UN New York Architecture Images- Midtown

Turtle Bay Gardens




226-247 East 49th Street  


Turtle Bay: A Touch of Class

Turtle Bay, a microcosm of New York City, contains all sorts of buildings from tenements to luxury coops and condos, as well as elegant brownstones. Its office buildings range from architectural wonders to ultra-modern glass buildings.

There are several architectural masterpieces in Turtle Bay. The Beekman Hotel , an art deco edifice built in 1928, which recently received Landmark status, stands at 49th Street and First Avenue. At its top is the restaurant and lounge, Top of the Tower, which affords a spectacular view of the river and the skyline.
The old General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue has undergone a rebirth: a painstaking restoration of the interior lobby floor.

Within and above the Romanesque Revival building on the northwest corner of 51st Street and First Avenue (931 First Avenue), a 19-story apartment tower is being built in a renovation that will save the 1892 façade (see Of Note, p. 4).

The best known is the Chrysler Building at Lexington and 43rd Street. As this building was nearing completion the architects pulled a bit of deception on the builders of 40 Wall Street, which was being built at the same time. When the Chrysler Building reached a height of 925 feet, the architects led the public to believe this was the maximum height. The builders of 40 Wall did not stop at 925 feet, but added another two feet to make sure theirs was the tallest building in the world. The architects of the Chrysler Building had secretly assembled a tall stainless-steel spire, which they raised through the top of the building and bolted in place. This added 123 feet to the building, making it, at the time, the tallest in the world.

One of Turtle Bay's interesting luxury apartment buildings, Riverhouse at 437 East 52nd St., was built in 1931. It has a panoramic view of the East River, tennis and squash courts, a swimming pool, and a ballroom. At one time there was a private dock for the convenience of visiting yachts.

Tudor City, a cluster of 1920s apartment buildings in Tudor style built on abutments over First Avenue and United Nations Plaza, boasts two parks.
The 52-story building known as 100 United Nations Plaza is remarkable for its summit: an eight-step pyramid.

The enclave called Turtle Bay Gardens comprises eleven townhouses on the south side of 49th Street and nine on the north side of 48th Street, midblock between Second and Third Avenues. New York socialite Charlotte Hunnewell Martin purchased the structures in 1918 and within two years she had renovated the houses and arranged the gardens so that each leads to a common 12-foot-wide path down the center. Mrs. Martin then sold the houses to friends at cost. Celebrity residents have included actors Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power, composer Stephen Sondheim, jurist Learned Hand, conductor Leopold Stokowski, Maria Bowen Chapin (founder of the Chapin School), publishing personalities Maxwell Perkins, Henry Luce, DorothyThompson, and E. B. White, who wrote about the neighborhood for The New Yorker. White also wrote Charlotte's Web while living on 48th Street. Although not part of Turtle Bay Gardens, 211 East 48th Street is a townhouse designed by the famous architect William Lescaze as his own residence and office. It is credited as the first modern town house in New York City.
Beekman Place between 51st and 50th Streets, and including East 50th Street running one block west from Beekman Place, is known as the Beekman Place District. The streets were formerly cobblestones and the area consists mainly of luxury town houses, each with its own character. One of the buildings has gaslights burning on either side of one of its entrances and there is an old bishop's crook lamppost on the southeast corner of Beekman Place and East 51st Street. This area was home to many celebrities including Ethel Barrymore, Katherine Cornell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Irving Berlin, Huntington Hartford, members of the Rockefeller family, and former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. One Beekman Place was home to novelists John P. Marquand and Mary McCarthy.

Other well-known figures who have made their homes in Turtle Bay include: Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, Mary Lasker, Mary Martin, John O'Hara, Maxwell Perkins, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre Soltner, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Wolfe. The house at 225-227 East 49th Street, built in 1926, was home to Efrem Zimbalist, renowned violinist, and his equally celebrated wife, the opera star Elma Gluck. It served as the 17th Precinct Station House in the fifties, and was later divided into apartments. A violin is carved over the door as well as a singing angel.

