Midtown West

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Each part of town has several neighborhoods. Our residential-real-estate survey condenses its developmental highlights through Manhattan’s boom-and-bust economic cycles.

In no way is its intention a complete history: rather, the survey reflects the overriding characteristics that remain (through its rise, fall, and then {often} subsequent gentrification).

Furthermore, the seven additional elements–our highlights, photographs, maps, and suchlike–aim to create a mosaic of the lifestyle and housing types throughout Manhattan.

Related Links:
Time lines and Sidebars, Historic Maps, Neighborhoods, Upper East Side, Midtown East, Downtown East, Lower Manhattan, Downtown West, Midtown West, Upper West Side, Uptown, Upper Manhattan


Midtown West

This is a two-square-mile square. The four sides being Fifth Avenue to the east and the Hudson River on the west; West 23rd in the south to West 59th Street, the northerly borderline. Furthermore, within the ten-block stretches—approximating the West Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and Fifties—create a Southern, Central, Dead Center, and Northerly section as well. As well as Midtown East, there is one broad and continuous residential swath—here between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues—and then residential pockets, enclaves which are nestled amid commercial skyscrapers. More so than crosstown, they randomly crop-up unexpectedly.

At the southeast point, the Native people’s Wiechquaesgeck trail, later East Post Road ended, and then forked at Love Lane (21st Street) where a stagecoach “Home Station” and inn. The colonial enclave, running from North (Houston) Street to Astor Place terminated, too. Between Bloomingdale Road and The Bowery, by 1790, the Bowery Village, as it was known, had already been conformed to the existing east-to-west street pattern: as a suburban hamlet it took root, grew steadily, and had established itself before the Revolutionary War. Here, what had been Broad Way, then Bloomingdale Road, now Broadway, which had been diverted through Union (Square) Place between East 13th and 17th Streets, and would then cross Fifth Avenue two blocks further north at the wider 23rd Street (Madison Square) instead.

Besides, once on the island’s west side, Broadway steadfastly holds to a 25-degree southeast-to-northwest path. This athwart trajectory creates three equidistant avenue incursions, forming Manhattan’s best-known, three-roadway intersections, from south to north, they are:

  • East 23rd to West 26th Streets, Madison Square, at Fifth Avenue, with a park in the Midtown East portion, along Fifth Avenue to Broadway was owned by Corporation of the City of New York, as the Magazine and United States Parade Ground. The landholders to Broadway’s west were Matthew Dikeman, Joseph Horn, with Isaac Varian owning the lions share from West 25th to 30th Streets.
  • Herald (and Greeley) Square, at Sixth Avenue (of the Americas) and inclusive of West 32nd to 35th Streets, likewise, as between Fifth Avenue to Broadway was controlled by the Corporation. At West 30th Street John Stidell, then Henry Jackson (minimally), with John Hystop and Thomas Gardner controlling the major tracts to Broadway’s west. In addition, a Van Norden owned the crux of Broadway and Sixth Avenue (of the Americas). The Thomas farm tract then stretched from Sixth Avenue, crossing Fifth to Fourth Avenues, spanning West 32nd to 35th to East 33rd to 36th Streets. (Astor bought it in 1799, citing the 20-acre parcel as his most profitable purchase; two grandsons thought so too. At the southwestern edge, each bought, built, and demolished rivaling mansions, which contentiously were developed as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.)
  • Times (formerly Longacre) Square, at Seventh Avenue, spanning West 42nd to 47th Streets, again, the Corporation of the City of New York owned this significant portion to Broadway’s east—excepting two one-block-wide parcels held by John Taylor and William Ogden. The western swath along Broadway was the Norton Farm (running from West 37th through 43rd Streets); J.J. Astor bought General Scott’s horse farm (on West 43rd to 46th Streets); thereafter, the massive Hopper farmlands reached West 57th Street, extending from Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River.
  • Columbus (the Great) Circle, at Eighth Avenue, comprising West 58th to 60th Streets, the tracts from West 57th Street to where Central Park begins, as well as surrounding Broadway, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, were owned by the Havemeyer and Moreau clans.

There were a wide variety of factors throughout the mid-1800s which played out their role as to how Midtown residential neighborhoods would develop, and they evolved as:

First, the Erie Canal shaped the city’s third Post-Revolutionary War major economic explosion, which lasted throughout 1836 and which prompted enthusiasm for northward expansion to Madison Square.

Next, opening Fifth Avenue which would replace the circuitous, old, Middle Road from 21st Street—where headway came to a halt—to 42nd Street, and then north to the southern Haerlem Common boundary, 72nd Street; meantime it didn’t happen all that fast.

Next, the 1837 panic, which continued for six years and was the century’s second longest economic downturn (thus far), caught investors—even those with deep pockets—hard; and especially hard-hit were speculators who entered into contracts under sham auctions—conducted at Tontine Coffee House which evolved into the New York Stock Exchange—with the intention to resell within 90 days, prior to the conveyance date, were either down on their heels or down and out or out in the cold. Whichever! Few recovered easily, some did the subsequent decade, and many more were wiped out completely.

Next, in 1836, Madison Avenue (as well as Lexington Avenue farther east) was to be inserted between Fifth and Fourth Avenues, and, although this too was not enacted immediately, it would provide the alternate venue for Broadway dry-goods emporiums to pursue the horse-and-carriage trade—who had already selected The Avenue as their ten-year cyclical, migratory course farther northward and uptown. Therefore, the easterly Midtown West portion stands considered as spanning Sixth to Fifth as well as to Fourth (Park) Avenues.

