NY Times Streetscapes column highlight West End Avenue
Streetscapes | West End Avenue
Homage to the Humdrum
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
November 21, 2008
A NEIGHBORHOOD coalition, the West End Preservation Society, has proposed the designation of the entire stretch of West End Avenue from 70th to 107th Street as a historic district, with the support of the preservation group Landmark West.
This comfortable boulevard, which epitomizes the West Side’s easygoing character, is lined with mostly humdrum apartment buildings of the 1910s and 1920s, but a handful stand well above the architectural mean.
West End evolved into an apartment street after 1910, when the first tall apartment buildings went up, mostly replacing the roomy brownstones that had sprung up in the 1880s. By the end of the 1920s, only isolated corners remained unimproved, and in a 1931 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature, Christopher Morley called West End “incomparably the most agreeable and convenient” of New York’s large streets, in part because of its unexceptional architecture, “just even bulks of masonry,” as he put it.
The avenue in the 70s is notable at 75th Street for Neville & Bagge’s richly colored Esplanade of 1916, a very competent urban palazzo, its warm orange brick facade richly festooned with balconies and relief sculpture. At 78th Street comes the rear of the magnificent Apthorp apartments, really a Broadway building.
The architect George F. Pelham Jr. struck an unusual note of modernism at the southwest corner of 80th. Built in 1936, the interior of 411 West End marked a departure from the apartments of the 1910s and 1920s: stepped-down living rooms, glass-enclosed tubs and highly colored tile bathrooms.
The bulk of the facade is typical of its period. It is the stainless steel icicle-like trim at the upper floors that makes it amusing to look at.
At the northwest corner of 82nd Street stands West End’s most architecturally singular apartment building, the Umbria, built in 1911 by Harry Schiff and designed by D. Everett Waid in light brick and terra cotta.
As with most of its cohort, Schiff gave the Umbria all the bells and whistles: wall safes, filtered water, cedar closets, a mail chute and central vacuum cleaning. The apartments, from 7 to 12 rooms, rented for $200 to $375 per month.
Another Depression-era apartment building stands out at 87th Street, the only full-blown Art Deco work on the avenue. Designed in 1936 for the developer Mose Goodman by H. I. Feldman, 565 West End had apartments as small as three rooms, marking a new era for the avenue, which had hitherto been mostly family-style. The striped orange and black brickwork on the first floor gives it a luscious chromatic presence.
A sleeper building is 640 West End, at the northeast corner of 91st, designed in 1912 by the veteran West Side architect Ralph Townsend for a syndicate of which he was a member. Its simple Renaissance styling and large windows in broad wall surfaces give it a dignity beyond the usual shoebox peppered with rectangular holes. This repose seems a minor touch until you see how few other architects achieved it, although it should be noted that Townsend had only two apartments per floor to work in.
The Dallieu, at the southeast corner of 101st Street, is one of George and Edward Blum’s exceptional designs, built for the Tishman family in 1913. It has lost its original windows, rich cornice and, recently, its intricate lobby doors — each disappearance a little tragedy — but its recessed brick joints and hypnotic patterns of masonry and terra-cotta decoration still make it one of the great apartment buildings of the West Side.
The Dallieu, like its brethren, served the prosperous — brokers, diamond importers and wholesalers. Of the 45 families recorded there by the 1920 census taker, 39 had live-in cooks.
The Blums’ frequent competitor, Gaetano Ajello, got a plum commission from the Paterno brothers, with his triplet 885-895-905 West End Avenue, flanking 103rd Street and built between 1913 and 1917. These are competent individually but imposing as a group, a comprehensive effort rare for New York.
The 1913 Cleburne, 924 West End, rises at the northeast corner of 105th. It is also by Harry Schiff, here working with Schwartz & Gross. The exterior and the lobby have an Arts and Crafts character, but what is most interesting is the great drive-through entrance, on the 105th Street side.
Does West End itself rise to historic-district quality? On the East Side, the certifiably famous Park Avenue has been included in historic districts only incidentally, and most of its length above 78th Street is unregulated.
Central Park South is not designated, nor the Grand Concourse. Perhaps the greatest claim to prominence West End Avenue can offer is that it is, as Mr. Morley said, supremely “discreet and undemonstrative.” If it becomes a historic district, it will perhaps be because it makes no fuss better than any other comparable street in New York.