San Juan Hill
San Juan Hill was a predominantly African American neighborhood in Manhattan in the early 20th century roughly bounded by West 59th Street to the south, West 65th Street to the north, 10th Avenue (Amsterdam Ave.) on the east and 11th Avenue (West End Avenue) on the west. Author Marcy Sacks (author of the definitive Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I) also considers a "satellite community" of black institutions around 53rd Street in Hell's Kitchen to be a part of the neighborhood.
This area in general on Manhattan's Upper West Side is known as Lincoln Square, although the origins of the name are a bit of a mystery. The intersection of Broadway and Columbus had been called Empire Square or Empire Park since the late 19th century. In 1906, the city's Board of Alderman renamed the double triangle Lincoln Square in an action sponsored by West Side Alderman John J. Hahn. The name was used for a theatre then under construction on 65th Street by developer John L. Miller. However, it is not entirely certain who coined the name or why it was chosen.
San Juan Hill in particular developed in the late 19th century with African-Americans who began flocking to cities, making it one of the more densely populated areas of the city and also one of the more violent. The name San Juan Hill is variously attributed either to the United States Army’s black 10th Cavalry, which fought at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898 or, more likely, to the violent clashes between black and white residents of the area. In the midst of all the excitement, San Juan Hill was also home to an extensive night live that served as one of the significant crucibles for the development of jazz music.
The exhuberant optimism that followed World War II had little affinity for old urban buildings, poor folks or black people. Since San Juan Hill had plenty of all three, it was a ripe target for a "urban renewal". Amsterdam Houses was the first salvo, replacing three blocks between West 61st Street and West 64th Street with public housing. The blocks to the east were next as development czar Robert Moses had the neighborhood declared a blighted slum. After a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, 17,000 residents were evicted to build Lincoln Center and Lincoln Towers in the blocks just to the east and north of San Juan Hill. In the early years of the 21st century, the southern San Juan Hill blocks between West 59th Street and West 61st Street were largely redeveloped with large luxury apartment towers that echo the redevelopment of the West Side Railyard into Riverside South just to the west of San Juan Hill.
All this development has left few remaining artifacts of the once vibrant San Juan Hill neighborhood. A number of industrial buildings from the period remain, but very little of the residential architecture. However, after running across a nice NY Times article on the cultural heritage of the area, I decided to take a little stroll around the area in the Summer of 2008 to see what I could find.
West 59th Street
West 59th Street is the southern boundary of San Juan Hill. The two blocks of the neighborhood between 59th Street and 61st Street were spared by the development of Amsterdam Houses in the late 1940s, but much of what remained was demolished or repurposed by construction of large luxury residential buildings in the early 21st Century.
The IRT Generating Plant on 11th Avenue (WEA) between 58th/59th Streets (just to the southwest of San Juan Hill) was built in 1904 to supply power to the new Interborough Rapit Transit Company subway which opened that year. The location was chosen in part to permit ready access to coal shipments via the Hudson River just to the west and in its heyday, used 1,000 tons of coal per day to generate 132,000 horsepower. The exterior was designed by McKim, Mead & White, although numerous modifications have been made over the years, including replacement of the original five smokestack with a single concrete stack. The city sold the facility to Con Edison in 1959 which integrated it into the power grid and sold the steam to neighborhood customers for heating.
Element (555 West 59th Street)
The Manhattan Neighborhood Network administers public access cable services in Manhattan. The service is supported by the cable duopoly (TimeWarner Cable and RCN Cable) under a franchise from the City of New York.
At the turn of the 20th century, New York was a densely populated industrial city with many of the city's residents packed into squalid tenement homes that lacked facilities for bathing. In keeping with the strong progressive spirit of that era, the city built "public baths" that were buildings of showers intended to promote personal cleanliness and, ultimately, Godliness and good civic behavior.
The public bath at 232 West 60th Street opened in 1906. The limestone and brick building, with terra cotta ornamentation, featured 49 showers for men, 20 showers and a tub for women and a 35' x 65' indoor swimming pool. The bathhouse served the predominantly Irish Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to the South, the primarily Negro San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north, and longshoremen who worked on the then-active west side docks. As a common meeting place for these groups, the public bath was the location of violent clashes that lead to the naming of the neighborhood.
