In the 1750s Robert Murray, a prosperous Quaker merchant began laying out a 25-acre farm near the top a hill called Inclenberg that is now Park Avenue between 36th and 37th streets. For the better part of the next 100 years the Murrays who lived here called their country estate “Belmont.” New Yorkers called it Murray Hill.
According to legend the Murrays played a part in the American Revolution. On September 15, 1776 the Battle of Manhattan began in Kips Bay when five British warships routed untrained Colonial troops and sent them in disorderly retreat. Mary Murray took this moment to invite the British commander General Sir William Howe and his men to interrupt their pursuit and rest at Belmont to enjoy a pot of tea, allowing the Americans to escape. Apparently Mary Murray’s charms trumped the desire to put down an armed rebellion.
The coveted Murray property began to be divided into building lots in the 1840s but family injected the famous “Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement” into each deed that barred business and commerce from fouling their beloved land. So only residential dwellings were allowed in Murray Hill and it became New York’s most fashionable address for a time in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the families receiving mail here included the Belmonts, Rhinelanders, Roosevelts, Havermeyers, Tiffanys and Morgans. Opulent mansions were built between Fifth and Park avenues and carriage houses serving them occupied spaces between Lexington and Third avenues. There were plenty of handsome townhouses, mostly in brownstone, as well.
The Restrictive Agreement couldn’t keep out the crass commercial class forever. Retailers invaded Fifth Avenue in the early 1900s and Park Avenue became the street of choice for multi-unit, high-rise apartments. But the attempt to steer the fortunes of their ancestral lands helped shape the vibrant residential oasis in midtown Manhattan that survives to this day.
Our walking tour will start at the site of Belmont, where the two-story stone house stood, until a fire in 1835, facing on the present intersection of Park Avenue and 37th Street...
Union League Club
38 East 37th Street
Dragging into its third year in 1863, the Civil War was not going well for the North. The Union League was an outgrowth of support for the preservation of the Union. This is the fourth residence for the club whose members have included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur and Herbert Hoover. Architect Benjamin Wystar Morris drew up the plans for the Georgian Revival clubhouse, crafted of red brick in 1931on land once belonging to the family of J. P. Morgan.
WALK WEST ON EAST 37TH STREET.
233 Madison Avenue, northeast corner of East 37th Street
Joseph De Lamar was born in Holland in the 1840s and put to sea before settling in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He operated a marine salvage business for awhile before heading West in search of nickel and other metals, and quickly made a fortune. De Lamar came to New York in the early 1890s but his “new money” did not play well in New York society. He decided to make a splash with a house and hired Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert for the job in 1902. Gilbert who would design the United States Supreme Court building and three state capitols, delivered one of the most opulent mansions in New York, heavy with rusticated stone and infused with classical French ornaments. De Lamar died in 1918, leaving an estate of $29 million and still being called “eccentric” and a “man of mystery.” The house was sold to the National Democratic Club and, in 1973, to Poland for their consulate.
TURN LEFT ON MADISON AVENUE.
J.P. Morgan, Jr. House
231 Madison Avenue
This is one of the earliest and last freestanding Italianate mansions that once marched through fashionable Madison Avenue in the 1850s. Financier Isaac Newton Phelps built a group of such houses, including this one, for his family. In 1904, banking mogul J.P. Morgan purchased the house for his son, J.P. “Jack” Morgan, Jr. who renovated the home during the nearly 40 years he lived here. The mansion dodged the wrecking ball in the 1970s when New York’s financial crisis halted many development programs and in 1988 it was incorporated into the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum complex.
Morgan Library and Annex
225 Madison Avenue
In 1902, 65-year old John Pierpont Morgan went looking for a place to store his magnificent collection of books and manuscripts. Architect Charles McKim delivered one of his best buildings for Morgan, drawing on 16th century Roman prototypes and scaling the library to fit into the neighborhood streetscape. Look at the stones fitted perfectly together with no need for a full bed of mortar in a lost art of construction seldom seen today. The Annex, fronting Madison Avenue, was designed by Benjamin W. Morris and built in 1928 on the site of J.P. Morgan’s house, which had been the first uptown house to have electric lights. There was no grid needed for J.P. - Thomas Edison built a power plant in the garden to juice the house.
