May 4, 2016

Everything You Need to Know About Tudor City in 1,032 Words

Manhattan's Tudor City is a Historic District set in East Midtown, opposite the United Nations. A planned community constructed by the visionary developer Fred F. French, it was the largest single residential project ever seen in Manhattan up to that time: 12 apartment buildings and a transient hotel, arranged around two private parks. These buildings are:

The Cloister, 321 E. 43rd St., opened fall, 1928
Essex House, 325 E. 41st St., opened  Oct 6, 1929
Haddon Hall, 324 E. 41st St., opened Jan 1, 1929
Hardwicke Hall, 314 E. 41st St.opened Jan 1, 1929
Hatfield House, 304 E. 41st St., opened Jan 1, 1929
The Hermitage, 330 E. 43rd St., opened fall, 1928
Hotel Tudor (nka Hilton New York Grand Central), 304 E. 42nd St., opened Oct 1, 1930
The Manor, 333 E. 43rd St., opened Sept 30, 1927
Prospect Tower, 45 Tudor City Pl., opened Sept 30, 1927
Tudor Gardens, 2 Tudor City Pl., opened  1956
Tudor Tower, 25 Tudor City Pl., opened summer, 1928
Windsor Tower, 5 Tudor City Pl., opened Jan 1, 1930
Woodstock Tower, 320 E. 42nd St., opened May 1, 1929

Neighborhood map, circa 1930

The Tudor City Historic District also includes six landmarked buildings preceding the arrival of Fred French: the 1871 Church of the Covenant, four 19th-century rowhouses, and a 1926 apartment building, the Prospect Hill Apartments.

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Tudor City’s site, a granite bluff today known as Prospect Hill, had an up-and-down history over the years. In 1636, it was a tobacco plantation on Turtle Bay Farm, a marshy, 40-acre parcel of land granted to two Englishmen by the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. Following the American Revolution, it was sold to Francis B. Winthrop, whose family continued to farm the land into the 1800s. The NY Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 – which proposed laying out a street grid and leveling the island’s hilly terrain – essentially put an end to farming in Manhattan. It did not lead to improvement on Prospect Hill, however.

For reasons unknown, this granite cliff was never leveled, and thus remained undeveloped. By the time of the Civil War, it was one of sketchiest neighborhoods in the city, a shantytown populated by penniless squatters, flimsy shacks and free-roaming goats. More ominously, it was the lair of James “Paddy” Corcoran, an Irish thug who was the leader of the Rag Gang, one of the murderous mobs wreaking havoc along the East River. Prospect Hill soon became known as Corcoran’s Roost.
Looking north up Second Avenue from 42nd Street in 1861, a part of town not for the faint of heart
Post-war prosperity helped clean up the area, and by the 1870s, middle-class rowhouses appeared on Prospect Place, its three-block-long street (later renamed Tudor City Place). This neighborhood uptick was short-lived, however. The construction of the 2nd Avenue Elevated train to the west – belching soot and cinders into the air – and the growing industrialization along the East River to the east (including a slaughterhouse, glue factory and gas works) sent the area back into decline.

Then, in 1925, real estate developer Fred Fillmore French changed the neighborhood forever. French’s plan was ambitious: nothing less than the largest apartment complex Manhattan had ever seen, “a city within a city,” built on a five-acre, horseshoe-shaped plot of land. The crowning touches were two private parks that lent a unique suburban feel to the otherwise very urban enterprise.

The complex was designed in the pseudo-Tudor style that was enjoying a vogue in the 1920s. This style of architecture – an homage to sixteenth-century English homes – was associated with the comforts of country living, and targeted to the middle-class types who had begun to abandon the city for the suburbs. To heighten its idyllic feel, the community was constructed to face west, turning its back on the industrial mess along the East River. The first phase of construction commenced in 1927 and was completed by 1932, with 2,800 apartments and 600 hotel rooms.  

Tudor City arrived during the birth of modern advertising, and was heavily promoted via magazine and newspaper ads as well as two mammoth rooftop neon signs. It even had its own slogan: Live in Tudor City and Walk to Business – it was a mere seven-minute stroll to the Grand Central business district. 

Within the self-contained community was a restaurant, coffee shop, kindergarten, grocery, laundry, florist and book shop, among other businesses. Additional amenities (really public relations gimmicks) included a ski slide, tennis courts and an 18-hole miniature golf course, along with a resident nurse, private police force and on-call radio repairmen.

Prospect Tower and Tudor Tower, 1935
The complex was a success from the start, and close to fully rented throughout the tough years of the Depression, and beyond. Though most of the apartments were modest in size, the rents were reasonable (starting at $50 per month for a studio), and the neighborhood quiet and charming.

After World War II, the construction of the United Nations on the former East River slaughterhouse sites brought significant changes to the community. 42nd Street was widened and the narrow tunnel beneath Tudor City Place remade into a broader expanse. Service roads leading up to Tudor City Place from 42nd Street were replaced with stone staircases. As before, there was no through traffic to First Avenue, but now the traffic flow was further reduced, with only one way in (41st Street), and one way out (43rd Street) after the service roads were demolished.

In 1956, the French Company erected Tudor Gardens (at 2 Tudor City Place) on the site of the former tennis courts. The final apartment house in the Tudor City complex, it was the only one not embellished with Tudor-esque ornament.

A group of investors led by real estate mogul Harry Helmsley bought most of Tudor City for $36 million in 1970. Shortly thereafter, he announced plans to replace the parks with a pair of skyscraping apartment houses, which ignited a slew of lawsuits that became mired in the courts for nearly a decade. Helmsley finally abandoned his plans in 1985, after the courts ruled that the parks were an “essential service” to the community. In 1988, the entire complex – parks included – was officially landmarked as a New York City Historic District. Around the same time, all of the apartment houses were converted into co-ops, save for the Hermitage, which remains an all-rental building to this day.

The area’s unique urban-suburban beauty made it a natural movie location, and films like Scarface and the Spider-man trilogy gave the neighborhood some national renown. The millennium saw the arrival of two critically acclaimed Italian restaurants, L’Impero and Convivio, in Prospect Tower. Launching the careers of two celebrity chefs, Scott Conant and Michael White, they became destination restaurants, introducing Tudor City to a whole new generation of New Yorkers.

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