An Upper West Side Architectural Gem Holds Its Value, Generation After Generation
For over 30 years, LANDMARK WEST! (LW!) has worked to protect the architectural character of our Upper West Side neighborhood from insensitive change and development. One of the many gratifying partnerships we enjoy is with Deanna Kory’s team at Corcoran. This past July, together we co-organized the latest in a series of open houses featuring remarkable historic properties on the market. Architectural historian and Columbia University professor Andrew S. Dolkart led a captivating tour of 351 West End Avenue, a beautifully restored 1891 rowhouse designed by Lamb & Rich, for friends of LW! and Corcoran.
This house, part of an eye-catching row on the west side of the avenue between 76th and 77th Streets, exemplifies the incredible resilience of well-constructed 19th-century architecture. Built with care and quality for an upper-middle-class market, 351 West End Avenue was preserved by design and by chance until the 1990s, when a conscientious couple purchased it to make it their family home.
Professor Dolkart began his tour in front of the house, observing that:
“This is a remnant of what West End Avenue was. I think we forget that West End Avenue, from 67th Street to about 106th Street, was 75-80% single-family homes in 1900. They were replaced by apartment houses [in the 1910s and 20s]. It was a shock to the real estate community that houses built just twenty years before were being torn down. Both real estate journals and the popular press comment on how rapidly West End Avenue was changed.“
351 West End Avenue occupies one of only two blocks on the avenue (the other is 90th to 91st Street) that survive with their original low-rise character. Professor Dolkart attributes the seemingly miraculous survival of 351 West End Avenue, and its neighboring rowhouses on both sides of the street, to restrictive covenants that prevented its demolition and replacement during the building boom of the early 20th century. By the time such covenants were outlawed in the early 1930’s, the development rage had subsided and 351 West End Avenue was spared.
Built on speculation, the house was sold in 1892 to the Rawley family, who had made their fortune in the Indian cotton trade and came to New York from England. Professor Dolkart shared some of his research about the Rawley family’s life at 351 West End Avenue, noting that: “In 1900, Anthony and Despina Rawley lived here with their three daughters and one son. They had five servants, an Irish chambermaid and an Irish waitress, a Swedish cook and Swedish kitchen maid, as well as a French nurse.” By 1930, the house was rented out as a rooming house and around 1940 it was divided into apartments.
Here begins the tale of the present owners’ heroic efforts to restore the house to its 19th-century grandeur. As our tour continued inside, one of the owners explained:
“It had been remodeled in the 60’s, and it really did have 60’s everything…avocado-colored appliances and very bizarre tile on the floor everywhere…there were ashtrays overflowing and bicycles and skateboards littering the hallways. It was absolutely disgusting. I ran to the phone box at the time on the corner, called my husband, and said “you won’t believe it, we found the place!”
351 West End Avenue is a protected landmark within the West End-Collegiate Historic District (designated in 1984 and extended in 2011). So, even in more recent market booms, it has been secured against demolition. But most landmarks are not protected on the inside. Features such as parquet floors, carved wood moldings, fireplaces, coffered ceilings, and pocket doors don’t often survive. Miraculously, many of these elements were preserved in 351 West End Avenue, though hidden behind walls and under layers of paint.
The present owners spent the better part of 20 years carefully undoing decades of damage and restoring 351 West End Avenue to an elegant, comfortable single-family home. Intricately-carved woodwork was painstakingly stripped and refinished. Curved pocket doors that had been nailed shut and covered with drywall were freed and restored.
Elaborately-inlaid wood floors, pocked with carpet nails, were delicately refinished. Eclectic architectural details survived through previous owners only because it was cheaper to leave them in place than to rip them out. An awe-inspiring example: the gorgeous wooden Venetian-blind panels (by the company that manufactured blinds for the Empire State Building’s many windows!) that slide into pockets below the grand front windows on the second floor. Professor Dolkart spoke for all of us when he said, “I think this is a fabulous and incredible survivor. I only hope the next owner takes as good care of these as the current.”
Taking care of our architectural heritage is a responsibility we pass down from generation to generation. Laws help, but people are the most important link in the chain that connects the past to the present to the future. The Upper West Side is the Upper West Side – literally one of the most beautiful, livable and valuable places on earth – because of buildings like 351 West End Avenue. And 351 West End Avenue is all the more special because its owners have recognized and appreciated the value of preservation.
Here’s to good stewards who love our landmarks!
Written by Kate Wood
President, LANDMARK WEST!
To learn more visit www.LandmarkWest.org