405-465 West 23rd Street

The stock market on Wall Street was not the only thunderous crash in Manhattan in 1929. The annus horribilus was also the year that the wrecking-ball tore into an entire block of stately Greek Revival townhouses in Chelsea. In late October, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by fifty percent, "London Terrace" was falling down.
Its demise had actually been precipitated in part by an earlier stock market panic in 1907, which brought the country into recession. A block that had been properly dubbed "Millionaire’s Row" over time became prohibitively expensive, and single-family townhouses were subsequently subdivided into boarding houses and individual apartments. In 1919, three townhouses near Tenth Avenue were remodeled and connected to make room for the original campus of the New School for Social Research.

Constructed in 1865, the twenty-six elegant and pilastered London Terrace townhouses were set back on deep lots on West 23rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues, which permitted substantial space for each of the houses to have gated yards in the front. They were built by William Torrey, who leased the land from Bishop Clement C. Moore, author of the famous poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and son of a former president of Columbia University. These houses, together with a group of cottages that Torrey built behind them facing 24th Street, became a popular residential quarter for individuals in the literary and art world.

But by 1929, the leases on all but a couple of the properties had fallen into the hands of developer Henry Mandel – for reportedly just over $4,000,000 – who set his sights on constructing the largest apartment building in the world. The contiguous beauty of the long row of townhouses was apparently lost on Mr. Mandel, who saw only an easy demolition opportunity. "The section which we will develop is one of the most logical areas in the downtown section for the purpose," he observed to The New York Times. "Here may be found about the only unbroken rows of old-style buildings which lend themselves readily to destruction without the interference of newer structures." (It may just as well have been Henry Mandel whom Le Corbusier was referring to when he noted that "immense industrial undertakings do not need great men.") Mandel cared nothing for the historic or aesthetic qualities of the property. "The convenience of the section to the midtown and shopping centres," he added to the Times, "offers another logical reason for such development."

Mandel was frustrated in the development of the property, however, by a scrappy subleasee at 429 West 23rd Street. Tillie Hart stayed on in her apartment, maintaining that her sublease was still valid for another year, although the underlying primary lease had already expired. Despite demolition by Mandel's firm of the townhouses to the east and west of the building she occupied, Hart refused to vacate the premises, so both parties fought it out publicly in court. Alpern and Durst provide a colorful summary of the legal battle in their book, New York's Architectural Holdouts (Dover: 1996):

Mr. Mandel got a court order; she obtained a stay; he secured a declaration from the Department of Buildings that the house was unsafe; she obtained another stay; he had an eviction order signed; she became ill.

Mrs. Hart was even assisted by a cousin, who disrupted attempts at demolition by standing menacingly on the roof with a pile of bricks. Mandel finally forcibly removed her possessions from her apartment and placed them on the curb. Hart held out for a further night, sleeping on newspapers spread out on the floor, but gave up the fight the following day. The last London Terrace townhouse was torn down shortly thereafter.
The mammoth structure that replaced the London Terrace townhouses was designed by the architectural firm of Farrar & Watmough and contained 1,665 apartments – instantly making it the largest residential building in the entire city of New York. Today the building is divided into two separate residences: London Terrace Towers, consisting of the four towers at the corner of the building, and London Terrace Gardens in the center of the block.


915 Third Avenue

Although it does not scrape for the sky like its neighbors, the unassuming two-story building located at 915 Third Avenue (at 55th Street) holds over 120 years of memories, and a skeleton key to the avenue's past.

The building at 915 Third Avenue was built in a simplified Italianate style in the 1860s. It was originally four stories: three floors of railroaded apartments over a ground-floor saloon. The building was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Michael and Ellen Breslin in 1884. In 1904, the saloon was leased to Patrick Joseph Clarke, an Irishman hailing from County Leitrim.

As the city expanded uptown, the neighborhood became packed with breweries and slaughterhouses whose day laborers clamored for the drink at night. In those naughty oughties, Third Avenue was only just learning to shop, but drinking was well under its belt: some of its blocks had as many as eight bars on each side of the street! Under Clarke's management, the saloon at 915 Third Avenue boomed with business from local politicians, newspaper reporters, and others who were frequently seen out and about town. Despite his success, Clarke never bought the building.

