Monday, July 8, 2019

Then and Now: 425 Park Avenue, NYC

Park Avenue at 56th Street, Manhattan

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue at 56th Street, Manhattan, 1982.
Midtown is where most of the action took place in Manhattan construction during the middle years of the 20th Century. Some of the architectural ideas current at that time valued function over form. Thus, you got box-like office buildings that maximized their footprint while providing little to no visual enjoyment. This focus on usable space over all other metrics was great in terms of creating profitable office buildings but destroyed some of the individuality built up in the years prior to that time.  Park Avenue has changed a lot over the years even though it sometimes doesn't seem like it. When I saw the photo above from 1982, it looked pretty standard, as if it could have been taken last week. However, some key features of this photo have changed and are in the process of changing, so I decided to see what the same scene looks like now. Fortunately, the street number on the building at the left is very prominent, so this was an easy location to pinpoint. This is a comparison of Park Avenue at 56th Street from 1982 to 2018.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue at 56th Street in August 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, some things are changing on Park Avenue. The large building on the left, 425 Park Avenue, is in the midst of a major reconstruction as of mid-2019. The building seen in the 1982 photo was built in the 1950s and reflected all of the worst design aesthetics of that era: monotony, uniformity, and drabness. It was a generic office building which in 1982 housed, among other large professional businesses, the Finley, Kumble law firm. It had its litigation department on the second floor and real estate and other departments on the 7th floor and some other high floors. It was a favored law firm of Donald Trump and was the firm that won/lost him the USFL case in the 1980s (the USFL "won" $1, but that meant the NFL had to pay it $10 million in the USFL's legal fees). The law firm was one of the first massive, multi-state law firms which later became standard, but Finley, Kumble dissolved in bitter acrimony about five years after that photo.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
425 Park Avenue in August 2018 (Google Street View).
The "new" 425 Park Avenue looks like a completely new building. It certainly has little in common with the old one. However, appearances can be deceiving. The core of the old building remains. The quirks of New York City zoning laws have impacted the design, requiring the new building to have the same square footage as the old building. The new building will have two restaurants, which is somewhat curious since the venerable Four Seasons and some other nearby top restaurants have found the current environment difficult and recently have gone out of business. Rather than the drab box of the former 425 Park Avenue, this one will have some originality in its exterior that harkens back to the great structures of the early 20th Century which continue to give the city character and individuality. The wheel turns, and sometimes it turns back in its original direction.

Park Avenue at 56th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
430 Park Avenue, NYC, in August 2018 (Google Street View).
Also just barely visible in the 1982 photo is the building on the right. It is 430 Park Avenue, notable for its unusual green exterior. Its appearance and even its very existence have a lot to do with how zoning laws work in Manhattan. It was drastically reconstructed from a 1920s apartment building around the same time that 425 went up in the 1950s. It was renovated in 2001/2002. It is very boxy because it was grandfathered in under old zoning laws that did not require setbacks. That's why these reconstructions usually retain the inner core of old buildings when it might be cheaper and more efficient to just raze the whole thing and start over. Because the original building was built in the 1920s, the current building can tower over Park Avenue in a way that new construction cannot. It also has high ceilings due to its history as a pre-war apartment building, 12'-16'. One of the building's oddities due to its history is that it is only 60 feet deep, so it is tall and thin. We should all have that appearance after 100 years! It would be easy to predict that 430 Park Avenue will soon share the fate of 425 Park, but its fairly recent remodel and maximal usage of its footprint suggests that it isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Park Avenue at 55th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
417 Park Avenue, NYC, in August 2018 (Google Street View).
There are other buildings visible in the 1982 photo that are pretty much unchanged over the past 35 years. The Pan Am Building at the end of the Street is now the Met Life Building. However, it really hasn't changed much otherwise (they had only recently shut down the heliport on top of it due to a tragic accident). The white building just past 425 Park Avenue, 417 Park, was built in 1917 when Park Avenue was still almost exclusively a high-class residential area. It just toodles along, decade after decade, while these transient office buildings come and go around it. The most enduring buildings in Manhattan tend to be high-class residential ones because emptying them for reconstruction or demolition is a herculean task. It is now the last luxury residence that remains along Park Avenue from Grand Central Terminal North to 57th Street and gives the street a little character that the big boxes of the 1950s tried (and ultimately failed) to destroy. It also led the way in converting from an apartment building to a coop way back in 1946, long before that became popular. It is buildings like 417 Park that give the avenue its signature look and show that, once you do something right, there's no reason to change it.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Park Avenue is a prime example that the facade of New York's grand avenues may change with passing fads, but the anchors persevere. Please visit some of our other entries in this series to see how cities evolve over time!

