Carnegie Hill in 1979

Thursday, September 21, 2017

In April 1979, AVENUE profiled a quiet, up-and-coming neighborhood called “Carnegie Hill” (maybe you’ve heard of it). Since then, some of the area’s businesses may have changed, but its character has remained the same.

When thirty-year-old Ila Mehta emigrated from her native Bombay via Tokyo three years ago, she knew at once that Manhattan was her kind of island, and she wanted to put down roots. But where? Midtown was too hectic, the village too hippie, and the Sixties and Seventies too sleek – at least for her. Then she came upon “Carnegie Hill,” that stable, residential enclave of some thirty-thousand families between Eighty-sixth and Ninety-sixth Streets, Fifth to Third Avenues.

Ila Mehta liked the neighborhood immediately; it seemed sophisticated, but a little old-fashioned; affluent, but not plastic; and a good deal closer than the suburbs. More important, it felt like a neighborhood. Some residents like to compare it to a French quartier.

Carnegie Hill survived the building booms of the past thirty years with its landmark buildings and low-density character practically intact. Perhaps builders looking for sites for high-rise apartments were deterred by a whiff from the Ninety-fifth Street armory (where Police Department horses were once stabled) or the smell of hops wafting up on a hot day from the Ruppert Brewery on Third Avenue. For whatever reason, the developers passed over the Carnegie Hill district in factor of Third and York Avenues. The brewery and armory have since been demolished (replaced by a school and an apartment building, respectively), but over one hundred of the grand old buildings that were once the homes of noted industrialists, merchants, ambassadors, and bankers – such as George Baker’s palatial residence on Park Avenue at Ninety-third Street, now the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia – have been saved by historic district designations and are now occupied by schools and charitable foundations.

The area is one of the most solidly entrenched “family” neighborhoods on the East Side, with an unusually high proportion of privately-owned, single-family brownstones, and one of the lowest turnover rates in rental and cooperative apartments in the city. Its relatively tranquil atmosphere and an abundance of schools (there are fourteen within a six-block radius) are enticements to young couples with school-age children, who feel they are moving into, rather than out to, the suburbs. Says one enthusiastic resident, a recent arrival from Paris who shunned the East Sixties and Seventies, “If it was France, they’d call it ‘The Provinces.’”

“We moved up here a year ago,” says Kenneth Wilson, a corporate finance executive with the real estate firm Smith Barney Harris Upham & Company. “There’s a nice family atmosphere and an interesting mix of people. And once we moved in, we discovered a lot of our friends here, too.” Other Wall Street firms are well represented in the community. Observes James D. Price, a director of Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, Inc., “It’s not such a long trip downtown. Some people commute to Darien.” (Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was another neighbor and regular commuter on the Lexington Avenue IRT before Washington called.)

One of the most striking facts about Carnegie Hill that emerged from the latest census is that a remarkable thirty-five per cent of the residents are self-employed, mainly as doctors, artists, and writers. Now, so many neighborhood women are returning to work as local boutique-keepers that Upper Madison Avenue is experiencing the most remarkable commercial boom in years.

Ila Mehta, for one, opened a sportswear shop called Am-In-Ja (an acronym for the blending of American, Indian, and Japanese cultures) on Madison Avenue near Ninety-second Street, soon are moving to the area. Business is flourishing. Summerhouse, a plant-bedecked restaurant at Ninety-first and Madison that has been a smashing success since it opened in the fall of 1976, is owned and operated by six fashionable women. “We all dash in there,” confirms Cynthia walsh, one of the owners.

In fact the majority of the twenty or so smart new stores that have sprung up over the past several years along the ten-block stretch of Madison Avenue north of Eighty-sixth Street were opened by women, all of whom recognized the commercial potential of that area, but few of whom had the retail experience to support their instincts. These prosperous new establishments include The Park Bench near Ninety-first Street, for children’s clothes; The Wicker Garden at Ninety-third Street, for furniture, baby accessories, and hand-painted crafts; and La Fromagerie at Ninety-sixth, a specialty foods shop that is Carnegie Hill’s answer to the successful Pasta & Cheese shops in the Seventies and Eighties.