The pub became known as P.J. Clarke's, and the building was bought in 1943 by Daniel and Matilda Lavezzo, who owned a nearby antique shop. In 1945, the notoriety of P.J. Clarke's was immortalized in film when it was used for the many barroom scenes of The Lost Weekend. Clarke's death in 1948 left his heirs fighting over the pub's operation, and so within a year they sold their interests to the Lavezzo family. Under the management of Danny Lavezzo, Jr. and Charles Clarke, P.J. Clarke's prospered and continued to win the faith of customers like Frank Sinatra and Richard Harris.

In 1967, Tishman Realty & Construction Company came knocking, seeking to buy up the whole block for a high-rise office building. Lavezzo refused to give in.

Most stories of holdout tenants would end right here, and the next knock at the door would be the wrecking ball. However, Danny Lavezzo had an ace in the hole: he had bought a midblock property, which he refused to give up unless P.J. Clarke's stayed. After some hard bargaining, Lavezzo sold both buildings to Mr. Tishman for $1.5 million (today, approximately $8.5 million) and a ninety-nine year lease for P.J. Clarke's (set for renewal in 2067).

Today, as it was a century ago, P.J. Clarke's is a bustling pub. Its current owners, Timothy Hutton and Phil Scotti, restored P.J. Clarke's while remaining true to its nineteenth-century grandeur and leaving its relics in place. The food -- red meat and raw bar especially -- receives consistently excellent raves and reviews, although today's Page Sixers seem to prefer wheat grass and free-range chicken to solidly good pub grub.

P.J. Clarke's is an exercise in contrast: while discreetly drawing attention to itself as a low-lying oasis in a high-rise desert, it also stands unafraid before the 45-story Goliath looming behind it.

The next time you're in the neighborhood, stop in and raise your glass to 2068.


Thirteenth Avenue

Once upon a time, there was a Thirteenth Avenue in Manhattan.

In 1837, the New York State Legislature passed a bill permitting the City of New York to extend the island's western shore further out into the Hudson River. The boundary of this westward extension was an imaginary line in the middle of the Hudson River that ran from Hammond Street (today, West 11th Street) to West 135th Street. Although this area was still under water, the imaginary line was designated as Thirteenth Avenue. The City then began vigorously selling the underwater lots to individuals, who promised to develop and landfill the lots.

Within eighteen years, Thirteenth Avenue was effectively destroyed when the state Legislature made it illegal to landfill beyond 100 feet of Twelfth Avenue -- in most places, well short of the original line designated for Thirteenth Avenue. This halted most development encouraged by the City until then, and even required sections already developed to be submerged. The advent of the age of the luxury liner required a wider corridor in the Hudson River if these ships were to dock in New York harbor. However, the Legislature's mandate left insufficient docking space for these increasingly imposing ships, such as the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Titanic. Therefore, in 1890, the Harbor Commission and the Secretary of War partially overrode the Legislature's decision by providing for an additional 50 feet beyond Twelfth Avenue, allowing space for what would eventually become the Chelsea Piers. Essentially, Thirteenth Avenue had to cede to the City's ever-constant desire to be one of the world's greatest ports.

One casualty of this decision was Charles Appleby, who bought the lot bounded by 39th and 40th Streets, and 12th and 13th Avenues, from the City in 1853 for $6,367.37 (today, approximately $141,000). Appleby's deed promised he would develop his lot pursuant to the City's instructions.
Between 1853 and 1871, Appleby managed to landfill nearly 500 feet out to the Thirteenth Avenue line, and pave the street areas contained within his lot. However, when the laws changed regarding Thirteenth Avenue, the Secretary of War tried to condemn Appleby's lot. Meanwhile, the City -- in deep debt -- built piers adjacent to Appleby's lot, began dredging Appleby's lot up to depths of 20 feet, rented out mooring space over his land, and then sent him a bill for back taxes of $74,000 (today, approximately $1.25 million)! Appleby sued to prevent the City from dredging and using his lots, but the City seemed to think that public rights had somehow been re-acquired after all the legislative action regarding Thirteenth Avenue. Thirty-five years later, well after Appleby's death, the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor and kicked the trespassing City off of his land.

In 1883, The New York Times took its readers on a stroll up this "very peculiar avenue" of only about a dozen blocks, concluding that this was "a west side thoroughfare of little account."
Starting at West 11th Street, where Thirteenth Avenue was "so completely united" with Eleventh Avenue as to make the two indistinguishable, the Times ended its voyage halfway between West 26th and 27th Streets where Thirteenth Avenue abruptly ended in a high board fence, just where "it begins to promise great things, and the casual pedestrian feels inclined to take a fancy to it."And there was much to fancy. Although the southernmost part of the avenue took "the form of a dreary waste," it then allowed "occasional glimpses of the surrounding country" which "suggest[ed] the mountain ravine" before taking on "the desert aspect." But further north, the ambling New Yorker was treated to a blast from the Gilded Age:
At Twenty-third-street, the avenue suddenly awakes into life. The Pavonia ferry-house, the numerous street-cars, and the comparative throngs of people which are seen at that point, remind the promenader in Thirteenth-avenue of the fact that he is still within the limits of a great City.