2019

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Then and Now: Kenny's Castaways, Greenwich Village

Kenny's Castaways and Back Fence

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village randommusings.filminspector.com
Bleecker and Thompson Streets, 1983.
Change in Manhattan can happen very gradually and slowly and pass by almost unnoticed. It is only when you step back and revisit the same scene years later that the impact hits you. Some streets are the same, but they are different. The structures endure, but the people who use them also change. Thus, their needs change, and as their needs change, the businesses that service them change. Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is an excellent example. It has gone through many iterations, from home to immigrants just off the boat to Beatnick Paradise to rock n' roll haven to Yuppie theme park. After spotting the above picture from 1983, I decided to check in and see how this iconic Village crossroads is doing these days. So, I decided to do a comparison of the northwest corner of Bleecker Street at Thompson Street in Greenwich Village from 1983 to 2018.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village randommusings.filminspector.com
Bleecker and Thompson Streets, August 2018 (Google Street View).
A quick glance at the Bleecker/Thompson corner suggests that not much has changed. The same red building from the 1890s (yes, it was red back then, too) still houses some storefront businesses. In the 1983 photo, you can see The Back Fence on the far corner, Kenny’s Castaways next to it, and Surf Maid on the northeast corner. All of those businesses are gone. The street lamp on the corner is similar, though it now seems smaller. The city added a go/no go pedestrian sign on the northeast corner with a trashcan, but overall, it looks very similar. Or is it?

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village randommusings.filminspector.com
The northwest corner of Bleecker and Thompson (Google Street View).
Focusing on the businesses themselves gives a little deeper insight into what has changed over 35 years. In 1983, both of the businesses on that part of Bleecker Street were related to music. Kenny's Castaways closed in 2012, and its closing marked a sort of changing of the guard. Opened in 1976, Kenny's basically was a music club. There was a large wooden bar along the left as you walked in. You'd plunk down your $2, get a beer, and proceed to the small seating area in the back to enjoy the band playing in the corner. Kenny was Mike Kenny, an Irishman (he immigrated in the mid-1960s) closed his supper club uptown and opened Kenny's Castaways on Bleecker. His focus was on undiscovered talent, hence "Castaways." While I personally never saw anyone famous perform there, reportedly acts like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls took their turn in the back. Kenny's finally closed for a couple of reasons that really reflect what is going on in the neighborhood.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village randommusings.filminspector.com
The northwest corner of Bleecker and Thompson (Google Street View).
Kenny's closed because rents got too high. That is hardly unique to Bleecker Street, that phenomenon has been going on in New York City forever. However, Sergio Riva, who bought the lease, told The New York Times at the time:
They’re trying to turn Bleecker Street into a quiet block. The way we feel we’re going to be able to succeed is to be busier earlier in the day.
Now, who "they" are is a little unclear. However, a glance at this entire stretch of Bleecker Street east of 6th Avenue bears out that someone wants a less raucous atmosphere. My guess is all the gentry now inhabiting the apartments on the street. The loud music clubs are gone along with the loud Parisian-style cafes like like Caffe Borgia and the peculiar little video store on the corner. In their place are quiet little restaurants, banks, and even drugstores (gasp). The party atmosphere has disappeared completely. In its place is a staid, gentrified, quiet atmosphere. Oh, and Pig Bleecker, the barbecue chain joint on the corner that replaced Back Fence in 2013, itself closed in February 2019. The culprit? The rising rents. and, maybe those mysterious forces that want a quieter neighborhood. The wheel keeps turning.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village randommusings.filminspector.com
A look at the southern side of the Bleecker/Thompson intersection shows what is really "happening" on Bleecker Street these days: a bank and a drugstore (Google Street View).
So, the funky loud places are gone. The lively crowds have been replaced by people occasionally disappearing into dark restaurants. In their place are bland, dependable, profitable businesses that could be literally anywhere. Personally, I think the banks' turn is coming next. As everything gradually goes paperless, who needs brick-and-mortar bank branches? However, for now, they can absorb the rent better than a guitar supper club can. Now, I don't want to leave the impression that this is a rant about losing your childhood or anything like that because it isn't. Were Kenny's still there, I wouldn't be going there. Entertainment is too easy to find elsewhere in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Hopefully, Mr. Kenny retired to the Hamptons and bought his own drum kit to keep downstairs to bang on occasionally to remind himself of the good old days before he passed away in 2002. However, those days are gone, and nobody knows when the current days are going to be gone, too.

