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"New York Streetscapes, Tales of Manhattan's Buildings and Landmarks"
By Christopher Gray
Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003, pp. 448, $35

Book cover

Book cover

By Carter B. Horsley

Getting information about buildings in New York City is not easy. Indeed, it is very hard.

There is no master list that provides accurate data about when a building was completed, how tall it is in feet and stories, how much space it contains and what kind, who the developer was, who the architect was, was it built "as-of-right," that is, within existing zoning regulations, what was on the site before, who were prominent tenants, when was it significantly remodeled or renovated and by whom, who is the present owner, who is the present manager, how much undeveloped "air rights" does the site contain, is it an official landmark, should it be, what is its architectural style, what architecturally highlights it, does it have landscaping, does it have an exposed rooftop watertank, is it an important element of the city's skyline, does it have good skyline views, is it a major mixed-use building, is it disabled-friendly, how much is it worth, what was the development climate when it was built, what did contemporary critics think about it, what is unusual about it, does it have interesting anecdotes, and so forth.

Sadly, such records do not exist, at least in one place. Ideally, much of this type information should be available on file at the city's Department of Buildings where architectural plans are supposed to reside, but sadly many files are missing or incomplete. While there are numerous books on New York, most are cursory in their coverage of architecture and real estate investment of the thousands of important structures in the city. The city's Landmark Preservation Commission has pretty good information on individual buildings it has designated as official landmarks, but it does not even consider buildings less than 30 years old.

There are a lot of buildings in the city, close to 900,000, in fact. Not all are fascinating nor worthy of preservation. The city's ever-churning development has resulted in visual cacophony but also research hysteria as Sisyphus's treadmill seems to never stop as one building is put up, another is torn down, etc., etc.

If there is one person who can rescue Gotham from this infoptia, it is Christopher Gray, the head of the Office of Metropolitan History, a research organization, and the writer for the past decade or so of the "Streetscapes" column in the Sunday Real Estate section of The New York Times. [Editor's note: I started a "Places" column in that section which ultimately became, under Mr. Gray's byline, the "Streetscapes" column.]

[The backcover of this book has a blurb by me stating that "Christopher Gray is New York City's finest architecture historian." I was correctly quoted. It has two other blurbs: one from Ada Louise Huxtable: "This is a book that gives us real stories about real buildings. Christopher Gray keeps history and memory alive."; the other from Jimmy Breslin, "Christopher Gray's work is so fresh, with marvelous little details that you can't get out of your mind.This book will last forever."]

This book has a fault: it is several thousand pages too short, at least for those of us who love the city and its precious perishability, its precipitous skylines, and the precious people who designed parts of it, built parts of it, lived and worked in parts of it, and the peripatetic populous who dream of it.

What's remarkable about Mr. Gray's columns is that they are all predicated by having, at the time they were written, a "news" peg, that is, something happening involving the property. That is a lot harder than having the luxury of just writing an essay on some building you like. Especially when the writer often has to be the person who discovers the "news" about the building.

"My personal introduction to New York history was like shock treatment," Mr. Gray begins his book's introduction:

"At age nine, I was moved (over my protests) from a quiet little streetcar suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, to East 56th Street near the East River in New York. Every day I walked to the Browning School at 62nd Street and Park Avenue through a landscape that bore little relation to what I had left: it was a jagged cross-section of the typical New York jumble of tenements, brownstones, white brick apartment houses, mansions, fancy co-ops and stores. It piqued in me the ambition to explain (if only to myself) how this train wreck of a city was assembled. Thus, from an early age I was interested not simply in the major landmarks of New York but also in the day-to-day architecture of the streets. The need to order my environment grew as I got older. As a taxi driver, I learned the best routes around the city. And as a post office truck driver, I saw the invisible network of routes, relay boxes, drop points and other logistical systems that go into our astonishingly efficient mail servive. I saw that telephone repairmen, UPS drivers, dog walkers, mortgage lenders, and everyone else had their own unique ways of mapping the city. I decided I would map the city by its history. My day-to-day walks through the city are a whirl of half-baked story ideas, which I usually reject because of some negative thought. No, there's no good old photograph of that structure. Or, no, that's such a boring building, like dry toast. Or no, the story is too arcane. Editors believe their readers cannot just revel in peculiar arcana. But generally, I am much more interested in minor-league, oddball structures than in tour-bus monuments like the Woolworth Building. Once the news angle requirement is satisfied, the next item of business is identifying a historic photograph. This contrast between the fresh and the fetid is one of the things I find most pleasurable. It is the changing, constantly aging face of the city that is most delicious to me.the sheer number of people coming through the city assures that almost every building will have an interesting tale."