The east side of First Avenue between 51st and 53rd Streets has hardly changed since the area was developed in the 1860s and 70s. Numbers 312 and 314 East 53rd Street are a pair of wooden townhouses, built in 1866 in the style of the French Second Empire. Number 312 has been designated a landmark, but Number 314 was denied landmark status because it now has aluminum shutters instead of the original wooden slats.

The neighborhood has several parks where the public can unwind. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park, at 47th Street between Second and First Avenues, has become the jewel of Turtle Bay. Its latticed-domed pavillion housed the Turtle Bay Association's beautiful Christmas tree during the holidays and the park was host to the TBA cider and caroling party. The lighted fountains lend a fairyland quality at night. Also in the park: the Katharine Hepburn Garden; the "glass house," which will offer light refreshments; and possibly, come spring, a green market. Opened in August of 1999, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park is the gateway to the United Nations, its Secretariat, and the institution's parks and statues.

Peter Detmold Park, at the eastern-most end of 51st Street, contains gardens, a dog run, and a footbridge that crosses over the East River Drive. On 49th Street just off the Drive is MacArthur playground, which is greatly enjoyed by the growing population of Turtle Bay's younger inhabitants (see story, p. 4). Between Second and Third Avenues on 51st Street is a small oasis called Greenacre Park. Standing next to the Sutton Place Synagogue, which serves the United Nations, it is one of the most used public open spaces in Manhattan. Another vest-pocket park, the James P. Grant Plaza, sits on 44th Street between Second and First Avenues.

This ultra-urban area began life as Deutal Bay Farm (which surrounded a cove shaped like a bent knife blade ("deutal" in Dutch). The farm's cove was home to many turtles and the name Turtle Bay emerged. Although residents no longer feast on turtles from the bay, which fell victim to landfill in 1868, they can always avail themselves of the many fine restaurants in the neighborhood.

Claudette and Bob Blumenson moved to Turtle Bay in January, 1999. Their curiosity about the neighborhood led to this article and they now say "We have moved into a truly remarkable area of New York City."



History Of Turtle Bay

Once a farm with a bay
The history of Turtle Bay dates back to 1639 when the Dutch governor gave two Englishmen a land grant of forty acres, crossed by a creek that emptied into a bay of the East River. Some historians attribute the name to the turtle-filled creek, while others say it had nothing to do with turtles, that the name was more likely a corruption of the Dutch word "deutal" (a bent blade), which referred to the shape of the bay. Regardless, the turtle feasts of the day prevailed and so did the name, Turtle Bay Farm.

Mount Pleasant
"MOUNT PLEASANT" James Beekman (1732-1807), who built his famous mansion, Mount Pleasant, in 1763, acquired the northern part of Turtle Bay Farm. In 1840, with the opening of First Avenue, the house was moved to 50th Street to make way for the opening of 51st Street. It was finally torn down in 1874, but a parlor and bedroom from the house can be seen at The New-York Historical Society. PICTURE CREDIT: New York's Turtle Bay Old & New by Edmund T. Delaney, Barre Publishers, 1965

From the early days of European settlement and through the Revolutionary War, the bay offered sailing ships a safe haven from winter gales and the capricious currents of the East River, making it important to the commerce of Manhattan. Shipbuilders established a thriving business in Turtle Bay, and by the time Robert Fulton tested his steamboat on the East River in 1808, the wharf area was filling up with breweries, carpentry shops, mills, and small industries.

Country squires
As the city grew in the mid-1800s, Turtle Bay saw its share of squalor as well as squires. Among the country gentlemen were Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune."The house," he wrote,

was located on eight acres of ground including a wooded ravine or dell on the East River at Turtle Bay, nearly opposite the southernmost point of Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Edgar Allan Poe, a friend and neighbor of Greeley, wrote of the pleasures of rowing a small boat around the island and bemoaned the city's plan for a grid system, which doomed the natural landscape. In his commentary for the Columbia Spy newspaper, Poe wrote of his exploration around Turtle Bay cove:

I procured a light skiff and made my way around Blackwell's Island on a voyage of discovery and exploration. The chief interest lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque. The houses are, without exception, frame and antique...I could not look on the magnificent cliffs and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for the inevitable doom--inevitable and swift.