The lot to the south on 59th Street was acquired for use as a playground and in 1912 became home to a two-story English Gothic style field house designed by architect Theodore E. Videto. In 1938, a tenement building to the east was demolished and replaced with an outdoor pool that opened in 1943. The field house is now Recreation Center 59 and the indoor pool serves the Municipal Lifeguard Training School. The outdoor pool has long been out of service, although there are long-standing plans to demolish it an replace it with an expansion of the recreation center.
The Concerto (200 West 60th Street on 10th Ave between 59th/60th Street) is a 248-unit 35-story apartment building that was completed in 1992.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice (899 Tenth Avenue) was founded in 1964 as the College of Police Science. The main building (on Amsterdam Avenue just south of 59th Street) was designed by Charles B.J. Snyder and built in 1903 as DeWitt Clinton High School. That high school moved to the Bronx in 1929 and the Tenth Avenue building became Haaren High School, named after John Henry Haaren, an associate superintendent of schools and president of the department of pedagogy at Brooklyn Institute. The college moved into the building in 1988.
St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital occupies most of the block south of 59th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The hospital center was created in 1979 with the merger of three hospitals: St. Luke's (founded 1846), Women's Hospital (founded 1855) and Roosevelt Hospital (founded 1871). The William J. Syms Operating Theatre was a surgical building added to Roosevelt Hospital in 1892. The Romanesque building was designed by W. Wheeler Smith and named after the retired gun merchant who (turning swords to scalpals) paid for it. The building was dominated by a large operating room surrounded by semicircular tiers containing 184 seats for medical students (hence, the name theatre). The building was converted to offices in 1941 and the entire Columbus Avenue frontage was sold to a developer in the late 1980s.
The SYMS Operating Theatre should not be confused with J. Marion SIMS, who was a surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital and is considered the father of modern gynecology. He was notable for performing the first successful repair of a vaginal fistula following childbirth in 1849, but also notorious for developing the technique by practicing on slaves.
425 West 59th Street is an apartment building for St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital
Two Columbus Avenue (at 59th Street) is a 41-story condo tower built in 1998 with air rights bought from St. Paul the Apostle Church next door.
The Church of St. Paul the Apostle was designed by Jeremiah O'Rourke and opened in January 1885 after nine years of construction. The parish itself was established in 1858 and assigned to Fr. Isaac Hecker, who was the driving force for construction of a new basilica. The church is 284 feet long, 121 feet wide and rises to 114 feat at the tops of the towers. The exterior is in 13th-century Old Gothic style and interior ornamentation was designed by American artists John LaFarge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Lumen Winter, Stanford White, and William Laurel Harris. The building is the mother church of the Paulist Fathers, a group of Roman Catholic priests who work as missionaries in the United States and Canada.
On a cultural note, the church was the site in 1959 of the funeral for famed jazz singer Billie Holliday. At the turn of the 20th century, the fathers had some notable struggles with vaudeville houses wanting to locate in nearby Columbus Circle.
The slum clearance that created the New York Coliseum, Lincoln Center and the Fordham University in the 1960s also destroyed the neighborhoods that made up the parish that the church served. The church struggled to survive and had to close its school in 1974.
The Coliseum Park Apartments (30 West 60th Street) were built along with New York Coliseum in 1957. In 1946 Robert Moses's Triborough Tunnel and Bridge Authority was given the task of building an exhibition hall for the city. Moses set his sights on a couple of blocks to the west of Columbus Circle, using Title I of the Federal Housing Act to acquire the blocks for "slum clearance". The law required half of the site to include housing, so Moses included this 500-apartment complex on the western half of the superblock. The complex consists of two 15-story wings, separated by a lovely two-acre garden.
The Coliseum was originally envisioned to including a sports arena and opera house, although only the exhibition hall and a for-profit office tower survived the process through completion. The exhibition hall itself was outmoded by the opening of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in 1986 and the sturdy but uninspiring structure was demolished in 2000 to make way for the Time Warner Center.
