By CHRISTOPHER GRAY Published: March 10, 2010
THIRTY years ago, Broadway north of 96th Street was a vibrant but shabby area, its Hispanic groceries and Chinese restaurants mixed with declining Edwardian apartment houses and S.R.O. hotels.
Now most of this stretch has turned over a gold-plated leaf, especially as a new pair of towering condominiums at 100th Street settles in. A short walk up the 10 blocks to 106th Street takes an inquiring walker from wood frame to glassy modern.
These blocks of Broadway were built up in the late 1890s with six- and seven-story apartment houses, like the Wilmington at the southeast corner of 97th Street, and are pleasant enough. However, at the otherwise retiring Wilmington, someone grew a little frame penthouse on top. With its pitched roof, dormer and window bay, it might be a cottage from the neighborhood’s days as truck farm and chicken yard.
On the east side, at 98th Street, two 12-story apartment houses introduce a grandeur otherwise lacking on what could have been a magnificent boulevard. On the south corner, the 1911 Borchardt, by Rouse & Goldstone, has rich classical ornament, like the terra-cotta cornice along the fourth-floor level. It has the crispest little guttae, the droplike forms on the bottom, you are likely to see on the West Side.
Running up the front is a wonderful series of three-sided window bays, their metalwork picked out in buff and light green. ’Tis a pity that the noble Borchardt has suffered the Curse of the Dead-Brown Replacement Window.
Across the street the Gramont, of the same date, is by another quality firm, Blum & Blum, and like the Borchardt has rich light-colored brickwork with deep-struck joints. Anyone who goes around to the entrance on 98th will also be taken with the spectacular lobby front, a sumptuous, expostulating Parisian screen of ironwork, recently repaired and refinished.
Beyond 99th, on both sides of Broadway, run the Ariel East and Ariel West, both recently built by the Extell Development Company. Tall, squarish, glassy towers with maroon trim, these are the buildings that West Siders love to hate, out of scale with the neighborhood and way too fancy, so it is said.
Me, I like them. Is the stodgy, slightly worn-out quality of the West Side so fragile it cannot accept a couple of mirror-glass lightning bolts? Extell has also taken what was once a dodgy block and flooded the zone by building the two structures.
Next door to the Ariel East on the south is the Art Deco Metro Theater, designed in 1932 by the inventive Boak & Paris and closed for several years. This lovely little pink-and-black terra-cotta jewel is dirtier than an old sneaker, but the original whimsy is still clear in the modernistic comedy/tragedy medallion in the center.
The architect’s elevation drawings show that the metalwork is aluminum, at the time exotic for architectural decoration, with interlaced neon lights. Urban Outfitters was going to move in last year, but that deal, like others before it, fell through, and the temporary steel supports for the marquee are beginning to look pretty permanent.
On the north side of Ariel East is the 1909 Allenhurst. The architect, William Rouse, not yet in partnership with Lafayette Goldstone, gave it a mesmerizing crisscross diaper-work brick pattern in the topmost section. And he evinced a decent respect for the opinions of others by bringing the decoration around the side wall of the building, called a return, a rarely seen but very civilized gesture.
Diagonally across the 100th Street intersection is the oldest building in the area, the three-story 1871 Boulevard House, a wooden building with an intricate cornice. Years ago, I sometimes went to the Tacita de Oro on the ground floor for Spanish-Chinese food; at the time, the clapboard on the upper stories was peeling pink paint. In 1993 the Metro Diner moved in, tricked up the ground floor in faux-Deco style, and covered the upper floors in aluminum siding, apparently to avoid a possible landmark designation.
The apartment house right next door on Broadway was originally the Ben-Hur. Indeed this section presents a ghostly gazetteer of forgotten apartment names: Navarre, Aragon, El Casco, Friesland, Karlsruhe, an encyclopedia of middle-class aspirations. A few have been revived, but the famous charioteer is not yet among them.
At the Ben & Jerry’s at 104th Street, there is a dazzling glass mosaic in an abstract design of “spinach green, carrot red and butter yellow,” as The Architectural Record described it in 1947. The artist, Max Spivak, made it for the Riker’s restaurant chain, and its survival is a miracle on Broadway.
The huge 1913 Cleburne apartment house stretches from West End to Broadway at 105th, and is worth seeing for its off-norm touches of Arts and Crafts and its private carriageway, all designed by Schwartz, Gross & Marcus.
The Cleburne would not be here were it not for the sinking of the Titanic, in April 1912. Isidor Straus, a partner in R. H. Macy & Co., and his wife, Ida, had occupied an old wooden house on the site since 1884. The month after the Strauses went down with the ship, their children sold the property, and the Cleburne soon joined the march of apartment buildings up Broadway.
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