Halloween Townhouses of NYC

People who don’t live in New York City might wonder how – or even if – NYC children trick or treat. They definitely do; many larger buildings keep a list of people willing to accept trick or treaters, and residents of the building can pick up a list on October 31 so that they and their children don’t knock on the doors of too many empty apartments. In my experience, you can end up with a prodigious amount of candy (and the occasional healthy treat) in a large apartment building – even better if you pair with another family in another building and maximize possibilities in both places. (Insider tip: take the elevator to the top floor and use the stairs to walk down, if you are able – the elevators become very busy on Halloween night.) However, there are places in the city where you can trick or treat in a very traditional, door-to-door manner – primarily the townhouse blocks on the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, or Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, Astoria in Queens, etc. In addition, some of these houses go so all-out on decorating that they make the few weeks leading up to Halloween a “treat” to walk past. This October I made a point of stopping to take photos of houses I happened to pass while walking around the Upper East Side. I will start with a few sedately decorated examples, and progress to the truly terrifying. Perhaps one aspect of the legendary toughness of a native New Yorker is having to pass the gauntlet of horror at some of these homes to score a Reese’s Pumpkin!

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This building is keeping it classy. A seasonal display of pumpkins brightens the foyer.

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Friendly jack-o-lanterns accentuate this private garden.

These two townhouses have picked up the fright factor a bit without going too far – a few fluttering ghosts and a welcoming row of skulls let you know this is probably a good place to trick or treat.

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If this one was closer to the door, its scare factor would go up, but as is, it decorates the house nicely without being too terrifying. I like how the ghoul is holding a pumpkin.

This is a selection of decorations that I find to be fairly typical of what you see this time of year, some scary touches and nice additions to any city stroll.

Two views of this townhouse – I love the white pumpkins, ghosts, and seasonal plants leading to a giant inflatable  (but not too scary) Pumpkin King.

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Even though this is a skeleton, the presence of his skeleton doggies brightens up the scene, in my opinion. I really enjoyed this one.

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Similarly, these skeletons have a jaunty, Pirates of the Caribbean vibe . . .

I noticed a theme this year of many townhouses covered with spider webs, often along with the spiders and sometimes also other frightening figures.

Now we are progressing to a higher scare factor: this Dracula actually emerges and returns to his coffin on regular intervals. Note that trick-or-treaters would need to walk right past this to ring the doorbell!

This townhouse really followed through on its zombie theme.

The suit of armor is a unique touch, and pretty creepy.

Not much to say – these are just disturbing.

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This house wins the prize for most terrifying decoration that I happened to pass by this year. I would find it difficult to approach these figures in broad daylight, and can only imagine what it would be like to pass them on Halloween night to ring the doorbell!

On Halloween night, many of these homes will open their doors to reveal mini-haunted houses, and often the residents also dress up. My most vivid Halloween memory as a child is of approaching a house, and being absolutely terrified of the zombie who answered the door. When I ran away rather than take candy, he ran after me offering a bowl of treats – but to my terrified mind, he was simply chasing me! Ah, the joy of being scared, as long as ultimately it is in a safe setting. New York City is such a wonderful place to live, and the dedicated and fortunate owners of these townhouses enrich it with their decorations. There are many advantages to living in a townhouse – outdoor space, not sharing walls or floors/ceilings with neighbors, abundant space – but the ability to express yourself to the community through your decoration is certainly a plus for many.

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Beautiful Brooklyn Heights

It might surprise you to learn that the first neighborhood to be protected under the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law in New York City was not in Manhattan – it was Brooklyn Heights. I have had the pleasure of being in the area several times in the past few months, and regardless of the time of day, I find it to be an extraordinarily beautiful and gracious neighborhood. Since I love to take an unplanned walk in the city (a dérive, see my initial post about it here), one of my daughters and I took off on a beautiful warm early spring day to enjoy a walk in Brooklyn Heights.

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Surrounded by Dumbo (see my love letter to this neighborhood here) , Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn, getting to Brooklyn Heights is quite easy via public transportation. You can take the 2-3-4-5-N-R-W to Court Street-Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, the A-C-F-N-R-W to Jay Street-MetroTech, or the 2-3 to Clark Street.  Before setting off on our walk, we had wood fired pizza at Dellarocco’s, which I highly recommend (214 Hick’s Street, off Montague Street). On the way there we walked past block after block of beautiful townhouses.