Next, the early mass transportation “stagers” (stagecoach line operators), took advantage, and for a 12.5 cent horse-drawn-tram, the rural Highlands of New York Observatory Place and Prospect Hall were a one-hour excursion from Prince Street. And then, Central Park too would be available uptown for New Yorker day-trippers. Throughout the 1870s and continuing, the El lines—first, on Ninth and Third Avenues were augmented by the Sixth Avenue El by 1892. (Notable is that “mass” transportation charged a nickel, five-cents, just half the amount for the tram and 30 years later. In short, it wasn’t a cheap outing.)

Banning steam locomotives below East 42nd Street forced Cornelius Vanderbilt to expand the Grand Central Station (twice); city council financing authorizations allowed submerging his existing tracts below grade, and through the Murray Hill dense rock base. However, the Commodore did not budge on submerging the Fourth Avenue span from East 59th to 42nd Streets. Only street-level accidents, which threatened his right of way, persuaded Vanderbilt—just before his death in 1877; but that proceeded according to Vanderbilt time—not rapidly.

Next, prior to the Civil War, the panic of 1857 began its recovery in early 1859, but proved to be a lackluster. Then again, shortly after the Civil War, with the panic of 1873, which ended five years later, real-estate interest wilted. So in all, for 15 years, the real estate market was desultory. The very rich landholders of course were not fazed all that much; and they assembled lots, parcels, and tracts during the economic downturn—at a wholesale price. However, at first, there were also no takers for the vast Corporation of the City of New York, even when parcels were offered on Fifth Avenue. And these were leased to charity facilities for as little as $1.oo.

And last, the actual northern city limit, set by Governor Peter Stuyvesant as Haerlem Common, was at 72nd and river to river. However, over 200 years the northernmost boundary that was, let’s say, polite society’s realm, had moved from the “wall” to the city Common, from Canal to North Streets, then farther north along The Avenue as Washington Square to 12th, and then to 21st Streets (at Love Lane). In 25 years that psychological line (between the city and semi-suburbia) jumped two miles to the new Central Park. It only required 12 years to bridge another mile to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 82nd Street. In an additional 12 years, Andrew Carnegie redefined the desirable residential boundary as upper Fifth Avenue.

The residential concentrations to develop between West 23rd and 29th Streets, from south to north, are:

North Chelsea

West Street to Tenth Avenue, spanning West 24th to 3oth Streets, which is the burgeoning Chelsea art gallery enclave’s northern continuation, and runs along High Line’s eventual path to the rail yard and Jacob K. Javits Convention Center of New York. The area also contains a variety of loft buildings, some galleries, some as a high technology industry district, and others converted to residential usage.

South Central

A middle-income housing corridor containing two mid-20th century, hulking masses of brick (with a nod and a wink as sited amid a park setting). The complexes are:

  • Ladies Garment Workers’ Union Housing cluster, which contiguously encompasses Eighth to Ninth Avenues, running from West 23rd to West 26th Streets.
  • Spanning Ninth to Tenth Avenues, between West 24th and 27th Streets, is an extraordinarily bland maze of juxtaposed city-sponsored, low-income, red-brick apartment towers.

Madison Square North

No-Mad comprising the blocks immediately northwest of the square, this compact historic residential enclave runs along Fifth Avenue and Broadway to Sixth Avenue (of the Americas), including the adjacent streets, between West 24th and 30th Streets. This ultra-fashionable 1845-90 residential concentration was anchored in the south by the 1859 Fifth Avenue Hotel, built with the profits of dry-goods merchant-prince Amos Eno (and partner’s Horn and Mildenberger, the landholders), and was for nearly fifty years the hostelry where the most noted persons who came to New York stayed; and along Fifth Avenue, at West 34th Street, the 1893 Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the site which had been two (William Waldorf and John Jacob) Astor cousins’ mansions.

As the well-to-do arrived in the 1850s, three prominent churches were built, one running deep between West 25th to 26th Street, a Trinity parish church (now the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava); at 29th Street, on the northwest Fifth Avenue corner, is the marble Collegiate Church, one of the six Collegiate Churches which trace their origin to the first church organized by the Dutch settlers in 1628. And, on 29th Street and east of Fifth Avenue is Church of the Transfiguration, better known as ‘Little Church around the Corner.’ On Broadway between West 28th and 30th Streets, three apartment hotels represent what was an increasingly popular Manhattan lifestyle throughout the later part of the 19th century. However, office and light-manufacturing loft buildings pushed the neighborhood back to West 30th Street. Additionally, on Sixth Avenue (of the Americas) a recent towering, rental-apartment-house corridor runs from West 23rd to 30th Streets, replacing the wholesale Flower District as well as a string of parking lots, the decade-old venue for Sunday morning Flea Markets.

For 150 years, the swath from 24th to 34th Streets, between The Bowery and Seventh Avenue was public land, and by 1839, a fire destroyed the defunct War of 1812 military installation converted to a juvenile delinquents home. At the time, The Avenue was a dirt road above 21st Street, and to reach (what would be) its continuation, on 35th Street, was first by the East Post Road, and then over the old Middle Road which meandered up and down and around the rocks, holding to a north-and-south direction from East 28th to 42nd Street. The plots surrounding the two milestone stagecoach “Home Station” were owned by John Horn, John Jackson and Matthew Dikeman, and a large tract holder, Chiristopher Mildenberger. These lots bordered Madison Square Park when it opened in 1847; shortly, many of the city’s first families, to name one, Theodore Roosevelt’s parents, were ensconced in a high-stoop, brownstone home nearby.

Madison Avenue along the square was lined with staid (exactly the same) brownstone row houses in 1859, yet New York society had never seen the likes of Leonard Walter Jerome’s French Second Empire, five-story, and overly exuberant palace. Situated at East 26th Street on the Madison Avenue corner, it featured a high, slate-shingled mansard roof; a stone portico, supported by four columns with a carved stone balustrade at the second floor; and, two additional second- and third-floor balconies extending along the entire Madison Avenue façade. In the second-floor ballroom, built above the matching stables, is where their daughter Jennie, Winston Churchill’s mother, was presented into society.

