Upper East Side History / UES Historical Sites
The following provides both a history and links into some of the current day things to do on the Upper East Side neighborhood including museums, restaurants and shops. More will be added as time goes on.
Upper East Side History – Farmlands & Railroads 1780’s – 1830’s
The Upper East Side was farmland as recently as the mid 1800’s. According to Wikipedia, a large swath of the Upper East Side neighborhood was purchased from the heirs of David Provoost [died 1781] by John Jones, a local businessman. The large swath of land, encompassing the area now represented by 66th to 76th streets and from 3rd Avenue to the East River, was parceled into smaller lots among Jones’ offspring.
In 1837 the New York and Harlem Railroad cut its way through the woodlands of what is now the Upper East Side neighborhood to provide a railway route north, eventually traveling up to Boston after the railway finally found a means through which to build railroads through the hilly / mountainous countryside of Connecticut.
Click here to read the rest of our report about the history of the Upper East Side of Manhattan & UES historical sites. And click here to see a listing of things to do on the Upper East Side UES.
Upper East Side Neighborhood History & Historical Sites UES
The Creation of Central Park In New York City – 1850’s
In 1844 New York Post Publisher William Cullen Bryant along with others began advocating for the creation of public parkland similar to other great parks of great cities like London’s Hyde Park. At first they focused on the Jones Woods, as the property was called, before deciding the park should be located ‘centrally’. In 1853 the New York legislature purchased 700 acres of land, which now comprises the bulk of Central Park. In 1857 Central Park was completed.
Influence Of The Erection Of Grand Central Terminal In NYC – 1870’s
In 1871 Cornelius Vanderbilt completed building Grand Central Terminal and it was opened for business in what is now the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood. The rail terminal brought together the terminating stations of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroads. It immediately became a hub of activity. The railways cut north along Park Avenue through what is now the Upper East Side neighborhood.
The Park Avenue Armory was erected in 1875. It was largely funded with private funds for the 7th Regiment. In the early part of the 20th century another floor was added and in the middle of the 20th century another floor added. It fell into disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century before being revived into a cultural space for both performances and art, including the sale of mid to high end art works.
History Of The Upper East Side - Upper East Side Mansions
Over the next half century or so, many of the great robber barons built large mansions along Fifth Avenue which overlooked the park. The move north began with the erection of the John Jay Gould House which was erected in 1868 along 5th Avenue at 67th Street. This mansion was torn down by the financier’s son, George J. Gould, who replaced it with a mansion that was erected in 1908. The mansion was demolished and replaced by a large apartment building in 1963.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II built a mansion on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1883. In 1926 the Vanderbilt mansion was demolished and replaced by Bergdorf Goodman, a high-end clothing store which remains to this day. This home was just beyond the southern end of the Upper East Side neighborhood, and is located in Midtown. The Vanderbilt Mansion was the continuation of the push north into what would become the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.
In 1880 by John Pierrepont Morgan built a mansion in what is now the Midtown neighborhood of Manhattan at around 36th Street and Madison Avenue. In 1903 he also built what is now the Morgan Museum and Library a stone’s throw from where he lived.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie built a mansion at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue in 1903. He and his wife Louise lived in it until their deaths in 1919 and 1946 respectively. Today the mansion is home to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The home was the first to have a steel frame and it was also the first home to have an Otis elevator.
In 1907 the Plaza Hotel opened at 59th and Fifth Avenue. It was a luxury hotel that I believe was preceded by an earlier building on the same site [not sure].
The Felix M. Warburg House [named after the banker who lived there] was erected in 1908 along Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street. The mansion was donated to and is now home to the Jewish Museum.
Henry Clay Frick, who was a partner with Andrew Carnegie in the entity that became U.S. Steel, built a mansion along Fifth Avenue at 72nd Street in what was becoming the Upper East Side neighborhood. The mansion was mostly completed by 1914 and was donated to the public along with a considerable art collection upon Adelaide Frick’s death in 1931 and opened to the public in 1935 as the Frick Collection which is often called the Frick Museum.