Incidentally, the name that Mr. Riva chose for his sedate restaurant that replaced Kenny's Castaways, Carroll Place, harkens back to the 1930s, when developer Thomas E. Davis tried to restructure and rename this section of Bleecker Street in order to make it more dignified and exclusive. Well, Mr. Davis, your dream finally has come true, 80 years later. In other words, Bleecker Street has become just like all the other homogenized blocks in the Big Apple. Isn't that special.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. It's only a matter of time before Bleecker Street enters a new phase, and hopefully one a little more lively than what it is going through now. Please visit some of our other pages in this continuing series!

2019

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Then and Now: The World Trade Center and St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church in Downtown Manhattan

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church and the World Trade Center randommusings.filminspector.com
The World Trade Center right after its completion in 1973. That is St. Paul's Chapel in front of them.
This is the story of a building, St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Buildings are defined as much by their surroundings as they are by their actual appearance. The Washington Monument, to take one example, is a fine obelisk, but it wouldn't have the same impact anywhere but as the centerpiece of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan is a fine building in its own right, but its impact is more a result of its history and the changing cityscape around it than any unique aspects of its construction. I spotted the above photo of St. Paul's Chapel from 1973 and decided to follow up to see how the same view looks now. So, this is a comparison of St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church from 1973 to 2018.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church in 1831 randommusings.filminspector.com
The same angle view of St. Paul's Chapel from Park Row in 1831.
St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church has stood in the same location for since 1766 near the intersection of Park Row and Broadway in lower Manhattan. The address is 209 Broadway. The spot was north of Wall Street, which was considered the northern boundary of the "built-up" section of New York City. St. Paul's Chapel is so old that its deed is based on land granted by Anne, Queen of Great Britain. It was the tallest building in New York City in 1766 and is considered New York's "last colonial structure." It almost burned down on September 21, 1776, during the Great Fire of New York. However, a bucket brigade of parishioners brought water over from the Hudson River (which was much nearer to the chapel than it is now) to keep St. Paul's Chapel from burning. George Washington attended services at St. Paul's Chapel regularly, including on the day of his inauguration. Nearby Trinity Church on Broadway at Wall Street burned down in the 1776 fire and has been replaced twice, but St. Paul's has stood on a lucky spot.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church in 1907 randommusings.filminspector.com
St. Paul's Chapel in 1907 from a slightly different angle. As can be seen, there wasn't much of note behind it to the west.
After a few decades beginning around 1890 when the city's tallest buildings were built in midtown and downtown was somewhat overlooked, they finally returned to downtown with the construction of the World Trade Center. The 1973 picture at the top of this page marks that major turning point for the city. It also almost led to the destruction of St. Paul's Chapel.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church after the collapse of the World Trade Center randommusings.filminspector.com
Working in St. Paul’s churchyard following Sept 11, 2001 (FEMA).
St. Paul's Chapel survived 9/11 even though it easily could have been destroyed. The Twin Towers were only a block away, and if the physics of the 9/11 attack been a little different, they could have fallen on it. Building No. 5 was right across the street.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church and the World Trade Center randommusings.filminspector.com
An aerial view shows how close the destroyed buildings were to St. Paul's Chapel (New York City Cemetery Project).
A lot of debris fell on and around St. Paul's Chapel, but not enough to destroy it. It was a virtually miraculous escape. The chapel served as a relief station well into 2002. As we all know, the World Trade Center was rebuilt in a new form - but it has some eerie similarities to how it had been before.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church 2018 randommusings.filminspector.com
View of Trinity Church in July 2018 (Google Street View).
Following 9/11, the area behind St. Paul's Chapel was vacant once again, just as it had been in the 19th Century. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and the background to this view now once again is filled by the new World Trade Center building. Though a lot has changed, the background looks eerily similar once again to the one in the 1973 photograph. However, as in that photo, Trinity Church still retains its majesty despite its much larger neighbors.

