Old Urban Rail Movies: NYC and SF

The above video shows the subway line from Union Square to Grand Central, in 1905. This would be the route taken by the 4, 5, and 6 trains, today; the Lexington Avenue IRT. According to the Library of Congress:

The camera platform was on the front of a New York subway train following another train on the same track. Lighting is provided by a specially constructed work car on a parallel track. At the time of filming, the subway was only seven months old, having opened on October 27, 1904. The ride begins at 14th Street (Union Square) following the route of today’s east side IRT, and ends at the old Grand Central Station, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1869. The Grand Central Station in use today was not completed until 1913.

The clothing at the end is incredible. After the route covered by the video, the train would have turned west, and followed the shuttle tracks to the West Side, where it would have continued north along the tracks now used by the 1, 2, and 3 into Harlem and Washington Heights, and eventually the Bronx. This was before there were tunnels under the rivers to Brooklyn, Queens, or Jersey City. As the subway grew northward, it would include architecturally unique stations like the one at 168th Street, whose design echoed the tepidarium of the Pompeiian baths:


The deepest, oldest level of the 168th Street IRT station in Manhattan.

(It’s interesting how much more front-and-center the references to the Classical world once were in American city planning.) In spite of being the only subway, the first line existed in the context of an established and extensive elevated system, which had provided above-ground urban rail to New Yorkers since the mid-Victorian period; and also electric streetcars. The NYC video is kind of like a subterranean version of the below movie, which was filmed from a San Francisco streetcar, on Market Street, traveling towards the Embarcadero, just days before the infamous earthquake in 1906:

This is the route now followed by the underground BART. Great stuff.

Another One

My cousin recently found an apartment near this surviving NYC detached Victorian-type house. The Victorian sits on an oddly shaped corner lot at Briggs Avenue and East 201st Street. The owner seems to like gardening, and there is at least one well-fed cat living in the yard. It’s two blocks down from the Grand Concourse, and it’s in much better shape than most of the similar houses on Woodycrest Avenue in High Bridge. Unfortunately, it’s not part of a cluster. There are some other detached houses nearby, but they’re not of the same style or period.

Update: I’m using Google Maps Engine now to create a database of these houses. Since there are thousands of examples of Victorian architecture in New York City, here are the criteria, for now:

1. The structure must have been built within the legal boundaries of the pre-1898 City of New York. That is, the present-day borough of Manhattan, or the portion of the present-day Bronx that lies west of the Bronx River.

2. For the time being, I’m going to cut off the year of construction (if determinable) in 1910, because there was a burst of this type of construction around the turn of the century. (So, we’re actually looking for Victorian and Edwardian-era houses.) I don’t want to exclude structures that were part of an organic phenomenon, simply because the city’s legal boundaries were expanded to include other, non-NYC-proper phenomena (e.g., Brooklyn, Flushing, etc.). But at some point, I may create separate categories for pre-1898 and post-1898 houses.

3. The structure must be (or show evidence of having once been) a fully-detached house. Evidence could include side-windows and façades, and side yards that are (or clearly were) more than mere alleyways.

4. Finally (the fun part), the structure must show evidence of Victorian-era (especially, American Queen Anne-style) architectural details, such as cones, turrets, towers, stained-glass windows, bays, wraparound porches, asymmetrical façades, and the like — or strong evidence that such features were originally incorporated into the structure, but have since been modified or removed.

And, by all means, please send along any new finds that meet the criteria!

A Snapshot of the City in 1885

I thought this Britannica map of the New York Harbor area in 1885 was pretty interesting. It shows how the West Bronx had been incorporated into the city long before Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, or the East Bronx would be — and why the remaining detached Victorian houses in that area are significant to New York City‘s urban history, as opposed to the separate histories of Brooklyn or Flushing or other towns that were unfolding during the same time period. Mainly because of its shape, the map also gives a good look at where the larger cities in North Jersey were at the same time.

I like the inebriate and lunatic asylums on Ward’s Island. And also the way that the cartographer jumped the gun on the first Hudson Tube (showing a “Tunnel” between Greenwich Village and Jersey City). That’s not entirely wrong — it actually was been being attempted in 1885, and the mapmaker probably didn’t want to leave off an important project. But due to legal, financial, and engineering challenges, it wouldn’t be finished until 22 years later, in 1907.