This was also the northern extent to the great luxury dry goods shopping district—a section bounded at Tenth Street on the south and 23rd Street on the north, with Sixth Avenue as the western route and Broadway the eastern. The leading women’s fashion emporiums, which established business downtown and had been moving uptown, by gradual steps as business demanded. When a city-perpetrated locomotive engine ban below 42nd Street was proclaimed, William Vanderbilt reconsidered the square’s northwest corner from a grand station to Madison Square Garden.

First, the first families, as they were wanted to do, headed north, above the old city (social, anyway) limit at 42nd Street. Next, the venerable Fifth Avenue Hotel, where the elite businessmen congregated was demolished, and opposite the proposed poured concrete skyscraper, which would then define the Flatiron District, was erected. By 1902, the swank specialty shops followed their wealthy customers along Madison Avenue, as the Ladies Mile was stretching to meet with the Broadway retailing giants at Herald Square—a few blocks away. By 1910, every brownstone lining Madison Square had been demolished to make way for an office building.


The Avenue

In the Thirties

The expanse from 34th to 40th Streets seemingly would continue the leap-frogging mansion building; it did not. Partially due to strict Murray Hill deed Covenants. Therefore commercial enterprises were forced off Madison Avenue’s east side, so, in order to be at their customer’s backdoor, they had to pay The Avenue’s escalated real estate values. Having outlasted the Civil War years, during the 1870s imposing department and dry-goods specialty stores bloomed and flourished. Furthermore, to a fashion-conscious New Yorker of that day they were extremely significant establishments.

Beginning in 1902, the long-established specialty shops and retailing icons, beforehand effectually functioning from East Tenth Street to Union Square, and then along Broadway to Madison Square, opened their grand Fifth Avenue emporiums. Some merchants remained on Ladies Mile, not one to good results, though—for example, H. O’Neill & Co. had become an important store, a favorite for millinery goods, trimmings, ribbons and laces, and among the first to explore catalog sales. The decision to remain was devastating: at O’Neill’s demise so went his business. To say the least, only the most prepared, and those with a lustrous past (and deep pockets) could make this quantum leap, and these shopper utopias, south-to-north, included:

B. Altman & Co. In 1865 Bernard Altman, its founder, took over his family store on Third Avenue, at East 10th Street, and then moved into a neo-Greco building on Sixth Avenue, between West 18th and 19th Streets in 1870. In 1906, he was the first department store owner to move off Ladies’ Mile and onto Fifth Avenue by buying the A.T. Steward mansion, which until 1899 housed the Manhattan Club. The location, diagonally across from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, between 34th to 35th Streets, was certainly a plus.

  • Tiffany & Co. Moving onto Fifth Avenue, at the 37th Street southeast corner, and vacating its 1870 Union Square at East 15th Street store was monumental—after all, it was a singular retailing institution to three generations of Manhattanites. Moreover, the Union Square district required 100 years to recover. To begin Charles Lewis Tiffany and John F. Young opened opposite Manhattan’s City Hall Park in 1837, with $1,000 in backing from Tiffany’s father, and offered stationery and a variety of “fancy goods,” including costume jewelry. By 1841, Tiffany, Young & Ellis discontinued paste for real jewelry only. Silverware was added in 1847: five years later the firm was Tiffany & Co: its blue box presentation, an icon. It is fact that winning the 1878 Paris Exposition gold medal for jewelry and grand prize for silverware solidified the pinnacle of design and quality reputation. It established Tiffany & Co. worldwide, with no American rival. To inch north with the city itself in 1902, was meaningful; and then again, by moving into its 57th Street corner flagship store in 1940, Tiffany & Co. heralded the 35-year Murray Hill retail shopping district’s end.
  • Franklin Simon. The main store was established in 1903, at 38th Street, the former home of Mrs. Orme Wilson, sister of John Jacob Astor. It was to be a short-lived, first entry endeavor: soon, taken over by W.J. Sloane. The originator, of W. & J. Sloane, established in 1843 (by William and later joined by his brother John), began as a city-based carpet business. Encompassing floor covering, upholstery, decorating, antiques and period reproduction departments, the family-run firm grew to become one of America’s foremost home furnishing houses with a reputation for superb quality and trendsetting design. In 1884, the brothers built an unusual Queen Anne-style building on the northwest 19th Street and Broadway corner with showrooms below and bachelor apartments above.
  • The Gorham Company. Founded in Providence, R.I., and by 20 years, at the end of the 1850’s, this was the leading American silver concern. Gorham opened a store on East 19th Street and Broadway in 1884, and commissioned Stanford White to design the 1905 Gorham Building at 36th Street.
  • Lord & Taylor. The Pearl and Catherine Street dry-goods store opened in 1826, and moved to Grand and Broadway into newly constructed cast-iron building on Broadway and 20th Street, in 1860; and among the first major stores on Fifth Avenue, the flagship store encompassed 38th to 39th Streets.
  • Arnold, Constable & Co. The specialty fashion store moved to Broadway and East 19th Street in 1869, and then in 1914, between 39th and 40th Streets, the site of the former Frederick W. Vanderbilt mansion. Whereas James A. Hearn, nephew the first partner in Arnold, Constable, & Co. recused himself from their partnership to open his own establishment on West 14th Street, off Sixth Avenue in 1888; but then never moved again, and was engulfed in the 14th Street pushcart mire until its failure.