Mr. Gray's book contains about 200 building essays, each about half of what appeared in his "Streetscapes" columns in The Times: "Shortening the columns by half, as they are here, eliminates most of the `news' and focuses instead on my favorite parts, the old."

What follows are some representative excerpts from Mr. Gray's excerpts:

The First Artists' Loft in Soho
80 Wooster Street

80 Wooster Street

80 Wooster Street, about 1945, courtesy Office for Metropolitan History

"Even in the last quarter century of profound change, no neighborhood in Manhattan has been as utterly transformed as Soho. If this rags-to-riches saga started anywhere, it was with George Maciunas's 1967 conversion of 80 Wooster Street. In the 1880s and 1890s, Soho was experienced a revival as dramatic as that in our own time. Scores of early-nineteenth-century brick houses by that time converted to boarding or bawdy houses were being demolished for new loft and factory buildings. By 1895, the real estate firm of Boehm & Coon put up a seven-story warehouse at 80 Wooster Street, a grand, Renaissance-style work designed by Gilbert Schellenger. Boehm & Coon put their initials in a shield at the seventh floor, but there is no reason to believe the building was used for anything different from others in what was becoming New York's newest area of light industry. By 1931, the building was occupied by the Miller Paper Company, which remained there until 1967. In that time, Soho saw little change. But artists began occupying lofts in increasing numbers all over the city, some in the huge, inexpensive spaces in Soho. Living in a district zoned for manufacturing was illegal, so they jerry-rigged plumbing, avoided doorbells, and blocked out windows to cover their presence. This changed in a big way in 1967 when Mr. Maciunas, a designer and artist, bought 80 Wooster Street from the Miller family. Mr. Maciunas had founded the Fluxus Group with Yoko Ono and other artists, and his idea was in the service not of real estate but of art. He envisioned an invasion of Soho by artists through the communal purchase of buildings. With the help of a grant from the J. M. Kaplan Foundation, he initiated it at 80 Wooster Street, taking title as Fluxhouse Cooperative II. It appears that an earlier venture was not completed, and by all accounts this was the first such effort in Soho. Charles Ross, a sculptor who still lives in Soho, was one of the group that bought into the 50-by-100-foot building at $8,000 a floor, An informal allocation of shares and floors `sorted itself out nicely,' he said. But it was too casual for some. Mr. Maciunas, who lived in the basement of the co-op while organizing others, ultimately embedded blades in his door so that no one could pound on it. He operated largely without permits and once chased a building inspector into the street with a samurai sword, said Mr. Ross. In 1971, the city legalized residential use of Soho lofts, but for most early Soho residents, 1973 was when urban frontier became tourist attraction, especially after a New York magazine cover story late that year.Mr. Maciunas was hard to deal with, and continuing problems with disgruntled co-op buyers caused him to leave Soho and the city in disgust. He died in Massachusetts in 1978."