Update: I found a companion plate that shows the details of Manhattan below Central Park. It includes the names of the ship lines on the Hudson River and East River piers, and Thirteenth Avenue.


Late Victorian New Jersey, in 2D

Princeton has a massive archive of Sanborn fire insurance maps of New Jersey, which it has now scanned and placed online. The maps depict the urbanism of the state from the 1880s through the 1920s, showing in fine detail all of the components that made up towns and cities during the heyday of heavy industry and the first great immigration wave.

Here’s an industrial slice of Newark, from 1892:


Here’s Nassau and Witherspoon, in Princeton, from 1885:


Here’s Rutgers College and the New Brunswick train station, from 1892:


All before zoning. Great materials. One thing that strikes me whenever I look at Sanborn maps is the diversity of uses in Victorian neighborhoods, and how the live-work arrangement was so much more accessible to people with small land holdings in the pre-zoning era. If you look around 1892 Newark, you’ll find bakeries and saddle-makers’ shops mixed in among the unnamed row houses. You’ll also find large industrial sites. Clearly, the possibility of having a glue factory open up right next to one’s house was far from ideal, and the onset of increasingly heavy industries necessitated a more formal way of segregating nuisances from peaceful living and working spaces. But I wonder what role comprehensive zoning ultimately played in squashing what still remained of the home-based workshops tradition from the 19th century. There’s a certain democracy to business and industry when one can venture into productivity without a whole lot of overhead. But regulation has a tendency to create moats around marketplaces that protect those with deep pockets: Requiring prospective businesspersons to invest in properly-zoned real estate rather than resourcefully modifying an existing parcel is certainly one way of creating a formidable moat. And with zoning, all goods must be transported to market, because they can’t be made where the markets exist — another moat.

Given that land use regulation has the potential to create moats around all kinds of economic opportunities for individuals — not to mention its potential to stifle other forms of individualism, community-building, and general resourcefulness — I think the fundamental question of land use law is just how much land use regulation is necessary to achieve the objective of nuisance-avoidance, because (ideally) that point should be its limit. Keeping glue factories out of residential neighborhoods is a reasonable goal. But is keeping apartments out of single-family neighborhoods really the business of government? Or keeping retail space and offices away from housing? (And, if these development filters are important to some, why not let them work out common-law private covenants to achieve the same goals?) To their credit, the New Urbanists have raised some of these questions over the last generation. But their responses, to me, seem flawed: Better zoning! Form-based codes! Going from the mish-mosh of postwar Euclidean suburbia to the ultra-planned paradise (or dystopia) of pseudo-urban neighborhoods whose every inch is legally dictated by someone with graduate planning credentials and (in many cases) distorting political considerations.

Nassau Street, Princeton. Winter 2013.

As a counterpoint, Princeton was built without any of that, and it remains a great town — largely because it hasn’t changed very much. Look at the Sanborn map from 1885, and you’ll find liquor stores, a billiards club, bookstores, a pool hall, and hotels. It’s so well planned! But nobody governmentally authorized those businesses to be there. There was no years-long process of planning-board meetings; no formulaic response by applicants to mind-numbing RFPs; no political sycophancy to become an approved tenant of the borough’s official redeveloper. These businesses were on Nassau Street in 1885 because there was a university across the street; because it was logical for them to set up shop there, and so they did. And looking around the 1885 neighborhood, you’ll also find tenements, “work shops”, a sausage-making plant, watchmakers, a cabinet maker, and a bookbinder. Presumably, the attaching plates all have similar uses — none of which would ever make it past the planning board in such a neighborhood today. But, really, what harm did they do? And what is the cost in terms of the richness of our neighborhoods and the spirit of our culture when we accept the canceling of so many opportunities for people to work from or near home, in their chosen trades?

The Bronx is Next?

South Bronx

All of the solid building stocks in Brooklyn were discovered at least a decade ago — and since then, people have taken to upgrading parcels in the Victorian slums of that borough, like Bushwick. Upper Manhattan is well on its way, too, with new investors moving into the multifamily buildings of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. (To be fair, Bloomberg does note that some of the recent uptown sales activity flows from multiple sales by institutional investors who are bailing out of big, pre-2008 bets that they had made on those neighborhoods.) Queens is really interesting, culturally, but it has a limited number of existing, traditionally urban neighborhoods. So where’s the love for some of New York City’s best apartment architecture, rarest Victorian mansions, most unusual topographies, and densest transit infrastructure, in the urban core of the Bronx? And does recent activity in the Arthur Avenue section offer a preview of what may be coming? (I really hope not.)