To be expected: there was an residential except, John G. Wendel whose grandfather (of the same name) was John Jacob Astor‘s business partner in fur trading on Maiden Lane, and who married Astor’s sister Elizabeth. Wendel’s son (and Astor’s nephew) built The Avenue 1858 mansion on, at 39th Street, on the farmland his father purchased from William Ogden. His heirs remained right there for 75 years—without a single update, excepting indoor plumbing. Like Astor, although when they met the elder John G. Wendel did already own three lots on Maiden Lane, including their fur-trading store, before Astor Wendel had amass a Manhattan land fortune (many times over), and Wendel did coach his brother-in-law on his contemplative approach, or the four Manhattan real estate pillars. These were never to: mortgage, sell, repair, and never forget the crest of Broadway prices moves uptown ten blocks in ten years.

A second oddity was the Stern Bros. move in 1912, when they exited the exclusive West 23rd Street cast-iron building to open on West 42nd Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. Theirs was the sole ultra-exclusive specialty shop not to have burnished its luster in Manhattan: Stern Bros. had arrived from Buffalo New York in 1867. Once on West 42nd Street, with its south-facing façade overlooking Bryant Park and the New York Public Library, the new store included touches such as a separate entrance for the Astor, Gould, Vanderbilt and suchlike fashionable ladies.

A third trend, not so much an oddity, was the formidable Manhattan Hotel on Madison Avenue, at East 42nd Street, which became a magnate for genteel guests, carriage-trade visitors, and suburban businessmen coming in and going out of Grand Central Station. The men’s wear specialty icon, Brooks Brothers, now choose a corner site—on Madison Avenue and East 44th Street. Soon, joined by the outdoor specialty shop, Abercrombie and Fitch, and they became a legendary Madison Avenue complementary duo.

The Avenue

Along the Forties and Fifties

There were no takers for the dirt old Middle Road when first offered by Corporation of the City of New York. Future Fifth Avenue parcels were leased gradually to charitable institutions as facilities, including St. Luke’s Hospital, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, and a public orphanage, paying $1.oo yearly rent. As late as 1842, the city granted charities 22 lots along 43th to 44th Streets alone. Along the cattle trail, 42nd Street, a tavern then the Bristol Hotel remained through the Civil War. On 45th Street, to Allerton Hotel’s east, which was no more than a low, white wood-frame building surrounded by a plot of grass, were the future Madison Avenue cattle holding pens. Tyson’s Market, a beef and fowler, stood at the corner of 44th Street next to Willow Tree Inn. A very few private residences below 45th Street are noted on Dripp’s Map of 1860, and those few were set back and included gardens. To the west, at the Hopper family “fourth milestone” tracts, a series of family members—R. Cosine, J. Ward, J. Emmett, J. Kemp, C. McEvers, S. Hopper, D. Harsen—had their homes.

Above 45th Street in 1801, the twelve acres (now comprising Rockefeller Center) were purchased from the city for $400 per. Dr. Hosack, a professor of Botany and Homeopathic (Materia Medica) at King’s College opened his Elgin Garden. The property was owed by Columbia University in 1814: by 1851, the tract had been divided into city lots. When the Civil War ended there were still only a few homes built apart as a semi-suburban section. The university moved from Murray Street and College Place to 52nd Street briefly, while on the way to Bloomingdale Village.

Five prominent New York religious institutions built their major sanctuaries between 43rd and 50th Streets. Opposite the gardens, at the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum’s north on the 50th-to-51st-Streets Fifth Avenue block front, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was begun in 1858, and dedicated in 1879. The southern anchor to the cathedral in 1868, was the completed Temple Emanu-El—an exotic, Saracenic-style, including Moorish spires and a stenciled, soaring ceiling five stories high, according to Harper’s Weekly. It was immense–104-feet (one-half block) wide, stretching along 43rd Street 184 feet to Madison Avenue—capable of holding 2,000 worshipers. The basement lecture room and schoolrooms could accommodate 400 to 500 children, as well as auxiliary rooms. As the Little-Italy-to-Fifth-Avenue cathedral move brought their congregants, the temple attracted the German Jewish banking families—the Schiff, Seligman, Loeb, Kahn, Warburg, Goldman, Sachs, Straus, Lehman, Lewisohn and Guggenheim generations. Their nearby grand-style residences between Sixth and Vanderbilt Avenues are club blocks.

On another page of Midtown Manhattan history are two later-day Goelets: The ironmonger-merchant patriarch had two sons as well as two grandsons, Peter P. and Robert R. They too followed the family knack, buying ahead of the crowd. Young men with an eye for the advantageous, each married a Thomas Buchanan daughter; their important dowry was his land above East 41st to 48th Streets, between Fifth and Third avenues—all of it! It wasn’t far off when the Goelet brother’s sister-wives’ heritance was the city’s center, with specialty-shop retail trade moving northward along The Avenue channel they owned. Their easterly lots surrounded the street-level railroad tracks that Cornelius Vanderbilt belligerently refused to submerge. Held off as long as he could, that was, while the cows his trains hit were not pedestrians, Vanderbilt installed bridges. When pointed out that his street-grade provision could be revoked for mere annoyances. Two pedestrians and one 15-passenger-death-toll accident later, the Commodore adjusted his thinking, and was reputed to have said, “Over my dead body.” After he died submerged tracts, then electric-engine locomotives to reduce the foul-air problem that entering trains to Grand Central Station caused.

