The Heart of Hell's Kitchen Walking Tour

*Start the tour at 57th Street and Ninth Avenue, which is a few blocks from the Columbus Circle subway station.
©2000 exploreNYC

1. The Windemere (southwest corner of 57th and Ninth), built in 1881, is an early luxury apartment house or "French flat."

Considered the oldest large apartment house in New York City, the Windemere was built in 1881, before the Gramercy (1883) and the Dakota (1884). Architect Theophilus Smith designed the Windemere in Romanesque revival style. The brickwork is intricate with a great variety of patterning. The triangular high point of the cornice faces West 57th Street. The marble-columned entrances also front West 57th Street rather than Ninth Avenue.

You'll notice that a number buildings in Hell's Kitchen have their main decorated entrance on the side street, rather than the avenue. This was a characteristic response of the architects or builders to the presence of the Ninth Avenue Elevated Railway, which dominated the avenue until it was torn down in 1941.

FRENCH FLATS: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, most comfortably off New Yorkers lived in one-family dwellings, such as the brownstone. Multiple dwellings were associated with the poor and working class who inhabited the city's tenements. The new large apartment buildings were termed "French flats" to make the idea of apartment house living attractive to middle and upper class New Yorkers.

The Windemere was fitted up in luxurious style. In a contemporary New York Times article about the building, Christopher Gray harked back to the Times's description of the Windemere when it opened in 1881:

"...having 38 apartments, each containing seven to nine rooms, with liveried employees, coal sold all year long at summer prices, and, 'for the convenience of tenants who do not wish to cook in their own apartments, large kitchens... situated in the basement.' "

THE NEW WOMAN: In the late 1880s, the Windemere was transformed into a dwelling for the recently emancipated "new woman" by Henry Stirling Goodale. Apartments were redesigned for independent single business women, whose numbers were growing and who needed small apartments in respectable residences.

THE WINDEMERE TODAY: It's apparent to the most casual observer that Windemere has a derelict look. Currently, only several units are occupied in the mix of 150 apartments and SROs (singe room occupancy rooms). Up until the 1970s, the Windemere was fully tenanted. Many tenants were forced out of their homes during the 70s and early 80s as a result of the landlord's efforts to vacate the building for demolition and redevelopment. An application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for landmarking of the Windemere was submitted in 1988.

2. The television studio (Ninth Avenue between 55th and 56th) where some of the big talk shows are broadcast.

TALK SHOW HOT SPOT: In recent years, this theater, designed in spare Georgian style, has been the site where a number of popular television talk shows are taped. And did you know that "Sesame Street" was once produced here? Erected about 1925 as a movie house when every neighborhood had its own cinema, this theater was called the Chaloner, after its builder Jacob Chaloner, a member of the Astor family. The sign on the marquee changes from time to time announcing the talk show or program currently using the theater. Generally, a poster at the entrance gives instructions on obtaining tickets for watching a taping. It might be fun to check it out.

Looking west down 55th Street, there's a converted church that is now an off-Broadway theater.

[Cross to the east side of Ninth Avenue for the best view of the next locations]

A row of "pre-law" tenements (one the west side of Ninth Avenue between 54th and 55th), constructed about 1858-60, have provided housing for generations of Hell's Kitchen residents.

The Vynl Diner (on the northeast corner of 54th and Ninth) serves a varied menu in a fun and funky atmosphere.

3. The unusual shape of the Bar 9 building (on the west side of Ninth between 53rd and 54th) tells a story of Hell's Kitchen's past.

A VESTIGE OF THE PAST: The unusual shape and angle of the building that contains the Bar 9 restaurant tells a story of the neighborhood's past. Hell's Kitchen was once farmland transected by meandering lanes and roads for carts and horse-drawn carriages, with names that included Verdant Lane, Laketour Road, and Hopper's Lane. In 1811 when the city laid down plans for a grid pattern of streets and avenues, new buildings had to conform to the sharply drawn new property lines. However, some parcels of old farmland and cart roads still remained. The Bar 9 building was erected on property that had been one of the old cart roads. If you look across Ninth Avenue, you will see this road's continuation in the narrow patio of Julian's restaurant.

Julian's and Mangia e Beve (on the northeast corner of 53rd and Ninth) are two popular restaurants. Julian's has transformed a narrow cart road, a vestige of the time when Hell's Kitchen was farmland, into a dining patio.

4. 787 Ninth Avenue is a remarkable and beautiful "old-law" tenement.

PLAIN AND FANCY: Although the tenement carried a reputation for housing working people in crowded, dreary flats, as pure architecture it was not immune to the prevailing fashion for decoration, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. You will see many decorative flourishes on the humble tenement in Hell's Kitchen. Note the treatment of doorways, windows, entablatures, and cornices. As architects and builders expressed themselves, they made opportunities for stone masons, bricklayers, and other artisans, many of them immigrants, to practice crafts learned in their mother countries.