The "Washington Irving House"

49 Irving Place

"Washington Irving House"

"Washington Irving House" on Irving Place at 17th Street, circa 1900, then rented by Elsie de Wolfe, courtesy Byron, Museum of the City of New York

"One may have faith that truth will triumph over fraud and still believe that myth is stronger than both. In the case of the famously misidentified `Washington Irving House' at 49 Irving Place, the southwest corner of 17th street, the Irving myth is tenacious. Washington Irving was one of the preeminent cultural figures of early-nineteenth-century New York, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle, and influential in the creation of Central Park. In the 1840s he began spending most of his time at Sunnyside, his country seat in Tarrytown, New York, where he died in 1859. He never had any observable connection to the three-story Italianate-style house at 49 Irving Place, which was built in 1844 the street was named after Irving in 1833. The first several decades of occupants at 49 Irving Place included an insurance agent, a merchant, and a banker but not Washington Irving. In the early 1890s, 49 Irving Place was rented to two women, Elsie de Wolfe, a chic and stylish actress, and Elisabeth Marbury, a powerful literary agent who represented authors like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. The two women met in the 1880s and met, by most accounts, the most famous lesbian couple in Victorian New York, often and happily in the public eye. The 1905 census listed the forty-two-year-old literary agent as head of household and the actress, who was thirty-five, as her 'partner.' They established a famous salon in their house, one that mixed old money and new talent, from the Astors to Sarah Bernhardt to Bernard Berenson. De Wolfe is generally credited with inventing the profession of interior decorator, which she took up around 1905. One of her first commissions was for Stanford White, architect of the Colony Club on Madison Avenue near 29th Street, the first elite social club for women in New York. It was while the publicity-friendly de Wolfe was living at 49 Irving Place that the Washington Irving story first appears, in 1897 in The New York Times. It was an enthusiastic article about the Irving Place house and, especially, the wonderful talents of Elsie de Wolfe. The anonymous writer inexplicably quoted Irving in great detail about the exact design of 'his house,' but without any source. The author clearly relied on de Wolfe for most of the other material in the story. The Irving question came to the fore with a fund-raising effort in 1927 to create a museum. There was a great hue and cry, including letters from Irving's nieces and nephews, stating that he 'never crossed the front door' of the corner house, though he may have stayed at times with a relative at 120 East 17th Street. But for some reason, through all this great controversy Elsie de Wolfe remained most curiously silent. The Washington Irving story is remarkably durable and appears in many books published in the last twenty years; despite the facts, it may be here to stay."

Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe, the actress, at the house in 1898, courtesy Byron, Museum of the City of New York

The Old Whitney Museum

8-12 West Eighth Street

Whitney Museum in 1931

Whitney Museum in 1931, collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