In the meantime, as the city’s “mansion land” with The Avenue its centerpiece: the 1870s brownstone rows of homes along the adjacent streets were without equal, the broad avenue town houses unequaled as well, the coveted corners were much-much more. On the 47th Street corner was Jay Gould’s residence, and then his daughter, Mrs. Finley J. Shepard’s home—the last millionaires’ homes on the line to Central Park—until her death. Mrs. (Robert) Almy Buchanan Goelet’s mansion was at the southeast corner of 48th Street, her sister Mrs. (Peter) Margret Buchanan Goelet lived a block away, and Russell Sage, an associate of Jay Gould, 601 Fifth Avenue was at the 49th Street corner, adjoining the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, which traced its ancestry to New Amsterdam’s Church in the Fort. Theodore Roosevelt prayed at this church.
The early 1880s Sixth Avenue El’s completion made the adjacent streets noisy and the buildings shake, while dropping ash, oil, and cinders along the way. The immediate effect was heard, felt, and smelled, even on The Avenue in the Forties. The grand side street town houses were urbanization by the rapidly commercial encroachment, the Els’ secondary result, was more than a mere annoyance. It turned the neighboring mansion row around. The El turning west 53rd Street insulated the West Fifties. At the “Gilded Age” dusk, The Avenue above the cathedral and gardens was even more elite than below, if that seems possible. Beginning with the 51st-to-52nd-Streets twin residences, the “duo palaces” as they were known, built by William K. Vanderbilt—one for himself, one for his daughter Mrs. William Sloane. Another home, complex actually, was No. Four West 54th Street built by C. P. Huntington, the California railway magnate, and bought in 1884, by John D. Rockefeller. It remained his city home until his death. St. Thomas Church, now occupies the Fifth Avenue garden and `back lots’ stretching one-quarter deep in the Fifth-to-Sixth Avenue block where John D. Rockefeller Jr. played his boyhood games. His heirs then donated the mansion as the Museum of Modern Art’s first garden. Across the street, Nos. Nine to Eleven are one intact, mid-block mansion, providing a glimpse into the majesty possible for a few along The Avenue. Next door, Nelson Rockefeller owned, kept offices and died in No. 15, 90 years later; next are the 1930s sister buildings, Rockefeller Apartments.

Upon the death of John Mason, Chemical Bank president, Mary Mason Jones’ family country estate included the Kemp heirs’ portion, which now encompassed Fifth Avenue to Third Avenues, and the easterly block fronts between 54th and 58th Streets. Mrs. Jones commissioned architect Robert Moore to design a white French chateaux-inspired mansion series, One East 57th Street for herself, as well as one for each sister, Rebecca and Serena (Edith Wharton’s great-aunts). It was dubbed society’s “Marble Row” on its completion. Across The Avenue on the northwest corner, spanning the entirety to 58th Street, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s greatly expanded upon his grandfather’s modest lifestyle in a nearby, double-wide brownstone on The Avenue, and double-downed on his father and sister’s palaces; he built his own block-long home, and assembled 200 paintings to display in its 59 rooms—the largest and most impressive and spectacular mansion in Manhattan then (and since).

As mansion-building continually leapfrogged north, one by one four de-lux hotels, five world-class department stores, and one vast and renowned office building complex and plaza replaced the stately homes—except a superb, 1905 Italian Renaissance Fifth Avenue mansion, on the East 52nd Street southeast corner. This fine-fine example was designed by C.P.H. Gilbert, with an east wing; they were reconfigured in 1917, for Cartier, Inc. And there’s a yarn attributed to the sale: the mansion ownership was exchanged in kind for $100 and a $1,000,000 double-strand, South Sea pearl necklace the wife fancied. As a wealthy widow, Mrs. Platt proceeded to wear the pearls daily—even though they were obviously deteriorating. As the story goes, on her death the necklace was gone too. The short end paper reads: the mansion by then was priceless.

Dead Center

For Native people, Kanonnewaga, their “Reed Valley,” village possessed a coveted raw material traded between the regional clans for the squaws woven skirts. (Hunters, on the other hand, wore tanned skins.) The Dutch referred to the district as Saw-Kill, “body of water,” where a three-stream convergence on Tenth Avenue, between West 40th and 43rd Streets, then emptied in the North River. Their interest was a repository for timber to be milled and destined for Amsterdam. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the large family farms spread north from the outpost near to the deep streams, and north-by-northeast to West 55th Street at Seventh Avenue. The land and manor house owners were:

    • Mathew Hopper, heir to southeasterly Hopper farmlands, built a near to Eleventh Avenue, at West 44th Street; his eastern acreage extended to West 48th Street and Bloomingdale Road.
    • John Leake owned the Heritage Farm, at the renamed Great Kill, and he bought the Mathew Hopper tract. The farm fell to his daughter, under the management of John Leake Norton. Norton granted a right of way across Heritage Farm in 1825: West 42nd Street was then a crosstown cattle trail from the Weehawken ferry docks to the slaughterhouses in Turtle Bay.

Two Revolutionary patriot generals were nearby landowners, and they were:

        • General George Clinton, whose country villa and estate, on West 46th Street, near Ninth Avenue, remained his residence throughout an extensive political and diplomatic career.
        • John Morin Scott, a Manhattan patriot, lawyer, statesman, military officer and war hero, worked a narrow, 70-acre pastureland and horse breeding farm. General Scott built his manor house, at Broadway and West 43rd Street, his southeastern-most point. As a New York Provincial Congress member and brigadier general, his home was seized throughout the British occupation. Scott did reclaim it all: again, horses grazed the pasturelands. He died in 1784. The horse farm was then inherited by his only son: Fifteen years later, Lewis Allaire Scott died.

The Reed Valley owners by 1810, still for the most part Norton and Hopper descendants included: John Jacob Astor.

