In the first installment of the Untapped New York Nautical Architecture series, I discussed nautical themed architecture that was predominantly built and designed to serve the maritime industry. However, designing in this manner wasn’t always for functional purposes. As you will see here, the ocean and its denizens often lead to fanciful and playful architectural interpretations. These unique structures are not only pleasing to look at, but also reaffirm the significance of New York City’s oceans and waterways as an organic, yet integral, design element.
When discussing whimsical creations, it is imperative to include Coney Island in any exhaustive dialogue. Coney Island’s significance is due in large part to its location, serving as an escape for both residents of New York City and beyond. In fact, Coney Island was a premier resort destination from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s, featuring many buildings and attractions inspired by the sea and its creatures. One building that still exists is the former Child’s Restaurant constructed in 1923 by the firm Dennison & Hirons. This Spanish Colonial Revival building features terra cotta glazing adorned with seaside details such as seashells, galleons, fish, and even Neptune himself (AIA Guide to New York City Architecture). This building, which is a designated New York City Landmark, is in desperate need of restoration and repair. Recently, the city has expressed interest in retrofitting the building to become an entertainment complex — and reportedly Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has raised $50 million for the project. Yet as the Coney Island Redevelopment wheel continues to turn and turn, I am sure there will be many more proposals starring this survivor from Coney Island’s glory days.
Former Child’s Restaurant, Coney Island (more…)
New York City would not be the empire city it is today without the water that surrounds it. Over four centuries ago, Henry Hudson, aboard the Half Moon, traveled the waterway that would become his namesake as well as the marvelous collection of lands and inlets that would become New York City. Hudson was not the first to discover this waterway, but his travels were momentous as he established the Dutch East India Company within the region — which was responsible for the development of what would become New York City.
Water has always been the lifeblood of New York City. Native Americans settled in what they deemed Mannahatta because of its close proximity to water which provided an ample food and drinking supply. Years later when the Dutch arrived, they instantly recognized the water as an invaluable asset for trade; for without it, their Dutch East India Company would have been a failure. In turn, trade brought exotic products, materials and peoples to the city — in many ways laying the foundation for the melting pot that New York City was to become. As sea travel was imperative for these ventures, the City became a haven for sailors and seamen, resulting in a great deal of shipbuilding and ship related industries occurring here.
New York City is a living museum, with its multiple histories layered and compacted side by side, creating impressions that provide a glimpse into how life once was. Dismantling the myriad layers of New York City history is both a fruitful and exhaustive endeavor. For once one secret is uncovered, it is likely that another will soon reveal itself. With a propensity towards the obscure and the occult, a few friends and I registered for the “Edgar Allan Poe and his Ghostly Neighbors of Greenwich Village” tour sponsored by Ghosts of New York, with the hopes of learning of some harrowing tales.
Bedecked in witches’ garb, our Tour Guide, Jamie, was a spirited and knowledgeable storyteller, emphatically describing the places and sites where ghosts have been known to exist. We began the tour at 85 West Third Street, the site of the former residence of Edgar Allan Poe, the preeminent writer of mystery and the macabre. This building faÃ§ade is a reinterpretation of the original house where Poe once resided from 1844 to 1845 —New York University demolished the historic structure when building Furman Hall.
East 93rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, is a picturesque and lively block consisting of brownstone townhouses, former tenements and stately apartment dwellings – many of these structures built during the early development of Yorkville. Situated in the middle of the block, is 179 East 93rd Street, the childhood home of the Marx Brothers, the vaudeville, Broadway and motion picture stars whom are considered one of America’s most beloved comic icons. The Marx Brothers resided here from approximately 1895 until 1909, spending their formative years in this house and on this street. In his memoir, Harpo fondly regarded this house as “the first real home they ever knew” (Harpo Speaks, 1988). Affirming this sentiment, Groucho returned to visit the house towards the end of his life. As homage to his family’s home, he had the interior common areas retiled — referred to as “Groucho Tiles”- which still exist today.
