This all started with a jaunt to two of my favorite New York apartment houses: the Monterey (351 West 114th Street) and 333 East 69 (between First and Second Avenues). Discovered by accident years ago, it seemed time to revisit them to see if they were actually still there (in New York you really never know), and in what condition.
One was built in 1891, the other in 1962. But both offer pleasing design and modest comfort, surrounded by earlier brownstones, and make a strong case for multiple dwelling. The Monterey is uptown, a charming combination of Romanesque and Prairie aesthetic. Although sadly compromised by time and ill-conceived piecemeal repairs, it still shows what was (and can be) done in an urban context.
Designed by Thomas O. Speir, it fronts on Lafayette Square – a tiny cobblestoned triangle framing a heroic bronze statue of Lafayette. Its western facade faces a waterfall and a huge willow tree just inside the beautifully renewed Morningside Park. The building is an odd shape (following the diverging avenues that surround it) and is only seven stories high. But it was built with eight-room apartments and a roof walk (the better to view the park and the surrounding neighborhood). To be honest, its magical site is unique for New York.
The surprise on East 69th Street is twelve stories high, and definitely modern. But its architect, William Conklin, imagined a plan to make its simple concrete verticals and horizontals interesting in subtle ways; there are two-story maisonettes with private entrances on the ground floor, and recessed balconies enclosed on three sides, alternating (and on the same plane) with flat windows—a really terrific and original touch. Across the street: a harmonizing row of three-story brownstones. Most of them sport plantings (as does the apartment house), and the block has lots of trees. Bottom line: it’s not a place to visit, but to live in. In the middle of the city.
In truth, this post has been sitting unwritten for months; today is the day to put it up for the architecturally curious for its two destinations worth the trip. But its real catalyst was the news that the New York City Council had actually approved Jean Nouvel’s mid-block tower down the street from its eventual primary tenant: the Museum of Modern Art.
Estimates of its ultimate height remain mysterious—anywhere from 75 to 82 stories. But mid-block? Even in New York? No matter what Nouvel designs, or the developer coyly agrees to whittle down (in the classic us-vs.-them real estate tap dance), it will still overwhelm everything else on the block—certainly the 588-foot condo built by MoMA only a few years ago, and CBS’ Black Rock on the corner.
The persistence of memory recalls a MoMA that was once a six-story destination, pulsing with art, energy, a cutting-edge film department, and a friendly, neighborly vibe. It’s café was behind a balcony on the top floor, full of artists, students, connoisseurs and tourists. Probably the best place in the city to find romance (before a much, much bigger museum supplanted it and the urban bar scene ramped up). Oh, and going toward Sixth Avenue, there were rows of big, once-luxurious mansions—still home then to a few stubborn holdouts, and to the fabled Theater Guild, among other institutions.
Where once there were trees, purpose, and anticipation of the future, there will be darkness, stratospheric admission costs to see what’s in the museum (planning to add another 40,000 feet to its gallery space), and the constant roar of bodies and wheels in motion. It is no secret that the block association (yes, we still have them) and the local community board were opposed, for all the right reasons. But reason does not prevail here and now.
So make some time to take in the Monterey and 333 East 69th Street and, if you want an education in the real meaning of neighborhood, of urban human scale (and a glorious architectural orgy in the bargain), walk around Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights.
While they’re still there…..