H. Percy Silver House
209 Madison Avenue
Robert Mook injected this stone-faced masonry townhouse that dates to 1868 with Tudor-styled detailing. The Jacobean entrance porch is decorated with drum columns topped with truncated obelisks and balls. H. Percy Silver served as the rector of the Church of the Incarnation from 1918 to 1934. The house is now the parish house.
Church of the Incarnation
205 Madison Avenue, corner of East 35th Street
Emlen T. Littel, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Gothic Revival style, was a busy church architect in Philadelphia and New York during the middle of the 19th century. He designed this one in 1864 for the Church of the Incarnation which began in 1850 as a mission of Grace Church in Greenwich Village. After a fire in 1882 the meetinghouse was rebuilt according to Littel’s original plans and enlarged by architect David Jardine. This was the church of such notables as Civil War naval hero David Farragut of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” fame and members of the Roosevelt family; Eleanor Roosevelt was confirmed here.
TURN RIGHT ON 35TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON FIFTH AVENUE.
409 Fifth Avenue, southeast corner of 37th Street
Tiffany & Company, specializing in stationery and notions, was founded in 1837 by Charles Louis Tiffany. By the 1840s the store was selling the wares for which the name would become famous: glass, porcelain and jewelry. The Tiffany Blue box doggedly pursued New York’s elite as they moved uptown and finally landed here in 1906. Stanford White called on the 16th-century Palazzo Grimani in Venice, Italy as his inspiration for the Tiffany Building, whose seven floors are masked behind three layers of Corinthian-framed windows. New York shoppers had never seen anything like the marble-encrusted main selling floor which caused Architects & Builders Magazine to gush that it was, “the finest piece of artistic steelwork in this country.’’ Tiffany moved away in 1940 and today Burger King dishes out Whoppers here.
390 Fifth Avenue, southwest corner of 36th Street
Jabez Gorham and Henry Webster began crafting thimbles, spoons and silver jewelry in 1831 in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1884 the company entered the New York City retailing wars in the Ladies Mile shopping district on Sixth Avenue, and by the 1890s the aggressive Edward Holbrook, Gorham’s president, had the company rivaling Tiffany’s. In September 1905 the two companies opened their new buildings within days of each other, a block apart, both designed by Stanford White. The new Gorham Building was more restrained but just as elegant, calling up echoes of the Florentine renaissance. Gorham’s eight-story facade is of white limestone and granite, originally heavily trimmed with Gorham-made bronze at the ground and upper floors. The bronze alone was said to be one-tenth of the cost of the $1.25 million building. Time treated Gorham’s showpiece roughly; after the company was purchased in 1967 the building was stripped of its delicate arches and carved figures.
B. Altman & Company
361 Fifth Avenue, between 34th and 35th streets
Benjamin Altman took over the family retail business in 1865 when he was 25 years old. In 1906 Altman became the first department store to hang out a shingle on Fifth Avenue, leading the charge to the most coveted retail address in America. Altman made sure his retail palace, resplendent with a French limestone mask, blended in with the opulent mansions that were its neighbors. Benjamin Altman died in 1913 with no heirs but his department store trundled on until 1989.
Empire State Building
350 Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets
The beauty of the Empire State Building is that while it dominates the Manhattan skyline, it hardly impacts the city streetscape. It is entirely possible to walk past the 102-story tower - with nearly three million square feet of office space - and not realize it. The classic Art Deco skyscraper, designed by William F. Lamb, takes its name from the nickname for the state of New York. It stood as the world’s tallest building for more than forty years, from its completion in 1931 until construction of the World Trade Center’s North Tower came online in 1972. The Empire State Building has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. In 2007, it was ranked number one on the List of America’s Favorite Architecture according to the American Institute of Architecture.
RETURN TO 35TH STREET AND TURN RIGHT (EAST).
22 East 35th Street
Founded in 1896, the Collectors Club is one of the oldest organizations for stamp enthusiasts in America. Stanford White’s marvelously proportioned Colonial Revival five-story brownstone was built in 1902 as the residence of Thomas and Fanny Clarke. The philatelic society first started holding its meetings and lectures here in 1937.
TURN RIGHT ON EAST 73RD STREET.