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I always find myself drawn to the water, and was unable to stay away from the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights Promenade. One of the more recent additions to Brooklyn Heights, the promenade was completed in the 1950’s.

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Rows of of lovely townhouses and apartment buildings face the promenade and gaze toward lower Manhattan.

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The promenade ends at the Brooklyn Bridge (for instructions of how to walk across the bridge from Brooklyn, see this post). John A. Roebling, the 19th Century engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, lived in Brooklyn Heights.

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The views from the Brooklyn Heights can be incredible. Here is a view toward the Statue of Liberty at sunset.

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Benches line the promenade for relaxing while strollers, both pedestrians and those containing children, move along the pathway.

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The view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights is extraordinary.

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The Brooklyn Heights Promenade eventually merges into Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Jane’s Carousel, dating from 1922, invites all to stop and take a ride on a hand painted wooden horse, to the sound of authentic calliope music.

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Brooklyn Heights has attracted writers and artists since its inception, and walking around the neighborhood it is easy to see why. Benjamin Britten to W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman to W.E.B. DuBois, Arthur Miller to Lena Dunham – all have found inspiration in the quiet beauty of Brooklyn Heights. Truman Capote, another resident, wrote Brooklyn Heights:  A Personal Memoir, in which he famously states, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” More and more people have made this choice over the past two decades. which has made this one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.  The average price for a two bedroom apartment is $1,712,000 (compared to $1,149,000 for Brooklyn on the whole), and for a three bedroom it is just under $4,000,000. Townhouses can go for considerably more than that, but most people who live here consider the neighborhood well worth the cost. Brooklyn Heights has come a long way from Capote’s 1950’s description of street gangs and alley cats, but the allure of the area endures.

Turtle Bay

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Walking to show two apartments in the 400 block of East 52nd (not in the actual building Greta Garbo lived in for decades, but the same block), I was struck by the nomenclature “Turtle Bay” for the area (roughly from 42nd Street to 53rd Street, from Lexington Avenue to the East River) and vowed to find out whether there had in fact been turtles in a bay here a long time ago. What I discovered was one of those funny mistranslations that sometimes occurs: the Dutch called this area “Deutal” (Knife) Bay after a sharp turn in the East River (the reason why York Avenue/Sutton Place disappears at 54th Street) but the English-speaking later settlers misheard it as “Turtle.” My interest piqued, I decided to take my next dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) in this area.

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Initially farmland (including that of the Beekman family, who gave their name to Beekman Place), Turtle Bay evolved into an industrial neighborhood, noted particularly for its slaughterhouses. In the early 20th Century, Charlotte Hunnewell Sorchan bought and renovated a series of houses in the area, and sold to friends, including Maria Bowen Chapin, who founded the Chapin School. This began the evolution of Turtle Bay into a residential neighborhood, which was cemented when the last of the slaughterhouses was torn down to make way for the United Nations building.

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I began my dérive at my favorite skyscraper in New York City, the Chrysler Building. Finished in 1930, it was the world’s tallest skyscraper for 11 months before being ousted by the Empire State Building, and is still the world’s tallest brick building (although it does have a steel skeleton). An Art Deco masterpiece, to me it has an airy fairy-castle quality that contrasts markedly with the more aggressive forms of most NYC skyscrapers.

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Walking east on 42nd Street, the distinctive Tudor City sign dominates the eastern view. The first residential skyscraper complex in the world, it was built in the 1920’s by a real estate developer with dreams of keeping middle-class people in the city rather than taking flight to the suburbs. Despite the name “Tudor,” the architecture is neo-Gothic in style. Most of the apartments face away from the East River, since when they were built the slaughterhouses, and their accompanying smell, still operated along the river. Many Tudor City apartments have wonderful views of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, but few face the United Nations for this reason.

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Taking a set of steps down from Tudor City to First Avenue, the United Nations (as well as multiple diplomatic missions) now dominates the area of Turtle Bay between First Avenue and the East River. Established after World War II to promote cooperation between the nations of the world and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, the organization is imperfect but the quote across the street from the UN from Isaiah (“ . . . neither shall they learn war any more”) reveals the hope behind creating such an assembly. On a lighter note, I remember my young daughters once asking where aliens would land on earth if they were to try to reach the “leader” and I said it would have to be Manhattan because of the UN. Whether this was good news or bad news to them, I will have to ask and find out.