Fordham University is a private university in the Jesuit tradition that was initially established in 1841 as St. John's College on old Rose Hill Manor in the village of Fordham (then part of Westchester County but now in The Bronx). The Manhattan Campus (between 60th/62nd Streets and Columbus/Amsterdam Avenues) was built as part of Robert Moses' slum clearance plan that also included Lincoln Center. The campus sits just to the north of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, also a Jesuit institution.
The Hudson (225 West 60th Street)
According to certificates of occupancy from the Department of Buildings, 211 West 61st Street was built in 1928 as a "factory, showroom, offices, motor vehicle repair shop and garage". In more recent times it has become loft studios for performing arts organizations like Alvin Ailey, The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the School of American Ballet.
The Beacon School (227 West 61st Street) was created in 1993 by Ruth Lacey and Steve Stoll as a small selective secondary public school focusing on college prep curriculum. The building itself was built in 1919 for auto repair. It was purchased for $31.2 million in 2005. The City has a short-term lease on the building and the developer plans to demolish it when the lease runs out in order to construct yet another residential tower.
229-251 West 60 Street and 218-240 West 61 Street is the luxury apartment complex Adagio (243 West 60th Street) with a 27-story central tower and three smaller buildings including 342 residential units and 200 parking spaces plus medical office and retail space.
West 61st Street
28 West End Avenue (at West 61st Street) was built in 1931 as a garage. The rezoning of the block indicates that it will be demolished for a 31-story 190-unit residential building that will include a middle school.
242 and 244 West 61st Street are the last surviving tenament houses of the dozens that once housed the teeming residents of San Juan Hill. The DOB website does not give their specific ages, although they are listed as Old Law Tenaments, which dates them between the passage of the Tenament House Act of 1879 (the "Old Law") and the "New Law" of 1901.
The rezoning of the block to facilitate the Ginsburg development to the West seems to preserve these two buildings, although it permits addition of penthouses.
The "centerpiece" of what was San Juan Hill is Amsterdam Houses, a 13-building complex with 1,080 apartments that replaced the "blighted" tenaments that occupied the four blocks between 61st/64th streets and Amsterdam/West End Avenue. The architects of the complex were Grosvenor Atterbury, Harvey Wiley Corbett and and Arthur C. Holden with landscape design by Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano.
Design work and the acquisition of land for the complex began in 1941 although construction was delayed by World War II. Around 1,400 people (80% African-American) were displaced by the construction that demolished around 100 residential buildings (most of them "Old-Law" tenaments). Most of the displaced residents were offered "rehabilitated" apartments in Harlem owned by the Housing Authority. The plan was to return the residents to Amsterdam Houses following completion, but with the housing crunch that followed WW II and legal requirements that priority be given to returning veterans, few of the original San Juan Hill residents were able to come back to their neighborhood after the complex was completed on December 17, 1948.
A pair of John Jay students put together a nice series of web pages with documentation of the legal drama surrounding the construction of the complex.
Samuel Bennerson (1923-1970) was a lifelong resident of Phipps Houses who focused his energies on programs for children and was instrumental in the creation of this playground which bears his name.
In the 1960s and 1970s, cities came to be viewed (with some justification) as dirty and dangerous places (in contrast to the fresh green suburbs that had sprung up around the country). Urban architecture of the period often reflected this view, with street level walls that were meant to separate from the city rather than embrace it. The design of Lincoln Center reflects this ethos, with an inward-facing interior plaza protected by harsh walls facing the surrounding city. This also certainly gave the African American residents of Amsterdam Houses and Phipps Houses the sense that they were not welcome in the city's temple to imported European culture.
Seminal jazz pianist James P. Johnson was a resident of San Juan Hill and frequently worked in a club called Jungles Casino that was located on West 62nd Street, where Amsterdam Houses now stand.
West 63rd/64th Streets
80-94 West End Avenue / 249 - 257 West 63rd Street / 250-258 West 64th Street is a seven-story building built in 1921. A 1941 DOB Certificate of Occupancy lists its use as manufacturing and storage and at one point in its life it was supposedly a Sherman Tank factory and sold in 2008 for $92 million.
