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It’s Quiet Uptown

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Though the word “unique” is often thrown around with sloppy abandon by real estate impresarios hawking their wares, the vast majority of buildings in Manhattan do not truly stand alone in any stylistic sense. One gleaming new glass condo often looks like the next, and even the brownstones that are nowadays so revered tend to have not only architectural siblings right next door but also lookalike cousins all over town. Indeed, so common were brownstones by the late 19th century that Edith Wharton famously derided the city of that period as “cursed with its universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”

What a welcome pleasure, then, are the homespun little brick houses of Astor Row, on the south side of West 130th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues in central Harlem. Built from 1880 to 1883 on land owned by William Astor, the row of 28 houses is a genuinely singular architectural grouping in Manhattan: fourteen pairs of three-and-a-half-story pink-brick houses with 20-foot-deep front gardens and charmingly turned Victorian-style porches painted olive green. Several of the pairs are semidetached houses, with side yards and side windows that admit an unexpectedly warm flood of light into the homes’ interiors.

Individually landmarked by the city in 1981, the houses of Astor Row, Nos. 8–62 West 130th Street, rarely come to market. In 2014, No. 16, which had been vacant and boarded up for years, sold for $1.7 million.

“There were tons of bids on this property, to the point where people were trying to climb in the window and a security guard had to be posted,” said Tamara Marotta, an associate broker at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, who handled the sale. The sellers, she added, “wanted someone who could do a renovation, so it wouldn’t sit and languish.”

That renovation, a spare, modern interior within a faithfully restored 19th-century exterior, is now complete, and the four- bedroom, five-bath house was placed on the market during the summer, again with Marotta and Elliman; the asking price is $3.995 million. That number would be astonishing to anyone who knew the block during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when many of the houses were derelict and Astor Row houses were being listed for $130,000. But in 2013, a four-story brownstone at nearby 2036 Fifth Avenue sold to the actor Neil Patrick Harris for $3.6 million, then a neighborhood record; that building required substantial renovation to combine its residential floors with a commercial duplex.

Astor Row stands on land purchased in 1844 for $10,000 by real estate titan John Jacob Astor. The Astor patriarch was well known for buying properties in underdeveloped, far-flung areas of Manhattan and sitting on them until the city expanded to reach his holdings. His West 130th Street purchase fit this pattern.

Harlem was still a bucolic village in the mid-19th century, but the extension of elevated railroads into the neighborhood in the late 1870s and early 1880s linked the area to commercial districts downtown and spurred residential development.

Astor Row was the work of architect Charles Buek, who had designed grand East Side residences for the likes of John A. Stewart, president of U.S. Trust, and Charles A. Dana, managing editor of the New York Tribune and assistant secretary of war during the Civil War. Home to middle- and upper-middle-class whites in their early decades, the Astor houses and the high-stooped brownstones across the street combined to earn their stretch of West 130th Street the reputation as the “Block Beautiful.” With their picturesque porches, decorative cast-iron fencing and stone lintels incised with Neo-Grec detailing, Buek’s row houses presented, the New York Times asserted, “a picture of domestic tranquility and comfort” possessed by “few other dwelling blocks in the city.”

Speculative overbuilding in Harlem led to a collapse of the real estate market in 1905, and African-Americans began moving to Harlem in great numbers, many of them displaced from the tenement neighborhood in the West 30s that was razed to make way for the original Pennsylvania Station and its tunnel. In 1920, a real estate investor named James H. Cruikshank purchased a number of the Astor Row houses and began selling them to blacks, “radical changes in 130th Street” that prompted the Times to predict that the row would “soon be occupied entirely by colored residents.”