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Continuing north on First from the UN, I passed Mitchell Place, one of New York’s micro-streets (comprising just one block between First and Beekman Place, next to E. 49th Street). Turning west on 49th Street, I thought of E.B. White writing Charlotte’s Web in this neighborhood (he was living on E. 48th at the time) and stopped to admire the signage for “Katharine Hepburn Place” on the corner of Second and 49th). She lived in a beautiful townhouse between Third and Second on 49th Street for most of her adult life, and that block is a gracious quiet row of townhouses.

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Turtle Bay, unlike some more cohesive neighborhoods in NYC, has a wide variety of experiences represented: from the bustle of the shops and restaurants along the Avenues, to the quiet of Beekman Place, or from the gardens of Tudor City surrounded by neo-Gothic residences, to the international nexus of the United Nations. It is, however, a place where it is possible to find an apartment on a dead-end block with little to no traffic noise, but only a few blocks from everything midtown Manhattan has to offer.

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New York City townhouses and mansions

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When one thinks of living in New York City, apartment living is the default – and in fact the majority of New Yorkers do live in multi-occupant housing, ranging from luxury high rises in Manhattan to duplexes in College Point, Queens. However, apartment living is a relatively recent development in NYC history, and even today there are single-family townhouses (and even a handful of outright mansions) available in the city. What’s the definition of a townhouse versus a mansion? Well, there firm criteria do not exist, but a townhouse 25 feet wide or wider starts to be under consideration as a mansion, particularly if the façade is limestone and the overall square footage is 10,000 or above. (Also, you will know it when you see it.) In Europe, a mansion traditionally has a ballroom, but there are few of those left in New York City.

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The golden age of mansions in New York City was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of those mansions in fact did hold ballrooms. The Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue at 77th Street (now the site of an apartment building) had 25 bedrooms and 35 servant’s rooms. Charles Schwab built a 75 room mansion on Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th Streets, also now replaced by an apartment complex. The Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth and 57th, the largest residence ever built in New York City, had a two story ballroom as well as stables – and was destroyed to be replaced by Bergdorf Goodman. Some of the mansions in Carnegie Hill (all 50,000 square feet or more) faced somewhat better fates. The Carnegie Mansion now holds the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Warburg Mansion houses the Jewish Museum, and the Otto Kahn House is the location of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent school.

Until the end of the 19th century, apartment buildings – mainly tenements – were only for the less affluent. The middle class began to be attracted to the convenience of apartment living as the 20th century dawned, but the truly wealthy continued to live in single family homes until enough spacious apartments along Fifth Avenue (many with 12 rooms or more) were built and certain buildings became more prestigious. By the 1930’s, the tide had turned and more middle- and upper-class New Yorkers lived in apartment buildings than in single family homes, and now there are fewer than 2000 single family homes in Manhattan. However, there are considerably more in other boroughs. While a single family brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just as difficult to find (and afford) as one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it is possible to find a variety of housing choices elsewhere, such as detached single family homes in Flushing, Queens or Staten Island, and even enormous homes with lawns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn (home of the famous holiday light displays in December). For those with the funds to spend $20-100M on their new home, the few genuine mansions available offer far more square footage (and often significantly lower real estate taxes, unless comparing to a new development condo with a tax abatement) than some of the new Billionaire’s Row apartments making the news. Similarly, a townhouse in Washington Heights near the landmarked Morris-Jumel Mansion offers considerably more space than a similarly priced 2 bedroom coop on the Upper East Side.

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Townhouse living is radically different from apartment living, and there are those who would never consider living in a townhouse in the city (the stairs – no super – even having to take out and bag your own garbage!). However, for the person who does appreciate the difference, being able to own an actual home, as opposed to shares in a corporation (in a coop) or a certain number of square feet within a building (in a condo) is priceless. Real estate taxes often favor the single family dwelling, and of course there is no coop or condo board process to go through – if you can pay for the townhouse and the owner accepts your offer, you are in. I have a customer who will accept nothing else but a townhouse (specifically, between Central Park West in the 60’s or 70’s!), but many others who appreciate the convenience of an apartment in an elevator doorman building. Much as New York City neighborhoods provide a rich diversity in atmosphere to live within the city, the variety of housing types (condos, coops, and townhouses) also provide the possibility of finding the perfect home for each potential home owner – one that fits their own individuality, as well as helping them express it.