A Report by Andrew Dolkart

The Cottages, erected on the west side of Third Avenue  between 77th and 78th streets in 1936-37, is a most unusual  example of the building ty~pe known as the taxpayer. The Cottages  form an extraordinary complex. They are a unique urban design  concept that has long been recognized as a significant. The  building was planned to combine commercial and residential uses;  its design melds traditional architectural forms with  technologically-advanced materials; its concept reflects a  sensitive response to urban conditions on Third Avenue in the  1930s when the noise and shadow of an elevated railroad blighted  the street; and the project reflects an important historical  movement in New York City's real estate evolution as buildings  were designed in response to the increasing lure of the suburbs.

Yorkville, the area of the Upper East Side located east of  Lexington Avenue, was developed from open land into a middle- and  working-class residential neighborhood beginning in the 1860s  when a few rowhouses and tenements rose on the streets convenient  to horsecar lines on Second and Third avenues. Development was  interrupted by the financial panic in 1873 which brought most  local building to a stop. However, following the inauguration  of service on the elevated rail lines on Third Avenue in 1878 and  on Second Avenue in 1880, construction boomed. The elevated  lines contributed significantly to neighborhood development,  permitting people to live in neighborhoods such as the Upper East  Side that were distant from the city's business and commercial  districts. These rail lines also had a negative impact on the  streets where they ran. Thoroughfares such as Third Avenue were  permanently in shadow and the noise of the trains and the dirt,  smoke, and cinders discharged by their engines made life on these  streets unpleasant.

Third Avenue was a commercial thoroughfare that was lined  with four- and five-story tenements, each of which included a  ground-floor shop, with modest apartments above that were rented  primarily to the Central European immigrants~who settled in  Yorkville in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The  blockfront on the west side of Third Avenue between 77th and 78th  streets, with its eight four-story tenements with storefronts at  street level, typified this development. These crowded tenements  and the noisy elevated lines created an environment in Yorkville  that contrasted dramatically with the rowhouses, mansions, and  apartment buildings housing many of New York's most affluent  households, located only a few blocks to the west, from Fifth  Avenue to Park Avenue.

In the 1920s, conditions in Yorkville and on the Upper East  Side began to change. The Yorkville area was so convenient to  the new skyscraper center developing on the streets surrounding  Grand Central Terminal that it was only a matter of time before affluent households recognized the value of living in this  neighborhood. In addition, by the 1920s, most wealthy people  found the large townhouses and mansions built at the turn of the  century to be too expensive to maintain. Many moved into the  apartment houses rising on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, and nearby  streets. A large number of other city residents moved out of New  York City entirely, settling in such rapidly developing suburban  communities as Bronxville and Scarsdale. Wealthy people who did  not wish to live in an apartment house and were not interested in  suburban life began to purchase or rent the small, inexpensive  rowhouses in the blighted but convenient East Midtown and  Yorkville neighborhoods. In the 1920s, certain blocks from the  upper East 40s through the East 70s, east of Lexington Avenue,  were transformed into fashionable residential enclaves. The  Turtle Bay Gardens Historic District on East 48th and East 49th  streets between Second and Third avenues, the Treadwell Farm  Historic District on East 61st and East 62nd streets between  Second and Third avenues, and the block of East 63rd Street  between Lexington and Third avenues are examples of this  development.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 slowed the  rehabilitation of Yorkville. Owners of Yorkville tenements were  faced with a dilemma since their aging, often sub-standard  buildings were expensive to maintain and, as immigration slowed,  increasingly difficult to rent. New building codes required  substantial changes to the buildings, entailing costs that would  not necessarily be recouped from limited rent rolls. Some owners  modernized and upgraded their tenements in an effort to continue  the gentrification of the neighborhood. They added amenities  such as fireplaces and modern kitchens and baths to the small  tenement apartments and beautifully laid out landscaped gardens,  in order to attract middle-class, generally single residents.  Other owners simply chose to demolish their economically  troublesome tenement buildings and erect one- or two-story  commercial buildings, known as taxpayers, in their place.  Taxpayers were generally planned as temporary structures that  would provide enough income to the owner to pay taxes until~  economic conditions improved and a larger and more profitable  building could be erected. It is within this context that the  Cottages were erected, combining the taxpayer  apartments and landscaped garden found in the  revitalization projects.