Though built as single-family homes, the Astor houses were routinely serving as boardinghouses by the 1920s. A 1928 rental advertisement in the New York Amsterdam News, a black newspaper, offered “neatly furnished rooms” with “hot and cold water” and “steam heat” for $5 at No. 30. Carrie J. Mumford, the landlady who took out the ad, was still living there in 1940, when the U.S. Census found her crowded into her home with 15 tenants and a caretaker. A 62-year-old black woman who had been born in Maryland, Mumford was sole owner of the house, which was valued at $12,000. Her tenants, who ranged in age from 3 to 70, were black as well, most of them transplants from the South. Several worked as servants, including 48-year-old Virginia native Margaret Washington. Her 62-year-old husband, William, who had never attended school, was captain of a coal barge.

The Depression hit Harlem hard, and the continuing influx of immigrants from the South and the Caribbean after World War II led to overcrowding. At the same time, the rising cost of maintaining houses, coupled with laws that limited rental income, prompted many homeowners to abandon their properties or set insurance fires, according to architectural historian Brendan Gill.

By the early 1990s, Astor Row was in a shambles. Its once picturesque porches were collapsing or missing, and some of the houses were vacant, their windows and doors sealed up with cinderblocks. That’s when Brooke Astor, the widow of Vincent Astor, a great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, happened upon the site.

“Mrs. Astor was riding around with someone from the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and a sign said Astor Row,” recalled Karen Ansis, fund manager for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private group. “She said, ‘What is this?’”

Mrs. Astor, reinforcing her reputation as the Lady Bountiful of New York society, arranged for a $1.7 million donation from the Vincent Astor Foundation for the restoration of Astor Row’s porches. The New York Landmarks Conservancy managed the work, which expanded into a broader $3.2 million rehabilitation project funded with both public and private money. (Ella Fitzgerald lent her voice to the cause by performing at a benefit at Radio City Music Hall.) All told, between 1992 and 2005, 25 of the 28 porches were repaired or replaced, twelve crumbling chimneys were rebuilt, 15 façades were stripped of chipping paint and repointed, and eleven cast-iron fences were restored. Two vacant, city-owned buildings, Nos. 38 and 58, were renovated inside and out to create eight cooperative apartments for lower- and middle-income residents.

Today, seven Astor Row houses are owned by Claris Cunningham, a Jamaican-born immigrant who came to New York by way of England. In 1992, she became acquainted with the row houses when her brother was building new porches for them. She, her daughter, and her sister pooled their resources and bought No. 12.

“It was hell on earth with the crack and the devastation of the abandoned buildings,” Cunningham recalled. “They climbed up the banister of the porch, through the second-floor window, and my daughter, Diane, beat them with a baseball bat.” Another time, she added, intruders cut a hole in the front door “to come in and steal anything they could get their hands on, anything to make a quick crack deal.” To protect herself, Cunningham’s daughter began sleeping with a machete.

Today life is far more tranquil, and only one house on the row is still a shell. Over the past decade, more affluent residents have poured into Harlem, often plunking down millions for houses. Cunningham estimated that about half the buildings on Astor Row are now owned by blacks and half by whites, a mix she’s comfortable with. “I come from a multiculture: Indian, Jews and Negro,” she said. “I’ve always lived in a diverse community.”

No. 16 was still in need of major work in 2014 when Henry Abraham, a white human rights lawyer who lives in Harlem, bought it with a development partner. The brickwork needed repointing, the porch was rotting, and the roof was leaking. “You walked in and there was exposed insulation and electrical wiring,” Abraham said. “Some work had been done, but it was 20 years old, as if work had been started but they maybe ran out of money.”

The new owners performed a gut renovation, installing a period fireplace surround salvaged from a limestone house on 162nd Street and adding oak wainscoting and oak herringbone floors. Now they will sit back and see if their refurbished landmark will fetch nearly $4 million, a figure that would shatter the record sale price for an Astor Row house: the $2.4 million paid for No. 20 in 2013.

What’s old is new again, in more ways than one. Way back in 1889, one longtime observer of the Uptown scene was so astonished by the area’s soaring market that he grumbled, “When I see the prices real estate is now bringing in Harlem, it makes me feel that I was a fool for not making…investments years ago when property was so cheap.” Φ

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017.

Photos courtesy of Douglas Elliman Real Estate.


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