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT: 787 Ninth Avenue, built in 1886, is a remarkable example of a highly ornamented tenement. Situated mid-block, the building is indeed a centerpiece. The owner was a German immigrant whose name, "F. Werner," is emblazoned on the cornice. This crowning pediment marks the tallest point of the tenements along the block. The architect Jopst Hoffman, also a German immigrant, called into harmonious play a number of building materials including wrought iron, terra-cotta, brick, and finely carved stone. From classical Greek columns to medieval gargoyles, the architect blended styles to create a delightful and balanced design.

[Cross back to the west side of Ninth Avenue and notice the loading dock on 52nd Street for Location #5.]

5. A paint and decorating store currently occupies old nickelodeon building (on the west side of Ninth between 51st and 52nd), an early movie house that charged five cents a show.

JUST FIVE CENTS: Take a good look at this paint and decorating store. Notice particularly the arch that spans the building's facade and the simple, elegant decoration across the pediment.This building is not another tenement, but a nickelodeon, an early movie theater that charged just five cents a show. An unusual aspect of this structure is its L-shape, extending over to West 53rd Street. The 53rd Street facade is highly decorated, with the top portion in Queen Anne style while the lower portion employs cast iron elements for decoration. The paint store uses the entire building, with its loading dock on 53rd Street.

At the corner of 51st Street, look downtown (or south) and notice how the 1980s World Wide Plaza building (2 blocks south on the east side of the Avenue) was designed to match the low-rise scale of Ninth Avenue, with window lines echoing the olders buildings.

Turn right, looking west, and notice the distinctive "bowling pin" stoops along 51st Street.

6. Sacred Heart of Jesus Church (on the north side of 51st between Ninth and Tenth), erected 1885 in the Victorian Romanesque style, has an elegant terra-cotta facade.

NEAR GOOD TRANSPORTATION. Founded in 1876 Sacred Heart of Jesus Church answered the spiritual needs of recently arrived, predominantly Irish immigrants. By the mid 1870s they had settled near the horsecar line that ran along Ninth Avenue, connecting the Wall Street area to the West Side, as far north as 59th Street. The horsecar was the form of mass transportation that predated the electrified streetcar and the elevated railway, or "el".

THE ART AND UTILITY OF TERRA-COTTA. The present church, erected in 1885, replaced an older one on the same site. The architect, Napoleon LeBrun, also designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building and Tower at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street, a number of fire houses, and St. Cecelia's Church at 120 East 106th Street. Both Sacred Heart and St. Cecelia's have elegant facades of red terra-cotta. Looking at Sacred Heart Church, note the skillfully repeated geometric pattern of the terra-cotta, set against the red brick and in contrast with the white stone arches. A popular building material of the 1870s, terra-cotta, from the Italian for "baked earth, " was lightweight, inexpensive, fireproof, and easy to mold.

Azuri (at the end of the block), a tiny and charming cafe, features an Israeli menu with vegetarian specialties.
7. Turn south on Tenth Avenue to the Columbus Branch Library (on the east side between 50th and 51st), a neoclassical building, one 65 branches endowed by Andrew Carnegie.

WALKING DISTANCE: Columbus Branch, which opened in 1906, is one of 65 libraries built in the early twentieth century in the formation of the branch libraries of the New York Public Library. Funds were contributed by Andrew Carnegie. The plan was to establish a branch library within walking distance of every New Yorker. Designed by the prestigious architectural firm of Babb, Cook, and Willard, the Columbus Library was originally a three-story structure. A story was removed during a renovation in 1959.

BEFORE AIR CONDITIONING. During summer in the early years, the library's roof was transformed into an outdoor reading room; fitted out with chairs, tables, fringed awnings and books, of course. Do you know that the Columbus Branch lacked air conditioning until the mid-1990s? However, with the help of high ceilings, several large floor fans and cross ventilation, all but the hottest days were tolerable. Moreover, readers in the reference section near the open rear windows enjoyed the bucolic benefit of hearing birds singing and chirping among the trees in the library's tiny backyard.

URBAN OASIS. For more than one hundred years, Columbus Library has been serving Hell's Kitchen residents. They include pre-schoolers delighting in picture books, school children doing their homework, and adults researching a topic or browsing for books and periodicals. The library is both an educational resource and a haven from the busy street scene and overcrowded tenements.

Lorenzo Carcaterra's 1995 bestseller Sleepers is set in Hell's Kitchen. As teenagers growing up in the 1960s, the narrator and his street-smart pals make regular visits the library:

"The public library in Hell's Kitchen was a large concrete gray building sandwiched between a tenement and a candy store. ... My friends and I read quite a few books inside that library, after school on winter afternoons. ...The library was the only place besides church and home where thievery was not permitted. In my time, there, I can remember no book ever being stolen....We also went there for the quiet. There was so much shouting and screaming in our lives, if we didn't have dome kind of sanctuary, we might have gone crazy."

A COMMUNITY RESOURCE: Columbus Library is also a place where the neighborhood's many new immigrants, including South Americans, Arabs, Africans, and Asians can find assistance in coping with a foreign culture. The library's resources and programs include English as a Second Language classes, circulating and reference materials in Spanish, computers with Internet access, special activities for children, and a collection of reference materials about neighborhood history.

