Walks in New York and elsewhere

My comments on buildings, shops, restaurants that catch my eye as I wander around New York City and other places.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Grand Street in SoHo

On the northeast corner is the French Culinary Institute, a cooking school headed by Jacques Pepin that has a restaurant on the ground floor where student can practice on the public.

Across the street, and going through the block to Mercer Street, a large new building is going up. If memory serves, it will be a hotel.

A glance downtown on Mercer Street offers a glimpse of the Woolworth Building (with the vaguely triangular roofline) in the background.

Grand Street does not have the most interesting buildings, nor the best stores in SoHo, but it does convey a sense of what the area was like before rampant gentrification took place.

Alterations to any building in an historic district are subject to review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Certain changes may be approved by a staff member. If the work is more extensive, the applicant may need to appear at a public hearing and present the plans to the appointed Commissioners for their approval. Once the plan is determined to be appropriate, a permit will be issued. It must be displayed, along with similar permits from the Buildings Department.

The building at 93 Grand

has a plaque. Not all landmarks have them. This building was one of many in SoHo designed by John B. Snook, who also designed the large brownstone building opposite the old Police Headquarters building. Click on the photo to read more.

At Wooster Street there is a colorful parking lot across the street from a colorful, red brick building with some unusual Tudor-style lintels.

Some buildings have the date of construction emblazoned near the roof, in this case, within the rounded section of the cornice/parapet. Others may have the a metal plate with the name of the foundry, usually near the ground.

Sometimes the cast-iron really looks like stone.

On other buildings the masonry and terra cotta are unmistakable.

At the top of the same building (60 Grand) are two ghosts -- that of an ad for Coca-Cola and the armature for a Rachel Whiteread cast resin sculpture of a water tower that was in itself a "ghost" of the original object.

Nearby is
restaurant, atmospheric, regardless of food.

This is at the boundary of SoHo. The remaining portion of Grand Street is in the South Village. At Thompson Street, there is an odd stucco building, constructed in 1940, Mediterranean in its applied details.

Grand Street ends at Varick.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On to SoHo

Crossing Crosby Street, we enter the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. You can always tell when you are in a NYC-designated historic district in NYC by the brown street signs. In the picture, you can see the brown Crosby Street sign. If you visit the website of the New York City Landmarks Commission (sorry, the links aren't working) you can see maps of the historic district.

Keep in mind that cast iron is a structural, not a stylistic term. The various styles are the same Victorian revival styles that could be and were executed in other building materials during the same period. Because of the nature of cast iron, larger windows and more open floor plans were possible. Because the parts of the building were fabricated off-site, construction could proceed quickly and efficiently. They were especially popular for retail establishments, warehouses and light industry, which are the original uses for the buildings in SoHo.

In addition to the cast iron buildings (and not all the buildings are cast-iron) distinctive features of this district are granite sidewalks,

paving stone streets,

vault lights,
counter-weighted fire escapes
and heavy steel window shutters. Its mid-19th century commercial character is perhaps even more evident now that it has morphed into a significant retail center than it was when it was the art gallery district. An entire generation came to think of SoHo in connection with art and artists living in lofts there, but the area's connection with art lasted only about 20 years. Many of the current retail establishments still try to allude to that period in their selection of goods and displays. It doesn't feel like midtown. If it did, it would not have been designated as an historic district, which must have a "sense of place."

Monday, November 14, 2005

What's Left of Little Italy

Before leaving Chinatown, it's possible to visit the Museum of Chinese in America, at 70 Mulberry Street, for the time being. The museum will be moving in the near future to larger quarters.

The Italian families who lived on the nearby blocks have, for the most part, moved away although some restaurants (catering to tourists) and food shops remain. Of these, Di Palo's, at Mott Street, is the best, as indicated by the long snaking line inside the store. There is no place in the city with a better selection of Italian cheese and olive oil.

Ferrara's, across the street, between Mott and Mulberry, can satisfy anyone's sweet tooth with its southern Italian confections.

There is still evidence of an old family-run bank on the southwest corner of Grand and Mulberry.

Little Italy is always ready for a party. There are two "feasts" (street fairs) that still take place in the spring (St. Anthony) and fall (St. Gennaro) but the decorations stay up long after the event comes to an end.

At Centre Street there are two notable buildings. The former Police Headquarters building, designed by Hoppin and Koen, 1904-1909, was converted to luxury apartments in 1988. Can you imagine the height of the ceilings? It is a designated landmark, no surprise.