The tenements on the west side of Third Avenue between East  77th and 78th streets were owned by the Goelets, an old New York  family that had played an active role in real estate and building  since the 1880s. Robert Walton Goelet, who ran the family's real  estate empire, decided to demolish the Third Avenue tenements and  replace them with a unique taxpayer complex. The new two-story  building was to have shops on the ground floor with apartments  above. Goelet did not intend that his new building would be a homely commercial structure with pedestrian apartments. Instead, Goelet and his architect/engineer Edward H. Faile created a superb environment that is a surprise to even the most jaded New  Yorker.

Robert Goelet had worked with Edward Faile on a previous  project -- the landmarked Goelet Building on Fifth Avenue at West  49th Street. The Fifth Avenue building has striking exterior  stonework and a novel structural system conforming to the  building's dual use as shops and offices. The Cottages are a no  less innovative project combining shops, apartments, and a  terraced garden. The exterior on Third Avenue is quite Modern in  its design, with simple massing and extensive use of machine-made  materials. As was typical of taxpayers, the ground floor of the  Third Avenue elevation of the Cottages was built for shops. The  shopfronts were quite up-to-date, with large expanses of plate  glass, a striking frieze of milky glass (in a New Yorker article,  Lewis Mumford referred to it as "mottled lilac-colored glass"),  and projecting rounded corner canopies, sheathed in metal and  supported by columns. Architectural Forum noted in February 1937  that such "glossy" materials were chosen for the facades of  taxpayers in order to attract attention to the buildings and draw  people into the shops. Although some of the "lilac-colored"  glass has been painted and other sections are covered by signs,  the shopfronts are surprising intact.

The second story of the Third Avenue frontage is faced with  red brick articulated simply by large rectangular openings, some  filled entirely with glass blocks and others filled with glass  blocks and steel casement windows. At first glance this is a  curious design; the use of this second story is not immediately  apparent. Since very few taxpayers were designed with  residential units (this may be the only one), one does not expect  apartments set above the stores, yet that is what was designed  for this floor. In order to maintain the uniformity of the Third  Avenue commercial frontage and not encumber any of the valuable  rental space with stairs, the entrance to the residential units  is from the rear. The original entry gate and a modest gate  house were located on East 78th Street.

Although located only a few feet from busy Third Avenue,  with its shadowy elevated railroad, the residential complex  created by Goelet and Faile is one of the most extraordinary  environments in New York. Since the entire ground floor of the  building is devoted to stores, the Cottages (actually one-bedroom  apartments) are located on the second level, set back on a  terrace reached by flights of stairs from the garden on 78th  Street. The concrete slab terrace was covered with 18 inches of  top soil and stone pavers and it was beautifully planted. In  contrast to the Modernism of the street elevation, the rear of  the Cottages, with its eight residential units, takes the form of  a landscaped, English Regency row. Each apartment has a smallprojecting  vestibule with multi-paned windows and a concave  Regency-inspired roof; the stairs and roofline are ornamented  with delicate iron railings of a type that might be found in  Cheltenham or other Regency-era English towns, and the brick in  this residential portion of the building was originally painted  white as were many Regency house fronts.

The creation of a residential complex focusing on a  landscaped garden reserved for the common enjoyment of all  tenants was a development of the 1920s and 1930s and was, in  part, a response to the lure of suburban living, where families  could purchase houses in traditional styles (including English  Regency) that had landscaped grounds. In New York City, some of  the rowhouse rehabilitation projects of the 1920s were designed  around interior gardens planned for the use of all tenants, as is  evident at the Turtle Bay Gardens Historic District and the  MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District. New apartment  house complexes, such as Hudson View Gardens and those in the  Jackson Heights Historic District, were also planned with  extensive shared open space. The Cottages is the only taxpayer  designed in this tradition.

One of the most innovative aspects of the residential  portion of the Cottages is the use of glass block for the Third  Avenue windows. The noise and dirt of Third Avenue were not  conducive to comfortable habitation, yet it was important that as  much light enter the apartments as possible and residential  building codes required windows of some sort. Thus, Faile chose  glass blocks for the windows because they permitted a maximum  amount of light to enter each apartment but also deadened the  noise of the elevated. Only in the kitchens, where the law  required operable sash, were steel casement windows inserted  between the glass blocks. Architectural Forum reported in  December 1937, "This is the first series of apartments in New  York which shows a serious attempt to do something about the  elevated trains which rattle by continuously."

