Murray Hill Neighborhood Association Celebrates 50 Years


The Gaslight Era

By the end of the 19th century, Murray Hill had taken on a character that can still be seen today: opulent mansions were built between Fifth and Park Avenues and elegant brownstones between Park and Lexington Avenues. The stables and carriage houses which served the fine families stood between Lexington and Third.

Mrs. Astor held her last Murray Hill ball in 1892 and it's a good bet that many of the neighborhood's residents were in attendance. When the Social Register for that year appeared, over 100 names on that prestigious listing had residences in Murray Hill.

Although not listed in the Social Register, the great financier John Pierpont Morgan came to Murray Hill in 1886. His family's presence in the neighborhood would be felt long after the Astors had moved further uptown. Mr. Morgan paid William Walter Phelps $215,000 for a wholesome-looking home at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street. By 1900, he secured the remainder of the Madison Avenue frontage of this block, including the Phelps Stokes home on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street, which he purchased for his son, J.P. Morgan. The senior Morgan's house was backed by a garden, which separated the home from the Morgan Library, which he commissioned the venerable firm of McKim Mead and White to build in 1903. It was completed in 1906.

The elder Morgan died in 1913, but his widow lived in the home on 36th Street for the remainder of her life. After her death, her son-who resided in the 37th Street house until his death in 1943-commissioned Benjamin W. Morris to build the Annex to his father's library on the site of his parent's home.

By the end of the 19th century, the original landed gentry had yielded Murray Hill to Morgan partners and other great financiers, as well as the early shipping families. But as the century turned, Murray Hill was once again facing encroachment.

When Benjamin Altman moved his department store uptown from Sixth Avenue and 19th Street, he wanted it to be the biggest and the finest in the city-and there were no zoning laws or restrictions that prevented him from building it on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the very center of elegant Murray Hill. In deference to neighborhood opinion, Mr. Altman built his temple of commerce in the form of a Florentine palace, and not even his business name appeared on the outside of the building-and it was not until the 1950s that "B. Altman & Co." appeared in neat, small lettering beside its doors.

Within a few years of the store's opening in 1906, Mr. Altman was joined by such distinguished commercial establishments as W. & J. Sloane, Arnold Constable & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. The original Tiffany studios sat on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. Fifth Avenue was quickly transformed from a street lined with town houses to a world-renowned commercial boulevard.