8. Turn east on 49th Street where the High School of Graphic Communication Arts (on the north side of 49th) is an outstanding example of the International Style of architecture.

TREASURES OF MODERN ART: The High School of Graphic Communication Arts spans 49th to 50th Streets mid block between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The AIA Guide to New York terms the school, which was erected in 1959, "one of the most vigorous International Style buildings in town." Kelly and Gruzen were the architects. The 49th Street facade is all sleek lines of glass and steel, while on the 50th Street side, a grand curving wall of white brick creates visual excitement. A surprise bonus is the mural on the 50th Street facade. Executed in primary colors on a white background, the mosaic is by Hans Hofmann, a leading artist and influential teacher of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

9. The Clinton Community Garden on the south side of 48th Street between Ninth and Tenth, a verdant oasis in an urban setting, was reclaimed from a vacant lot.

HORTICULTURAL TRIUMPH: Fifteen years ago, a group of determined residents began reclaiming a rubble-strewn vacant lot, transforming it into the Clinton Community Garden. Entirely volunteer driven, the garden is a testament to the cooperation, hard work, and horticultural know-how of Hell's Kitchen neighbors. The garden is divided into two sections: one is given over to individual plots for vegetable and flower growing, and the other is a communal area with gazebo, beehive, benches, and lawn surrounded by landscaped plantings of flowers, shrubs, and trees.

GREEN NOTES: The Heart of Hell's Kitchen contains several additional community gardens, all created by residents from vacant lots. The Oasis 2 Community Garden on 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, was recently awarded a Certificate of Achievement from the National Wildlife Federation, which recognizes the establishment and maintenance of a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

10. 412-414 West 47th Street was once the home of Harold Ross, legendary editor of The New Yorker; townhouses along West 47th Street are a legacy of the Astor family.

THE ASTOR LEGACY: In 1803 John Jacob Astor bought Eden Farm, located in the then rural west side of Manhattan, for $25,000. The farm encompassed what would become 44th to 47th Streets, Seventh to Tenth Avenues. In the 1860s, William Backhouse Astor developed the area with tracts of housing. In contrast to tenements, which form the bulk of Hell's Kitchen housing stock, the Astor dwellings were brownstones.

The brownstone was the ubiquitous type of New York City private residence for the upper middle class. Many of the original, characteristic high stoops have been removed or altered. But West 47th Street residents continue to enjoy a time-honored New York City custom: stoop sitting.

LITERARY LIFE: In 1923 Harpo Marx attended a housewarming in Hell's Kitchen. Other guests included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Gershwin. The site of the party was 412-414 West 47th Street. These adjoining townhouses were owned by Harold Ross, the legendary editor of The New Yorker Magazine, and two colleagues. Dubbed Wit's End by Dorothy Parker, the buildings contained a number of apartments inhabited by Ross and his wife Jane Grant, Alexander Woollcott, and several other friends. The magazine's offices on West 43rd Street were a short walk away. The New Yorker crowd lived in Hell's Kitchen until 1927.

The Wanaque, 349 West 47th Street, was built in 1888-87 and designed by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, to accommodate comfortably-off New Yorkers.
11. World Wide Plaza, completed in 1988, comprises an entire city block between 49th and 50th, from Ninth to Eighth Avenues, and contains an open-air plaza with a star-shaped fountain called "The Seasons."

Completed in 1988, World Wide Plaza occupies a full city block: bounded by 49th and 50th Streets, Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The complex is a mix of office towers and condominiums. The towers rise to 49 stories along Eighth Avenue, while low-rise condominiums, which have a town-house look, are situated on Ninth Avenue and along the western edges of 49th and 50th Streets.

STREETSCAPE: In an effort to protect Hell's Kitchen low-rise, residential character, the Clinton Special Preservation District was created in 1974. Restrictions are in effect that prohibit high-rise construction and demolition of sound buildings. When the law was made, the site of World Wide Plaza was exempted. However, the developers heeded the community's concerns that the Ninth Avenue buildings respect the neighborhood's low-rise scale. You'll note that the condominiums fit in with the Ninth Avenue streetscape. The design of red brick combined with the horizontal striping effect of the white-brick string courses echoes the facades of the adjoining tenements.

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: The block was formerly the site of the third Madison Square Garden (1925-1966). The present Madison Square Garden (Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street) is the fourth incarnation of the "Garden." The two preceding Gardens were located near Madison Square at 26th Street.

PUBLIC SPACE: At the center of the complex is an open-air plaza (entrance on the north side of 49th Street). The star-shaped fountain provides a welcome respite for neighborhood residents, office workers and tourists. Kick back and enjoy an al fresco meal or snack, whether it's a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor or a complete dinner at a plaza restaurant.

Now that you've completed the tour, how about taking a break? If the weather's fine, head over to World Wide Plaza (conveniently located near the Eighth Avenue Subway Station) and relax near the fountain. Or you might want to check out one of the many restaurants or cafes that dot the avenues and streets of Hell's Kitchen.

We hope you enjoy your visit to Hell's Kitchen and look forward to seeing you around the neighborhood again soon!
©2000 exploreNYC


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