The Magnate-Messiah of the Upper West Side

The row houses of Riverside Drive posture proudly, turning their faces to the green of Riverside park. Across the street, a signature half wall of stone separates the boulevard from the hills that tumble down to the Hudson River. The scene has all the quiet charm for which the Upper West Side is known and loved. But in this photograph, on the front page of an 1899 real estate prospectus, the façades are pale and gleaming, the landscaping still in its infancy. Nevertheless, the image is familiar: In this neighborhood, more than a century later, echoes of old majesty remain. Well-dressed couples push strollers past the ivy-mantled entryways and elaborate stone carvings of limestone row houses. In modern-day New York City, pre-war charm may be found most often on side streets dotted with trees and brownstones, but on the Upper West Side, nostalgia lines the westernmost avenues as well. Interrupting the customary north-south commercial drag, five-story row houses make Riverside Drive and West End Avenue an oasis of softened urbanity.

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Riverside Drive in 1899, looking north from 80th Street | Image courtesy of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

In this neighborhood, no house is quite the same as the next: a round window bay here, a canted window bay there — and the more scrolled accents, the better. Each house is a grab bag of bay and balcony designs, round corner turrets, and gables of various European inflections. The abundance of ornament poses a challenge to the repetitiveness of row houses throughout the rest of the city. Here, rather than identical twins, there are sibling-houses, related but distinguished through decorative and material variation. The buildings of the Upper West Side defy the flat-fronted austerity, sunken square windows, and tired brownstone pediments of the Upper East.

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74-78 Riverside Drive have facades of various materials. | Photo by Allison Henry

In the late 19th century, the mass construction of mundane brownstones throughout the city garnered criticism. “Bad copies of the Farnese palace [that] ought all to be torn down,”[1] Clarence True declared of the lookalikes proliferating throughout the city in 1893. It’s hard to say whether average residents shared his affront, or if mass-marketability was only a pet peeve of New York City architects valuing certain notions of “craft.” Either way, True was part of a movement of practitioners at the turn of the 19th century who saw the Upper West Side as an opportunity and a call to public duty (for a particular type of public, that is). True sought to restore individuality, refinement, and taste in the development of this newly attractive neighborhood, in order that “home-life in the city shall be rendered enjoyable rather than passably endurable.”[2]

Clarence True was an architect-developer, an increasingly common archetype at the time of his career. He and his peers combined a keen eye for design with marketing know-how, and made a small fortune.[3] True built an estimated 270 houses on the Upper West Side, mostly in groups, between 1890 and 1901. He opened his practice in 1889, and, buoyed by his early success with residential commissions, transitioned into speculative development by opening the Riverside Building Company just five years later. True relished the opportunity to merge the roles of designer and developer, and to have total control of his vision. “Of these houses I have had the entire supervision, and have studied to make them perfect in every detail of their arrangement and equipment,” he proclaimed.[4] Today, his perfectionism is most visible along Riverside Drive and its flanking streets between 75th and 85th Streets.

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78 Riverside Drive in 1899 and 2016 |Photo on left, courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University | Photo on right by Allison Henry

The Upper West Side was far from a posh riverside retreat in the preceding decades. The neighborhood, then called Bloomingdale, went undeveloped for much of the 19th century, with a less-than-favorable reputation for housing New York’s most marginal — the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, orphanages, and shantytowns shared rural land with sprawling estates. This unlikely combination, further isolated by a lack of transportation options, depleted land values.[5] But in the last quarter of the century, change was afoot. The 1879 completion of the Elevated Railway on Ninth Avenue (today Columbus Avenue) and the first segment of Riverside Drive, between 72nd and 85th Streets, both promised greater access to the bustle of downtown. By 1880, Riverside Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame, opened to the public. The new beautification and connectivity paid off: In 1885 the area was the object of the most real estate speculation in the city, and the lots along West End and Riverside Avenues readied themselves for rows of mansions. By the end of the century Bloomingdale had fully urbanized. Following the announcement of the city’s first subway line, to pass through the Upper West Side beginning in 1904, land values peaked.[6] Between 1905 and 1912, land valuation along Riverside Drive and West End Avenue experienced over three times the amount of growth that land east of Amsterdam between 72nd and 96th Streets had.[7]

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The presence of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum contributed to low land values in the Upper West Side. | Illustration by Archibald L. Dick via Wikimedia Commons

To architect-developers, the Upper West Side presented a new frontier of profit, where upper-class homebuyers sought the cutting edge in residential design. It’s hard to tell whether True was truly the pioneer of row house innovation he believed himself to be, but one thing is certain: Clarence True was not one to miss a marketing opportunity — nor to affect false modesty. In 1899’s “A True History of Riverside Drive” (pun, presumably, intended), he cast himself as Riverside Drive’s savior. “Mr. Clarence True, [who covered the river front] with beautiful dwellings, insured a most promising future for the Drive,” he proclaimed, writing in the third person. “So today, Riverside Drive, with its branching side streets, is the most ideal home-site in the western hemisphere — the Acropolis of the world’s second city.”[8]

