Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Very Queer Angle on a Hell’s Kitchen Tenement

Posted by baad lamb

The angular path Broadway creates as it cuts through the regular grid of the Commissioner’s Plan Manhattan is well known for producing interesting building shapes and challenging lots for developers.  The most famous is surely the Flat Iron Building, originally known as the Fuller Building for the developer who built it.

This was not the world’s first steel framed skyscraper construction, but its height and site combined to emphasize the unusual shape, and the prominent position at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park only drew additional attention to this new building method. At the start of construction in 1901, there were still plenty of skeptics predicting the building would fall.

Before steel frames, masonry buildings were essentially small rocks piled on top of the larger supporting rocks below them, but Fuller’s construction company had already built a number of buildings with this new steel frame technology. I saw an exhibit years ago that claimed architect Daniel H. Burnham was so tired of explaining and defending this method, already successfully done plenty of times, that he instructed the construction crews to put up rows of masonry wall in the middle of the building to demonstrate how they could hang alone, with no stones below for support.

But this is not a mystery about the Fuller Building.


At 42nd and Broadway, on a similar triangular plot is the Times Tower, once home to the New York Times. The pioneering newspaper left downtown’s newspaper row (Park Row) for this commanding location at Longacre Square, their presence forever changing the name of the bow-tie intersection to Times Square, even though they moved to a newer and much larger building only ten years later. The tower is also a famous flat-iron-like shape, though now it is completely covered in a skin of signs and billboards, with a sparkling crystal and LED-illuminated winter hat that appears each New Year’s Eve.

But this is not a mystery about the Times Tower.

This mystery is about a simple five-story walk-up on low-rise Ninth Avenue.

On the west side of Ninth, midblock between 53rd and 54th Streets, there sits a plain and lonely building quietly displaying a sphinx-like secret .  Here in grid-happy Hell’s Kitchen is an inexplicable flat-iron building that has no apparent reason for its surprising shape. No odd angled street like Downtown or the West Village, no High Line curving by. It is not a corner lot that may have under-built on purpose for a cute little yard. No disruptive railroad cut or nearby subway. Perhaps the Ninth Avenue El, reaching this far up the Avenue in 1876, could have had some shape-making influence on this 1901 building? I have found no evidence yet.

This unadorned working class tenement building at #807 currently has a bar on the ground floor and 4 floors of apartments above. It has had empty lots on either side for a long time, and these lots are the only reason this mystery is currently visible to the passers-by, revealing what might go unnoticed were they built up.

The piece of cornice that remains looks like it could have continued south to connect with its neighbor, but has a finished end on the north. The now missing building to the north (809) was only two stories before demolition in 2007(?), but it was listed as being built in 1901, the same estimated year as our unexplained flat iron. This would mean both wedge shaped buildings were built at almost the same time. The remaining building, two parcels to the south at 803, matches our building in size and style, and the window placements are identical. Oddly though, the empty lot (#805) between this possible cornice-connecting sister building has a construction date of “unknown”. I want to think this is just typical record keeping errors but 803 has an inexplicable date of 1910, nine years after its fraternal wedge-shaped twin.

The typical NYC lot resulting from the Commissioner’s Plan was a rigidly rectangular, street frontage minimizing and profit maximizing 25’ x 100’. Most lots today are pieced together from this size, although there were some 30 feet variations. Our subject at 807 has a diminished lot frontage of 17.33’, and the empty lot 809 has an augmented frontage of 33.17 (50.5 feet combined frontage). This means they are two perfectly standard lots divided by that frustrating trapezoid-making mystery angle, and if the records are correct, built at exactly the same time.

Was this odd line negotiated out of friendship or animosity? Did the same developer hold both parcels? Was there a tragic building collapse of an irregular shape and this was the rebuild solution? (Could my speculation get anymore far-fetched than that last one?)

For many New Yorkers, a favorite flaneur sport is passing by altered buildings and guessing what they used to look like or what may have occurred to precipitate the need for a change. The most obvious example is how economic practicality forced large portions of once beautiful brownstone blocks to have their stoops ripped off, to turn single-family 10,000 SF “homes” into 15 apartments or 25 SROs. Buildings were combined, added to, turned into retail or institutional uses and then back to residential again. Sometimes the results are sympathetic; sometimes they facilitate cries of “What were they thinking?”

Usually, as FT and I make our rounds, we stop in front of these “alterations”, present our opposing theories, but finally come to some agreement as to what was the cause, and are able to construct in our minds what it possibly looked like “before”. But every time I pass this building at 807 Ninth Ave., I’m stumped.

I’ve googled the address and every combination of words and quote marks, checked my NYC architecture and history books and scanned the skies from satellite photos. I’ve looked at Property Shark and NYC property and tax maps and found no clue. Perhaps the answers lie at City Hall or NYPL, but I’ve not yet had the chance to take this investigation that far.

There has been a construction fence, some site-preparation and a developers sign up for about 2 years on 809, the opposite-wedge shaped plot to the north. In the land of maximized profits it makes perfect sense that whatever building goes up there will be the full height allowed by zoning, hiding this queer-angled building, and this mystery will disappear behind a new street-grid-respectable straight face.

Perhaps someone who knows the answer will un-stump me. If not, please make up a fun story that I can repeat often enough that it eventually becomes historical fact.


  1. I wonder if the secret involves the internal usage of one or both of the buildings that might have been facilitated by the wedge split. (Dueling neighborly grand pianos?)This would presume that the lot and both buildings were co-owned. Also, is there somehow the possibility that the wedge shapes somehow maximized light into the buildings because of some obstruction or blockage behind them?

  2. I know: the angle creates a compass direction/angle/zodiac position/geometric shape that had great meaning to the original owner.

  3. Your answer will probably be found on a Sanborn Map at the Library, but the diagonal clearly predates the Commissioners Plan. Your mystery angle continues east across Ninth Avenue and creates a series of shallow lots on 53rd Street. An almost parallel diagonal occurs in the block to the north (block btwn 8th and 9th, 54th and 55th.) That diagonal appears again on the back of a building on 55th between 9th and 10th. Im thinking there was some long buried land feature that defined a property line.

  4. Andy, thanks for the clue.
    With your help, first I thought “railroad connection” from New York Central's Grand Central Terminal to New York Central's Freight Yards starting at 59th and Hudson River. That would be a very similar angle. But your historical maps suggestion clinched it, and you are more correct then you knew: Not just a geographical feature defining a property line, it WAS the property line! This is the exact property line of an estate running from Broadway to the river, pre-Commissioner's Plan. Here is the link:


    I'll try to post it as an update, and embed the map.

  5. If I read that link correctly, it's the estate of Jacob Harsen. Fascinating.

  6. And there you go. This is the first time Ive seen the current grid on top of the previous land plat pattern. Thanks for the post.

  7. Well, I got here too late to make up a story. Someone has already solved the mystery I see from the comments. Just look where your inquiring mind led you! I'm glad you found the answers. Before I read the comments I was thinking it was something historical like that. I was going to say a boundry between the Dutch and the natives or some other settlers so my mind was on the right track!

  8. Look at your map again! Lot 802 has a hint of a diagonal! Only towards the street! I would say, perhaps, something underground? That would account for the change, while allowing the building to have it's mostly regular shape...