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Astor Row

Astor Row

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Astor Row is the name given to 130th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue
Lenox Avenue (Manhattan)
Lenox Avenue / Malcolm X Boulevard is the primary north-south route through Harlem in the upper portion of the New York City borough of Manhattan. This two-way street runs from Farmers' Gate at Central Park North to 147th Street. It is also considered the heartbeat of Harlem by Langston Hughes in...

 in Harlem
Harlem
Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, which since the 1920s has been a major African-American residential, cultural and business center. Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands...

, in the New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

 borough
Borough (New York City)
New York City, one of the largest cities in the world, is composed of five boroughs. Each borough now has the same boundaries as the county it is in. County governments were dissolved when the city consolidated in 1898, along with all city, town, and village governments within each county...

 of Manhattan
Manhattan
Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. Located primarily on the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River, the boundaries of the borough are identical to those of New York County, an original county of the state of New York...

. More specifically, it refers to the semi-attached row houses on the south side of the street. These were among the first speculative townhouse
Townhouse
A townhouse is the term historically used in the United Kingdom, Ireland and in many other countries to describe a residence of a peer or member of the aristocracy in the capital or major city. Most such figures owned one or more country houses in which they lived for much of the year...

s built in Harlem, and their design is very unusual. The houses are set back from the street and all have front yards, an oddity in Manhattan, and all have wooden porches. The effect is southern, and has been compared to the appearance of parts of Savannah, Georgia
Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is the largest city and the county seat of Chatham County, in the U.S. state of Georgia. Established in 1733, the city of Savannah was the colonial capital of the Province of Georgia and later the first state capital of Georgia. Today Savannah is an industrial center and an important...

. The houses were built on land that had been purchased by John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor , born Johann Jakob Astor, was a German-American business magnate and investor who was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the United States...

 in 1844 for $10,000, but the development was driven by his grandson, William Backhouse Astor
William Backhouse Astor, Jr.
William Backhouse Astor, Jr. was a businessman and a member of the prominent Astor family.He was the ancestor of the U.S. branch of the Astor family, which came to an end in the male line at the end of the 20th century....

, who hired architect and builder Charles Buek
Charles Buek
Charles Buek was a developer and architect in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He worked mostly on the east side of Manhattan, in the years between 1880 and 1914. Buek was known primarily for the large, elaborate private homes and apartments he designed for wealthy clients....

 to oversee the project. The houses were all built between 1880 and 1883.

Upon the death of William Backhouse Astor, the houses were divided among his grandchildren, Mary, James and Sarah Van Alen. Ownership stayed in the Astor family until 1911, when the westernmost ten of the houses were sold to real estate investor Max Marx, who traded them in part for an apartment building in Washington Heights
Washington Heights, Manhattan
Washington Heights is a New York City neighborhood in the northern reaches of the borough of Manhattan. It is named for Fort Washington, a fortification constructed at the highest point on Manhattan island by Continental Army troops during the American Revolutionary War, to defend the area from the...

. The new owners, the Brown Realty Company, defaulted on their mortgage and the houses passed to the New York Savings Bank.

In 1920, the houses were described by a New York Times reporter "as one of the most attractive and exclusive home centres" in Harlem, presenting "a picture of domestic tranquility and comfort which few other blocks in the city possess," and in his 1928 novel, Home to Harlem, Claude McKay
Claude McKay
Claude McKay was a Jamaican-American writer and poet. He was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance and wrote three novels: Home to Harlem , a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo , and Banana Bottom...

 described Astor Row as "the block beautiful." The Astor Row townhouses rented originally for $1,100 per year, and were so popular that there was for years a waiting list to live there. The Astor Row townhouses were occupied originally by whites, but in 1920, 20 of the 28 Buek houses (the ten owned by New York Savings Bank, plus ten still owned by the Astors) were purchased by a real estate operator named James Cruikshank and leased to black tenants.

The houses were not maintained as Harlem decayed from 1930 - 1990, and the porches were gradually lost. In 1978, the second edition of the AIA Guide to New York City described the row as having "restrained beauty which has been tarnished by years of economic distress." In 1981, New York City declared the entire row to be landmarks and raised funds to restore their facades, and improve their plumbing, heating systems, and electrical lines where needed. The group overseeing and financing the work included the New York Landmarks Conservancy
New York Landmarks Conservancy
The New York Landmarks Conservancy is a non-profit organization "dedicated to preserving, revitalizing, and reusing New York’s architecturally significant buildings." It provides technical assistance, project management services, grants, and loans, to owners of historic properties in New York State...

, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is the New York City agency charged with administering the city's Landmarks Preservation Law. The Commission was created in April 1965 by Mayor Robert F. Wagner following the destruction of Pennsylvania Station the previous year to make way for...

, Vincent Astor Foundation, Manhattan Community Board 10
Manhattan Community Board 10
The Manhattan Community Board 10 is a local government unit of the city of New York, encompassing the neighborhood of Harlem and Polo Grounds in the borough of Manhattan...

, Abyssian Development Corporation, the Commonwealth Fund
Commonwealth Fund
The Commonwealth Fund is a private U.S. foundation whose stated purpose is to promote a high-performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, especially for society's most vulnerable.-History:...

, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development
New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development
The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development is the mayoral agency of New York City responsible for developing and maintaining the city's stock of affordable housing. HPD is headquartered in Lower Manhattan, and includes smaller branch offices in each of the city's five...

, and several local banks. In 1992, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald , also known as the "First Lady of Song" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist...

 performed at a benefit at Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall
Radio City Music Hall is an entertainment venue located in New York City's Rockefeller Center. Its nickname is the Showplace of the Nation, and it was for a time the leading tourist destination in the city...

 to raise money for the restoration. By the end of the 1990s, the porches and other decorative elements had been restored to almost all the buildings on the block. In August 2009, the New York Times would write "the block is at the center of an intense but, as yet, unfinished revival of the surrounding streets in Central Harlem."

The houses on the north side of the street are large, attractive brownstones of a more common design. In 1932, Father Divine
Father Divine
Father Divine , also known as Reverend M. J. Divine, was an African American spiritual leader from about 1907 until his death. His full self-given name was Reverend Major Jealous Divine, and he was also known as "the Messenger" early in his life...

, leader of Father Divine's International Peace Mission Movement
International Peace Mission movement
The International Peace Mission movement was the religious movement started by Father Divine, an African-American who claimed to be God.-History:...

, lived on the north side facing Astor Row.
Today, Astor Row is racially integrated, and is one of the stellar architectural landmarks in Harlem. It is located near Sylvia's Restaurant of Harlem
Sylvia's Restaurant of Harlem
Sylvia's Restaurant of Harlem is a soul food restaurant in New York City. It was founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods. It has since expanded to a much larger space at 328 Lenox Avenue , and an adjacent building...

, the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, the former home of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance...

, and other Harlem landmarks.

Sources

  • "Past & Present On Astor Row in Harlem, Two Restorations Stand As Reminders Of What Once Was"; Newsday
    Newsday
    Newsday is a daily American newspaper that primarily serves Nassau and Suffolk counties and the New York City borough of Queens on Long Island, although it is sold throughout the New York metropolitan area...

    ,
    October 8, 1992. p.77
  • "The Sky Line: On Astor Row", Brendan Gill, The New Yorker
    The New Yorker
    The New Yorker is an American magazine of reportage, commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, cartoons and poetry published by Condé Nast...

    ,
    November 2, 1992, p.51
  • Harlem: Lost and Found; Michael Henry Adams. Monacelli, 2002. p.103