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86 Riverside Drive in 1899 and 2016 | Photo on left, courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University | Photo on right by Allison Henry

True’s reverence for Classical aesthetics comes through in his architectural language. He dabbled in several different historical canons: French and English Renaissance and Flemish inspiration melded in his signature “Elizabethan Revival” aesthetic. Architectural eclecticism was the name of the game for Upper West Side developers and architects, who would often pick and choose from the full buffet of popular styles to compose a single façade. True’s curation of pan-Northern European stepped gables and end-walls, light colored stone and brick materials, quoined windows, round corner bays, dormers, and turrets is still visible on Riverside Drive between 76th and 83rd Streets. The competition for originality was alive between builders, but True also guessed that future homeowners would want to distinguish themselves from each other. He combined specific material and structural features into unique, individual row houses in order to combat the monotony he so detested on the Upper East Side.

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309 and 311 West 75th Street have distinct entrances yet are part of the same row designed by True. | Photo by Allison Henry

True would even flout the law in pursuit of his architectural vision. In 1899, he designed a row from 102 to 107-109 Riverside Drive at 83rd Street with undulating façades offering sweeping views of Riverside Park. The Department of Buildings protested True’s extension of stoops and bays beyond the property line into park land, but he would not be deterred — obtaining a note of permission from the Parks Commission, he moved forward with his original design. But the unstoppable force met an immovable object when the property’s southward neighbor, Charlotte Ackerman, filed a lawsuit against True. She claimed his sprawling row houses devalued her property by obstructing her view, light, and air. Ackerman won the case, and homeowners were forced to hire new architects to trim their façades, erasing True’s undulations. All that remains is the partial curvature of the corner bay at 83rd Street. True would be pleased to know that Ackerman’s home no longer stands.

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The verdict of the Ackerman vs. True case mandated that the row house owners at the corner of 83rd Street and Riverside Drive had to shave the undulating facades off their homes. | Photo on left, courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University | Photo on right by Allison Henry

Clarence True’s determination to overhaul the standard row house was holistic — not just the face, but the body. The classic high stoop had been a programmatic solution to separate service and guest entryways, but upper-class homeowners complained about the hassle of walking up stairs and aspired to match the minimal stoop design found in cosmopolitan centers like Paris and London.[9] True, among others, heard their criticisms and began building row houses with a low stoop and a separate basement entrance. He wasn’t the sole row house innovator, but he was certainly one of the most vocal.

True declared his unshakable belief in the merits of the “basement plan” in an 1893 op-ed in The Real Estate Record and Guide. (Though often credited with the invention of the low-stoop basement plan, this type was built about nine years before he started his practice). To elevate the low-stoop, True denigrated its counterpart, writing, “I have designed over 50 houses with what I may call a low-basement entrance and every one of them has sold almost immediately after completion…The high stoop, that is absolutely useless, costs one-half of what is spent on the entire front elevation…[and] is not half as attractive as the low-basement house.” George A. Bagge, of the equally-prolific Upper West Side architectural firm Neville & Bagge, agreed: “The best reason of all for the abolition of the high stoop — the reason that is quickly making it a thing of the past — is that it is old and hackneyed, and if there is one thing people demand in dwelling fronts nowadays it is novelty.”[10]

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A page from True’s 1893 prospectus “Designs of 141 Dwelling Houses Built on the West Side,” illustrating his “West End Basement Plan” | Courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

The cellar sits below the “basement” and is accessible by descending stairs from the front of the house. This plan shows 102 to 107-109 Riverside Drive. | Courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

In his “Designs of 141 Dwelling Houses” prospectus, True coined the basement entrance as “the new ‘West End’ Basement Entrance,” since it was so popular on the West Side. An early example of this then-revolutionary idea can be seen today at 157 and 159 West 88th Street — a red sandstone duo built in 1892, flanked by conventional high-stoop buildings. By the late 1890s, the high stoop had made its exit from row house construction across the city.[11] In its place: a floor plan with a central stair connecting a reception room on the basement floor and a parlor floor above, with kitchen and laundry tucked behind the reception area. However dramatic the shift may have felt at the time, ultimately, the stairwell concerns of True and his clientele were playing out on a very small stage. The city was growing around them, and the housing market would soon have to respond.