"The Whitney Museum, now on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Though her grandfather was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and her husband was the playboy-financier Harry Payne Whitney, she did more than just bounce around the New York-Newport society circuit. According to Avis Berman, author of the 1990 Rebels on Eighth Street, within a few years of her marriage in 1896, Gertrude Whitney discovered that her husband was unfaithful, and she decided to become a sculptor. She took up with a group of artists who formed the Ashcan School Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, and others. They were fighting to establish artistic realism in a conservative atmosphere of society portraits and soothing landscapes. In 1907 she took a studio on Macdougal Alley, a street of stables serving the flanking rows of houses on Washington Square North and Eighth Street. She proved to have only moderate talent as a sculptor but excelled as an organizer. In 1914 she took over the adjacent row house at West Eighth Street for a meeting place and gallery for other artists on the outs with the establishment. Gradually, she added the houses at 10, 12 and 14 West Eighth Street as well as their corresponding stables on Macdougal Alley and what had become the Whitney Studio Club became a center of advanced thinking in American art. John Sloan and Reginald Marsh had their first one-man shows there, and in1924 the club mounted the first exhibit of American folk art, a complete reversal of the old-master theory of collecting that dominated the nineteenth century. Mrs. Whitney also directly supported artists with gifts, loans, and purchases, and by the late 1920s she had amassed a collection of about five hundred works by Hopper, Bellows, Prendergast, Sloan, and others. In 1929 she offered these to the Metropoititan Museum of Art along with $5 million for a new wing. The Met, long criticized for collecting dead artists but ignoring the living, rejected the offer, and, says Ms. Berman, Mrs. Whitney and her assistant, Juliana Force, concocted the idea of their own museum, specifically to serve American artists while they were still alive. Mrs. Whitney retained the architects Noel & Miller, who in 1932 rebuilt 8, 10, and 12 West Eighth Street with a coating of salmon-colored stucco and a modernistic entranceway. The stucco veneer was by then a standard solution for redoing oil houses, but the doorway shouted out with the novelty of a brace new post-crash architecture. Severe white marble columns support a giant entablature, itself topped by an eagle in white metal, designed by Karl Free, a painter and curator at the new museum. Aluminum strips are bundled into giant, reedlike columns, and the sidewalk is in diaper-shaped sections of pink and gray tints. Aluminum outer doors, with American-flag stars and Art Moderne details set in red Numidian marble, were removed when the Whitney left the building in 1954. The interior, designed by the decorator Bruce Buttfield with the architects, began with a striking, almost surreal, vestibule with a vibrant terrazzo floor, a double staircase with strange, tendril-like balusters, and sculpture niches with starkly realistic figures of nymphs.The old Whitney is rich with the presence of artists. A fragment of Thomas Hart Benton's mural series on American arts survives in the original library an arc with the words 'She'll Be Wearin' Red Pajamas.' And Gertrude Whitney's studio, on Macdougal Alley, is eye-popping, one of the great unknown interiors in New York, designed by Robert Chanler. In a high, whitewashed space of plain brick walls, a blaze of sculptured flame encases a chimney. As it reaches the ceiling, the flame changes into waves and clouds, spreading out over a ceiling sea of fantastic figures dragons, sea horses, demons, mermaids, angels, and octopi. Mrs. Whitney died in 1942 and Mrs. Force in 1948. In 1954 the Whitney moved up to West 54th Street, behind the Museum of Modern Art, finally relocated to its present site at 75th Street and Madison Avenue in 1966. The old building remained, however, and was bought by the New York Studio School in 1967. It is now a picturesque gaggle of studio spaces, with ancient linoleum coming up off even more ancient pine floors and with puddles of clay, paint, and other materials everywhere."

The New York Yacht Club

17 West 44th Street

Model room at the New York Yacht Club

The model room at the New York Yacht Club, before later renovations, courtesy Office of Metropolitan History

"Founded in 1844, the New York Yacht Club had several modest headquarters for its first half century. But the activity of yachting became so luxurious that by the 1890s..., a new clubhouse seemed in order....A competition attracted entries ranging from the the opulent....The winning design was the first major work of the new partnership of Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore. They produced a rich, five-story limestone front with three windows patterned after the sterns of early Dutch ships and a large terrace at the fourth floor topped by flagstaffs and a giant wood pergola and trellis....It is the model room, though, that will astound the unitiated visitor. Behind the facade's three great windows, the model room stretches back almost 100 feet under a giant floral stained-glass ceiling. Ringed by a balcony with a galleon railing, the room contains hundreds of full- and half-hull ship models....Scientific American called it 'the pride of the clubhouse,' but architectural critics did not view it in exactly the same way. Architectural Review said that although there was 'some semblence of reserve in the exterior,' the elaborate stone chimneypiece in the model room was 'a riot of swags and spinach, icicles and exotic vegetation....Surely this is not legitimate architectural design. It is very pleasant fooling, but scarcely anything more.'"

Although a subsequent renovation of the room cluttered the great space with glass vitrines, the room is certainly "more."

Mr. Gray casts a wide net that will intrigue and tantalize new and old New Yorkers wherever they are. His subjects in this book range from "The Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street" to "The Lockwood de Forest House at 7 East 10th Street" to "88 and 90 Grove Street" to "The Emmet Building at 95 Madison Avenue" to "The Old American Horse Exchange, now the Wintergarden Theater," to the Central Synagogue at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue to "The Old American Society of Civil Engineer's Clubhouse at 220 West 57th Street" to the Frick Art Reference Library at 10 East 71st Street, to the "Blacks and Whites at 527-541 East 72nd Street, to Durland's Riding Academy at 7 West 66th Street.

Suzanne Braley did research for this superb book, which is richly illustrated.

Frankly, Mr. Gray is one of the main reasons to buy the Sunday edition of The New York Times.

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