Historical Perspective: Parkside's Neo-Georgian Rowhouses

Source: The New York Times


Neo-Georgian 1904 Rowhouses, Urban and Urbane

By Christopher Gray, Nov. 17, 1996

The full-height scaffold on 52 West 74th Street is unusual -- most rowhouse renovations merit only a hanging work platform. But then the entire row at 18-52 West 74th Street is unusual -- an urbane neo-Georgian group of 1904 in a neighborhood of high-stoop Victorian brownstones. They were among the last private houses built on the West Side, and the final development project of the Clark family, 20 years after they built the Dakota.

Edward Clark, the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, bought the site for the Dakota in 1877, when the West Side was mostly a collection of imaginary streets and open land. By 1880, when Clark filed plans for the mammoth apartment house, he had bought other large chunks of land.

He died in 1882, two years before the Dakota was finished, but the Clark family continued to buy; in late 1882 his son Alfred Corning Clark acquired the lots where 18-52 West 74th now stand. These and other purchases by the family on and off Central Park West from 70th to 86th Streets suggest a comprehensive or at least a grand plan.

The Clarks put up several dozen rowhouses on 73d and 85th Streets by the end of the 1880's, but there they stopped, still holding large unimproved parcels. By the turn of the century these stood out clearly amid a sea of newly built apartments and houses, and the Clark estate began to search for other options. In 1902 the Clarks offered for sale the still-vacant Central Park West blockfront from 73d to 74th -- although with the restriction that any subsequent building never exceed the height of the Dakota.

It was Frederick Ambrose Clark, son of Alfred Corning, who returned the family to the ranks of the builders, and in 1902 he hired Percy Griffin to design 18 rowhouses for the south side of 74th Street off Central Park West. As with most of their other projects, the Clarks were building for investment, not sale, and required a uniformly high level of quality, with concrete floors and fireproof construction.

Each five-story house had 17 to 19 rooms and its own dynamo to generate electric current for elevators, a radical (and perhaps unique) innovation in rowhouse construction. Griffin's row emulates London's sophisticated terraces, cohesive rows of houses also often built for investment. In 1906 a writer in The Architectural Record noted, ''To the passer-by, the block presents an orderly and attractive picture,'' something architects and critics had been seeking for New York since the 1880's. Part of this order was the subtle variation in design from house to house, part was the purposeful planting of street trees -- unusual in that period -- and part was the solid aspect of the houses themselves, which eschewed the cheap show typical of speculative houses.

By this time private houses were facing stiff competition from apartment houses, and the Clark row had water filters, wine refrigerators, silver safes and similar details. Plans for the row generally show a butler's room, coal bin and servant's hall in the basement, kitchen, reception and billiard room on the first floor, parlor, dining room and library on the second floor, and bedrooms above -- including six or seven servants' bedrooms on the top floor. At the same time Clark put up a dry-goods store at the Columbus Avenue corner, 54 West 74th.

Early tenants in the row included Herman Ridder, founder of Ridder Publications (merged in 1974 as Knight-Ridder), in No. 22; Charles Van Heusen, jeweler and brother of the millionaire shirtmaker John Van Heusen, in 24; Alfred Hanan, shoestore owner, in 46; and Norrie Sellar, a socially prominent cotton broker, in 52. Mr. Sellar lived there with his wife, daughter, son, stepdaughter and five servants -- a one-to-one ratio typical of the block.

It is not clear how the Clarks made out in their investment, but the 74th Street row is apparently the last thing they built on the West Side. They dropped the height restriction on the Central Park West block and sold it to developers who built the Langham in 1907; they sold the rest of their vacant land, between 85th and 86th Streets west of Central Park West, to speculative town-house builders. The Clarks held on to 18-52 West 74th until 1920, when they began selling off the houses. Milton Blum, a textile executive, bought 52 in 1921, and sold it to Arnold Gelarie, a doctor and researcher who remained through 1943. In 1945, 52 West 74th was converted to apartments -- by that time there were fewer than 20 houses in private occupancy on the entire block. Now there are two, and of the 18 Clark houses, seven are occupied by institutions -- perhaps the fireproof construction and 25-foot widths have favored nonresidential uses.