Then there were the four friends – Susan Corcoran, Nancy Hoffmann, Lyle Haughton, and Beth Werwaiss – who wanted to prove that in addition to their Junior League work they could, as they put it, “turn a profit.” All are mothers of young children and none wanted a full-time job. The result is Dollhouse Antics at Ninety-second Street, purveyor of dollhouses and miniature, handmade furnishings, and one of the busiest businesses on the avenue.

Three other new enterprises nearby boast at least one distaff partner. Great Expectations, a gallery of contemporary American crafts at Ninety-third Street and its adjacent offspring Crabtree & Evelyn, which sells natural foods and toiletries, are owned by Phyllis Lieberman, another resident wife and mother, and Douglas Coffin, who has designed and modernized several neighboring stores.

Across the street is The Corner Bookstore, a joint venture of Helene Sherman and her husband, Ray, a sculptor. Originally, the couple had no intention of opening a business. “We bought the property two years ago because we wanted to turn it back into a one-family house, as it once was, with a studio-workshop for Ray,” Helene explains. But when the druggist on the ground floor moved out and all the prospective tenants wanted to “modernize” the space by ripping out the original cabinetwork and tin ceilings, the Shermans decided to take the store over themselves.

The beautifully restored interiors is Ray Sherman’s handiwork, while the stock of children’s books and volumes on fine arts, architecture, literature and poetry are, says Helene, “right up my alley.” And now that the business is successful, the Shermans have instituted a weekly story-telling hour for children, free of charge.

Of course, not all of Carnegie Hill’s commercial renaissance can be attributed directly to the women’s movement or consciousness-raising; some shrewd business chose the area because of its steady growth, although, because of the success of most of the new enterprises, many rents are nearly on a par with lower Madison Avenue. For instance, Robert Fleischer, a former gift buyer at Bergdorf Goodman, and his partner Larry Alpert, opened The Glass Store on Madison at Eighty-ninth after comparing locations, rents, and clienteles throughout the city. In their view, Carnegie Hill attracts a moneyed crowd.

“We clocked a lot of mommas in minks, bringing their kids to school in limousines,” Fleischer smiles. “And there are always a lot of well-dressed ladies walking by. Furthermore, there are a lot of psychiatrists up here. This is doctors’ country,” he adds.

But it was not always so busy on Upper Madison. Jim McMahon recalls that when he and his partner, Howard Middleton, opened their Gallery Madison 90 thirteen years ago, they felt like pioneers. “The only things up here then were the groceries, fish stores, and the corner stationer,” he says. “In fact, some friends told us we were absolutely crazy to go this far uptown with this kind of operation.” However, when Alfred Isselbacher opened the spacious print gallery that bears his name at Eighty-eighth Street a few years earlier, he had no such reservations. “If you’ve got something worthwhile,” he says, “clients will find you.”

The steady influx of young couples, many with two incomes, may be the main factor responsible for resurgence of Carnegie Hill. Explains attorney Ronald D. Spencer, president of the Carnegie hill Neighbors Association, “The older couples didn’t spend like the thirty- or forty-year-olds with children.” In addition, the new boutiques and eateries on Madison, and even on Lexington, draw their trade from each other’s employees, from the staffs of the huge Fifth Avenue hospital complexes a few blocks to the north, teachers from the nearby private schools, and of course, visitors to the area’s world-famous museums. All within a few blocks of each other are the Museum of the City of New York, the International Center of Photography, the Jewish Museum, The Guggenheim, the National Academy of Design, and the Cooper-Hewitt (housed in the former Carnegie Mansion, on Ninety-first Street, from which the district assumes its name.