(Here, an Art Deco residential building and a Gothic-style stone church stand beside one another on the edge of a steep hill, where East Tremont Avenue drops to meet Valentine Avenue in the Tremont section of New York City. Note the intricacy of the relationship between the buildings and their respective contexts: The architects of the apartment house clearly designed their building for this parcel, following the curve of East 176th Street for the contour of their façade, and taking advantage of the adjacent church tower’s five-foot setback to create double-exposed corner windows. Meanwhile, the church, though suffering a location without southern exposures, is located on a parcel opposite a park, whose perpetual open space has maximized the amount of sunlight that illuminates the large, stained-glass windows.)

The Lost Public Baths of New York City

Like Caracalla and Diocletian, the mayors of New York City once also built large public baths– and for many of the same reasons that the emperors had. Michael Minn has a nice survey of the major facilities on his New York page. In the late Victorian period, at the end of the 19th century, industrial Gotham was as much a concentration of unwashed humanity as parts of ancient Rome had been, and many of the city’s residential units were just as lacking in indoor plumbing as those of the ancient world. Something had to be done. New York City’s public baths were less elaborate than those of the Romans: Their interiors were not destined to become lasting architectural marvels; nor were they divided into caldaria, tepidaria, and frigidaria; nor built to impress the city’s rich denizens. Nonetheless, public baths were a significant investment in the city’s urban infrastructure, and evidence of these facilities remains.

In the summers, when the need was highest, the pubic baths of New York City were complemented by public swimming pools and beaches. (Minn describes this at his page, above.) But by the early 20th century, the building code required inclusion of bathrooms in new units, and, over time, the city’s older buildings caught up. Subways and cars also allowed people to commute with minimal exertion and perspiration. Accordingly, the baths closed and the swimming facilities became almost purely recreational. Given today’s worries about carbon and street congestion, I wonder if there might be a new role for some range of public bathing facilities that would allow more people to walk or ride bicycles over longer urban distances— and still arrive presentably.

It’s interesting to see how many echoes of the Classical world coursed through the city-building patterns of America in the late Victorian period. Another oddball bath-related example from New York City is the architecture of the 168th Street IRT subway station (now more than a century old), and its uncanny resemblance– in tile-work, passageways, and barrel-vaulted ceilings— to the internal chambers of ancient Roman baths. Other stations of the same era also borrowed Roman bath elements, though usually more subtly. Presumably, the Beaux-Arts reverence of Classical design had a lot to do with these kinds of echoes: Graeco-Roman elements turn up often in the urban relics of a century ago. Modernists found the echoes of the ancient past too rigid, and in some ways they were. But they also provided a valuable framework and common vocabulary for city-building, and their use invested a long period of our urban architecture with symbolism of the longer cultural traditions to which its builders adhered.

Spotlight: Brick Church, East Orange

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Here are some pics from the Brick Church neighborhood, which is situated between the Morris & Essex Line and Springdale Avenue, where Upsala College was once located. The section has a rich stock of large Queen Anne Victorians and early 20th century courtyard-style apartments. There are a lot of potential haunted houses in this neighborhood: Far too many structures have been neglected since the 1970s, when the aftermath of the Newark riots took a heavy toll on much of Essex County. For a while, East Orange had an astronomical crime rate, but it’s calmed down a little bit. And the physical beauty of the neighborhood remains: Its buildings are mostly arranged along wide streets, with parkways, deep setbacks, and hundred-year-old trees. As in other parts of Essex, gas lamps still remain on certain blocks. And, of course, the lack of telephone poles and suspended wires.

Here’s a map of the area’s street plan during its early 20th century heyday, around 1912:

Spotlight: Woodycrest Avenue Detached Victorians

I’ve spent some time looking over satellite images of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, and here’s what I’ve found:

1. As mentioned earlier, there’s a row of five small detached Victorians on Terrace View Avenue in Marble Hill.

2. There is a good number of large, (possibly) Victorian-era detached houses on either side of University Avenue, just south of 183rd Street, near the old N.Y.U. campus.  Presumably, most of the houses here date from either the very-late-Victorian period or after 1900.  (Note that the architectural detailing is not very elaborate on most; and that N.Y.U. arrived in 1894.)