Phipps Houses (233-247 West 63rd and 234-248 West 64th Street between Amsterdam and WEA) was founded in 1905 with a $1 million gift from Henry Phipps, a partner in the Carnegie Steel Company (which became part of U.S. Steel). The organization was created to create quality housing for working class New Yorkers. This group of apartment buildings was one of the organization's early projects that was erected between 1907 and 1911 and was specifically directed toward the African-American residents of the area, unlike developments in later eras that were intended to displace existing poor and minority residents.
Pioneering jazz pianist Thelonious Monk lived most of his life in Phipps Houses.
LaGuardia Arts (on Amsterdam Avenue between 63rd/64th Streets) is a specialized public high school that provides a both a conservatory arts and college preperatory education. The High School of Music and Art was founded in 1936 (in a building at 135th Street) and the High School of Performing Arts was founded in 1948 (in a building on 46th Street). The two institutions merged in 1961 in anticipation of a move to a new facility in the then-new Lincoln Center although the plans stayed on the drawing board for over a decade. Ground was finally broken for the new building in 1973, but the city's budget crisis in the mid 1970s delayed completion and opening of the building until the fall of 1984. The new building was then named after Fiorello H. Laguardia (1882-1947), the former Republican mayor who had been instrumental in the founding of the predecessor institutions during his tenure.
West 65th Street
The Amsterdam Annex (240 West 65th Street) was an expansion of Amsterdam Houses added in 1974. The 27-story tower with 175 apartments sits to the north of Amsterdam Houses and to the west of LaGuardia High School.
The Lincoln-Amsterdam House Apartments ( 110 West End Avenue) is a 25-story, 253-foot-tall residential tower designed by David Todd in 1973 and completed in the hot summer of 1977. The exterior is primarily brick with pre-cast concrete (Brutalist) elements incorporated in multiple setbacks, projections and cantilevered sections.
125 West End Avenue is a studio facility for ABC-TV. The building itself appears to predate television and probably had some kind of association with the railyard that used to run just to the west, but I haven't found any info on it yet.
North of San Juan Hill
Martin Luther King Jr. High School was designed in 1969 by Frost and Associates. The street level presents a brick wall protecting (and isolating) the building from its surroundings and giving it a cold fortress appearance despite the incorporation of bright colors in the interior design. The exterior is a glass curtain wall surrounding dreary classrooms that have no access to natural light. Add in the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the New York public school system and cultural issues from the housing projects next door and you have a building that isn't terribly conducive to educational excellence.
Perhaps the most desirable aspect of the whole mess is a cubist monument to the slain civil rights leader on the corner of 66th Street and Amsterdam. Although the metal has the appearance of rusted cast iron, it is actually made of Cor-ten steel - an alloy that gives a rusted appearance but remains stable and uncorroded.
The American Red Cross had a building 150 Amsterdam Avenue that was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and built in 1963 along with Lincoln Towers. It was sold and demolished in 2007 to make way for a 43-floor glass residential tower designed by Gary Handel and Associates.
128 West End Avenue (between 65th and 66th Streets) supposedly was or is Con Ed's Energy Control Center, although the building contains no external markings to indicate its significance. Regardless, it's a surprisingly solid-looking bit of modernism completed in 1961.
Lincoln Towers was built to the north of San Juan Hill between 66th and 69th Streets. They were designed by S.J. Kessler and Sons in 1959 with landscape design by Leo Novick. The complex was completed in 1964 as part of the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project. The complex occupies 20 Acres and has 3,837 apartments in 8 buildings. The apartments were rent stabilized until a co-op conversion in 1987. The layout is "tower in the park" with structures only occuping 19% of the footprint and a parking garage was integrated into development, reflecting the growing dominance of the automobile in mid-20th-century America. (LincolnTowers.com)
Lincoln Square Theatres
Lincoln Square was home to a number of live theatres during the early 20th Century, although hopes for turning it into a thriving uptown theatre district never quite came to fruition. While San Juan Hill itself only contained a few clubs and no theatres, the work of artists that lived in San Juan Hill (such as James P. Johnson) was presented at the theatres to the east of the neighborhood.