Broadway Creates Greeley and Herald and Times Squares

First by 1858, the retail business reached Sixth Avenue, and the advent of R. H. Macy on West 14th Street marked the beginning of a phenomenal and fascinating epoch in the Manhattan dry-goods business. Why Mr. Macy selected Sixth Avenue for his venture one can surmise that he was attracted by a busy and popular thoroughfare crowded with stores of all kinds, attracting the people to a center where all needs and all tastes could be satisfied. How did Macy’s next owner, Nathan Straus, know Herald Square would grow by leaps and bounds, and would so quickly become the city’s prodigious shopping district? Was it the next El express stop—dropping that desirable class of people who would buy often—although not so generously each time? Was it watching the Metropolitan Opera House above the square and beyond the theatrical enterprises to Longacre Square? Was it their rapid acceptance? Did Nathan Strauss perceive the void Broadway’s specialty stores were to create by following their patrons, those living in the more aristocratic neighborhoods, and by claiming The Avenue in Murray Hill as theirs? Whatever, Straus did and the Macy’s move dominated Herald Square, and he propelled a series of ground-level storefronts, selling gloves, into international renown.

Second as of 1846, the city acquired the Herald and Greeley Squares site in connection with the opening of Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway). The namesakes are the New York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley in 1841, as the southern triangular portion, and the New York Herald founded in 1835, by James Gordon Bennett Sr., whose newspaper moved from Newspaper Row (at Park Row and Beekman Street, opposite New York City Hall Park). For the new 1895 headquarters, to be built between West 35th and 36th Streets on Broadway and Sixth Avenue, the square’s crux, James Gordon Bennett Jr. hired Stanford White White based his design on the 1476 Venetian Renaissance Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona—beyond paying homage, this was a near-perfect reproduction.

Third in 1807, John Jacob Astor acquired the 70-acre Scott farm, between West 43rd and 47th Streets spanning Broadway to Ninth Avenue. During the ensuing years, Astor purchased additional tracts from the Norton and Hopper families. All the while, he adhered to one set of tenets, starting with: never mortgage, never sell only trade, lease all his holdings, allow others to improve the property and let them collect rents. As the 1820s began, Astor’s real estate strategy became even more ambitious, systematic, calculating—a contemplative approach. He was amassing a (second) fortune because he foresaw and understood and focused on the impending building-out a great, world city. Until his death, J.J. Astor was trading Lower Manhattan lots, and assembling tracts where the city was rapidly spreading—north along Broadway. Reputedly (as heard by a “fly on the wall,” perhaps?) the buyer of his Wall Street lot, asked: “Why accept a few thousand dollar profit now? The property will be worth more than $8,000 in two or three years.” Astor (supposedly) replied, “The $8,000 tract I now buy uptown in 20 or 30 years will be worth $200,000.”

It was during William Backhouse Astor’s reign that the Astor Reed Valley holdings were consolidated. While working with a young, Columbia College-educated lawyer, William Bayard Cutting (of the Hopper family, married to Olivia Peyton Murray, of Murray Hill). An aristocratic merchant scion, real-estate broker and investor, and as Astor’s real estate partner, Cutting found the far western commercial lot sellers, where the timber mills, tanneries, lamp oil refining, and other enterprises needed the river in which to dump industrial waste. Cutter bought and sold, Astor bought and held. Eighty-five years after General John Morin Scott’s death, his lush pastures were Manhattan’s carriage industry center; after 100 years, the Metropolitan Opera House opened at his backdoor; by the century milestone, a nascent Broadway theater district had morphed around Longacre Square. Where the Scott horse farm barns, stables and corrals once stood, The New York Times publisher, Adolph Ochs opened his Times Building: bettering the rival, New York Herald Tribune, on Herald Square—thereafter, Leake (Norton) and Scott farms nexus, straddling the Bloomingdale Road, thereafter was forevermore, Times Square.


The West Fifties

To the north, at West 50th Street on the Bloomingdale Road, Hopper’s Lane was cleared by Mattbys Adolphus Hoppe[r]. On West 54th Street and beyond Eleventh Avenue, he built a homestead, including a bathing and boating house at the Hudson Riverbank. The Hopper vast farmlands extended (irregularly east to the Middle Road), from their Great Kill tracts at West 44th Street, bordering the deep stream, and north at West 57th Street. Like their scattered homes as easterly as Sixth Avenue, ten generations (maybe more), of Mattbys Hopper descendants, now with distinguished Dutch or British landed gentry surnames— were interred in the family burial ground the patriarch set aside on present-day West 50th Street, at Ninth Avenue. (It was the focus of numerous 19th-century legal battles concerning the estate’s rights, including extensive litigation that followed the burial ground remains’ removal by Ellsworth Striker, who claimed possession of the property 150 years later. The courts ruled in the heir’s favor; Striker proceeded to build a three-story apartment house where the Hopper, Varian, Cozine, and Horn bones had been. A point of fact: whereas the 1820s Randel Farm Map clearly delineates the Hopper funereal plot, Viele’s map of Manhattan (1865) does not.

Through direct descendants and marriage alliances—the family occupied the imposing West 54th Street manor house for an astounding 197 years. The initial heir, John Hopper, fathered six children: each granted a portion of his landholdings, with an appropriate house. Neither his only daughter, Jemima, who married John Horn, a partner in the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street; nor youngest son, Yellis (Yelless), who married Elizabeth Waldron and moved to her family’s stone house on East 86th Street at Second Avenue (where, incidentally, the oldest remaining apartment house was erected by Peter Rhinelander in 1880).

