Proximity To Change

Yesterday’s photo of Grand Central under construction showed, incidentally, excavation for a new foundation across the street. I’ve talked before about the issue in land-use history in Manhattan that a single piece of land may have been home to four or more buildings and that site is a good example to look into this again. By “that site” I mean the small block bounded by 42nd Street to the south, 43rd Street to the north, Vanderbilt Avenue to the east, and Madison Avenue to the west. Vanderbilt is an extra avenue, created because the original Grand Central Depot blocked the line of Fourth (Park) Avenue, so Vanderbilt and Madison are much closer than ordinary avenues, creating an almost square block. (Eventually, I’ll get to the picture above. Just be patient.)

First, a map from 1862, which is before the first Grand Central was built. At that time, the New York and Harlem Railroad ran up the east side of Manhattan from a terminal at Madison Square on 26th Street, with a local station at the fringe of the built-up city at 42nd Street:

There are a number of things missing from the 1862 map: Madison Avenue (which at that time had been created only from 23rd Street to the south side of 42nd Street), Vanderbilt Avenue (not yet needed, since Fourth Avenue was not yet blocked), and Park Avenue (still called Fourth Avenue). Note that the station facilities extended over the Fourth Avenue fronts of two blocks. The seemingly-random diagonal lot lines are leftovers of land ownership from before the grid was laid out: specifically note the diagonal fronting on 42nd Street, just west of the railroad stables. In 1871 the use of steam locomotives south of 42nd Street was banned for safety. The combined ownership of the Harlem and New York Central railroads made the reasonably-obvious decision to put the new terminal on the site of the little station at 42nd Street. Here’s a map from 1890, eighteen years after Grand Central depot opened:

The new station runs from 42nd Street on the south to 45th Street on the north, from Park Avenue on the east to Vanderbilt Avenue on the west. Madison Avenue has been opened north of 42nd; the line of Park runs from the bottom right corner of the map (where the library stamped it as “triplicate”) to the middle of the train yard to the north. Note the footbridge where 45th Street crosses the rail yard: Park Avenue did not exist there except in some notional way. The diagonal lot line at at 42nd Street now separates an 1873 church from a two-story commercial building, with the line of Vanderbilt more or less where the stables used to be. The school on 43rd Street is physically connected to the church and probably owned by it, and we have some rowhouses on Madison between the church and 43rd Street. Here’s view of the church from the west, with Grand Central Depot’s curved mansard roofs behind it.

By 1899, the church was gone, with the congregation moved to a more residential area on East 88th Street:

There are still two rowhouses on the Madison Avenue side of the block, but I’d guess they had been converted to commercial use. The rest of the block is a bunch of two-story commercial buildings. The school looks like it’s still there (or replaced by something the same size). The block to the north had been cleared for a low-rise building that was constructed a few years later. Still pretty much the same on the subject block in 1910:

(My apologies for the orientation of the text, but I rotated the map so that nominal north is up, same as the others.) The new Grand Central Terminal is on the right, we have a kiosk for the brand-new subway on 42nd Street, and the two biggest buildings on the block are now connected at the second floor. The northwest corner of the block is a narrow, fireproof 12-story building, almost certainly with a steel frame, as opposed to the wood-joist buildings that make up the rest of the block. Note that I made a minor error yesterday: the building facing Vanderbilt, which is the vacant lot in yesterday’s picture, was demolished shortly after 1910, not in the late aughts as I said. Here’s yesterday’s photo:

View of Grand Central terminal under construction

If you look closely at the building on the far left, you’ll see its eastern (right) side wall, despite the angle of the shot. That’s because that wall follows the diagonal lot line. If it were a normal lot line, perpendicular to 42nd Street, the wall would be hidden from us. Here’s 1920:

We have a big new hotel on the block to the north, the narrow building on the northwest corner of the block seems to have doubled in width and grown two stories (and acquired the name “Charles Building”), and the empty lot in the circa-1910 photo is now a six-story building facing Vanderbilt Avenue. Look up at the 1922 photo at the very top of this post, and there is it. It was named the Vanderbilt Avenue Building and was designed by Warren & Wetmore, one of the firms of architects that designed the new Grand Central. By 1930, the block was pretty much solidly built out:

The expanded Charles Building is now the Prudence Building. The two joined buildings facing 42nd, the remaining rowhouse site on Madison, and the school site on 43rd have all been replaced by the 1922 Liggett Building, which can be seen in the background in the photo at the top. And the Vanderbilt Buidling has had eleven more stories added on top. I’m not going to bother with the 1955 map, which is identical except that Liggett was renamed the Columbia Carbon Building.

In 2016, the entire block was demolished for the construction of One Vanderbilt Avenue. The southwest part of the block went from the church, to the two-story buildings, to the Liggett Building, to One Vanderbilt. The east side of the block went from a small wood-framed shed (see the 1862 map) to a two-story building, to the base of the Vanderbilt Building, to the full Vanderbilt Buidling, to One Vanderbilt. 329 Madison Avenue went from a rowhouse, to a rowhouse converted to commercial use, to the Charles Building expansion, to One Vanderbilt. I feel like I may have gone too far in making the point, but this is why tracking the built environment in Manhattan can be so difficult. In this case, having the railroad terminal across the street made this valuable land, encouraging more-than-usual change.

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