Tagged: New York Times

Last Dirt Road(s) in Manhattan

Speaking of the last commercial stable in downtown Lexington and alleys, check out the last dirt roads in Manhattan!

Sylvan Court. Image via Scouting New York

Broadway Alley is a 265 feet long 13-foot-wide dirt road that was laid out sometime between 1827 and 1832 and Sylvan Court is a tiny alley in Harlem – both are unpaved. As such, they are probably the last two dirt roads in Manhattan!

I became aware of these interesting holdovers when I chanced upon Scouting New York written by film location scout, Nick Carr.  If you love New York, quirky architecture and/or historical places jump on over to his site  – I may or may not have spent the better part of a day over there tootling around in his archive. I think I might be (definitely am) a little obsessed now – not to mention I’m jonesing for a trip to the city!  Carr probably has the coolest job ever. And whether he’s aware or not (though I think he probably is, judging by his familiarity with the NY landmark system), he’s a preservationist. When the Gothamist asked him in December of 2008 what he would change about New York, he said this:

I would put more of an emphasis on preservation in the outer boroughs. There’s a ton of amazing buildings and homes in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island that are dilapidated or being torn down and replaced by hideously boring condominiums, and I think people 20 or 30 years from now will look back in horror at what was lost.

Right on, Chris!  Anyway, I digress. Back to Manhattan’s last remaining dirt roads…

Broadway Alley via Google Maps

Broadway Alley

There is a lot of information available about Broadway Alley. The New York Times has done no less than four stories about it during its history.  The Alley runs from E 26th Street to E 27th street about halfway between Lexington and 3rd Avenues.  It first appears on maps as Broadway Alley in 1860. In its earliest incarnation, it  ran behind a blacking (for stoves, boots, shoes, etc) manufacturer. Then around 1850, buildings (probably residences) were constructed along the west side of the alley.

Broadway Alley Garage Doors.  The etched 8 indicates this buildings is #8 Broadway Alley.  Image via Scouting New York

It appears that for most of its history, the alley was home to a largely poor and black population.  In 1879, the New York Times reported (warning – this excerpt is disturbingly racist/classist):

Broadway-alley — if the reader has never been so unfortunate as to pick his way through it – is . . . a dirty causeway just to the west of [Third] avenue, and at the rear of one of its gigantic rows of tenement houses. On the one hand are stables with ragged stable boys lying in the sun and enjoying more odors at a breath than Colerige found in Cologne. On the other is a broken and blistered and dingy and half-windowless row of tenement houses with dusky African faces grinning from every pane, African babies, with curly heads, lying in the gutter, and African matrons sitting on the flagstones talking the latest gossip.

Cast iron Type G wall lamp, probably from the 1910s. Image via Forgotten New York

In 1995, the Times reported none of the buildings surrounding the alley opened into it any longer; however, in a 2005 article it appears that at least two homes had entrances into the alley and at least one still had a Broadway Alley postal address.  Today, the alley is exclusively used for (free!) parking. Two chain link gates help control the flow of people through the alley.
Even though I’m not an archeologist, my fingers are itching for a shovel! Can you imagine what might be unearthed? Horse shoes, glass bottles, tools…

Evidence that the alley was probably paved with Belgian block at one time. Image via Scouting New York

Sylvan Court

Sylvan Court is off of 121st Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues  in Harlem, and as its name suggests, it is not a through street/alley.  It is also partially paved (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post) so it might not actually constitute a “dirt road, ” but it is too neat not to include in this post.

Sylvan Court/Mews Townhouses. Image via Scouting New York

The dirt track lies behind a small metal fence and leads back to a paved courtyard surrounded by ca. 1899 red brick Italianate townhouses.   The townhouses range from 976 square feet to 1620 square feet.  Several have been renovated, and  #4 is currently on the market (though I’m not a fan of the interior renovation, I’m happy that the buildings are being cared for).  According to Wikipedia (hence, take this with a grain of salt – I couldn’t find any info to back this up), Sylvan Court is the remainder of Harlem’s Old Eastern Post Road, which connected NYC and Boston.

Sylvan Court Entrance via Google Maps

 Sylvan Court is sometimes also called Sylvan Mews.   Mews is a term used to describe a row of stables/carriage houses, often with second story living  quarters, built around a court or along a street behind large city houses.  The word can also refer to groups of garages or to a narrow passage or confined space.  To me, these townhouses do not look like they were ever stables or carriage houses,  since they are two story structures on raised basements.  Therefore, they are probably referred to as “mews” based on the latter definition.  My other guess would be that these townhouses replaced stables that formerly sat on the site.  The need for stables and carriage houses in cities diminished greatly in the early 20th century. The Sylvan Court townhouses were constructed around 1899 right on the cusp of the transition away from horse powered transportation.  Either could explain why Sylvan Court is not landmarked, though four other NYC mews are.

So how is it possible that there are any unpaved roads in New York City?  Both Broadway Alley and Sylvan Court are privately owned and therefore beyond the scope of the DOT.

This Week

A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation stories from around the web and in the news.

Architecture has dominated the headlines this week.  Check out some great stories about Frank Lloyd Wright’s archives,  architectural drawing, and the nation’s biggest architectural toy collection below!

