Turtle Bay: A Touch of Class
BY CLAUDETTE AND BOB BLUMENSON
Turtle Bay, a microcosm of New York City, contains all sorts of
buildings from tenements to luxury coops and condos, as well as
elegant brownstones. Its office buildings range from architectural
wonders to ultra-modern glass buildings.
There are several architectural masterpieces in Turtle Bay. The
Beekman Hotel , an art deco edifice built in 1928, which recently
received Landmark status, stands at 49th Street and First Avenue.
At its top is the restaurant and lounge, Top of the Tower, which
affords a spectacular view of the river and the skyline.
The old General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue has undergone
a rebirth: a painstaking restoration of the interior lobby floor.
Within and above the Romanesque Revival building on the northwest
corner of 51st Street and First Avenue (931 First Avenue), a 19-story
apartment tower is being built in a renovation that will save the
1892 façade (see Of Note, p. 4).
The best known is the Chrysler Building at Lexington and 43rd
Street. As this building was nearing completion the architects pulled
a bit of deception on the builders of 40 Wall Street, which was
being built at the same time. When the Chrysler Building reached
a height of 925 feet, the architects led the public to believe this
was the maximum height. The builders of 40 Wall did not stop at
925 feet, but added another two feet to make sure theirs was the
tallest building in the world. The architects of the Chrysler Building
had secretly assembled a tall stainless-steel spire, which they
raised through the top of the building and bolted in place. This
added 123 feet to the building, making it, at the time, the tallest
in the world.
One of Turtle Bay's interesting luxury apartment buildings, Riverhouse
at 437 East 52nd St., was built in 1931. It has a panoramic view
of the East River, tennis and squash courts, a swimming pool, and
a ballroom. At one time there was a private dock for the convenience
of visiting yachts.
Tudor City, a cluster of 1920s apartment buildings in Tudor style
built on abutments over First Avenue and United Nations Plaza, boasts
The 52-story building known as 100 United Nations Plaza is remarkable
for its summit: an eight-step pyramid.
The enclave called Turtle Bay Gardens comprises eleven townhouses
on the south side of 49th Street and nine on the north side of 48th
Street, midblock between Second and Third Avenues. New York socialite
Charlotte Hunnewell Martin purchased the structures in 1918 and
within two years she had renovated the houses and arranged the gardens
so that each leads to a common 12-foot-wide path down the center.
Mrs. Martin then sold the houses to friends at cost. Celebrity residents
have included actors Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power, composer
Stephen Sondheim, jurist Learned Hand, conductor Leopold Stokowski,
Maria Bowen Chapin (founder of the Chapin School), publishing personalities
Maxwell Perkins, Henry Luce, DorothyThompson, and E. B. White, who
wrote about the neighborhood for The New Yorker. White also wrote
Charlotte's Web while living on 48th Street. Although not part of
Turtle Bay Gardens, 211 East 48th Street is a townhouse designed
by the famous architect William Lescaze as his own residence and
office. It is credited as the first modern town house in New York
Beekman Place between 51st and 50th Streets, and including East
50th Street running one block west from Beekman Place, is known
as the Beekman Place District. The streets were formerly cobblestones
and the area consists mainly of luxury town houses, each with its
own character. One of the buildings has gaslights burning on either
side of one of its entrances and there is an old bishop's crook
lamppost on the southeast corner of Beekman Place and East 51st
Street. This area was home to many celebrities including Ethel Barrymore,
Katherine Cornell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Irving Berlin,
Huntington Hartford, members of the Rockefeller family, and former
Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. One Beekman Place was home
to novelists John P. Marquand and Mary McCarthy.
Other well-known figures who have made their homes in Turtle Bay
include: Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, Mary Lasker,
Mary Martin, John O'Hara, Maxwell Perkins, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre
Soltner, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Wolfe. The house
at 225-227 East 49th Street, built in 1926, was home to Efrem Zimbalist,
renowned violinist, and his equally celebrated wife, the opera star
Elma Gluck. It served as the 17th Precinct Station House in the
fifties, and was later divided into apartments. A violin is carved
over the door as well as a singing angel.
The east side of First Avenue between 51st and 53rd Streets has
hardly changed since the area was developed in the 1860s and 70s.
Numbers 312 and 314 East 53rd Street are a pair of wooden townhouses,
built in 1866 in the style of the French Second Empire. Number 312
has been designated a landmark, but Number 314 was denied landmark
status because it now has aluminum shutters instead of the original
The neighborhood has several parks where the public can unwind.
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park, at 47th Street between Second and First
Avenues, has become the jewel of Turtle Bay. Its latticed-domed
pavillion housed the Turtle Bay Association's beautiful Christmas
tree during the holidays and the park was host to the TBA cider
and caroling party. The lighted fountains lend a fairyland quality
at night. Also in the park: the Katharine Hepburn Garden; the "glass
house," which will offer light refreshments; and possibly,
come spring, a green market. Opened in August of 1999, Dag Hammarskjold
Plaza Park is the gateway to the United Nations, its Secretariat,
and the institution's parks and statues.
Peter Detmold Park, at the eastern-most end of 51st Street, contains
gardens, a dog run, and a footbridge that crosses over the East
River Drive. On 49th Street just off the Drive is MacArthur playground,
which is greatly enjoyed by the growing population of Turtle Bay's
younger inhabitants (see story, p. 4). Between Second and Third
Avenues on 51st Street is a small oasis called Greenacre Park. Standing
next to the Sutton Place Synagogue, which serves the United Nations,
it is one of the most used public open spaces in Manhattan. Another
vest-pocket park, the James P. Grant Plaza, sits on 44th Street
between Second and First Avenues.
This ultra-urban area began life as Deutal Bay Farm (which surrounded
a cove shaped like a bent knife blade ("deutal" in Dutch).
The farm's cove was home to many turtles and the name Turtle Bay
emerged. Although residents no longer feast on turtles from the
bay, which fell victim to landfill in 1868, they can always avail
themselves of the many fine restaurants in the neighborhood.
Claudette and Bob Blumenson moved to Turtle
Bay in January, 1999. Their curiosity about the neighborhood led
to this article and they now say "We have moved into a truly
remarkable area of New York City."
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Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community
224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
Fax (212) 751-4941