By Carter B. Horsley
The Upper East Side has been
New York City's most prestigious residential district for almost
all of the 20th Century, but that reputation is misleading.
While it has many impressive
residential buildings, architecturally it is not as impressive
as the Upper West Side generally. Much of its fame really rests
on the ever-changing chic boutique scene on Madison Avenue that
dominated the city's "luxury" market after World War
II for several decades and still is very vibrant although "trendy"
stores began to proliferate in abundance in other areas downtown
towards the end of the 20th Century. Perhaps in reaction to the
multiplicity of "good" retail locations, retail on Madison
Avenue began to change in the late 1990s and the start of the
"Millennium" as Armani and DKNY, shown below, started
a trend towards bigger, multi-level boutiques.
Despite competition from the
Flatiron and SoHo Districts, Madison Avenue is not likely to lose
its cachet for finery because of the presence of so many cultural
institutions and the proximity of Central Park.
The commercial conversion of
midtown drove "millionaires" north, up Fifth Avenue
along Central Park where they erected a impressive stretch of
mansions that become known at the start of the 20th Century as
"Millionaire's Row." The boom, which began in the 1890s
and lasted through the 1920s, not only filled the lots on Fifth
Avenue with sumptuous and sometimes palatial residences but also
led less fortunate rich people to built impressive townhouses
on the sidestreets as far west generally as Lexington Avenue.
The Third Avenue "El," which was not torn down until
the 1950s discouraged further "luxury" residential development
to the east with the exception of the area around Carl Schurz
The diversity of townhouse
design on the Upper East Side is full of surprises.
One of the grandest mansions
is the former Pulitzer home at 11 East 73rd Street, shown below,
that has been subdivided, with sensitivity, into apartments.
There are few "perfect"
blocks on the Upper East Side. There are, however, sections of
a few streets that are impressive such as the middle of the south
side of 80th Street between Park and Lexington Avenue that has
several major townhouses including one, the light-colored facade,
that was converted by the Junior League of New York.
Some are mini-chateaus with
arched windows and tall chimneys like the Fabbri mansion on 62nd
Street between Fifth and Madison Avenue, shown below.
Some are provincial like the
white stucco house with garden wall built by Paul Mellon on 70th
Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, shown below.
Some are modern like the ornate
grill facade example, shown below, that was designed by Edward
Durell Stone on 64th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.
Some of the Upper East Side's
most charming houses, however, are not the marble and limestone
townhouses, but plain old wooden houses such as the one, shown
below, on 93d Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, which
has a tall wooden tower at its rear that is visible from 92nd
townhouses were acquired by diplomatic missions and philanthropies
and many more were subdivided into apartments.
The "El," of course,
was a great spur to the residential development of the area with
non-luxury housing, a mix of tenements and utilitarian apartment
houses that filled most of the rest of the Upper East Side, which
is bounded by Fifth Avenue and the East River and 59th and 96th
Streets. There were some commercial properties such as the Ruppert
Brewery along Third Avenue at 90th Street and some institution
properties such as the New York Hospital complex in the 60's along
the East River that would be later abutted by Rockefeller University
to the south.
The burying in a vast tunnel
of the exposed train tracks leading into and out of Grand Central
Terminal on Park Avenue soon after the start of the 20th Century
led to the rapid development of luxury apartment buildings on
that boulevard that has a landscaped median that lead to its name.
While Fifth and Park Avenue
were quickly filled with high-quality apartment buildings that
were usually about 15 stories tall in compliance with the city's
zoning that was enacted in 1916, Madison and Lexington Avenues
did not have great park vistas or the formality of Park Avenue
and were left unofficially to serve as retail locations to cater
to the denizens of the formidable Fifth and Park Avenue addresses.
Although the Metropolitan Museum
of Art was founded in 1870, it did not become the sprawling presence
it is today overnight. The museum, of course, is the city's foremost
cultural asset, but it did not spawn the "Museum Mile"
Henry Clay Frick and Andrew
Carnegie, steel barons from Pittsburgh, would erect blockfront
mansions with gardens at 70th and 90th Streets, respectively,
that would ultimately become major cultural institutions: The
Frick Collection and the National Museum of Design of the Smithsonian
Institution, respectively. Carnegie's mansion, shown above, in
fact lead to the creation of the "Carnegie Hill" neighborhood,
that is now among the most desirable in the city because it has
many schools and many pre-war buildings with large apartments
The Frick Collection, perhaps
the finest museum in terms of the quality of its works of art,
in the country despite its relatively small size, shown above,
opened to the public in 1935, but the real cultural institution
invasion would not come for several more decades. The Depression
and World War II changed many things, and many of the great mansions
were torn down and redeveloped as apartment buildings, or converted
into diplomatic properties, or clubs, and some become cultural
institutions such as the National Academy of Design between 89th
and 90th Streets.
In 1959, the Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright opened on Fifth Avenue between
88th and 89th Streets and the next decade the Whitney Museum of
American Art moved uptown into a major new building designed by
Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, shown below.
Wright's great rotunda and
Breuer's powerful cantilevered building with trapezoidal windows
are two of the great modern buildings in the city, but despite
their architectural brilliance they did not lead to a design revolution
in their neighborhoods for the pre-war days of construction excellence
and elegance were over and replaced by the utilitarian/cheap era
of minimum quality typified by the "white-brick monstrosities"
that seemed to sprout everywhere once the "El" was torn
The white-brick "monstrosities"
began with Manhattan House, the huge apartment house developed
by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that occupied the full
block between Third and Second Avenues and 65th and 66th Streets.
Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects also
of Lever House, Manhattan House was distinguished by its extensive
gardens on the south and its own mini-street and driveways on
the north and its huge lobbies with large windows. The building
has many balconies and they were white and the mass of the building
was modulated with setbacks. The building was too successful and
imitators copied its basic formula and look, albeit on smaller
scale and often with a gray rather than white brick facade.
Manhattan House, shown above,
itself was never considered a "monstrosity." Indeed,
it heralded the some of the best planning intentions of the modern
movement that includes the Bauhaus and the International Style:
towers-in-a-park, clean lines, and modern conveniences. Just as
Lever House, and soon thereafter the Seagram Building, shook up
the corporate world and launched an elegant new architecture style
that dominated the world for more than a generation until the
reactionary Post-Modernism style took root in the late 1970's
and early 1980s, Manhattan House and the "white bricks"
were regarded initially as a fresh breath of air in comparison
with stodgy old, pre-war buildings whose apartments were designed
for staffs of servants and would eventually see many of their
large units divided into smaller ones.
The other white-bricks, which
dominated the burst of new construction on Third, Second and First
Avenues and also invaded many sidestreets, unfortunately were
not in landscaped parks and usually were slapdash affairs with
no panache. They were bland, banal and bad.
The Upper East Side has many
religious institutions, including Temple Emanu-el and the Episocopal
Churchof the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue, St. James Episcopal
Church on Madison Avenue, the Brick Presbyterian Church on Park
Avenue, shown below.
The Upper East Side has the
city's greatest concentration of private schools.
Marymount combined three impressive
townhouses on Fifth Avenue at 84th Street, shown above, and the
Lycée Français took over several different mansions
in different areas including the one shown below on 72nd Street
near Fifth Avenue.
Not all the schools on the
Upper East Side are quite so grand. Hunter College has a large
International Style building on Park Avenue at 68th Street and
it also has a school, shown below, on 94th Street and Park Avenue
that takes its castellated style from the former Squadron A Armory
that occupied the full block but was demolished for the school
and its midblock playground with only its impressive Madison Avenue
facade left standing.
The Upper East Side also has
the city's highest concentration of private clubs including the
Metropolitan, the Knickerbocker, the Union, the Colony, the Cosmopolitan
and the Lotos, shown below.
The Upper East Side, however,
is not without its oddities, such as the pink pavilion on Park
Avenue of Lenox Hill Hospital, shown below, or a pale blue apartment
building on Madison Avenue.
The Upper East Side still has
a great many tenement buildings whose handsome facades are generally
marred by fire escapes. Some of the older apartment buildings,
like the one below on 91st Street between Lexington and Thid Avenues,
did occasionally have unusual features such as the undulating
A modern city, of course, needs
garages and The Upper East Side has several that are rather unusual
such as the one shown below.
The skyline of the Upper East
Side has sprouted significantly in recent decades as towers have
replaced many tenements. Many art galleries had been attracted
to Madison Avenue because the Parke-Bernet auction house was located
in an impressive low-rise building, shown below on Madison Avenue
across from the Carlyle Hotel, one of the Upper East Side's major
landmarks. Sotheby's took over the auction house and soon moved
it to a former warehouse on York Avenue and 72nd Street, and within
a few years several major new "luxury" towers sprouted
For many decades, nightlife
in city was clustered in Greenwich Village and midtown and on
the Upper East Side, first along 86th Street in Yorkville where
there were many dance halls, then on First Avenue in the 60's
and then on Third Avenue in the 70's where restaurants such as
Jim McMullen's where among the most popular and glamorous in the
city. Starting in the 1980's, the Upper West Side and Columbus
Avenue in particular, enjoyed a trendy renaissance, however, and
an explosion of new, large and fashionable restaurants and clubs
opened up downtown in SoHo, TriBeCa and the Flatiron districts
took away much of the nightlife activity from the Upper East Side,
whose staid and establishment "image" seemed conservative
to many of the new "trendsetters."
Despite such competition, however,
the elegance of much of Fifth, Madison and Park Avenues and the
awesome array of important cultural institutions that also include
the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue and the Jewish Museum, the
Museum of the City of New York and the Asia Society, guarantee
that the Upper East Side is not about to be abandoned. Indeed,
Second Avenue in the 70's and Third and Madison Avenues in the
90's are teeming with attractive and popular restaurants and real
estate prices and rents soared at the start of the Millennium
to record levels, although they receeded a bit after the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Congressional seat that
represents the Upper East Side had long been known as the "Silk
Stocking District," a phrase that become popular after World
War II. Silk stockings may not be as much in vogue in the new
Millennium, but the Upper East Side still is. Much of the eastern
half of it is architecturally disappointing, but a new crop of
buildings has already transformed Third Avenue into an attractive
boulevard and quality is once again a concern - a good concern
- in much of the new development, even if much of it is not inspired
An article in the December
24-31, 2007 edition of New York magazine observed that "It's
not fashionable to love the Upper East Side these days."
"Anyone who considers themselves at all groovy and/or comes
into a juicy, multi-zeroed bonus/three-picture deal/inheritance
heads south, for square footage in Soho and Tribeca, or West Village
quaintness. There's good reason for this. It's stodgy uptown."
The article's headline noted that "the Upper East Side has
no interest in being the next cool neighborhood."