Starting with the southernmost of these three Midtown blocks, bound by 34th & 35th Streets and Madison & Park Avenues, you’ll see noted the “Cameron Bldg.” and the “Church of the Messiah.” To the east is a strip of Park Avenue. The Altman store, discussed in my most recent blog post, lies directly west of this block.
During the first years of the 20th century, commerce was creeping its way up 5th Avenue like a slow-moving brick-and-mortar tidal surge. The neighborhood between 34th and 42nd Streets to the east of 5th, known to all as “Murray Hill,” was where New York’s wealthiest bankers, railroad tycoons, and industrialist went to build their finely-appointed mansions and escape the hustle of city living further downtown and to the west.
The neighborhood’s streets were lined with mansions and brownstones, its streets were tidy, and its residents were powerful. Wary of the upward march of commerce along 5th Avenue, the residents of Murray Hill signed an agreement in 1847, forbidding the construction of any “‘livery stables, distilleries, breweries, tanneries, menageries, glue works, foundries, or factories for the manufacture gunpowder, vitriol,’ and other substances enumerated.” (NY Times, Dec. 7, 1909)
But time has a way of sweeping old rules under the rug, and that’s just what Ms. Margaret E.S. Cameron intended to do in 1909 when she paid $200,000 for two brownstone homes at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Madison Avenue. She swiftly demolished the homes and began erecting a 16-story office tower on the site, much to the outrage of her new neighbors. One of them even offered Ms. Cameron $600,000, triple the price she paid for the two lots, if she would stop construction and thus preserve the residential nature of the neighborhood. Ms. Cameron refused, stating “that she was ignorant to the agreement and that it did not bind her.”
She invited residents of Murray Hill, who counted such powerful men as J.P. Morgan among their ranks, to file suit with her to test her right to build. But in the end, Ms. Cameron won, as the judge pointed out the already drastically-changed nature of the area since the agreement was drawn up in 1847. A great number of brownstones now operated various sorts of businesses out of their ground floors, essentially nullifying the agreement and allowing Ms. Cameron to press on with her building’s construction. It topped out around 1910 and set off a waterfall of development east of Madison Avenue that would wreak havoc on the neighborhood’s bucolic nature.
The other notable structure labeled on this block in 1916 is the “Church of the Messiah.” The cornerstone for the church was laid with much pomp in November of 1866, and it was officially consecrated on April 2, 1868.
The handsome church faced 34th Street with its side flanking Park Avenue, a location described by the New York Times as “one of the finest in the city.” The church hosted many prominent weddings and funerals for the neighborhood and even survived a fire in 1912 before being renamed “Community Church” in 1914. But in 1919, as a funeral ceremony was scheduled to begin, another fire broke out in the organ loft.
Within minutes, the whole interior of the 70-year-old building was engulfed in flame. The $20,000 organ was destroyed, along with several beautiful and expensive stained glass windows by such notable artists as Tiffany and Lamb. The church was essentially a loss and sat empty until being demolished in 1929 to make way for an apartment tower, which remains on the lot to this day.
Moving north on the map to the block bound by 35th & 36th Streets and Madison & Park Avenues, we find the Church of the Messiah’s neighbor, the “Church of the Incarnation,” anchoring the southwest corner of the block.
When it opened in December of 1864, it was notable for being the first and only Episcopal church in the United States which had been constructed completely and entirely through the contributions of its parishioners without requesting the financial help of the venerable Trinity Church downtown, which was at the time among the most powerful land owners and developers in the city, if not the nation.
The church was badly damaged by a fire in March 1882, but was quickly repaired and improved, reopening later that year. An active and wealthy parish in Murray Hill, the Church of the Incarnation avoided the wrecking ball which leveled many of its neighbors in later years. Loomed over by its modern neighbors, the church remains a vibrant part of the neighborhood’s architectural and cultural dynamic.
Virtually every other building on this block from 1916 has been leveled in subsequent years. The southwest corner of the block (NW corner of 35th Street & Park Avenue) formerly held the Presbyterian “Church of the Convent,” which was built in 1865. But it was dismantled just 30 years later to make way for three residences (pictured on this map), which were in turn demolished in 1939 to make way for an apartment tower, which remains today.
Moving north another block, this one bound by 36th & 37th Streets and Madison & Park Avenues, we find the residences and galleries of Mr J. Pierpont Morgan.
John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan was born and raised in Hartford Connecticut. He was a powerful businessman, quickly deriving his tremendous fortune from a series of transactions following the 1893 death of his Philadelphian business partner Anthony Drexel. By 1900, his “J.P. Morgan & Co.” was one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world, funding a litany of corporate reorganizations and consolidations. Also in 1900, Morgan entered into talks with Charles Schwab and Andrew Carnegie to acquire Carnegie’s steel business and merge it with several other engineering- and construction-related firms to create U.S. Steel. The following year, 1901, U.S. Steel became the world’s first billion-dollar company.
Fabulously wealthy, J.P. Morgan could single-handedly influence the American economy. During the “Panic of 1907,” when numerous major New York banks were on the verge of collapse and the stock market fell more than 50% off its high, Morgan invited all of America’s most powerful financial leaders to his mansion at 36th Street and Madison Avenue. Behind locked doors, he forced the men to devise a plan which would rescue the economy before it fell off a cliff. Morgan helped to secure deals that would save the failing banks, righting the nation’s economy. The policies he helped to put in place that day would evolve into the Federal Reserve System in 1913.
These Panic talks took place in J.P. Morgan’s library and gallery building, which he had had constructed on the lot behind his 1880 brownstone, which is labeled on the 1916 map. When Morgan died in 1913, the house and library were bequeathed to his son, John Pierpont Morgan Jr. The younger Morgan lived in the neighboring 1852 brownstone mansion at 37th Street, which his father had purchased in 1904. Morgan Jr. made the Morgan Library a public institution in 1924, and in 1928, his father’s house was torn down to make way for an exhibition hall and reading room. The 37th Street mansion still stands, now enveloped as a part of the Morgan Library.
The rest of the block, once rows of comfortable homes for New York’s wealthy and near-wealthy, has been completely consumed by development in the decades since the 1916 map was drawn up. This 3-block strip of Murray Hill would be unrecognizable to its residents of a century ago, as towering apartment blocks stand where their brownstones once sat, and diesel-electric city buses rumble down the streets where their horses once galloped.