The Historic District Council has a wonderful new series of tours called “Secret Lives” and I recently joined them on one that showcased some of the hidden gems of the Upper West Side. Since being cognizant of New York’s secrets is my job here at Untapped, I knew that this was not-to-be-missed since you can only access the Tudor-style English houses of Pomander Walk by special invite. On the tour, I also discovered the Lotus Garden which I never knew about, despite growing up in the area.
Pomander Walk is located on 95th Street and West End Avenue, referred to as a “colony” when it was first designed in 1921. Accessible only to residents, you can catch a glimpse of the quaint English-inspired street through gates on 94th and 95th Streets. It was the venture of Thomas Healy, an Irish immigrant and successful restauranteur and hotelier in New York. Incidentally, he was also one of the first to be indicted under the Prohibition Laws and he openly defied the 1 am curfew laws at his hotel–a true New York spirit!
The walk was named after and inspired by the set of a popular play at the time called Pomander Walk, which featured a London street from the Georgian Period. The architects King & Campbell, were said to have taken “slyly humorous delight in making [the Pomander Walk] houses miniature copies of much more pretentious town mansions.” (The New York Times, April 19, 1921). The history of Pomander Walk is detailed in a 1982 Landmark Designation Report, reproduced here, but I would like to focus rather on the design and restoration of the quaint street.
One of the most interesting things about Pomander Walk is how it highlights how mass-produced housing can still be visually interesting, even if many of the details are non-functional and situated on a superficial layer. The Tudor details were imitation, using wood-wrapped steel on the facades, one of the many methods that allowed the original houses to cost only $2,950. A New York Times article from April 24, 1921 states that the cost of Pomander Walk was “concededly low, although it is believed that a conservative saving will be effected by the construction of the entire group at the same time.”
On the tour, architect Daniel J. Allen, whose firm, Custogeorge Tooman & Allen, performed the restoration, walked us through Pomander Walk, pointing out how the original architects managed to differentiate each house through the use of simple tricks. For example, three different types of stucco were used to vary the facades, which in turn contrasted with the use of brick. The roof styles also varied from one house to another. Specific paint colors of green, blue and red were used, alternating between houses and the restoration remained as faithful as possible to the original. The flower boxes are original to the design and most of the doors are as from the original construction, with the exception of a few that had to be replaced.
In all, there are 28 houses with two separate apartment units per house, initially designed for a total of 56 inhabitants. In front of each house is a little garden, maintained by the residents themselves. The effect obtained,” said an article in the magazine Architecture & Building in 1922, ”is as though a portion of the olden times was transported to the heart of the modern world.” The backdrop of the high rise apartment buildings nearby only make this little narrow walk more unique in its setting.
If you find yourself in this area, do also check out Lotus Garden, a private community garden on 97th Street, open to the public on Sundays between 1 and 4pm. It was in fact, one of the first green roofs in the city, created as a concession by the high rise built on the same plot, and credited with the turn-around of the developer’s business.
There are 29 plots on the 1/6 acre plot, which sits above a garage. The volunteer gardeners pay dues to the garden, which account for 1/3 of the budget. Community members who have access to the garden pay $20/year–there are 1000 keys in circulation. Original member fees were only $15 for a lifetime, but it quickly became clear it would take more than that to maintain the space for perpetuity (The garden only runs on about $6,000-$7000 per year).
With a fish pond, dense vegetation and a living wall, Lotus Garden is nothing short of a magical escape just above street level.
Pomander Walk is located between 94th and 95th Street on West End Avenue [Map]
Lotus Garden is located on 97th Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue.
See more tours from the Historic District Council here.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.