Look carefully at the exquisitely restored Roman-inspired mosaic that greets visitors in the lobby of The Astor, and think how different New York City is now compared to 1901, the year construction on the building began.
It sounds like such a long time ago from where we sit. But for people who had witnessed the end of the nineteenth century, 1901 must have felt like a news-packed telegram from the future: Queen Victoria died, inventor Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal in history, J.P. Morgan incorporated the first billiondollar company in America, and an exhibition of paintings by the late Vincent Van Gogh caused a sensation in Paris. Great Britain was still the world’s only superpower. Still reluctant to get involved in global affairs, and primarily a nation of rural farmers, the United States at the turn of the twentieth century was experiencing just some of the industrial future that lay ahead. A tiny group of magnates led American business and industry at the time, and the head of the Astor family was perhaps the most prominent among them.
New York City is full of references to the Astor dynasty. Hints are woven into the fabric of the subway system as well as in the city’s street grid, landmark buildings, hotels, cafe society chronicles, and stately museum wings. Aptly referred to as “the landlords of New York,” the Astors reportedly owned five percent of all real estate in the city by 1890.
Today, a quick trip to the East Village will tell you something about who they were and how it all started. The mosaics that decorate The Astor Place subway station feature 1904 plaques made by Heins & LaFarge and the Grueby Faience Company depicting a beaver nibbling industriously on a tree trunk. Though it may seem eccentric, the tribute makes perfect sense when you learn that German immigrant John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) made his fortune in the fur trade. After beaver pelts had made Astor the first multimillionaire in the United States, he shrewdly began buying land in New York in 1803. Such purchases included a 70-acre farm that spanned the width of the island between Broadway and the Hudson River, and what are now 42nd through 46th Streets. His holdings eventually included parcels of land from Wall Street up to 150th Street.
John Jacob Astor’s descendents were responsible for the proliferation of buildings that bear the Astor name, or have some connection to the family, ranging from the New York Public Library and Astor Place to the St. Regis and Knickerbocker hotels. The original Waldorf Astoria was built in 1893, on the site of William Waldorf Astor’s former mansion, and designed by architect Henry Hardenbergh.
William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, also happens to have been the original developer of The Astor Residences. Astor commissioned the architectural firm of Clinton and Russell to build the two southern towers in 1901, and later hired Peabody, Wilson & Brown to add the third tower in
- If the Upper West Side is associated with Beaux Arts architecture today, it’s because of the boom in residential building experienced by the Upper West Side during this period, when “wedding cake” apartment houses began to dominate Broadway.
Well-heeled families of the time were attracted to the neighborhood for several reasons: It was removed from the bustle and noise of “downtown” – the busy commercial strips like 14th Street – but was close to both Riverside and Central Parks, and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) connected the area to Wall Street. Today, we call those IRT trains the 2 and the 3. Elegant and even worldfamous apartment houses like the San Remo and the Dakota had given the area an air of desirability, while Riverside Drive (opened in 1880) offered views and green space. It wasn’t long before Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues became lively corridors for commerce and shopping.
In the 1890s, Columbia University moved from the East Side to its current Morningside Heights location, and this, along with the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History which settled on West 77th Street in 1877, began to give the neighborhood what would eventually become its trademark bookish, genteel character. The prestigious Collegiate School for boys on West 79th Street catered (then, as now) to local families, while those from elsewhere in the city were happy to commute. The residents who put down roots on the Upper West Side were not merely ambitious but curious, culture loving, and dedicated to cultivating a high quality of life. It’s little wonder that this enclave is now the home of Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, the Bard Graduate Center, the Museum of Arts and Design, the Fieldston School, and too many other cultural and educational establishments to count.
For all that has changed in the century since William Waldorf Astor’s third tower was completed, it’s striking how many things remain remarkably similar about this storied neighborhood. Families flock here due to the area’s accessibility to work and play as well as its more peaceful and greener surroundings than what’s found in other parts of the city. People also love the neighborhood’s parks and playgrounds and beautiful architecture, and yet they don’t require ostentation. Small shops coexist with big names, and the legacy of the Astor dynasty, with its elegantly carved limestone and its uncanny knack for picking the right neighborhood, continues to thrive.