In addition to Mathew Hopper’s 1700s Great Kill farm, which did not remain long within the Hopper family, the John Hopper heir’s manor houses and tracts were:

        • Wessell, the eldest son, and Anna (nee Dyckman) lived with his father and their four children. The balance of that block front fell to a Knickerbocker branch, the Harsen clan.
        • Andrew occupied the West 50th Street northeast Bloomingdale Road corner—in a conspicuous stone-and-brick domicile, with a wood annex. His son’s even further extended home was razed for William Vanderbilt’s American Horse exchange (now the Winter Garden Theater).
        • John, the younger, inherited a 1752 farmhouse, Rosevale—named for the extensive rose gardens—on Eleventh Avenue and West 53rd Street, along with the Hopper homestead northwest lands’ end. Now, the two-block wide DeWitt Clinton Park, which was donated to the city by general Garrit Hopper Striker’s grandson.
        • The Jordan Mott family branch, 1798 mansion on Mott’s Point, the promontory at West 53rd to 54th Streets on which the bath and boathouse occupied, was tightly held by Winifred, John Hopper’s granddaughter, until the early 1890s—when West 54th Street was to be graded. Subsequently, the Hudson River Railroad took over the property. The title was never relinquished however, even after decades of litigation.

Where Broadway Meets Central Park

As is as (by crediting the implied benefit) and soon enough (when considering decades delay), with the Vanderbilt Fourth Avenue railroad tracts to be submerged throughout the Fifties, and with two extraordinary, counter-balanced, block long West 57th-to-58th Streets, Avenue mansions, an ultrafashionable art gallery, restaurant and retailing nucleus germinated on the surrounding blocks; and they would rival Paris’ Rue de la Paix. On the easterly Hopper descendant’s tracts, elegant single-family, brownstone homes rapidly lined the West Fifties’ streets. By the late 19th-century mark, the art, literary, and musical worlds moved onto a Seventh Avenue residential concentration—sandwiched between West 53rd and 59th Streets. The Real Estate Record & Guide of 1906 said that ”Seventh Avenue…cannot be viewed in any other light than one of the finest avenues of the future.”

That was when the recently built Edward Clark and Hardenbergh, Wyoming, at West 55th Street, was replaced by a 13-story namesake, designed by Rouse & Sloan. It joined the 20-year-old James Edward Ware 1884 Osborne Flats landmark on West 57th Street’s northwest corner, and the Van Corlear on West 55th Street’s southwest corner—also developed by the duo, Clarke and Hardenbergh. Abruptly following the new Wyoming a building surge arrived, including the 1909 Alwyn Court, 150 West 58th; 1912 Adlon on West 54th; 200 West 58th, designed by Gaetano Ajello, completed in 1913; or, the 1917 Rodin Studios on the West 57th Street southwest corner, at Seventh Avenue. The additional noteworthy, north-facing, pioneering residential studio building, which played a significant role allowing wealthy Manhattanites to transition from their brownstone homes into a multiple-family-dwelling lifestyle, and they are—Nos. 130, 140, 200 West 57th Street, and 222 Central Park South, the Gainsborough Studios—each is still standing.

The world-class, arts- and culture-related landmark edifices are:

        • The American Fine Arts Building, 215 West 57th Street, off Seventh Avenue, has been the continuous home of Arts Student League of New York. The French Renaissance design, by Hardenbergh (et al.) was completed in 1892.
        • The Renaissance Revival Music Hall Founded by Andrew Carnegie, on the southeast corner of West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, was designed by William B. Tuthill (et al.) and completed in 1891.

The Vast West

Hell’s Kitchen

Eighth to Tenth Avenues throughout the West Thirties, Forties, and Fifties was shoddily built tenement apartment houses. By sheer volume alone, this low-income swath was the Lower East Side’s equal. Simply by dint of limited popular acceptance, the district underwent many name-changes. The only one that stuck though was Hell’s Kitchen. Whatever name given, it most certainly was not a neighborhood, in the conventional sense: crime was omnipresent and street gangs ruled, which became entrenched, more so than anywhere since vice and debauchery was expunged from Five Points. To Damon Runyon Hell’s Kitchen denizens, of his day, were: “ladies in ermine and pearls, on the arm of gents, with a touch of Sing-Sing in their backgrounds.”

As with the Lower East Side and Greater Turtle Bay, due east—Midtown West was a shanty, Irish-American community expected to absorb each and every immigrant group needing inexpensive (tenement apartment house or single-room-occupancy hotel or boardinghouse-like) housing. After years of slow growth, Manhattan’s African-American population dropped precipitously, from 16,000 in 1840 to 12,500 in 1860, due to increased danger in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Beginning as a trickle, developing into a steady stream by 1876, the rural migration to urban centers, seeking a different way of life, had increased competition over the same unskilled jobs; friction between Irish immigrants and freed slaves over the same turf increased, too; especially in what was then the Tenderloin district. With the Ninth Avenue El opening, throughout the 1880s the African-American community move northward to the Manhattanville factories, and then sought housing uptown.

End-to-end Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues remained defined as railroad yards, warehouses, and service trades such as plumbing suppliers for 110 years. The east perimeter, covering Eighth to Sixth Avenue (of the Americas) became an international commercial quarter, dominated by the garment center, theater district, and skyscraper sectors. From West 41st to 59th Streets and Eighth to Tenth Avenues (even a slum the likes of Hell’s Kitchen), proved gentrification was possible. It was very slowly going at first, at least until the unique 1974, Special Clinton District zoning restrictions and codes limiting building heights to seven stories, and much, much more. Accordingly, though for 20 years the tenement-apartment-house rows, with narrow avenue shops remained unchanged. Yet somehow the neighborhood mellowed, rather than deteriorating further: working-class row house pockets—off Tenth Avenue, in the low to mid-West Forties, and off Ninth Avenue, in the low West-Fifties blocks—gradually grew quainter. The unchanged low-rise area truly benefitted with the sky above and direct sunshine below. The same low-scale benefit ran along consecutively for one mile.

The West Fifties Revival

Location, location, location, the ultimate axiom regarding real estate is embodied in the West Fifties’ concrete. Proximity to iconic institutions—for example, Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; nearby Times Square, the national Broadway theater district treasure; the immediacy of Fifth Avenue, a first-class international shopping strip; and monumental achievements’ imminence, for instance, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and Central Park—all qualifiers for the West Fifties as an A-plus Manhattan location.