St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church 2018 randommusings.filminspector.com

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church is the true center of gravity of lower Manhattan and the other buildings come and go around it. Please visit some of the other entries in this series to see other examples of how the city has evolved over time!

2019

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Then and Now: East 4th Street at The Bowery

The Bowery at East 4th Street, Manhattan

The Bowery at East 4th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Bowery at East 4th Street, NYC, in 1980.
Some Manhattan neighborhoods a bit off the beaten path have gone through wild swings over the decades. The Bowery is one of them. Readers who are not from New York City or the surrounding area may not get some of the nuances of certain streets. The Bowery (and it is always called "the Bowery" for historical reasons) is the oldest thoroughfare on Manhattan Island. It originally was a native American path before the Dutch built a road on it. The entire area at that time was farmland, so the Dutch named the path/road Bouwerij road – "bouwerij" being their word for "farm." Peter Stuyvesant, the most famous leader of the Dutch on Manhattan Island, had a farm near the Bowery. It is one of those streets which predated the 1811 grid pattern and thus runs in a somewhat eccentric direction which just coincidentally happens to almost conform to it (unlike, say, Broadway). As one of the most historic streets in the city, it deserves more respect than it has been shown over the hundreds of years since the British took control of the island. When I saw the above picture of the Bowery from 1980, it brought back some memories. So, I decided to do a comparison of the Bowery at East 4th Street from 1980 to 2018.

The Bowery at East 4th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
357 Bowery, NYC, in July 2018 (Google Street View).
I wasn't sure from the original photo where to begin looking aside from the street name. The first objective always is to get the exact location on Google Maps. I had little to go on, just a notation that it was on "The Bowery," until I noticed the number on the second floor of the building on the left. It turned out to be the street number, and also happened to still be there (though the rest of the writing appears to have been scrubbed off). So, I knew I had the right spot at least, 357 Bowery, which is just south of East 4th Street. While this area doesn't really have an identity of its own beyond being "The Bowery," it can be considered part of the Lower East Side.

The Bowery at East 4th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
357 Bowery, NYC, in July 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, 357 Bowery is just another address, right, so what's the big deal? They look like typical mid-19th Century row houses. Well, we can see a lot from the 1980 photo that tells a story. The Bowery got extremely run down during the second half of the 20th Century. The phrase "Bowery bum" became common, because, for whatever reasons, the drunk and the destitute tended to gravitate to that area. As shown in the photo from 1980, the photographer apparently was trying to capture the desolation of the Bowery, with tramps in the street and the buildings looking like they come from a dystopian future. The 19th Century lettering on the building helped to take the scene into another dimension, one where the surroundings were relics from the 1890s and "progress" of the 20th Century never happened.

