Murray Hill Neighborhood Association

A Bit of Murray Hill History


The history of Murray Hill extends back over 200 years, encompassing both the rise of a great city and the continuous preservation of a residential neighborhood. Murray Hill today possesses a rich architectural heritage that serves as a constant reminder of the fascinating and often colorful people who have lived here.

The land originally known as Inclenburg was not far removed from the wilderness in 1753, the year Robert Murray moved to New York City from Pennsylvania and took up residence at the corner of Queen (now Pearl) and Wall Streets. He owned Murray's Wharf at the foot of Wall Street and conducted an importing business. He also purchased from the City Council a large tract from the Common Lands of Inclenburg for a country estate. He and his wife, Mary Lindley Murray, called their new home Belmont. Murray Hill-as the estate quickly became known-extended roughly from what is now Madison to Lexington Avenues, and from 33rd to 39th Streets.

Although they were Quakers, the Murrays also upheld the traditions of wealthy New York society. They entertained frequently at their country home, where George Washington and other prominent Americans were guests.

Mary Murray's most famous "party" took place during the early days of the Revolutionary War. On September 15, 1776, the Battle of Manhattan began at Kips Bay, as five British warships surprised the untrained colonial troops under the command of General Putnam and Aaron Burr and sent them scattering northwest in disorderly retreat. British troops followed close behind, hurling insults at the undisciplined behavior of the Americans.

According to legend, Mary Murray invited the British commander General Sir William Howe and his men to rest at Belmont and enjoy a pot of tea. Their time spent in the company of Mrs. Murray and her charming daughters allowed the Americans to escape. The next day, they would triumph over the British in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

Mary Murray died in 1782, Robert in 1786, and land was eventually purchased by John Murray, Robert's younger brother and business partner, who had married Hannah Lindley, Mary's niece. John Murray's will dictated that the estate be divided by lot equally among his children.

The Murray Family Legacy: A Restrictive Covenant Belmont itself was destroyed by fire in 1834, just as the city plotted a regular street grid through the area and construction of the New York and Harlem Railroad blasted an open cut through the very heart of Murray Hill. The city's northward expansion had begun to threaten the Murray's residential paradise by the mid-19th century. Eleven descendants of John Murray, "owning several lots from the south side of 34th Street to the south side of 38th Street and from Madison to Lexington Avenues," registered with the City Surveyor on February 22, 1847, what became known as the Murray Hill Restriction.

In effect, the Restriction banned the use of the land for the building of anything other than a "brick or stone dwelling." Although exceptions could be made for private stables and carriage houses, as well as churches, such establishments as smith shops, breweries, and places for the exhibition of wild animals were expressly forbidden. Written into property deeds, the Murray Hill Restriction would be the bane of real estate developers for over a century.

The Making of Murray Hill - Manhattan Moves Uptown

The Murray family had acted just in time. In 1848, Lexington Avenue was opened from 30th to 42nd Street and in 1851, the Fourth Avenue railroad tracks were covered over from 32nd to 40th Streets. The eight-block stretch of road was renamed Park Avenue, and the description was apt-the central malls were lavishly planted and featured well-groomed paths suitable for an enjoyable stroll.

People of wealth were beginning to move uptown from lower Manhattan, and Murray Hill was a now a favored destination. But it was obvious that Murray Hill had arrived as a neighborhood when the Astors moved uptown. It was the Mrs. Astor who ruled society in the late 1800s from her mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth and 33rd Street. This was the mansion with the famous ballroom that would hold only 400 people-the only 400 who counted.

Commerce sprang up at the neighborhood's eastern borders. In 1878, the Third Avenue El opened, as did shops from greengrocers to shoemakers in service to the middle class as well as the waves of new immigrants who filled the areas east and north of Murray Hill with shanties and squatters' huts.

The Grand Central Depot opened at the north end of the Park Avenue Tunnel in 1871, and by the following year, the surrounding blocks became hotel territory. The elegant Hotel Belmont and the Grand Union Hotel flanked the two south corners of 42nd Street and Park Avenue. One block south, between 40th and 41st Streets, the magnificently rococo Murray Hill Hotel stood until the 1970s-it was the crowning glory of the gilded age, with red and white marble floors, carmine plush furniture and rococo walls and ceilings in its 600 rooms. Among its regular patrons were Presidents McKinley and Cleveland, Mark Twain, and "Diamond Jim" Brady.

The Gaslight Era - A Residential Enclave

By the end of the 19th century, Murray Hill had taken on a character that can still be seen today: opulent mansions were built between Fifth and Park Avenues and elegant brownstones between Park and Lexington Avenues. The stables and carriage houses which served the fine families stood between Lexington and Third.