It is indisputable that the years spent in this house played a significant role in shaping the Marx Brothers into prolific entertainers. Raised in a musical household, performing became second nature, with the neighborhood serving as both a stage and incubator to cultivate their talents. Using their surroundings as comedic inspiration, many of their characters and impressions were based on people they socialized with on a daily basis. For instance, Harpo’s “Mr. Gookie” facial expression was based on the face tobacconist Mr. Gehrke made when rolling cigars (Harpo Speaks, 1988). Immersed in this environment gave them a unique identity, as evidenced by their performances which were unlike any the public had ever seen. I had the pleasure of discussing this building’s significance with Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, who stated that “this house had such a resonance with them — it helped explain where they came from.” Given the legacy of the Marx Brothers, whose groundbreaking entertainment career spanned nearly half a century, their childhood home should be a designated landmark.
As significant as this building is, it is in jeopardy of being lost without landmark protection. Just across the street sits an imposing non-contextual apartment building, occupying the site where three 1880s-era brownstones once stood. The sudden loss of these structures, each historic in their own right, was the catalyst for creating the 93rd Street Beautification Association, which advocated for extending the existing Carnegie Hill Historic District one block east, to include Marx Brothers Place, the name given to the block by the Association. This did not seem to be an unreasonable request as the block features two remarkable Civil War era brick townhouses older than any structure within the historic district. Echoing the natural slope of the street, the block also contains buildings with step down roofs on adjacent sides — a unique design that adds an extra dimension of character to an already colorful block.
Despite the block’s architectural and historic merits, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) denied the Association’s Request for Evaluation (RFE) to extend the Carnegie Hill Historic District. This was a devastating blow to the movement as the preservation campaign had near unanimous support from residents of the block as well as majority consent from Community Board 8’s Landmarks Committee. Disappointed but not down for the count, the Association is still active and is eager to re-energize their preservation campaign.
I had the great pleasure of spending an evening discussing the necessity of preserving Marx Brothers Place with Susan Kathryn Hefti, Co-Chair of the 93rd Street Beautification Association and Noah Diamond, Marx Brothers historian and Member of the 93rd Street. Together they provided a rich historical background of the Marx family and offered myriad examples as to why this house had such a profound influence on them. According to Ms. Hefti, the streets they grew up on gave them their “accents, humor and dialect” and that the “block and denizens informed their art.” When discussing the denial by LPC, Ms. Hefti felt that the basis for landmarking “was never about the architectural value of the house per se, but about its cultural value to the neighborhood and city.”
Michael Devonshire, a Commissioner on the LPC and Director of Conservation at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates echoes Ms. Hefti’s sentiment in describing the necessity for cultural preservation: “Historic preservation is, ultimately, not about buildings, it is about culture — which is about humanity. Our cultural trajectories result in our understanding of the technologies that permit us to shape Earth-formed materials into buildings. Buildings become the shelters and settings in which we enrich ourselves more fully. Cultural preservation — in all of its diverse forms – is as important as the preservation of buildings, if we are to fully understand what it is to be human. The saving and passing on of buildings of significance helps us to resist cultural stagnation and fosters sustained renewal.”
Fortunately, there has not been any new development to further blight this nearly pristine block. However, as New York real estate has proven time and again, there is no guarantee that the next demolition on the block isn’t being planned as I write this. In 2009, the 93rd Street Beautification Association recognized this as a legitimate threat and submitted a draft Demolition Review Amendment to the City Council. Modeled on similar legislation in Boston, this bill called for a 90-day review period for demolitions of historically significant buildings greater than fifty years old. Yet as of today, no City Council member has moved forward with it.
Sitting on the stoop of 179 East 93rd Street, it is evident why this house had so strongly resonated with the Marx Brothers. In the early evening hours, this block is alive with pedestrian and canine activity (leashed, of course). A resident of 179, Ms. Hefti addressed various passersby, personifying the neighborhood warmth that I imagine was felt by the Marx Brothers when they resided here over a century ago. As we were concluding our discussion, a man and woman approached the house, pointing to the top floor where the Marx Brothers had lived. In true ambassadorial fashion, Ms. Hefti inquired, “Are you looking for the Marx Brothers house?” The woman then nodded in assent and began to extol the house, contributing to our already two hour long discussion about its merits and significance. Ms. Hefti then asked if they lived on the block — and with a nervous laugh, the woman reluctantly responded, “I live in the building everybody hates.”
A more fitting completion to this article, I could not imagine.
To follow the efforts of the 93rd Street Beautification Association, please visit their website: http://savemarxbrothersplace.wordpress.com/
Follow their efforts via Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/93rdstreet
If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to support the Marx Brothers Place renewed preservation campaign, click here.