The Bowery at East 4th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
357 Bowery, NYC, in July 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, the good news is that The Bowery has moved beyond its worst period, although it hasn't exactly become the most beautiful spot in Manhattan. As the recent photos show, the worst defacements of the buildings are gone, though there is still some graffiti and also the old roll-down steel shutters in places. There's still trash in the street, but at least now it is neatly piled in bags for pickup. The bums are gone, though there are still people just "hanging out." It's a different scene, but you can definitely see the connection between then and now. Personally, I would have kept the old lettering on that building, I love that historic stuff, but at least they retained the street number. Plus, 357 has new windows, but they don't detract from the building's quaint appearance. Overall, it's a much nicer scene, but still the same scene. And, that's kind of nice.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more things stay the same" series. Sometimes the present is a distant reflection of the past, and that is the case with The Bowery at East 4th Street. Please visit the other pages in this series to see how a city evolves over time!.

2019

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Then and Now: Downing Street at Bedford Street, NYC

Bedford Street at Downing Street, NYC

Bedford Street at Downing Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Bedford at Downing Street, looking west, during the 1970s.
We're going for an excursion on this entry, one that stretches from the lazy days of the 1970s to the Internet Age. While the neighborhood we're looking at may seem kind of sleepy, in fact, it has come cutting-edge businesses that matter to people across the country every day. Bedford Street is in the West Village of Manhattan. It connects Christopher Street in the north with Sixth Avenue and West Houston Street in the south. It predates the 1811 grid pattern of Manhattan and is oriented slightly more to the north than the grid-pattern streets as they approach the Hudson River. It is a classic West Village residential area that doesn't change much from decade to decade. I found the above picture identified only as "Bedford Street" and decided to see if I could find the exact corner. Having found the spot, here is a comparison of Bedford Street at Downing Street in the West Village from the 1970s to 2018.

Bedford Street at Downing Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Bedford at Downing Street, looking west, in November 2017 (Google Street View).
Fortunately, the area has barely changed at all in four decades, so it only took a few minutes to identify this side street as Downing Street. The original photograph shows a building with distinctive crosses etched into its side, and fortunately (for our purposes) they are still there. The other buildings on both sides of Downing Street still have their fire escapes, and the building all the way down the block still has its distinctive humps. Thus, it appears we have the same spot, and comparison of the two photos shows that

Bedford Street at Downing Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The northwest corner of Downing and Bedford Streets, November 2017 (Google Street View). 
While the pictures look pretty darn similar despite being separated by about 40 years, there are some subtle changes that may tell us something about the changes in the inhabitants over that time. One thing I noticed was that the supermarket visible on the corner in the 1970s shot has morphed into a restaurant, "Emily," located at 35 Downing Streets. Supposedly, she has the best burgers in town, though I've never been there. Replacing a supermarket with a restaurant is telling because it seems as though people don't cook for themselves as much as they used to. Why that is I will leave to the experts, but there seem to be far fewer of those little neighborhood markets these days and more fast-food type places. So, while it's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one small change, this one seems to be part of a broader societal pattern.

Bedford Street at Downing Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Downing Street, NYC (Google Street View).
Another thing that struck me was the trees. Unlike so many photos from New York City in the 1970s, there actually were some trees on Downing Street back then. I'm no tree expert, but they appear to me at least to be the same trees, with some more added. They certainly are taller now than they were four decades ago. This tells me that Downing Street already was nicely arranged back in the 1970s and someone has been taking care of things there. That's the sign of a well-maintained area populated by people who care about their neighborhood.

225 Varick Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
225 Varick Street, NYC, in November 2017 (Google Street View).
The large building in the distance of the 1970s photo (now partially obscured by trees) is 225 Varick Street. That building, built in 1926, now happens to be home to Squarespace, which signed its lease in 2014. It runs through 2029. This is another sign of the times, as the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods of Tribeca, the West Village, Soho, Chelsea, and the Flatiron District have become favored spots for big tech companies. Google has a major presence in Chelsea, and Amazon has been looking for a spot on the West Side. The times change, and while the buildings stay the same, the neighborhoods change with them.

Thanks for visiting this entry in my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. That simple photo taken forty years ago from Bedford Street unwittingly took us into the Internet age. Please visit some of the other pages in the series!

2019

Then and Now: MacDougal at Minetta Lane, NYC

Cafe Wha?