3. There are random extant detached Victorian houses throughout the Bronx and Marble Hill.  They are frequently sandwiched between more recent apartment buildings, and their original details have often been neglected or obscured by modern siding, roofing, pavement, or other modifications.

4. The houses on Woodycrest Avenue are unique.  They combine (1) large houses and lots, (2) green, spacious landscaping, (3) distinct architectural details, and (4) an uninterrupted series of original structures.  Together, these qualities preserve a small but remarkable slice of New York City’s suburban Victorian fabric.

5. This fabric deserves legal protection.  Here’s a spreadsheet that I put together.  It lists the land parcels that might comprise a small historic district.  It also provides a photo of each.  Not every one of these houses is individually noteworthy, but some are.  And those that are not are included because they remain part of the historical context, and play an interstitial role in the cohesion of this small but noteworthy district.

The Last Detached Victorians of New York Proper? Cont’d.

Detached Victorians on Woodycrest Avenue, around W 164th St., New York City.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a cluster detached Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue, around 164th Street, in the High Bridge section of the Bronx.  In doing so, I explained why I thought they might be the last significant group of this type of architecture that remains in the Manhattan-Bronx street grid– a geography that roughly corresponds to the pre-1898 City of New York.  Tonight, I found a graphic at Big Map Blog that adds some context to the Woodycrest houses: an 1897 bird’s-eye view of the urban fabric that surrounded the then-developing Grand Concourse:

It’s an unusual perspective.  The core of Manhattan, to the south, would lie far to the left of the framed perspective.  The land in the foreground is what’s now called the Bronx, and the narrow, horizontal strip of water that runs behind it is the Harlem River.  Beyond that are the bluffs of upper Manhattan, and in the far background, the New Jersey Palisades rise above the Hudson River.  Basically, this image shows the northern frontier of New York City’s urban growth at the end of the Victorian period.

It’s hard to know how accurate the details are.  It would take a good amount of work to determine, for instance, just how precisely they depicted what was on the ground in 1897.  Based on the presence of a number of landmarks (viz., the Croton Aqueduct, the Broadway Bridge, the tower in High Bridge Park), and the accuracy of its major-streets pattern, it would be fair to conclude that this is a relatively faithful snapshot of the city.  On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever a suspension bridge that connected Inwood Hill with Spuyten Duyvil.  So, you have to take the given visual data with a fair degree of skepticism.

Look at Harlem: the gridded blocks on the far left, beyond the Harlem River.  You can see that the boxy, attached row houses and apartment buildings are beginning to fill in the landscape.  Rapid development may be indicated by the completely vacant land that is being gobbled up by sudden density.  That is, it doesn’t look as if there was ever a phase of detached house development in these blocks– they just went straight from greenfields to urban density.  For example, here’s a close-up of Seventh Avenue at 145th Street:

In another three decades, this level of density would come to cover nearly the entire scene of this drawing.  But moving right, circa 1897, you see trees, fields, and detached houses with traditional pitched roofs.  Did these all exist?  Probably, in some form.  Most of the components of this low-density scene are gone today, but at the end of the 19th century they were still, apparently, typical of the uptown landscape, on either side of the Harlem River.  Even if this image were ambitiously forward-looking, it wouldn’t present any less density than what actually existed at its time.  So this close-up view of development along the Concourse near Tremont Avenue is illustrative:

If this depiction is accurate, it provides an interesting context.  A lot of these houses, especially those in the foreground along East 177th Street and Mount Hope Place, appear to have been ornate, turreted, large homes.  The low density of these blocks at that point in time fits with some research I did in grad school which indicated that most of the large apartment buildings above City College (Broadway/137th) were built after 1900.  Of course, the entire uptown scene depicted in this image might have been an ideal setting for the construction of many spacious, airy Victorian houses, if the rapid march of tenements hadn’t borne down on the new lots as quickly and persistently as it did.  But we do see a scattering of detached Victorians in the snapshot of 1897, including the ones that still survive on Woodycrest Avenue:

This is a reverse perspective of the modern one, above, but it’s absolutely the same block, in spite of the fact that the old map, interestingly, calls the street Bremer Avenue, rather than Woodycrest.  And if you look around the rest of the image, you’ll see other houses here and there that are either clearly detached Victorians, or possibly detached Victorians.  Some even have details, like wraparound porches, mansard roofs, and conic towers.  (Significant clusters can be found in the blocks around Claremont Park, around 183rd Street west of Aqueduct Avenue, and along the steep bluffs that rise above the Harlem River.)  Again, the accuracy of the specific details would take a good amount of legwork to verify, but their very presence suggests that they were representative of at least some portion of the area’s architecture.  Today, the vast majority of these types of houses are gone from the blocks of uptown New York City, long since replaced by the large apartment buildings that are now, themselves, becoming historic.

