s fun to look at.  Would New York be more exciting if no new buildings had gone up since the 1890s?  Probably not, though sure, it might be ultimately prettier.

But what you get instead is the little house on the corner – a small joy to be sure, but a joy none the less.  It’s an older building completely surrounded by a much taller and still old but not as old building.  Forgive me if I don’t know what the kids are into these days but I mean, that’s pretty cool!  As with so many anomalies like this one the question raised is why did this lot survive?  The answer, by the way, is pretty much always that somebody didn’t want to sell.  But why didn’t they want to sell?  Didn’t they know that home is just a fungible asset?  You know, that there’s no heaven, principles are thin straw with which to make a bed, and you’ve got to take everything that you can get in this one world?  I guess not everybody used to know that.  Or I don’t know, maybe they were rich already and they didn’t care.


The little building goes back to around 1875, though it wasn’t 6 stories at the time, and in fact according to some sources it was originally a carriage house, presumably serving one of the townhouses that then made up most of 57th Street (a few of which still survive just down the street).  The larger building went up in the early 1920s as the Allerton Hotel for Women (finished in 1923), a residential hotel specializing, as the name implies, in providing housing for the “professional” class of women.  Since the hotel hadn’t been able to purchase the corner lot before construction they simply planned to build around it.  About midway through construction it seems they did gain possession of the property, through a 21 year lease that gave them the right to tear down the building and erect something new, with the stipulation however that whatever went up had to include its own entrance, stairs and heating system.  I guess they decided it made sense financially to just keep the small building instead, though it was remodeled, with the top 2 floors added.   Slightly less explicable is the fact that they didn’t line up the floors of the remodeled building with the hotel.  Maybe they didn’t expect to keep it long – apparently the corner building remained separately owned until 1960.  As recently as 10 years ago it was still only connected to the hotel on the first and second floors.

The “they” who didn’t line up the floors by the way was architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, whose most famous building to his (partial) credit is probably the Empire State Building – designed by the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon and completed in an amazing 15 months (the 17 story Allerton Hotel – less than 1/5 of the size – seemingly took longer).  Harmon also designed 740 Park Avenue, which today houses one of the highest, if not the highest, concentration of billionaires in the United States.  I probably wouldn’t want to live there.  I probably wouldn’t really want to live in the little house on the corner either, but I would want to spend a night at least.  Right on that 6th floor corner that juts out over the busy busy intersection like a ship’s prow.  It gets to something that always kind of blows my mind about space: I guess namely the fact that it can vary so much in use and hence in value.  An apartment in a building in a certain spot (like 740 Park Ave. say) can be “worth” an astronomical amount; an apartment less than a mile up the road can be worth very little.  Okay fine, we all get that I guess but it’s still wild to think that a wall can demarcate a space – making it private instead of public – and everything that goes with that.  Anyone can stand on the corner of 57th and Lexington Ave; not too many people can be on the 6th floor by the corner windows, in their pajamas, watching TV.


Nassau Street & John Street

3 Feb

This is officially perhaps my favorite part of Manhattan these days – the whole strip of Nassau and Williams Street running between Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge. What the hell is going on down here? I mean, this is really a forgotten corner of the island, though granted a forgotten corner of the island that teems with tens of thousands of people every weekday. But just check out the stores! Not hip; that gives you some indication of the assumed prospects of the place. I feel like I’ve been citing the AIA Guide a lot lately (though why shouldn’t I?) but they get what I’m talking about too, calling it, “one of Lower Manhattan’s least recognized – an therefore most intriguing – areas.” Right on guys.

I was biking up Nassau the other night – very slowly, head craned upward as I tend to do – and was stopped dead by number 63. What I’m always looking for in the city is the juxtaposition, or maybe you could say the anachronism. Or to to put it more simply: the old shit, especially when it’s next to the new. 63 Nassau has that feel – and it speaks to why I’m really digging this area in general. This is an old old part of the city – not quite the Financial District, not quite the Civic Center – and there’s a lot of remnants kicking around. 63 Nassau is also one of only three or four buildings in New York attributed to James Bogardus, the pioneer figure in cast-iron architecture. He took out a patent on the technique in 1850 and worked in the medium till sometime in the 1860s. And very little is actually known about his works.

63 Nassau

The beauty of the cast-iron facade was that it could be pre-fabricated and then transported and assembled onto a building – mimicking the look of ornately carved masonry at a distinctly cheaper cost, and with the added benefit of being fireproof. 63 Nassau Street was constructed without the cast-iron facade in fact, probably around 1844, and not by Bogardus, who was an inventor, not an architect. He didn’t add the facade we see today until sometime in the late 1850s, making it one of the earliest cast-iron facades in the city. If he did indeed add the facade –  in truth it’s all an educated guess at this point as building and architectural records in New York back then just weren’t what they are today. One clue that it was Bogardus are the circular medallions (or “rondels”) of Benjamin Franklin sitting at the base of two of the columns. The other two columns originally bore medallions of George Washington – something that was a bit of a Bogardus calling card.

Bogardus was born in Catskill, New York (in 1800) a few hours up the Hudson River, though his family could trace their lineage way back to the New Amsterdam days. Bogardus was a descendant of Everardus Bogardus (good name), the second minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam (we’re talking the 1640s here) and somebody I’ve mentioned before. Bogardus’ congregation – the first formed in the city, and the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in the country – met on South Williams Street before building a church on Pearl, back when these streets all looked pretty different. No buildings still stand in Manhattan from the city’s New Amsterdam days, but you gotta think some must have been when Bogardus (the younger) was around. In fact his grafting of cast-iron facades onto older buildings can almost be thought of as an up-dating of the city, placing the 1850s present onto the tired face of the past. It’s interesting to think how in that way facades can be deceiving. They’re so much of what we see of a building – they basically are a building when it comes to appearance – and yet they’re mainly just cosmetic. I’ll think it walking around Greenpoint all the time, passing endless vinyl-sided two story houses (some with sloped roofs and everything) that I’m sure are made of wood and that are probably as old as the shingle or clapboard-sided beauties that make you pause a moment as you pass them. If all the old buildings in New York where covered in vinyl would they still be old? What if all the steel and glass condos going up today were given cast-iron facades? A city’s aesthetic is mainly determined by the appearance of its buildings right, and its buildings appearance must be mainly determined by their age. So what’s the most prevalent era in New York as represented by its architecture? I’m gonna have a beer and think about it. Can anybody answer that?