Mike, who died in 1995, gave me license to write about the everyday buildings, to investigate even the most trivial, incidental, oddball structures. And so I went after near-ruins like Cass Gilbert’s 1908 railroad stations of the Bronx, sprinkled like broken gems along a disused rail line. Then there was the little Art Moderne taxpayer building with a garden in back at Third and 77th. Or the grotesque-laden Britannia apartment house at 527 West 110th.
Left, Morris Park Station in the Bronx, designed by Cass Gilbert, as it looked about 1915. Right, how it looked in 2009.
Soon I started writing about whole blocks, because these are what show the evolution of New York, especially of everyone’s personal city — stepping out the front door in New York is by its nature to take a walking tour.
Another goal was to explode the idea that a building has “ahistory,” that there is a single narrative that wraps it all up. Each building has a few competing histories. Mansions, for instance, were the domain not just of fancy people upstairs, but also of servants below — who were they? Where did they come from, and go? And what about the people who moved in when the old pile was broken into apartments? There are many stakeholders in a single structure, not just the Astors and Vanderbilts.
Left, the Seaman-Drake Arch near West 216th Street, half engulfed by buildings in 2001. Right, in about 1890 the arch was free and clear.
I began quoting as much research by other architectural historians as possible to indicate that history required a lot of shoe leather, and many voices — history is not just waiting in some file somewhere.
In the 1990s the Internet began to make available many of the obscure sources that used to require a trek to a library and a scavenger hunt through dusty stacks. So the Streetscapes column used questions from readers to explain how to find a building permit, or a census return.
The old way of looking at buildings, the traditional preservationist way, was to focus on style. But this ruled out buildings that didn’t qualify as works of art and were therefore unworthy of a second glance. Nor would a damaged building qualify, however nifty, like the half-engulfed Seaman-Drake Arch at Broadway near 216th Street.
So to riff on Mae West, “Honey, architecture has nothing to do with it.” Streetscapes are only incidentally neo-this or revival-that. Rather, each falling-apart tenement, each rich man’s mansion, is a creation of architects, yes, but also of developers, tenants and servants. Each has a piece of the action, some part of the structure that is theirs.
Consider the little houses in Greenwich Village on Minetta Lane, built as townhouses for rich whites in the early 19th century. By the 1920s the residents included both blacks and whites, a rare situation in heavily segregated New York, born variously in Mexico, Georgia, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.
The 1920 census records Lewis Bellano, 28, white, an auto mechanic who immigrated from Italy in 1893 as an infant. Around 1915 he married a black woman, a waitress in a tearoom in Greenwich Village that was popular with tourists. Born in New York around 1897, Mabel Bellano came here via her 69-year-old mother, Bella Jackson, born in Virginia around 1852, a scrubwoman. Was the mother a former slave? Sometimes the census is a trove; sometimes it is maddeningly silent.
The research has been the most rewarding thing in writing this column, connecting, if I was lucky, new, unpublished facts and linking them to a particular place in New York. For much of that I have to thank the indefatigable, discerning, never-take-a-day-off Suzanne Braley, the researcher on this column from 1989 to December 2012. I see her hand in so many columns.