A Mix Of Eras, Revisited

Two years ago, I looked at a picture of the Murray Hill Hotel taken at a time of great change in midtown Manhattan. Here’s another view of the area from a little bit earlier, in 1908. The title of the photo is “Belmont and Murray Hill Hotels, New York, N.Y.” and that is what we’ve got in the center of the photo: the high-rise is the 1908 steel-framed Hotel Belmont, with the lower 1884 Murray Hill Hotel in front of it, with the pair of hip-roofed towers. The Murray Hill was not a skeleton-frame building, but it was of fireproof construction, which was a new building type among hotels at that time.

The Belmont was named after its owner, August Belmont who is better known for being the financier behind the IRT subway, which had opened in 1904. Because he was running it as a for-profit business, he’s also famous for looking for ways to reduce costs, and is supposed to have complained when he rode a train and saw that its windows had been washed. Window washing can be seen as a waste of money if one has the right temperament.

The caption writer missed the elephant on the street: the domed tower to the right of Belmont is the 1898 Grand Central Station, which was in 1908 in the process of being piecemeal demolished and replaced by the new Grand Central Terminal. That work began in 1903 and was substantially completed in 1908, so it’s likely that a wider view of the station (one not framed by the east and west street fronts of Park Avenue) would show portions of the new building. (If it seems crazy that the station was demolished starting five years after it was built, it’s worth pointing out that the 1898 building was an alteration of the 1872 Grand Central Depot, and one that had failed to achieve its purpose of relieving the crowding of both people and trains.) The reason that there’s nothing visible past Grand Central is that north of the building was its very large train yard, which stunted the growth of midtown east until the new, electrified terminal was complete and the yard could be buried below air-rights construction. That was just a few years in the future in 1908.

The rowhouses on the left have mansard roofs, which suggests they were constructed before 1873. They definitely pre-date 1890. The reason for the 1873 cut-off is that fire spread between wood-framed mansards was blamed for the severity of the Boston fire of 1872, and various regulations put in place in New York after that fire made the construction of such mansards difficult, if not impossible.

The rowhouses were the past, the Murray Hill Hotel and Grand Central Station were the near past, the Hotel Belmont and the (invisible) subway below Park Avenue were the present, the (invisible) Grand Central Terminal and (not yet built) air-rights buildings over the train years were the future. Some 50 years of midtown history are represented here.

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