German and French designers had experimented with glass  building blocks for several decades before the process of  creating sealed, hollow glass blocks that could be used as  structural members was perfected by the Structural Glass  Corporation and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company in the early  1930s. The new glass-block technology was first used in New York  City at architect William Lescaze's landmarked home and studio on  East 48th Street between Second and Third Avenues in 1933-34. At  the Cottages, the glass blocks were Owens-Illinois' Insulux Glass  Block, introduced in 1935. According to an Owens-Illinois  advertisement of 1940, "Insulux Glass Block is basically a  functional material, designed to transmit daylight, insulate  effectively and help maintain better control of interior  conditions." The blocks could also be molded with patterns, as  is evident at the Cottages. The juxtaposition of traditional Regency design on the western elevation to the Cottages with the  modern industrial technology of the glass block on the eastern  facade is one of the most fascinating attributes of the complex.

Great care and ingenuity are evident in the design of the  Cottages and the Goelets were willing to spend money to create an  exceptional commercial and residential complex. It is not clear  whether the Goelets intended the Cottages as a temporary  structure or a permanent part of a larger development. The site  of the Cottages did not include just the Third Avenue building  but also encompassed extensive land to the rear that was laid out  with tennis and badminton courts. Architectural Forum noted that  the Cottages were built "with a view to developing the remainder  of the plot at a future date." This statement leads to the  conclusion that the Cottages themselves were not seen as a  temporary building, but as part of a larger future project. This  became even more evident in 1941, when the East 77th Street  portion of the plot was sold to Sidney and Arthur Diamond and the  remainder of the site, including the Cottages, was leased to the  Diamonds, who then purchased the property in 1946. The Diamonds  erected the apartment house at 177 East 77th Street, an eleven-  story building with extensive open terraces and a landscaped  garden that extends to East 78th Street (the garden is part of  the tax lot that includes the Cottages). The Real Estate Record  and Builders Guide commented on August 2, 1941, that the  retention of the Cottages "assures complete protection of light  and air and guarantees privacy to the terrace suites on the east  side" of the East 77th Street apartment building.

The Cottages complex was recognized as significant as soon  as it was completed. Architectural Forum featured an article on  the building in December 1937, and Lewis Mumford wrote about it  in his New Yorker column on April 9, 1938. In more recent years,  the Cottages are discussed in Robert Stern, Gregory Gilmartin,  and Thomas Mellins' New York 1930, and are featured in several  articles by Christopher Gray, who considers the complex "a  brilliant piece of ingenuity." The Cottages and their garden  have been nominated for landmark designation several times in  recent years (in, for example, 1985 and 1988) and were featured  in an exhibition of the most endangered buildings on the Upper  East Side mounted by the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic  Districts. With the exception of the replacement of the original  steel-sash casement windows on Third Avenue and the loss of the  white paint on the west elevation, the Cottages complex is a  remarkably intact survivor. The building is significant in many  ways -- in the history of Yorkville, in the history of housing  and neighborhood rejuvenation in the 1930s, in the development of  the taxpayer concept, and in its melding of traditional and  modern design ideas and materials. Most significant, however, is  the fact that the Cottages form an extraordinarily beautiful  building complex that deserves to be recognized and protected as  a designated New York City landmark.

The Cottages: A Bibliography

"Apartments 77th Street and 3rd Avenue, New York City,"   Architectural Forum 67 (December 1937), 510-11.

Gray, Christopher, "The Invisible Clan," Avenue (February 1992),   26-30.  Gray, Christopher, "The Low-Rise During the Great Depression, it   paid to build short," Avenue, (June/July 1991), 68-71.  

Gray, Christopher, "Streetscapes: The Third Avenue 'Cottages' A   Cool Low-Rise Oasis In a Hot Development Area," New York   Times May 10, 1987, Real Estate Section, p. 14.  

Lustbader, Ken, "Upper East Side Most Endangered Buildings,"   exhibition report (New York: Friends of the Upper East Side  Historic Districts, 1992).  

Mumford, Lewis, "The Sky Line: Chairs and Shops," The New Yorker, 14(April 9, 1938), 59.  

Neumann, Dietrich, Jerry G. Stockbridge, and Bruce S. Kaskel,   "Glass Block," in Thomas C. Jester, ed., Twentieth-Century   Building Materials: History and Conservation (NY: McGraw-   Hill, 1995), pp. 194-99.

 New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, "Goelet Building   (now Swiss Center Building) Designation Report," report   prepared by Charles Savaae ~New York: Landmarks Preservation   Commission 1992).  

"A Panel of Taxpayers," Architectural Forum 67 (February 1937), 158-61.

"Private Terraces Prove Primary Renting Inducement," Real Estate   Record and Builders Guide, (August 2, 1941), 9.  

Stern, Robert A.M., Gregory Gilmartin, and Thomas Mellins, New   York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World   Wars (NY: Rizzoli, 1987), p. 400.

Return to Save the Cottages and Garden

last revised 4/22/97