Castles in the Sky A Look at Manhattan's Tudor City

Castles in the Sky

There is a full-sized English manor perched on a rooftop on East 41st Street, overlooking land that used to be awash in beer and blood. You can’t really tell from the street, of course, but if you can manage to get access to one of the roofs neighboring Hardwicke Hall in Manhattan’s Tudor City, there it is; a castle, floating 15 stories above the traffic and noise.

Sheep…Then Squatters

Hardwicke Hall is just one of the dozen or so buildings that make up Tudor City, one of New York’s smaller, more unsung neighborhoods. The long, skinny district, which lies between First and Second Avenues from 40th to 44th Street, wedged in amongst better-known Gramercy and Murray Hill, is home to some 5,000 full-time residents. Like most New York City neighborhoods, Tudor City has a long and colorful history, beginning in the latter part of the 17th Century with two Dutch farm families.

The Kips and the De Voors settled the areas that would eventually become Tudor City and Kip’s Bay around 1677, working the land and raising sheep along the creek that separated their respective farms. Over time, the original Dutch settlers gave up their agricultural livelihoods and relocated, melting into the fast-evolving urban landscape of Niew Amsterdam.

By the time Niew Amsterdam became New York, the land left by the assimilating Dutch farmers was called "Dutch Hill," and was being slowly overtaken by a sprawling shantytown of tin-roofed, tarpaper shacks. The shacks and down-at-heel tenement buildings housed new generations of immigrants, many of whom made a miserable living working in Dutch Hill’s less-than-tasteful industries; by the last two decades of the 19th Century, the east end of the neighborhood bristled with slaughterhouses and tanneries, and several breweries added their pungent contributions to the already unwholesome atmosphere. The creek that had separated the Kips from the De Voors was now little better than a muddy, polluted sewer, and offal from the abattoirs and stockyards flowed ceaselessly into the East River.

In the late 1800s, the neighborhood’s name took another turn for the worse when it was re-christened "Corcoran’s Bluff" in cynical homage to Paddy Corcoran, leader of a roving gang of mostly Irish thugs who terrorized residents, demanded protection money, and made petty (and not-so-petty) crime as ubiquitous as the stench that hung over the East 40s.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, New Yorkers had given up calling Dutch Hill–or Corcoran’s Roost–anything other than what it was, and dubbed the area "Abattoir Center," steering well clear of it, even in daylight. The neighborhood’s decay continued through the Great Depression, making it one of the more loathsome slums in the city.

The Tipping Point

Tudor City might have remained Abattoir Center indefinitely, had it not been for the vision and conviction of one real estate developer. In 1927, Fred F. French had a vision of a new, self-contained residential community that would take the place of the shacks and squalor and create a village-like haven from the buzz of the city outside. French envisioned a collection of buildings on an embankment, rising slightly above street-level, and built on a "human scale" with post-Medieval, Tudor-era touches like arched windows, turrets, loggias, and heavily ornamented façades.

In French’s community, gardens and mini-parks took up where garbage-heaped back lots had once been, and stately buildings with evocative names like The Cloister, The Manor, and Hardwicke House offered panoramic views of Manhattan to the west and the river to the east. French proposed that by living in his new "Tudor City," residents could enjoy a "26-hour day" by shaving an hour off each end of their morning and evening commute.

According to Mary Frances Shaughnessy, managing director of Tudor Realty Services Corp.–one of the three or four companies that manage the complex–once the land rights and permits were secured, French was able to realize his plan in a remarkably short time. Using in-house architects and laborers, Tudor City’s mastermind went from groundbreaking to grand opening in just under three years, starting construction in late 1927 and wrapping up in 1930.

Most of the brick-and-terracotta buildings were constructed as residence hotels, or "housekeeping apartments," says Shaughnessy, and so the apartments themselves were very small–mostly studios or one-bedrooms–and many had tiny galley kitchens, or just a space for a refrigerator and no proper kitchen at all. Residents in the early days took their meals in their building’s dining room, or had food brought up to them.

The Lay of the Land

French’s plan to build Tudor City on a "human scale" was in direct response to the proliferation of very, very tall buildings in New York. By keeping his buildings within 30 stories or so, French made the development more welcoming and less oppressive than the skyscrapers he saw going up around the city. Thus, the tallest building in the Tudor City complex–Woodstock Tower, at 320 E. 42nd Street–is a reasonable 32 stories. All the buildings in the complex (with the exception of Tudor Gardens, which was erected in 1953) are pre-war gems with rich ornamenting and detail, both inside and out. Three towers make up the centerpiece of Tudor City, located at the southern end of the Tudor City Place cul-de-sac: Windsor Tower, with 801 mostly studio-size units and the former home of screen legend Charlton Heston; Tudor Tower, which has more than 600 units and bears the inscription "Here in the 1800s was Paddy Corcoran’s Roost" carved into the stone of the main entrance; and Prospect Tower, with 403 units and a gigantic neon "Tudor City" billboard on the roof.