The Police building is so large and so spectacular that is easy to overlook the distinguished brownstone structure across the street from it. Trench and Snook designed the building in 1847-47. The rooftop addition dates from 1881-1882. The building was originally the Old Fellows Hall. It, too, is landmarked. The AIA Guide calls it a "high-rise in brownstone second only the Cooper Union."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Border of Chinatown and Little Italy

The eastern edge of Little Italy used to be Bowery, but that is no longer the case. With the exception of Capitale, a club/catering hall with an Italian-sounding name,

it's still Chinatown for the next couple of blocks. (Yes, there are Vietnamese and Thai food stores and restaurants in Chinatown.)

The restaurant with the ducks hanging in the window is is OK 218, not unsurprisingly at 218 Grand Street. Peking duck is a specialty.

Capitale is located in the Bowery Bank Building, designed in 1894 by McKim, Mead & White. It is a designated interior and exterior landmark. The address is really 130 Bowery, (note the number in the doorway) but there is a facade on Grand Street, so its inclusion on a Grand Street walk is fully justified.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Eldridge to Chrystie

Food shopping can be an adventure for those who do not speak or read Chinese, although in recent years, there is more English in evidence than there has been in the past, even as the foods on display are more and more exotic (at least to New Yorkers, who can be very provincial.)

Where Sara Delano Roosevelt Park is now there had been blocks of deteriorated tenements, torn down in 1929. It's not uncommon for people to set up little businesses like this one, a shoe repairman working in the open air.

At the corner of Chrystie Street is a particularly elaborate (as well as tall) tenement building dating from 1901, the year a new law was passed regulating the construction of tenement buildings, with the goal of providing better sanitary facilities and more light and air to the apartments.

The history of tenements in NYC is quite complex, but fascinating. A visit to the Tenement Museum, at 97 Orchard Street, is worthwhile for anyone who is interested in the architecture of the city and the social history of the life of its poorest inhabitants. This building was designed by C.B. Myers, a prolific designer of tenements. Many architects who went on to distinguished careers, George Pelham and Emery Roth, to name two, designed similar buildings when they started out. The ornament on this one is particularly exuberant. At seven stories, by law, it was supposed to have an elevator. The implication is that the owner was trying to attract a more upscale tenant than usual.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Allen to Eldridge

Among the old-time stores in this part of Grand Street are a number of fabric and linen shops, like this one. The goods are often quite respectable, at good prices, although the style may be from the previous season or earlier.

Allen Street, you will notice, looks a bit strange. That's because we are looking at the rear of houses, not the fronts, on the eastern side of the street. Allen Street was widened in the early 1930s by the simple expedient of demolishing the houses on the eastern side.

The western side is more normal looking.

If you look uptown when crossing Allen, you can seen the silhouette of the Chrysler Building.

The street takes on a decidedly different character now. We are most definitely in Manhattan's Chinatown -- the Chinatown of the current generation, which has spread in all directions from its original few blocks near Chatham Square. The end of restrictive immigration policies in the mid-1960s led to a population explosion that greatly stretched the boundaries. The tenements that line these streets are among the oldest left in the city, although there are newer buildings squeezxed in here and there.

This being downtown, there are even some buildings left that are older than the tenements, like these little Federal houses on the north side of the street between Allen and Eldridge.

It may not be possible to get an accurate count of the number of restaurants in Chinatown, so quickly do they open, close or change hands.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Essex to Allen

Look downtown on Essex Street. This is what the entire area that we've walked looked like 100 years ago -- only teeming with people. On a weekday or Sunday, it is still lively, but this picture was taken on a Saturday, and the block is still part of what remains of the Jewish lower east side.

On the northwest corner of Grand and Essex is Seward Park High School, Walter C. Martin, 1929. Basketball has always been considered an urban sport: note the court on the roof of the school building.

The cast-iron building on the south side of the street between Essex and Ludlow was constructed in 1887, but painted blue (a very contemporary building color) very recently.

This little building, on the southeast corner of Grand and Ludlow looks ripe for restoration to me.

On the southwest corner of Grand and Orchard is a building whose most notable feature today is its pinkness. It was the E.S. Ridley Department Store, one of the city's most fahionable toward the end of the 19th century. It did not choose its location well and went out of business in 1901.

Orchard Street and environs were given the soubriquet "Bargain District" a few years ago.

The surrounding streets still have scores of discount shops that have been there for decades, and have been joined by stores, restaurants and clubs catering (mind-bogglingly-so to those with a sense of history) to the young and hip.