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Cafe Wha?, MacDougal at Minetta Lane, 1968.
In some ways, New York City fits the stereotype of a frantic, ever-changing agglomeration of fleeting reality, where nothing lasts for long and things can change with the seasons. Small street-level businesses, including clubs and cafes, are some of the most ephemeral aspects of Manhattan. They come and go with the fads, an Irish pub one year, a fancy sushi bar the next. Even seemingly immortal venues such as CBGB, which introduced the world to acts like the Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones, closed its doors in 2006 (the early 2000s was a very bad period for Village institutions such as Caffe Borgia and Florent). The clubs that survive are special. When I came across the above photo from 1968, I had to do a little digging to see if the club shown was still there. So, this is a comparison of Cafe Wha? from 1968 to 2018, a nice, even 50 years.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Cafe Wha?  in July 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, we have kind of an exception here - sort of. Cafe Wha? has been at the corner of MacDougal and Minetta Lane since 1959. Well, sort of. It is a bit of a tale. Opened in 1959, Cafe Wha? was a venue for up-and-coming comedians and musical acts (Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, and Peter, Paul, & Mary, among others) that actually closed down around 1968 (the date of the picture above) when its owner sold it. The new owner changed the name to Cafe Feenjon and featured Middle Eastern acts. In 1987, the club changed ownership again, and the new owner (Noam Dworman) changed the name back to Cafe Wha? And, thus it has remained since 1987. It features the Cafe Wha? House Band, which is very popular, and also showcases celebrities with various talents. While the current signage looks vintage, in fact, it is all a very careful recreation or intended resemblance rather than the original items from 1968.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
MacDougal at Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village (Google Street View).
There's a bit more to the history of Cafe Wha? which resonates with later events. The original owner of Cafe Wha? was Manny Roth. Dworman, who took over the club in 1987, was a family friend of Roth. However, Dworman had a reason to know about Cafe Wha? besides simply a casual relationship and fond remembrances from his own childhood. Manny Roth's nephew was David Lee Roth. You may recognize that name from a band called Van Halen. As David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography, "Crazy From the Heat," he began hanging out at Cafe Wha? not long after his uncle established the club. Manny Roth, incidentally, passed away in 2014, revered in the rock-n-roll world for helping to discover or at least establish the careers of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Manny Roth and David Lee Roth (Courtesy of David Lee Roth/Ultimate Classic Rock).
Anyway, as you can see from comparing the above photos of the Cafe Wha? location, not much has changed. Cafe Wha? has the huge location advantage of being near the Minetta Lane Theatre, the best part of Bleecker Street, NYU, and the West Fourth Street subway stop. While a bit difficult to make out in the 1968 photo, the NYU School of Law was in the distance on the right in 1968 just as it is today. This par of MacDougal, incidentally, is not part of a Historic District, so the block's preservation was based on its intrinsic merits and not legislation.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of one of the more well-preserved areas of Manhattan in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of the other pages in the series!

2019

Monday, July 1, 2019

Then and Now: West 81st Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC

West 81st Street, Manhattan

Excelsior Hotel, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street, NYC, in the 1970s.
New York City is full of history, but sometimes it is in disguise while being in plain sight. The Excelsior Hotel at 45 W 81st St, between Columbus Ave and Central Park West, New York City, is one of those seemingly eternal New York City institutions that just toils on, decade after decade, doing its thing. I found the above snapshot of the Excelsior Hotel from the 1970s and wondered what it and the surrounding area looked like in the 21st Century. So, I decided to do a comparison of the Excelsior Hotel from the 1970s to 2018. This led to a motherlode of Manhattan history that people walk by every day without realizing it.

Hotel Standish Hall, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
A picture postcard of the Hotel Standish Hall at 45 West 81st Street, New York, New York from around 1930.
First, let's go back in time a bit. A little digging disclosed that the Hotel Excelsior originally was named the Hotel Standish Hall. The building in which the Hotel Standish Hall was located was built in 1922. The name derived from Miles Standish, an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims as military adviser for Plymouth Colony. The building had a Spanish Renaissance design. The name was changed at some point during the 1950s to Hotel Excelsior, which means "ever upward" (among other things). Around 2000, the hotel went through a major renovation which included a new lobby and removal of paint from the lower-floor stonework. They found that, over the decades, the building had been painted, and removing paint revealed shields with the motto ''Constant en tout,'' translated as ''Faithful in everything."