The block of 66th Street east of Columbus Avenue was the home of Lincoln Square Center (a music venue) and St. Nicholas Arena. Charlie Parker played at both venues and in the 1950s rock pioneer Alan Freed hosted Rock 'n' Roll Jubillee Balls at St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Arena (69 West 66th Street) opened in 1896 as an ice hockey and skating rink. The 4,000-seat arena began hosting boxing matches in 1906 (which became legal in 1911 with the passage of the Frawley Law). After the final main event on May 28, 1962, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 fights may have been staged there. The building was demolished in the 1980s to make space for and expansion of ABC's television studios.
West 65th Street west of Broadway was home to the 1,600-seat Lincoln Square Theatre, which was designed by John B. McElfatrick and built by developer John L. Miller. The theatre opened in October 1906. The entrance to the theatre from Broadway was through a building that had opened four years earlier and came to be know as the Lincoln Square Arcade. The arcade included studio space and was home to a number of artists at various times, including playwright Eugene O'Neill.
Both buildings were demolished in 1958 to create a new home for the Julliard School as part of the Lincoln Center project. The block of 65th street subsequently became a barren passageway until a redevelopment project in the early 21st century to open it to sunlight and human activity.
The 1,265-seat Colonial Theatre (1887 Broadway at 62nd St.) was designed by George Keister and opened on February 8, 1905. It served as a vaudeville and legit theatre house until around 1930 when it began being used exclusively for movies. In the 1950s and 1960s it was used as a studio by NBC and ABC. It briefly returned to legit theatre as the Harkness Theatre from 1975 through 1977 before being demolished to clear space for Harmony Atrium and Tower (61 West 62nd Street).
Harmony Atrium was built with a "privately-owned public space", an odd little quirk incentivized by the 1961 zoning resolution that permitted denser buildings in exchange for this public amenity. The results of the law were mixed with some truly valuable seating areas and a number of spaces like Harmony Atrium which became squalid, underused havens for the homeless. A project was undertaken in 2008 to replace the space into a visitor center for Lincoln Center.
The 2,320-seat New Theatre was designed by famed architects John M. Carrère (1858 - 1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860 - 1921) and financed by a number of wealthy New Yorkers as a non-profit theatre. It opened on November 8, 1909 but acoustical problems lead the backers to walk away from the venture. It was renamed the Century Theatre in 1911 and converted to commercial use. It was demolished and replaced by the Art Deco Century Apartments in 1926.
63rd Street Music Hall (22 W. 63rd St.) was designed by Thomas W. Lamb and Erwin Rossbach and opened in 1914. After complex construction period extended by financial problems, the theatre was completed by a religious organization to be used for biblical films and lectures. It presented legit theatre from 1921 - 1941 and was demolished in 1957. The large, nondescript residential tower (30 Lincoln Plaza) that replaced it is home to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway at 63rd Street), one of the city's premier art film houses.
Sitting across the street from the former Century Theatre and 63rd Street Music Hall is the West Side YMCA (5 West 63rd Street), designed by Dwight James Baum and opened in 1930. Aside from the recreational facilities traditionally associated with the YMCA, it also includes a 600-room guest facility, which, while somewhat spartan, is one of the best tourist deals in town. The McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street (which no longer has rooms) was the inspiration for the Village People's gay anthem Y.M.C.A.
Sitting just west of the West Side YMCA at 33 West 63rd Street is an isolated tenement building, one of the only survivors of the redevelopment of Lincoln Square. It seems a bit forlorn amongst the surrounding towers, but appears to be well maintained. Perhaps the air rights have been sold, protecting it as a quaint anachronism for future generations to marvel at.
The 1,355-seat Majestic Theatre (5 Columbus Circle between 58th/59th streets) was designed by John H. Duncan and opened on January 21, 1903. It was originally intended to be the beginning of a new uptown theatre district that never materialized. The theatre was converted to film in 1923. It operated under a number of different names before being used by NBC as a TV studio starting in 1949. It was demolished in 1954 to make way for Robert Moses' New York Coliseum.
The Circle Theatre (1825 Broadway at 60th Street) was originally designed by Charles Cavenaugh and opened in 1901. It was originally intended as a vaudeville house but the objections of the nearby Paulist Fathers lead to the commercially unsuccessful presentation of orchestral music. A remodeling in 1906 designed by Thomas Lamb converted it to a legit theatre. In 1939, the building was converted again into the Columbus Circle Roller Rink. The building was demolished in 1954.