At the beginning of the 20th Century the New York Central Railroad constructed an enormous train station, Grand Central Terminal (GCT). GCT occupied the site of a smaller station which had become hopelessly outmoded. GCT to this day has a greater train capacity then any railroad station in the world and it is doubtful that it’s full potential can ever be exploited.. This potential was secured by excavating an enormous (largest such excavation in history) pit and building a two level maze of tracks and platforms within it. Since the tracks were now below street level the pit could be decked over and air rights exploited It was decided to lease these air rights and develop an assemblage of elegant buildings to be called called “Terminal City. Terminal City encompassed the blocks from East 49th Street South to East 42nd Street and between Lexington and Vanderbilt Avenue(s); Many of these buildings, including the land-marked Barclay and Roosevelt hotels and the Helmsley (ex New York Central) building itself sitting astride Park Avenue at 46th Street still survive today. Strict limitations were placed by the site owner respecting maximum height, general appearance and building materials to be utilized in structures erected within the district. For some reason the Waldorf Astoria Hotel which is located at the North end of the site was exempted.
The Hecksher Apartments (277 Park Avenue) between 47rth and 48th street was constructed around a one acre inner courtyard which was landscaped, and rimmed with a tiled driveway which provided limited outdoor parking for the tenants’ autos.;
The principal entrance was on Park Avenue via two monumental arches (for autos) flanked with two smaller apertures which furnished access to a covered arcade. Foot traffic could also enter via a Lexington Avenue gate, identify his business to the doorman and after climbing two flights of rather steep stairs reach courtyard level.level.
Although the building appeared as a single structure, 277 was actually an assemblage of twelve separate apartment houses surrounding the inner court, all sharing the common facade.. A covered arcade circumscribed the inner court yard giving access to all twelve “houses..” There were 2 apartments per floor and each house was 12 stories tall. In general each house had an attended passenger elevator and a separately manned service car. At the time of construction (briefly) a doorman was also on duty. The service car could descended to street level where a heavy metal door gave access to the street for deliveries and garbage collection.
Because there was no basement, (N.Y. Central tracks) the administrative offices and heavy mechanical maintenance shops had to be located at grade and that reduced the total apartment count to around 360. Each apartment had a wood burning fireplace. Larger units included a maid’s room (with toilet and bath) and as mentioned, additional household staff could be cheaply housed in the small rooms on the roof A necessity for the frequent entertainments customary for the time even a medium sized apartment featured a butler’s pantry. The kitchen came with a refrigerator containing only an evaporator whose coolant was piped from a large central compressor unit (a novelty) which proved a mechanical nightmare.;
The building tapped its electricity from the 600 volt DC (reduced to 120 volts) N.Y Central power feed. Steam for heat and hot water was provided by a nearby Con Edison steam generating plant. As mentioned above, the enormous train operation was directly below the structure and therefore it was relatively easy to tap into the railroads power grid. In the long term the immediate economies the builders of 277 Park realized by installing such an electric service caused endless difficulties particularly when AC became the world standard. For example window air conditioners and TV sets were almost always AC only! Tenants’ phone calls were received by and forwarded from a 24/7 manned central switchboard. Over and above normal and customary maintenance services the building offered (on site) an upholster, a cabinet maker, maid and porter service, dry cleaning/laundry and two full time painters.
Like a luxury hotel such an undertaking required an enormous general household staff of almost 175 souls (working a 6 day week!) Of course, as time went by, economies were instituted with their inevitable inconvenience. Unlike a front car the service elevator could rise to a 13th floor (actually a tunnel like corridor encircling the roof.) This appendage, over time, served many functions but early-on provided accommodations for the larger household staffs of the most affluent. Much like a motel the corridor was lined with on both sides with small rooms. Typical of the time each of the rooms had a sink but no cooking, toilet or bathing facilities. Because of the Great Depression the number of private retainers requiring accommodation decreased and some of the buildings general housekeeping and maintenance operations were relocated to the vacated rooms.
A series of retail store fronts faced the public streets.; Long term merchants included a florist (Irene Hayes), a barber shop, drugstore with lunch counter, art supply’s, a Restaurant, Gristides groceries, a book store, optometrist and strangely, a supplier of women’s wigs.; The famous Crillon Restaurant relocated to a two story Art Deco space at the corner of 48th Street and Lexington Avenue corner of the building.; If hungry, you could leave your apartment and via the arcade enter the Crillon’s 2nd floor, or if you were so inclined, dinner would be brought to your apartment on a cart.
Although there were relatively few children in the building, a playground on the roof was provided.; In addition to the usual swing and slide, the entire play area was covered with beach sand .Since the winter winds blew the sand away it was necessary to replace it annually a brutal job. For it’s first two decades, for the entertainment of younger children during inclement weather, the building provided a large, decorated play area in a large room on the roof. This facility was never popular and was converted to a laundry for the convenience of the tenants household help (generally a laundress came in one day a week). For those adults who wanted to take the sun, a similar roof area with outdoor furniture was provided (separate from the children of course).
The landscape designer had provided a tiled patio in the center of the park like court, a open sided tent was installed within it boundary which was furnished with handsome wrought iron furniture. There, one could pass the time on a hot summer day.; Remember,this was before the availability of central air conditioning. In the fall the tent was disassembled and for the Christmas season a large lighted tree was erected.; A Christmas party, with professional entertainment and Santa Claus (riding in a Cadillac convertible) distributed gifts to the tenants’ children and their guests.
Unfortunately, this mammoth and extravagant residence was completed at the height of the Great Depression. Almost always in bankruptcy, it passed through the hands of various investment groups who could not make it pay and eventually the property was seized; by the railroad who demolished it in the late 1960’s.; The office tower that replaced it still stands.
The Gallery page of this site has a section devoted to many more images of 277 Park Avenue.
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