FLW moves to NYC

More than 23,000 architectural drawings, about 40 large-scale, architectural models, some 44,000 photographs, 600 manuscripts and more than 300,000 pieces of office and personal correspondence that have been in storage at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West since his death in 1959 are moving  to New York  City.  In an unusual joint partnership between the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library,  the Wright’s archive will be more accessible to the public for viewing and scholarship.   Because of his innovative use of material and form,  Wright’s oeuvre represents a particular challenge for preservationists.   No doubt, access to his original drawings and notes can only help with preservation efforts!



Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing

An argument for architectural drawing in a digital world from architect Michael Graves, whose architectural drawings can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt. This is an issue that effects preservationists too!



Drawing of Lower Manhattan Skyline (video)















Take a minute (ok – one minute and 20 seconds) to watch UK illustrator Patrick Vale draw the lower Manhattan skyline – freehand!  Cityscapes and skylines are close to this preservationist’s heart.  Plus, it’s mesmerizing. Just go watch it!



Lessons From the Nation’s Biggest Architectural Toy Collection

A selection from the Architectural Toy Collection  will be exhibited in PLAY WORK BUILD  in November at The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, reports The Atlantic Cities.  The collection was assembled over 25 years by English Teacher George Wetzel. Architectural toys were sold to parents as an education in logic disguised for children as fun.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother bought into this trend and his genius will forever be connected to the Fröbel’s Gifts set he played with as a child.  His son John didn’t fall far from the tree – he invented Lincoln Logs! A history of American architectural toys is a social history – from the he blocks of Richter’s World War I-era “Fortress Series” set (gun turrets and bunkers) to the Sky Rail Girder and Panel Building Set (“Build and Operate Sky Rail Systems of Tomorrow”). Check out the article for more info on this fascinating exhibit!



Rust Belt Cities Best Places to Live

Rick Brown over at rustwire parses this year’s best places to live list.  Turns out that despite all of the ruin porn coming out of the rust belt,  its cities comprise about a quarter of the list, including first place.  Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, is the best place to live in the United States. See the rest of the rust belt cities to make the list after the jump.

Historic Preservation and the Moon

image via the New York Times

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As I’m sure most of you have heard, Neil A. Armstrong, passed away over the weekend.  Armstrong was a man of many accomplishments – American astronaut, US Naval Aviator, test pilot, aerospace engineer, and university professor- but he is, of course, best known as the first man to walk on the moon.  In his honor, I thought it would be fitting to talk a little bit about the challenges surrounding the preservation of the Apollo moon landing site.

Until I read this New York Times article, I had never really thought about the preservation of a place outside of Earth’s atmosphere.  It had just never occurred to me that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footprints or the American flag planted on the moon’s surface could be in any danger.  To me, those footprints – that flag,  were as indelible as the words Armstrong spoke as he took his first steps onto the moon.  However, renewed interest in the moon from  Russia, India and the Google Lunar X Prize pose a potential threat to the first lunar landing site.  A future lunar landing could easily damage or destroy the artifacts left behind by the first landing.

Dr. Beth O’Leary, professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, began spearheading an effort to preserve the Apollo moon landing site after the topic was raised by a student in one of her classes.  For the better part of a decade, O’Leary has been working with state preservation agencies and NASA to safeguard the site and its artifacts.

Although the US owns the objects left behind on the moon according to international law, it has no sovereignty over any part of the moon thanks to the Outer Space Treaty (signed by it and 100 other nations).  Federal agencies worried that preservation efforts could be seen as an attempt at claiming lunar territory.  Therefore, efforts have mostly centered around the objects left behind – the flag,  moon boots, and other items are listed in California and New Mexico’s catalogs of historic artifacts.

Last year, NASA held a workshop to issue recommendations balancing historic preservation efforts with the desire for continued exploration of the lunar surface.  The solution developed at the workshop asks that future visitors respect a boundary 75 meters from the  site of the first landing (also called Tranquility Base) and a 225 meter from the site of the second landing (the Apollo 17 mission site).  It also recommended guidelines for flight paths over the sites in an effort to minimize possible damage to footprints caused by exhaust blowing the lunar dust around.  Of course, these recommendations as well as the recognition of artifacts by California and New Mexico, are not legally enforceable.

Although I hope that NASA’s recommendations are respected, it is a distinct possibility that they won’t be. While I’m not sure that anyone can argue that Tranquility Base is not an important historical site, I can easily see why someone (or an organization or a country) might wonder what the point to its preservation might be.  After all, the site (and the other lunar landings sites) are inaccessible to all but a tiny fraction of people. The event and site were well-documented at the time (photographs, video, audio, technical reports, news media accounts). And it is possible that further exploration of the site with modern technology could yield important information about the moon and space – things that might have been missed in 1969.

Only time will tell if the site will be preserved.  Future exploration efforts may or may not respect NASA’s guidelines.  Preservation laws may or may not develop to include the preservation of territories in space.   And technology may or may not develop so that some day it will be more accessible to more people.  Who knows, future generations may be able to visit the moon to stand on catwalks or in an observatory to ooh and ahh over the first footprints left on the lunar surface and the rudimentary technology left behind.  One thing I do know – Armstrong’s words will continue to encapsulate one of the most significant events in human history.

Make sure you check out the original article published in the New York Times earlier this year.  Also check out Life Magazine‘s original coverage of the mission!