Excelsior Hotel, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street, NYC, in October 2017 (Google Street View).
A recent view of the same spot shows that the Excelsior Hotel remains in place. One key to a successful business in New York City is having an advantage due to your location. With the Excelsior Hotel, the advantage is that it is right across the street from the American Museum of Natural History. It also is about 500 yards from Central Park and a short walk from the Hudson River. So, the Excelsior Hotel continues to do a brisk business after almost a full century due to its favorable location and changing to meet the times. In addition, Excelsior Hotel rates are reasonable for Manhattan, perhaps due to relatively low real estate costs due to having remained in the same building (with proper maintenance, as we have seen) for so long. This is not an advertisement for the Excelsior hotel, but those are the sorts of factors which keep you in business. Looking at the somewhat threadbare canopy of the Excelsior Hotel shown in the photo from the 1970s, that wasn't the best time for it, but it made it through due to its natural advantages.

View from Excelsior Hotel toward Museum of Natural History, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
View south from the Excelsior Hotel toward the Museum of Natural History (Google Street View).
Being in such an old building does, however, have some drawbacks. It was not standard 100 years ago to have the same sorts of common spaces that more recent hotels include. For this reason, the Excelsior Hotel ranked last in a survey for the best place for unattached singles to stay. However, one can easily imagine that the Museum of Natural History attracts a lot of families with children who are there to see the museum, so that may not be the worst reputation to have for a hotel right across the street from it. The hotel played to that advantage by opening a "Planetarium Restaurant" around 1940 (The Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History opened in 1935, while the museum itself dates from 1877). The Excelsior Hotel is favored by European tourists and business people who appreciate the lack of noise that often accompanies singles. Having that reputation is ideal for the Upper West Side, which basically has become a bedroom community for the business areas in Midtown Manhattan and Wall Street. Having a generic and internationally recognizable name such as "Excelsior" probably doesn't hurt in luring that kind of clientele, either (there are Excelsior hotels in Sorrento, Italy, Dubrovnik, Hong Kong, and many other far-off locales). That may have been why they changed the name from the more parochial "Myles Standish" which someone halfway around the world probably wouldn't recognize.

100 West 81st Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
100 West 81st Street at Columbus Avenue (Google Street View).
Most of the other buildings near the Excelsior Hotel also have been unchanged for many decades. For instance, the first large hotel on the street, the Hotel Colonial at Columbus Avenue, was built in 1905, and the next was the Bownette (funded by chemical manufacturer Samuel W. Bowne, hence the name) at 11 West 81st Street, built in 1908. The mid-rise Endicott just across Columbus Avenue at 101 West 81st Street was built in 1889. It does not hurt that these buildings are in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District. So, when you mention that these are "pre-war" buildings, you could be referring to quite a few wars.

The Burnette, 101 West 81st Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The Burnette, 101 West 81st Street, on the northwest corner of 81st Street at Columbus Avenue. It dates from 1889 (Google Street View).
So, the Excelsior Hotel building dating from 1922 is not exactly unusual for that area. In fact, what does attract the eye are any changes over time, not the continuities. Comparing the 1970s photograph with the more recent shots shows that the white building at the southwest corner of 81st Street and Columbus Avenue looks much different. It turns out, though, that it is the same building, albeit heavily remodeled. This is 100 West 81st Street, which is described as "created by converting four flats and a small commercial building from the 1880s in 1978 to 1982." So, we can date the original photo at the top of this page to the period prior to 1978, when the building was converted. That remodel apparently was done for conversion to a coop, which was accomplished in 1983 (a very hot time for NYC coop conversions).

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. There is a lot of history in New York City if you know where to look for it. Please feel free to visit some of our other pages in this series!

2019