Tales of the City: Remembrance of a Block’s Past 

When I was small, I spent a good amount of time trolling up and down Second and Third Avenues in the sixties. For some reason I was going to Bloomingdale’s at 60th and Third a lot, though I was never allowed to wear the fabulously cool “Bloomies” underwear all my friends had. Oh, and there were all the movie theatres in that area — the Beekman, at 66th and Second (Woody Allen’s favorite for premiering his own films) being the largest and nicest among them.

One little feature of the urban landscape in that area always fascinated me: 66th Street between Second and Third is a doublewide block, with a strange stone wall/island running down its center. As a kid I adored that block because it’s on a fairly sharp incline. It was one of the few places where you could start running at the top and really feel gravity pulling your 45-pound frame along, slapping your feet into the pavement. All made the more thrilling by the stone wall whizzing menacingly by (a remnant of ancient Upper East Side peoples?).

Well, adult me wonders: Why is there one east-west block on 66th Street — as far as I know the only one in Manhattan — which is twice as wide as the rest of the street? Surely it’s not just to make room for all the small children in the area who need to blow off steam? The answer lies to the south. The south side of the block. Here we find the famous Manhattan House, the first of the area’s “white elephants”— those hideous white-brick monstrosities that dot the East Side from the fifties to the eighties. M.H., though light grey, started the trend: built in 1950 it was universally heralded as a pure expression of the International Style in residential architecture. Several of my sources invite comparison to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, which I visited this past summer. Either the building has changed dramatically, or these ‘sources’ were very, very high. Do me a favor and check out the Corbu sometime. Apples and oranges, my friend.

Here’s what is interesting; the building was built on a full block formerly occupied by a mansard-roofed palace which held the street cars from the old Third Avenue Railway System. The builders acquired the row of tenements to the north and built the low buildings (including the Beekman) along the east side of Second Avenue to preserve the light and air around the building. And Grace Kelly once lived here (presumably before she got all those castles).

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