Poe was right; the grid system would transform Manhattan into a neat pattern of squares, which would be subdivided into lots and developed for housing. From 1840 to 1850, large avenues continued to be opened up to the north, and the hilly landscape was graded to form cross streets.

Turtle Bay and Blackwell's Island

Turtle Bay and Blackwell's Island about 1840 at the foot of what now is 49th Street. In the back is the Beekman house and to the right the rocks where Edgar Allan Poe went for his afternoon swim. PICTURE CREDIT: New York's Turtle Bay Old & New by Edmund T. Delaney, Barre Publishers, 1965

James W. Beekman saw the city expanding, and he embarked on an ambitious plan to develop his property through the sale of small plots for private residences. On 50th Street he acquired various plots to round out his holdings, then moved out of the Mt. Pleasant mansion. In 1859, he gave land and financial assistance for a church (Dutch Reformed) on 50th Street, with a deed that contained a covenant that should the property not be used as a church, it would revert to the Beekman heirs. The Reformed Episcopal Church stands at this site today. The Turtle Bay area south of the Beekman holdings was developed on a more haphazard basis since it was not restricted to residential use.

Civil war draft riots
In March 1863, the first Draft Act was passed and an enrollment office was established at Third Avenue and 46th Street. No sooner had it opened than an angry mob marched on the office and burned it down. The July 13 uprising started as a protest against a conscription act that allowed draftees to be exempted from military service by payment of $300. To impoverished immigrants, that figure translated to a rich man's war fought with poor men's blood. Within hours, the entire blocks between 45th and 46th Streets were destroyed. The rioting went on for more than three days before troops managed to contain the mobs, which burned and looted whole sections of the city. In August, thousands of soldiers, cavalry patrols, and artillery were sent by order of President Lincoln. New draft offices were opened, but enforcement was lax because of widespread opposition to the Civil War by local government and the press.

Commerce and cheap housing
After the Civil War ended, the building of brownstones transformed the once bucolic landscape, block by block, while the waterfront became a commercial sinkhole. By 1868, the beautiful bay was filled in, its charms sullied by slaughterhouses, packing sheds, cattle pens, rotting wharfs, and railroad piers.

As waves of immigrants poured onto Manhattan's shores and the El trains commenced operations on Second and Third Avenues, Turtle Bay drifted into the decay of crumbling tenements and tawdry rooming houses. In addition to Italian, German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, the area attracted the city's night people: actors, musicians, stagehands, and waiters who worked in the fine restaurants near Broadway.

Resurgence begins with turtle bay gardens
There was much ambitious building and renovation in the 1920s, which restored many of the brownstones into fashionable townhouses. Turtle Bay became popular with the literati, and it was then that Turtle Bay Gardens was born as a large communal garden in the backyards of houses bounded by 48th and 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues. Since its inception, the garden community has attracted a long list of prominent New Yorkers: Tyrone Power, Dorothy Thompson, Maxwell Perkins, Mary Martin, and Katharine Hepburn, to name a few. (See Turtle Bay Places of Interest: Beekman Place and Other Famous Haunts.)

Abstract sculpture by Barbara Hepworth - Secretariat building
United Nations,
modernization and development

Not until six city blocks of slaughterhouses along the East River were razed in 1946 for the United Nations was the blight of First Avenue transformed into an international enclave of modern architecture.

Since the deafening rattle of the last "El" train was silenced, Turtle Bay has seen a building boom of unprecedented growth, filling the area with towering office buildings, high-rise apartments, and condominiums.

As this surge of growth began to alter the course and character of Turtle Bay, it became clear that its residents needed a voice in how development affected their neighborhood. Thus, in 1957, the Turtle Bay Association was born. At the time, the purpose was to protest the widening of East 49th Street to become a high-speed traffic thruway. That battle was won, along with many others, but the organization's work goes on, striving to preserve the beauty of this distinctive neighborhood while seeking a good accommodation for the demands of the future.

The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
(212) 751-5465
Fax (212) 751-4941

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