Have you ever watched an old movie or television program and heard someone’s phone number expressed as “Murray Hill” followed by five numbers (for instance, the Ricardos in I Love Lucy were at MH5-9975)? That telephone exchange once covered all of the east side of Manhattan, with an East 37th Street building serving as the hub. The Murray Hill neighborhood itself covers roughly the area between E. 34th and E. 40th Streets, between Madison and Third Avenues. After showing a customer a potential home recently, I took an unplanned walk (a dérive) to experience what it would be like to live or work in Murray Hill.
However, my first questions were: who was Murray and was there truly a hill (because I was unable to detect a significant one while walking the area)? In fact, Robert Murray was a Quaker, an Irish immigrant around the time of the American Revolution who became a successful shipping merchant and built a house on what would now be Park Avenue and 36th Street. The area would have been the limits of uptown Manhattan at that point, with farmland continuing north. At that point there was a hill (since leveled) and a reservoir existed where Bryant Park and the New York Public Library now sit. For a time in the 19th Century, Murray Hill was the destination for many of the industrial age’s titans to build their mansions and townhouses, before the birth of Millionaire’s Row further uptown on Fifth Avenue with views of the newly created Central Park.
Starting on Park Avenue and 40th Street, magnificent Grand Central Station looms just a few blocks north, the Chrysler Building emerging behind it and to the side – looking like a cross between a skyscraper and an Art Deco fairytale castle. One of the things I appreciated immediately was that the many shorter buildings in the area create multiple opportunities for iconic views of the Chrysler Building to the north and east, and the Empire State Building to the south and west. The high rise buildings, like the one I was showing to a customer, often have several apartments with perfectly framed views of these buildings. In fact, these views are made more spectacular by close proximity. Wandering the streets in no particular order, the sudden unexpected views of these iconic skyscrapers was a real delight.
While the avenues in this neighborhood are bustling and full of restaurants, bars, and shops, the streets tend to be surprisingly quiet. Many of the street blocks contain rows of townhouses or mid-rise buildings, with the high rise buildings tending to be on the Avenues. Eventually I came across the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison at 36th Street. I happened upon it from the side, on 36th Street, and first noticed the sculpted lionesses guarding this side entrance. I was not surprised to discover later that they were by the same artist who created the better-known lions at the front of the New York Public Library a few blocks away. The magnificent main building was created to house the manuscript collection of Pierpont Morgan, a prominent financier in the beginning of the 20th century. His son later gave his father’s collection and the building for the creation of the Morgan Library and Museum. Although best known for its illuminated manuscripts and sketches, it also houses original handwritten musical scores and lyrics, from Mozart to Bob Dylan (his first draft of “Blowin’ in the wind,” written on a scrap of paper).
Heading out of the neighborhood into Kips Bay to the east, I realized that the proximity to the Queens Midtown Tunnel could make this a very convenient neighborhood for those who regularly head to Long Island. With Grand Central Terminal only a few blocks away, it is also well situated for people who use Metro North to go to upstate or to Connecticut. Murray Hill struck me as an interesting midtown neighborhood, with options for high rise living with killer skyscraper views as well as peaceful townhouse living with a view of leafy trees.