The community is rich in artists in many fields, and even a few superstars, including pianist Vladimir Horowitz who can often be seen (trying to remain anonymous) on his long walks in the neighborhood; actor Robert Redford, made conspicuous by the giggling schoolgirls walking shyly behind him on Madison Avenue; and Ludwig Y. Wolpert, perhaps the world’s foremost creator of modern Judaic ceremonial art, who nevertheless claims to be “underground” (in fact, the seventy-eight-year-old artist does have a basement workshop at The Jewish Museum).

Other local artists, some better-known than others, include Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Jenkins, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and Sabina Teichman. Illustrator Marshall Goodman hangs his annual holiday greetings to the neighborhood in George Wertz’ general store on Madison at Ninety-fifth, which has the rather elegant name of A La Gourmet Duchesse Anne, a remnant from the days when he and his family operated a catering business on Second Avenue at Sixty-fourth Street. Since A La Gourmet Duchesse Anne is one of the only stores that stays open until nine p.m., a visitor might well run into such neighborhood theater people as Joel Gray, Alistair Cooke, Viveca Lindfors, or Dorothy Stickney. The community also includes film director Sidney Lumet, playwright Ira Levin, screenwriter William Goldman, and jazz pianist George Shearing.

Oddly, the neighborhood has never seemed to be able to sustain its fair share of restaurants, except for two modest institutions, Nodeldini’s at Ninety-third and Madison (inexpensive fish, but a madhouse at dinner), and a dim, saw-dusted pub called Pudding’s, at Ninety-first and Lexington. The newcomers are Bailiwick, on Eighty-ninth and Madison; Table d’Hote, on Ninety-second Street, which has only one evening sitting; and “1416,” a French establishment on Lexington and Ninety-third. Piro’s, a tiny, eccentric Italian place with only nine tables, on Madison and Ninety-fourth, is moving to larger quarters two blocks down the street. There will be a cocktail lounge and a garden, but no more seats, says proprietor Peter Piro, who clearly believes that small is beautiful.

Though many residents think Carnegie Hall is flourishing today, others who have lived there for generations recall its “heyday.” Haig Darakjian, a Paris-educated engineer who fled the Armenian massacre of 1915, has owned an upholsterer’s shop on Madison near Ninety-first Street for more than forty years. Wistfully, he remembers the 1930s, The Age of Elegance, and families with the names Belmont, Burden, Emmet, Hammond, Kahn, and Strauss in the area’s magnificent old mansions.

Joseph Davies’ Fifth Avenue penthouse with its fine furniture and gilded ceilings, was “like Versailles,” he says. Mrs. Carnegie was “a nice old lady.” Mrs. Clarence MacKay had a passion for driving her Cadillac at top speed, even in her later years, and Harry Morgenthau (grandfather of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau) would drop into the shop, sit down, and chat. “We don’t have that crowd anymore,” he sighs.

Still, Carnegie Hill, like all of New York City is a haven for new “new immigrants” who are flocking here for age-old reasons, and helping to bring it vitality. George Ma, formerly of Taiwan, opened the newsstand-cum-lending library on Madison and Ninety-sixth two years ago, and does electrical repairs on the side; the three Ditta brothers from Pakistan took over the doughnut shop next door and are thinking about adding tandoori chicken to their menu, if there is enough demand; and Ami Shebiro and Oved Mualem, who operate out of the Delta Locksmith Shop, near Ninety-first Street, are from Israel.

The neighborhood institutions are also moving with the times: the Church of the Heavenly Rest sponsors Sunday afternoon jazz sessions; the Ninety-second Street “Y” is expanding its classical music offerings and programs for senior citizens, and the Park Avenue Synagogue this year had the largest influx in new members in twenty years, with two-thirds of its new members under forty years of age. The synagogue is constructing a six-story building on Madison at Eighty-seventh Street (a confirmation of faith in the community’s potential) for improved educational, cultural and social facilities. “The synagogue has faith in the stability and growth of the neighborhood,” says Martin Leichtling, the institution’s secretary, who has been affiliated with it since 1948. “We made a significant decision to stay and build because we believe the neighborhood will be vibrant for another fifty years, at least.”



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