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157 and 159 West 88th Street are early examples of True’s low stoop design. | Photo by Allison Henry

By the end of the 19th century, smaller homes were in ever-greater demand for the city’s growing working-class population. Still, speculative developers on the Upper West Side continued to build four-to-five-story single-family homes for millionaires, bulwarking the neighborhood for the elite. One of True’s tactics to achieve increased space was staggering façade dimensions in order to create one large corner house and several other houses with dimensions that were wider than average. These corner homes had the illusion of being three separate houses, but True avoided the division of lots into equally sized facades, preserving the luxurious, expansive, square-shaped properties. At 77th Street and Riverside Drive, a real estate advertisement reveals that the smaller and least expensive homes sold first, despite his decision to construct one oversized corner home at $100,000, over twice the cost of some others in the row.[12] Although the home did eventually sell, his assumption that such luxury would always have a market on the Upper West Side was shortsighted.

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This advertisement for True’s row on the corner of West 77th Street and Riverside from 1896 shows his trick for maneuvering corner lots into exceedingly spacious homes for the wealthy. | Courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Upper class New Yorkers desiring excess space were forced to turn elsewhere, as high-rise apartments came into vogue with the advent of the elevator and increasing Parisian influence, and were already proliferating on the Upper West Side by the time the IRT subway opened in 1904. Many of the single-family row houses of West End Avenue had a short life, demolished after only a few decades old to make way for apartment buildings.[13] Clarence True, meanwhile, chafed at the shifting norms. Perhaps feeling the pressure of his peers’ growing portfolios of tenement and apartment buildings, True penned “Something About Flat Building” to rant about the disadvantages of tenement development, which yielded only a slim 2.5-3% profit for the developer.[14] But True’s passion for elite row house construction could not prevent that market’s approaching slumber. Facing financial difficulties, the Riverside Building Company shuttered its development side in 1902, and although he continued practicing as an architect, True’s projects continued to dwindle in scale. Finally, his family retreated to North Carolina and the firm closed its doors in 1913.[15]

249 West End Ave’s inhabitant Mary Cook refused to sell to apartment building developers at the end of the neighborhood’s row house era. | Photo by Allison Henry

Today, Clarence True’s 249 West End Avenue stands sandwiched between two high-rises, thanks to the holdout homeowner, Mary Cook. Cook had lost her husband in a snowstorm in 1913 and raised their five children at 249 West End. She refused an offer to sell in 1916, and an apartment building took over the northern part of the block; again she was approached, eight years later, and again she resisted.[16] An apartment building sprung up on the other side. The narrow house now stands in the shadow of two hulking high-rises, a bittersweet testimony to the attachment homes can inspire in their inhabitants — and to the encroaching demands of a high-density city. Though True’s campaign to make the Upper West Side a haven for the elite had an expiration date, the preservation of much of his work on Riverside Drive, West End Avenue, and adjacent streets ensures that his vision — unique homes for unique homeowners — carries on.

Allison Henry is a Project Assistant at Urban Omnibus and future Transportation Research Analyst at the Regional Plan Association. She lives in Brooklyn, by way of Philadelphia and Tampa. 


[1] Clarence True, Designs of 141 Dwelling Houses Built on the West Side (New York: Unz & Co, 1893).

[2] True, Designs of 141 Dwelling Houses. See footnote 1.

[3] Michael Anthony Middleton, Influence and Contributions of Speculative Row House Developers on the Architecture and Urban Design of New York City’s Upper West Side: 1879-1908, 43. Master’s thesis for GSAPP, Columbia University, 2015. Accessible here.

[4] True, Designs of 141 Dwelling Houses. See footnote 1.

[5] Andrew Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development (New York: Columbia, 2001), 20.

[6] “107-109 Riverside Drive House” (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1991), 2. Accessible here.

[7] Clifton Hood, “The Impact of the IRT on New York City,” Historic American Engineering Record, Survey No.HAER NY-122, 145-206. 1978. Transcribed by nycsubway.org. Accessible here.

[8] Clarence True, [A True History of] Riverside Drive, (New York: Unz, 1899). Digitized by Internet Archive. Accessible here.

[9] Middleton, Influence and Contributions of Speculative Row House Developers, 51. See footnote 3.

[10] Clarence True, “High Stoop and Back Yard Architecture,” Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide 41: 1297 (21 January, 1893). Digitized by Columbia University Libraries. Accessible here.

[11] Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: 157 and 159 West 88th Street; Revamping a Pair of 1891 Low-Stoop Brownstones,” The New York Times (24 June, 2001).

[12] “For sale: block of Riverside Drive dwellings, corner of 77th Street / built and for sale by Clarence True, architect” (New York: Unz, 1896).

[13] Middleton, Influence and Contributions of Speculative Row House Developers, 101. See footnote 3.

[14] Clarence True, “Something About Flat Building,” Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide 64: 1647 (7 October, 1899). Digitized by Columbia University Libraries. Accessible here.

[15] Middleton, Influence and Contributions of Speculative Row House Developers, 127. See footnote 3.

[16]The Remarkable Hold Out at No. 249 West End AvenueDaytonian in Manhattan, (22 December, 2011).

 



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