I think maybe the most interesting aspect of this image is its suggestion that such houses in New York City may even have been rare in their own time.  That is, only a handful were built, before they went out of style, before the rapid march of dense apartments filled in the empty canvases of the newly platted blocks.  They are rarer still, today, since so many of the original detached structures of all types in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have been demolished.  It would be reasonable to think that the presence of a Euclidean zoning scheme in 1897 might have saved more of these houses, and encouraged the development of others like them in the upper part of the city.  But such laws would also have prevented the development of the apartments on the same blocks that have since served as homes for generations of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers.  Land use decisions are often trade offs– another reason to take note of the houses that remain on Woodycrest Avenue.  These structures are relics of a New York City that might have been, but never was: a city, visually, more like San Francisco, Boston, or even New Orleans.

Update: The New York Public Library has a 1909 insurance map, shown below, which corroborates the presence of a large collection of detached Victorian houses in the vicinity of Woodycrest Avenue and West 164th Street, including the extant structures and a number that are now gone.  A similar map, dating from 1900, confirms that there was once a similar cluster of architecture in the vicinity of Mount Hope Place and the Grand Concourse: These houses have nearly all been replaced.  Note that the building footprints seen in both maps include wraparound porches, rounded turrets or towers, and other distinctive features of this type of architecture.

Image ID: 1993380  Bronx, V. 10, Plate No. 19 [Map bounded by W. 165th St., Anderson Ave., W. 162nd St., Ogden Ave.] (1909)

Woodycrest/164, 1909.

Concourse/Mount Hope, 1900.

The Last Detached Victorians of New York Proper?

Houses on Woodycrest Avenue, New York City. Source: Bing Maps.

I suspect they are.  They’re a collection of about a dozen houses along Woodycrest Avenue, where it’s crossed by 164th Street, in the South Bronx.

Some NYC history: before 1898, Brooklyn was a separate city, and Queens was a collection of separate municipalities.  Staten Island was (and remains) a separate universe.  But the Bronx was the organic extension of New York City’s development beyond Manhattan: along with Manhattan, it comprised the City of New York before the greater, five-borough city was legally formed.  Evidence of the close relationship between Manhattan and the Bronx is still visible in the continuity of street and house numbering from one to the other; the continuities of Broadway, Park Avenue, and Third Avenue between the boroughs; and the fact that no ZIP code in the Bronx ends in the same two digits as any in Manhattan, due to the borough’s historic coverage by the “New York, New York” post office.

1896 Map Showing NYC lands beyond Manhattan.

So, onto detached Victorian houses.  There was probably a time when New York City proper had a large stock of detached Victorians, like those that remain in San Francisco or Boston, or the ones in the above picture.  (Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, of course, all have their fair shares of such houses.)  But Manhattan and the Bronx grew faster in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than any of those places, and most of their formerly low-density sections were completely built up with tenements and apartment buildings by the 1920s– long before historic preservation was an urban planning concept.  As a result, the stock of detached Victorians in New York City proper is almost totally erased.

Manhattan– the heart of the city proper– has barely any detached houses remaining, at all.  (There are literally three or four on Park Terrace West and a couple on Seaman Avenue, in Inwood, and a few in Marble Hill.)  The Bronx, on the other hand, has probably tens of thousands of detached houses, but most of them are simple wood-frames, Tudors, colonials, or brick duplexes that post-date the Victorian period.  In light of the historical context, this bunch of spacious homes with turrets, gables, and wraparound porches on Woodycrest Avenue is unique.  And it may actually be the last remnant of an architectural period in the city’s history that has all but disappeared.

Will research more, and update.

Update: there is a handful of smaller detached (possible) Victorians, much less elaborate, in Marble Hill.