23 Park Avenue, northeast corner of East 35th Street
This home for cotton broker-turned politician James Hampden Robb and his wife Cornelia Van Rensselaer Robb was designed by legendary architect Stanford White and constructed from 1888-92. White tapped the influences of the Italian Renaissance for the brownstone and terra-cotta creation, often cited as one of his best city dwellings. The house was acquired by the Advertising Club in 1923 and converted to apartments in 1977.
114 East 35th Street
Adding to one of Murray Hill’s most elegant streets is this 1859 church for the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish religious philosopher, mystic and scientist. Members of the New Church first immigrated to New York City in the 1790s. In 1853, James Chesterman offered the Society three lots on 35th Street on the condition that a new church building be erected on the property. The first minister, Professor George Bush, was a first cousin four times removed of President George H.W. Bush (and five times removed of George W. Bush).
123 East 35th Street
The Beaux Arts mansion was built between 1901 and 1903 by James F. D. Lanier, a banker, and his wife, Harriet Bishop Lanier. The 33-foot wide, three-bay home replaced two earlier brownstone rowhouses and ushered in a wave of larger mansions coming to Murray Hill. The designers, Francis Laurens Vinton Hoppin and Terence A. Koen, cut their architectural teeth in the legendary shop of McKim, Mead & White.
East 35th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues
By the 1840s the country estate of Robert Murray had begun to be partitioned off and sold to developers. Some of the earliest residences appeared on this block, at 102-112, 105-111, and 123-127, all built in 1853-54. The contiguous brownstone townhouses create a chocolate wave that engulfed New York streets in the mid-1800s. Most were raised in the Italianate style.
TURN LEFT ON 3RD AVENUE. TURN LEFT ON EAST 36TH STREET.
Sniffen Court Historic District
150-158 East 36th Street
This grouping of ten Romanesque Revival stables were erected in the mid-1800s on a small court set perpendicular to the street. They are believed to have taken the name of John Sniffen, a local builder. In the 1920s the humble two-story brick buildings were converted into fashionable residences including an art studio for sculptor Malvina Hoffman at the far end of the alley and a small theater, the Amateur Comedy Club to the right of the gate, facing the street. Horses were once watered at the hand pump in front of the rear wall. This is New York City’s second smallest historic district.
125 East 36th Street
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in her parents’ first home at 56 West 37th Street. When she married Franklin Roosevelt the couple first rented rooms in the Hotel Webster so that he could finish his first year at Columbia Law School. Later in 1904, after they returned from their four-month honeymoon/grand tour of Europe, they moved into this house that Sara Delano Roosevelt rented for them. The narrow brownstone that Franklin jokingly called, “our 14-foot mansion,” was fully furnished with servants in place. The Roosevelts’ first two children were born here before they moved uptown in 1908.
RETURN TO LEXINGTON AVENUE AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON EAST 38TH STREET.
152 East 38th Street
Here is an oddity for Manhattan - a bit of front yard. For some reason not recorded contractor Patrick McCafferty constructed his brick Federal-flavored house twenty yards back from the street in 1857.
149 East 38th Street
William R. H. Martin built this steep-gabled carriage house in the manner of a Dutch Renaissance townhome in 1902. George S. Bowdoin bought the building and had architect Ralph Samuel Townsend convert the stable into a garage at 1918. The inset panels of horse heads in the decorative scheme reference the building’s original function but they are trumped by the excellent bulldog in the gable. The horses’ home didn’t become a place for humans to live until a multi-million dollar makeover in the 1980s.
TURN AROUND AND WALK WEST ON EAST 38TH STREET.
Todd Lincoln House
122-124 East 38th Street
This elegant 6-story townhouse with an elevator was built in 1892 by Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, for one of his two daughters. The 14-foot-wide Georgian brick home includes period details such as egg and dart, dentil and decorative acanthus leaves in the moldings. The home with seven fireplaces went on the market in 2005 for $6.5 million.
TURN LEFT ON PARK AVENUE.
57 Park Avenue
Horace Trumbauer was born in 1868 in modest circumstances in suburban Philadelphia and came to be known as the architect who built grand country places for the very rich. But he also created some of the most desirable townhouses ever seen in Manhattan and this one was built in 1910 for Adelaide Douglas, a mistress of J. Pierpont Morgan. Trumbauer used the French Louis XVI style here, giving a different treatment to each floor. The building now houses the Guatemala Mission to the United Nations.
CONTINUE A SHORT DISTANCE ON PARK AVENUE TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT 37TH STREET.