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Amster Yard Reborn - Instituto Cervantes is Coming!
BY BRUCE SILBERBLATT

Amster Yard, an official City landmark at 211-215 East 49th Street, has seen better days. That state of affairs, happily, will soon change.
When the Landmarks Commission awarded its designation back in 1966 (one of its first), it observed that Amster Yard was "a picturesque, L-shaped courtyard … one of the most charming enclosures in the City." James Amster created it in 1945, converting a mixed collection of buildings - two on 49th Street, two at the back of the interior yard - into shops, apartments, his own residence, and above all, a beautiful garden approached from 49th Street through an arched passage. This garden, paved with bluestone flagging, made Amster Yard a delightful and quiet haven in Turtle Bay.

The Yard's oldest structure was built around 1870 as a carpenter shop for one John Mulloy. The history of the site, however, goes all the way back to the late eighteenth century, when the terminal of the New York-Boston stage coach was located here. Evidence of the old Post Road, the main route up to New England, is still visible in the oddly skewed west wall of Amster Yard; it follows the old property line that faced the long-gone highway.

In later years Amster Yard was occupied by the Brick Institute, which removed (illegally, it would seem) the bluestone, substituting brick paving. When they decamped, the Yard slowly became vacant and fell into a neglected state, its future uncertain.

The Instituto Cervantes, a cultural organization based in Spain, currently occupies cramped quarters on 42nd Street, but it will soon make Amster Yard its new center. Plans include classrooms in the front buildings and a library and offices in the rear. The garden will be restored to its former glory.

The Instituto faced considerable obstacles: It needed to link the front and back portions without ruining the gardens, and space had to be found for a lecture hall. The floors of the two 49th Street houses, at different heights, required leveling; the Instituto hoped to alter the 49th Street façade to conform. The link-up was solved by a glassed-in passageway placed against the blank west wall, thus avoiding intrusion into the garden. The lecture hall will go underground below the gardens, which will be returned to their 1966 original condition. While the Instituto had no problem obtaining permission to level floors, the Landmarks Commission refused to grant them the okay to alter the 49th Street façade. Landmarking regulations allow interior alterations but are very strict about modifying exteriors. The approval process was long and arduous.

In the meantime, hazardous materials such as asbestos have been removed, and construction should begin soon. When it is done, Turtle Bay will have a fine cultural center in its midst - the new Instituto Cervantes - and above all, the garden will be open for the community to enjoy.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

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