After a 60-year doldrums, signs of life sprouted along Fifth Avenue at 51st Street, with Aristotle Onassis’ pioneering Olympic Tower—a mix-usage office and white-glove residence. Eight years passed before construction resumed on residential towers—under the auspices of the Museum of Modern Art on 15 West 53rd Street, followed by the mix-use Trump Tower on 56th Street—each linking the existing apartment-hotel towers at Grand Army Plaza, and along Central Park South to Columbus Circle.

From there, the sequence of events was: during the following three years, again surrounding Carnegie Hall on West 57th Streets, six residential towers, each with a massive, mid-block-through footprint and soaring to 75 stories, changed the skyline to Fifth Avenue’s west. With these condominium and rental versions further construction ceased. Although demand was consistent thereafter, assembling large building sites within this already densely built area requires time, sometimes extensive time. For instance:

        • Forty years (and counting) for 400 West 57th Street, at Ninth Avenue, which is a special case as Manhattan’s second oldest apartment house (first with an elevator, though);
        • Thirty years for 157 West 57th Street, off Seventh Avenue, which spans West 57th to 58th Streets with enough height to redefine the Central Park South skyline;
        • Twenty years for 225 West 57th Street, boasting massive dimensions (a million square feet, over 90 floors), with one Broadway as well as a West 57th and 58th Street façade. The self-perforce zoning and air-right purchases, amid wrangling (in court) with its neighboring residential tower project, both jockeying to offer expansive and unobstructed Central Park views, has rendered both projects without a shovel in the ground;
        • Five years (plus extensive planning and preparation), for 220 Central Park South, whose bulk could limit its southern neighbor’s park views, with occupancy considerably off, the developer enjoys a waiting list to purchase units anyhow.

Even so, everywhere surrounding West 57th Street, constituting Broadway (at Columbus Circle) to Fifth Avenue (Grand Army Plaza), plus, to their connector Central Park South, was poised to be within a world-class residential enclave once again. A big hurdle though: what was to be with Columbus Circle and its Coliseum? The two-block wide, half-avenue deep convention and exhibition space emptied, abandoned (eventually for 14 years), and morphed into a city-soot grey, Constructivist-influenced, curbside homeless headquarters. Several developers’ attempts went sour, one with aggressive community action: a mass demonstration the length of the proposed shadow across Central Park was staged—city approval evaporated. Eventually Time-Warner Center construction began.

A New Millennium

Since the Columbus Circle’s rejuvenation onset, and with the trophy Plaza-Hotel- conversion-to-residential-co-ownership usage completed, New York, 10019, erupted as containing a wealth of Manhattan’s $75,000,000-plus condominium and co-operative properties, the planet’s priciest properties so far—and a far cry from $19 for the whole island 400 years before—and with Five Star service every bit as all-encompassing, attentive to details, and luxurious as the fabled nearby apartment hotels. So West Fifties apartment house towers, too, are “better-than-platinum” Manhattan residential real estate as are Tribeca lofts, West Village or Gansevoort Meatpacking District single-family homes, even mansion-like town houses off Central Park West and Fifth Avenue.

Hell’s Kitchen Revisited

As the garment industry demise progressed, and the 1992 Times Square Redevelopment Project launch progressed successfully, (targeting West 42nd Street in particular), the way was paved finally after so very much ado for the Midtown West midsection rejuvenation. The Lenapi Reed Valley, then Dutch Saw-Kill, then John Leake Norton’s Great Kill cattle trail, then Longacre carriage-industry center, then Times Square automobile-repair-shop hub was now center stage for real-estate developers to produce. And they did.

Even before an initial “comfy” Ninth Avenue restaurant row appeared, construction on the pioneering mega-anchor, Manhattan Plaza, a 47-story, red-brick, twin-tower with ground-level garden, a vast sports complex and retailing portion, comprising the Ninth- to-Tenth-Avenue blocks, and built-full along West-42nd and 43rd Streets as well. At the time, beyond to the Hudson River was a barren, Lincoln Tunnel ingress- and-egress patchwork, stretching south to West 35th Street.

A sleek and impressive residential corridor, the new West 42nd Street, put in flux the streets north, between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River—Hell’s Kitchen. Though low-rise, tenement-apartment-house rows abound, the far West Fifties (now Clinton), emerged above West 52nd to 54th Streets, at DeWitt Clinton Park, with a string of rental apartment towers west of Tenth Avenue and along Eleventh Avenue. Furthermore, that trajectory fused with the West 57th to 59th Streets and Ninth to Eleventh Avenue overflow created by Columbus Circle’s resurgence—forming a bountiful northwesterly Clinton, which abuts Fordham College at Lincoln Center campus.

It is true that the iconic Central Park South skyline framing the West Fifties will be evolving soon, with massive (75-plus-story), back-to-back, residential skyscrapers on the way: one on West 57th and 58th Streets, east of Seventh Avenue; another on West 57th and 58th Streets, east of Broadway; as well the third on Central Park South and West 58th Streets, in the Seventh-Avenue-to-Columbus-Circle block. It is also possible that a near-west, architecturally-significant restoration addition may be (well, eventually maybe) in the making. That anchor, after 40-years, would be the proposed new life for the decrepit 1880 Renaissance Revival, Windermere, a residential complex on West 57th Street, at Ninth Avenue—the northeastern-most 1974 Special Clinton District Preservation Area edge—on the northwest edge of once-proposed (penciled-in on the Randel map, but discarded in favor of Central Park), Bloomingdale Square, running from West 53rd to 57th Streets and Ninth to Eighth Avenues.

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