Mrs. Astor held her last Murray Hill ball in 1892 and it's a good bet that many of the neighborhood's residents were in attendance. When the Social Register for that year appeared, over 100 names on that prestigious listing had residences in Murray Hill.

Although not listed in the Social Register, the great financier John Pierpont Morgan came to Murray Hill in 1886. His family's presence in the neighborhood would be felt long after the Astors had moved further uptown. Mr. Morgan paid William Walter Phelps $215,000 for a wholesome-looking home at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street. By 1900, he secured the remainder of the Madison Avenue frontage of this block, including the Phelps Stokes home on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street, which he purchased for his son, J.P. Morgan. The senior Morgan's house was backed by a garden, which separated the home from the Morgan Library, which he commissioned the venerable firm of McKim Mead and White to build in 1903. It was completed in 1906.

The elder Morgan died in 1913, but his widow lived in the home on 36th Street for the remainder of her life. After her death, her son-who resided in the 37th Street house until his death in 1943-commissioned Benjamin W. Morris to build the Annex to his father's library on the site of his parent's home.

By the end of the 19th century, the original landed gentry had yielded Murray Hill to Morgan partners and other great financiers, as well as the early shipping families. But as the century turned, Murray Hill was once again facing encroachment.

When Benjamin Altman moved his department store uptown from Sixth Avenue and 19th Street, he wanted it to be the biggest and the finest in the city-and there were no zoning laws or restrictions that prevented him from building it on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the very center of elegant Murray Hill. In deference to neighborhood opinion, Mr. Altman built his temple of commerce in the form of a Florentine palace, and not even his business name appeared on the outside of the building-and it was not until the 1950s that "B. Altman & Co." appeared in neat, small lettering beside its doors.

Within a few years of the store's opening in 1906, Mr. Altman was joined by such distinguished commercial establishments as W. & J. Sloane, Arnold Constable & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. The original Tiffany studios sat on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. Fifth Avenue was quickly transformed from a street lined with town houses to a world-renowned commercial boulevard.

The Murray Hill Restriction of 1847 had served the neighborhood well. Although challenged many times to the highest courts, with few exceptions, the Restriction was upheld. But the one thing the Murray descendants could not have foreseen was the advent of a new type of "dwelling"-the apartment house.

To strengthen their ranks against the invasion of the high rise, the Murray Hill Association was formed in 1914. The original directors were J. Pierpont Morgan, William Church Osborn, Herbert Parsons, Warren Delano, George R. Sheldon, William D. Guthrie, and Temple Bowdoin.

In 1920, the home of the late Charles T. Barney, of Knickerbocker Trust fame, at the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 38th Street, was improved with a fifteen-story apartment house, the first multi-family house to be erected in Murray Hill. The Judge Russell house, at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and 37th Street, was the next to go. It passed into the hands of co-operative apartment builders in 1922.

Despite its powerful roster of members, the Murray Hill Association could not prevent the rise of the apartment houses along the avenues of the neighborhood, but it could-and did-continue to use the 1847 Restriction successfully to prevent the conversion of entire buildings for commercial use and to block wholesale demolition of buildings and the consolidation of lots for the building of large office spaces.

The Battle for Murray Hill Continues
Between the two World Wars and continuing into the post-war period, Murray Hill underwent many physical changes, but its residential character remained.

In 1960, the residents of Murray Hill found strength in numbers rather than wealth when the city proposed a drastic widening of 36th and 37th Streets to enable an increased flow of traffic in and out of the Midtown Tunnel. The Murray Hill Committee (now the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association) was formed and rallied successfully to save the stoops and front sidewalks of the townhouses.

The Committee went to the barricades again in the mid-1980s, when the Community Church proposed to demolish their row of townhouses along 35th Street and build a high-rise tower. The result was a restriction on all high-rise building on the side streets of Murray Hill between Madison and Third Avenues.

For the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, the preservation fight continues through landmarking efforts which have resulted in the designation of ten New York City Landmarks within Murray Hill-and the current proposal to establish a Murray Hill Historic District.

Today, if you stand at the top of Murray Hill, you will see a very different landscape than that of 1753. Instead of gazing down over rolling hills and streams, you can look up at the towering spires of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. But if you walk the streets of Murray Hill, you can easily imagine the neighborhood that existed almost 100 years before. From those 100 residences listed in the Social Register of 1892, over 60 are still standing intact. Murray Hill is now, as it was then, a unique residential enclave in midtown Manhattan.

Posted by joedid on 02/21/2001
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