Along the way, Thirteenth Avenue presented a bonanza of quixotic street life. The bare bones of the City's development were present in the form of lumber piles stacked "in the true Pisa fashion." At night, the avenue was nearly empty, and the Times noted that, "[t]he police avoid it scrupulously." Corner watering-holes, like Barney Goodwin's bar of illegal cockfights and Henry Houlston's saloon of brawling longshoremen, lit up the Thirteenth Avenue nights as much as the avenue's frequent fires. Several buildings were damaged, and companies lost forever to history, in these fires: the Empire Print Works, the Electric Candle Company, William H. Popham's lard refinery, the New York Drying Company, the Delmater Iron Works, and E.M. Van Tassel's grain elevator and warehouse.

Many livelihoods were made and lives lost on Thirteenth Avenue. At the City's dumps on the western side of the avenue, Italian women gathered coals from ash piles while Italian men described as "not nice persons" sorted through garbage for "objects of infinitesimal value." Though not likely found among the Times' readership, the paper generously offered these men some advice: "...they could make their hands and faces cleaner by rubbing them with the garbage." U.S. Navy ships returning from a tour of duty dropped anchor just north of the ferry landing at Thirteenth Avenue and 23rd Street. A lunch counter selling sandwiches and sodas on the Hudson's shore advertised, with classic New York bite, "swimming pool in backyard." Despite the prohibition against harbor swimming, young boys could be found diving and swimming off Thirteenth Avenue's wharves. Though not quite a society address, the Times did write up the avenue's notables in 1898:
There are many queer homes in New York, but, in all probability, the most peculiar are the homes of two men who live, and have lived for three or four years, in the big pile of paving stones belonging to the Department of Public Works on Thirteenth Avenue, between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets.
Firemen, millwrights, and horses alike lost their lives to Thirteenth Avenue blazes. Barnet Baff, "The Chicken Baron" of the early 1900s, was murdered in a Thirteenth Avenue market building. Moving vehicle accidents on Thirteenth Avenue took the lives of a truck driver hauling his scrap iron for weighing at the Consolidated Gas Company, and a four year old boy tragically caught under timber being illegally dragged by a negligent driver.
Today, the life of Thirteenth Avenue itself has been lost. All that remains is
one unmarked block, located across the West Side Highway from Gansevoort Street. Unfortunately, visitors to today's Thirteenth Avenue will not be greeted with the delights that awaited the Gilded Age promenader, but rather treated to a view of the Bloomfield Street Sanitation Depot and its parking lots.

Related: 13 Journal

21 Washington Place

Though throughout his life he maintained that his earliest memories were of the Place Vendome in Paris, the novelist Henry James (1843-1916) always remained nostalgic for his first childhood home at No. 21 Washington Place. Purchased by his father in 1842 for $18,000, the brick townhouse between Greene Street and Mercer Street was also the writer's birthplace. During their residence at 21 Washington Place, the James family, which included Henry's elder brother, William -- later in life the renowned pragmatist philosopher -- were visited by both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their house would have been similar to those surrounding nearby Washington Square Park (above).

In his collection of travel essays, The American Scene, Henry James meditated on returning to his birthplace from Europe in 1904 -- after a 21-year absence from the United States -- only to discover that it was no longer there:

This was the snub, for the complacency of retrospect, that, whereas the inner sense had positively erected there for its private contemplation a commerorative mural tablet, the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable. And I have indeed to permit myself this free fantasy of the hypothetic rescued identity of a given house -- taking the vanished number in Washington Place as most pertinent -- in order to invite the reader to gasp properly with me before the fact that we not only fail to remember, in the whole length of the city, one of these frontal records of birth, sojourn, or death, under a celebrated name, but that we have only to reflect an instant to see any such form of civic piety inevitably and forever absent . . . .

Many years after the James family moved out of No. 21 Washington Place it was torn down and replaced with a larger eight-story building (below), which today is one of numerous buildings around Washington Square owned by New York University.