Essex House, at 325 East 41st Street, rises 11 stories above street level, and boasts a gorgeous, skylit lobby area that in daytime is bathed in multicolored light from the stained glass above. The Manor, at 333 E. 43rd Street, offers residents big, terraced one-bedroom apartments with views of the Tudor City parks and the U.N. next door. Hardwicke Hall, Hatfield House, and Hadden Hall–known collectively as "The Three H’s" –are three connected buildings at the south end of Tudor City on 41st Street. Hatfield House and Hadden Hall branch off the central Hardwicke Hall, rising to 11 stories and flanking the full-size, castle-shaped penthouses on Hardwicke’s roof.

Other buildings in the complex include The Hermitage at 330 East 43rd Street, 333 East 41st Street, and The Cloister at 321 East 43rd Street. All the buildings in Tudor City include special touches, like huge carven fireplaces in the lobbies, stained or leaded glass windows, "subway tiled" bathrooms, and gargoyled roof decks overlooking the city and the East River.

Changing Hands

During the war years, the cozy apartments and insulated nature of the neighborhood made Tudor City a popular place for young women fresh to the New York City workforce to settle in and get their bearings. According to Shaughnessy, the area was also home to an inordinate number of "kept" women: during World War II, when a returning serviceman stepped out of Grand Central or Penn Station and wanted to go "where the action was," any savvy cabbie whisked him right over to meet the ladies of Tudor City.

Tudor City got another shot at respectability in the mid-1940s, when the remaining industrial blocks in the area were razed to make way for the new United Nations building on 46th Street at 1st Avenue. Having such a reputable new addition to the neighborhood cleared away any doubts New Yorkers had about living in the area, and heralded a renaissance for Tudor City–albeit not without its share of strife and drama.

Shortly after the war, the entire Tudor City complex was purchased from the Fred F. French Company by hotelier Henry Helmsley. All the neighborhood’s buildings were still rentals at that time. Helmsley’s administration of Tudor City was characterized by almost 15 years of non-stop litigation between him, his corporation, and Tudor City tenants’ groups over a number of issues, foremost among them the preservation of the area’s beloved mini-parks. Eventually, Helmsley put Tudor City up for sale.

T.C. Goes Co-op

In the mid-80s, amid the decade’s flurry of co-op conversions, two men stepped to the plate and purchased Tudor City from Helmsley; Francis Greenbriar of Time Equities and his business partner Philip Poleski took ownership in 1985, and quickly set about converting Tudor City into a cooperative community.

Improvements were made to building structures and apartment interiors, and when the dust settled, Tudor City had regained much of the charm it banked on so heavily almost 40 years before. Apartments were still small, and the complex was still largely occupied by young single professionals and newcomers to the city, but as the 20th Century waned, Tudor City became known as the peaceful, safe town-within-a-city that it is today.

According to Steven Corcoran, president of Steven Corcoran Real Estate, "[Tudor City’s] a nice, pre-war neighborhood. It’s got four great parks; it’s convenient, and relatively private and secure. It’s a little like Beekman Place or Gracie Park, because it’s slightly elevated and there’s no through-traffic."

Today’s Tudor City

These days, Farmer Kip and Paddy Corcoran would be hard-pressed to recognize anything about their old stomping grounds. Tudor City is a thriving neighborhood with a diverse ethnic mix and apartment prices that reflect the area’s desirability. According to Shaughnessy, more than 70 percent of Tudor City apartments are studios averaging about 275 square feet and selling for between $120,000 and $150,000. One-bedrooms are rare, and similarly tiny; they generally top out at 500 square feet and command a $230,000 to $250,000 price tag. The Tudor Gardens building is still a rental property, but all the others have converted to cooperative ownership. Though a bit on the small side, apartments in the area are a relatively good value, given the neighborhood’s amenities and charm. Don’t come expecting miraculously cheap digs, however; according to Corcoran, there are million-dollar properties to be had in Tudor City–rooftop castles don’t come cheap, after all.

But all in all, "It’s just a really lovely, safe area," says Shaughnessy of modern-day Tudor City. "There’s a lot of architectural and cultural diversity, and most of the residents are young and just starting out, so the mood and the energy of the neighborhood is very positive. It’s a great place for young people."

Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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