Influence Of The New Grand Central Terminal – Early 1900’s
The Grand Central Station [technically terminal] that we know today was erected in the early part of the 20th century. Around the same time the railroads covered over the large swath of railway tracks that come down what is now Park Avenue as the train industry began switching to the use of electricity versus the dirty coal fired engines of the 19th century.
This was a transformative period, as the Upper East Side neighborhood along Central Park, which was home to the super wealthy, was no longer separated from the large populations of working class folks that lived on the “other side of the tracks”.
Yorkville Neighborhood Of The Upper East Side - 86th Street
Yorkville represents the northeastern section of what today is the Upper East Side neighborhood. During the 1850’s it began changing from farmland to urban area, populated in part by the German and Irish immigrants who lived there while building the Croton Aqueduct.
In the late 1870’s two urban railway lines came up along 3rd Avenue and then 2nd Avenue, facilitating further urban migration and development. Many Eastern Europeans moved into the area during the massive European immigration that began in the 1880’s and ended in the 1920’s.
Nonetheless the area continued to carry a German influence, some of which is still present today. Many of the German immigrants were also Jewish, some of whom established the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in what is now the 92nd Street Y. The Y began in 1874 under the leadership of Dr. Leo and Oscar Strauss and its early mission was to provide a gathering place for German Jewish professionals. The first gathering place was on 23rd Street and it included a reading room and gymnasium. By 1883 they expanded their operations to help immigrating Russian Jews. The location moves to 42nd Street, then 58th Street, 65th Street and finally in 1899 a substantial donation from Jacob H. Schiff enables them to build a building at 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue. A new building is erected and opened in 1930 where they continue to operate to this day.
Things To Do In The Upper East Side Neighborhood - Museum Mile
One cannot talk about things to do on the Upper East Side neighborhood today, without some discussion about the Museums that line Fifth Avenue today.
The Metropolitan Museum was founded by the New York State Legislature in 1870 and opened in 1872. In 1871 the Metropolitan Museum was granted the land it now stands upon between 79th Street and 85th Street along Fifth Avenue on the Central Park side of the street. Between the time of acquisition of the land and 1902 the Metropolitan Museum building underwent several iterations. The museum began its art collection with a gift from John Taylor Johnston, who had been the President of the Central Railway of New Jersey.
The Whitney Museum was founded sometime around 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Whitney had an extensive collection of works by American artists and she decided to start her own museum of American art in the West Village on 8th Street. In the 1950's the museum began moving north, with a stop in Midtown near MoMA and eventually settling on the Upper East Side neighborhood at Madison and 75th Street in 1966. In 2014 the Whitney vacated the space and moved back down to the West Village.
The Guggenheim Museum at 89th Street and Fifth Avenue was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and it opened in 1959, somewhere between 15 and 20 years after it had been conceived. The museum was first seeded with the collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim, an owner of the Yukon Gold Company.
And, as you can see by a review of many of the former Gilded Age Mansions listed above, many of them have been converted into museums. To be sure this is not a complete list as of this writing, but a perusal of the UES things to do on the Upper East Side will provide a more complete listing of the museums.
Lastly, the Mayor's residence - Gracie Mansion - is located at the northeast end of the Upper East Side neighborhood in Carl Schurz Park. The mansion was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie to be used as a country home. In 1896 the home was acquired by the NYC government which made its grounds Carl Schurz Park. For a short while in the early part of the 20th century the house was home to the Museum of the City of New York and then shown as an historic house before becoming the official residence of the Mayor in 1942. Carl Schurz Park overlooks the East River, and is situated atop the FDR Drive.
Upper East Side Restaurants
The Upper East Side is home to a wide variety of restaurants befitting a wide range of budgets. Click here to visit our Upper East Side Restaurants section which will continue to evolve.
Upper East Side Shops
The Upper East Side is home to a wide variety of shops and shopping venues providing an opportunity to purchase a wide variety of things. Click here to visit our Shopping the Upper East Side Shops section which will also continue to evolve.
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