Feb 05, 2020, 06:27AM

Sketching Henderson Place

Slices of past lives and an outmoded but arguably better architechtural philosophy on Henderson Pl.

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The freelance money I’d depended on dried up at least for now, so the rag-tag website Forgotten New York and its ancillary activities, comprising ads, tours, occasional appearances and articles written for other publications, are my sole source of income, along with the remainder of unemployment insurance that New York State vouchsafes. The Wandering Sickness takes hold at times when I’m ruminating about this, and I take a train somewhere, get off and begin taking pictures of what seems interesting. I carry a camera everywhere, even on job interviews. During one of those times, I found myself shambling about York Ave. on the Upper East Side.

At York Ave., named for World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York and not the “York” in New York, and E. 79th St. is a sublimely simple delicatessen awning sign. There’s the requisite cheap vinyl sign under it, but above it are illuminated panels featuring the Pepsi-Cola bullet logo, circa 1967. The round shape is representative of a bottle cap, which appeared graphically until the early-1970s.

Manhattan Island bulges further east here than it does at any other point north of 23rd St., and an additional north-south street was laid out that runs between E. 79th and E. 90th Sts. Knowing that York Ave. was once called Ave. A, I wondered if East End Ave. was ever called Ave. B?

Sure it was; this atlas plate from 1885 shows it. The street was laid out in 1876 and after a campaign by local property owners, changed to East End Ave. in 1890, likely following the influence of West End Ave., which had been changed from 11th Ave. in 1880. In the 1970s, North and South End Aves. were laid out in Battery Park City.

The “End” avenues are about as close as Manhattan street names ever got to a theme, though many streets in Tribeca are named for figures associated with Trinity Church. Because most of its streets are generically numbered, Manhattan lost out on, say, Washington, DC’s theme of avenues named for states.

John Finley Walk, the top deck of Franklin D. Roosevelt Dr., runs along the East River from E. 81st St. to Gracie Mansion where it loses its width and continues north to East Harlem. It’s similar to Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, with rather less spectacular views. It was named for Harper’s Weekly editor and City College president John Finley (1863-1940). Finley Walk’s distinctive iron signs were designed by cartoonist Edwin Marcus and architect Harry Stevenson.

I’d thought the John Finley sign was the only one of its kind, but leaving the walk and going west along W. 84th, or Gracie Square, I found the sign identifying it as Polly Gordon Walk. The sign commemorates Mary Rousmaniere “Polly” Gordon, a resident at #10 Gracie Square who was involved in community causes with her husband Al Gordon, a former CEO of Kidder Peabody, notably the local YWCA.

Gracie Square and nearby Gracie Terrace and mayoral residence Gracie Mansion are named for Scottish shipping entrepreneur Archibald Gracie (1755-1829) who purchased land at what was called Horn’s Hook after the Revolutionary War and built Gracie Mansion there in 1799. He received guests such as President John Quincy Adams and French monarch Louis Philippe. Gracie sold his estate in 1823 and it was acquired by New York City in 1891; its 11 acres were incorporated into Carl Schurz Park. Fiorello LaGuardia was the first NYC mayor to use it as a residence when he and his family moved there in 1942.

Carl Schurz Park, between E. End Ave., the FDR Drive and E. 84th and 90th Sts., is named for a mid-19th century German immigrant (1829-1906) who became a US Senator from Missouri (1869-1875), Rutherford Hayes’ Secretary of the Interior (1877-81), editor of the New York Tribune and Harper’s Weekly. A statue of Schurz can be found at Morningside Dr. and E. 116th St., and a lengthy avenue in Throgs Neck, Bronx, also commemorates him. Nearby Yorkville was heavily German in the past, and the park celebrates one of their own. His most famous quote was: “Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”

Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, unlike other older east coast cities like Boston, Philly and even Newark and Jersey City, don’t have much in the way of dead ends and alleys. Records and older maps show that downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn had lots of them in the past, but real estate is valuable in a concentrated area and many of these odd lanes have been de-mapped and then built over.

No such threat exists for Henderson Pl., on E. 86th St. between York and E. End Aves. Henderson Pl. is its very own Landmark District. The alley, and parts of E. 86th & 87th Sts. and E. End Ave., are home to 24 row houses of the eclectic Queen Anne style built in 1883 by the firm of Lamb & Rich (who also built Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay home) for developer John Henderson that are dwarfed by the high-rise apartment houses that are more typical of the area. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the famed husband-and-wife acting couple, lived on Henderson Pl. for years. The houses rented for just $650 in 1883.

Henderson Pl. was built as a development for persons “of modest means” but has become much more expensive in subsequent decades. In the mid-2000s, a Henderson Pl. house would cost in the seven figures.

Only the east side of Henderson Pl. itself has retained the original brick dwellings; a high-rise apartment was built, replacing the homes on the west side, before the whole district could be landmarked. Above is #8 Henderson Pl. at right. The buildings all have different window treatments, square and arched, different entrances and different dormer treatments. A starkly different philosophy from today’s cookie-cutter methods.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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