Mark your calendars for Wednesday, January 24, at 7:00 PM, when Community Board 7 will hold a community meeting on the potential designation of a Manhattan Valley Historic District (in the vicinity of 104th to 106th Street along Manhattan Avenue). The meeting will take place at the Jewish Home & Hospital, 120 West 106th Street (between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues).
Very few buildings above West 96th Street have been protected through landmark designation - yet. For over two decades, LANDMARK WEST! has advocated for a historic district that would include the lovely Queen-Anne-style rowhouses lining Manhattan Avenue between 104th and 106th Streets (see Christopher Gray's New York Times "Streetscapes" column, praising the blocks' quiet, picturesque qualities, below). CB 7's meeting is an important opportunity to make sure that the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognizes the level of public support for protecting this special part of the Upper West Side. Your presence and input on the 24th is absolutely essential! Bring your family, your neighbors, your friends. Be vocal, or simply let your presence speak for itself. It's YOUR community at stake. Will it be preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy, or will it be targeted as yet another development opportunity? YOU can help decide.
New York Times
November 28, 1999
Streetscapes/Manhattan Avenue Between 104th and 106th Streets; 1880's Brick Row Houses With a Bostonian Air
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
THE picturesque pocket of Victorian row houses on Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 106th Streets, which date from the time the thoroughfare got its name, has a calm Bostonian air that makes it seem a bit removed from city life.
Manhattan Avenue was not on the original street plan for New York City, but by 1868 it was mapped -- as New Avenue -- running north from 100th Street between what are now Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. This was well before any real development in the area, but in the mid-1880's sales activity picked up, and the thoroughfare received its current name in 1884. High land prices discouraged row house building on Central Park West, although in 1884 the New York Cancer Hospital -- now abandoned -- started its giant rounded building on Central Park West from 105th to 106th Streets.
The first building activity on Manhattan Avenue occurred in 1885, when Frederick Seitz put up the row houses on the west side of the street from 105th to 106th, designed by Joseph M. Dunn. The next year the developer John Brown built up the east side of the same block with houses designed by C. P. H. Gilbert, and in 1889 Joseph Turner had the architect Edward Angell design the houses on the west side of Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 105th.
Although other developers were still putting up traditional high-stoop brownstones elsewhere in Manhattan, all these buildings were brick, with stone and terra cotta trim and lower stoops; they were only three stories tall, costing between $8,000 and $12,000 to build. The houses designed by Gilbert, who later did Fifth Avenue mansions like what is now the original wing of the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street, are close to the Queen Anne style, with sunburst motifs in the gables, wavy linear ornament on the cornice, and multilight windows with stained glass.
Those by Dunn are a little wilder, with widely varying arches and gables. The critic Montgomery Schuyler coined the phrase ''reign of terror'' style to describe them because of their startling and alarming appearance. The Angell houses are neo-Romanesque and more sophisticated, although still quite varied. All have unusual ornament -- terra cotta panels with
rivet-head figuring, sunburst ironwork and subtly varying brickwork.
The early occupants were modestly successful, like George B. Sharp, a stable owner, at 122 Manhattan Avenue; Albert H. Kohn, a jeweler, at 132; and Paris Fletcher, an electrician, at 138.
Sometime in the 1910's the family of Charles Gruppe moved into 138 Manhattan Avenue; a landscape painter, Gruppe lived there with his wife and three sons, Paul, a cellist, Karl, a sculptor, and Emile, a painter. At the same time more and more houses were renting out rooms -- George C. Hammer, a sea captain, was a roomer at 119 Manhattan Avenue.
By then, the houses on Manhattan Avenue were holdouts in a sea of tenements and apartment buildings, their status reinforced when the giant Frederick Douglass housing project went up at the southwest corner of 104th Street and Manhattan Avenue in the 1950's.
Daniel and Elsie Matos are among the senior residents of the row-house stretch of Manhattan Avenue -- they moved into the top floor of 122 Manhattan Avenue in 1959. ''We were living on East 117th Street and came over here for something different,'' Mrs. Matos said. Mr. Matos, a retired cabdriver, said that ''when we moved in this was a drug dealer's neighborhood.''
His building has spongy linoleum-covered stairs, ancient paint and battered front doors, but it also has its original encaustic tile vestibule floor and original woodwork. He said that his monthly rent was between $200 and $300 and he estimated that the rent for each full-floor apartment in the building was about the same. ''It's great -- you go to bed at night and you don't hear a fly in here,'' he said.
Ella S. McDonald bought the building at 138 Manhattan Avenue in 1972. She said that Karl Gruppe would not sell unless she and her husband promised not to convert the building into a rooming house. ''I said, 'What's a rooming house?' and he let us buy it,'' she recalled. ''The block was unbelievably bad. My family thought I had lost my mind -- a couple of houses were boarded up, street people all over the place, bongos 24 hours a day. But five or six of us families got together, and we decided we were not going to let the drug people push us out.''
ELIZABETH KELLNER said that she and her husband, David, both lawyers, bought their house, at 132 Manhattan Avenue, in 1976 for $25,000. She said they stripped all the woodwork and installed period fixtures. The fireplaces on the lower floors are heavily worked oak pieces, with figured tiles in earth tones, but the top-floor fireplaces are plain slate, with geometric incised lines, spare and abstract.
Their living room -- perhaps 12 by 16 feet -- is small and cozy, but big enough for a baby grand, a small sofa and a large television. Like the other three-story Manhattan Avenue houses, theirs is much more livable than the standard dark Manhattan row house, usually built very deep and four or five stories high.
In December 1986 Mr. Kellner used an old statute, the Bawdy House Law, to evict squatting drug dealers who had taken over the building at 124 Manhattan Avenue. Since then, neighbors agree, the neighborhood has continued to improve. Mrs. Kellner said that although the available shopping is not what she would prefer, ''I really like the fact that the neighborhood is racially, ethnically and economically integrated.'' They have taken down the board fences separating their backyard from their neighbors'.
All this has taken place in the shadow of the old New York Cancer Hospital, later a nursing home, designated a landmark in 1976 and vacant since. There have been various plans for redevelopment, but the building remains a majestic wreck. Some call it a blight, but it is also a peaceful interlude in the area, a sort of architectural preserve.
Mrs. McDonald said she likes it on Manhattan Avenue. ''It's a neighborhood,'' she said. ''When my brother came by to come in with a key, people asked him who he was -- my brother was very impressed. Why would I move from here?''