Astor Row lies in the neighborhood of Harlem in the New York City borough of Manhattan. Astor Row, the name given to the area between the south side of West 130th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue was comprised of 28 row houses, the first speculative townhouses to be built within that area. Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem described Astor Row as “the block beautiful.”
More specifically, Astor Row refers to semi-attached row houses on the south side of the street designed by Charles Buek, a developer and architect working between 1880 and 1914. Named for John Jacob Astor, the landowner who purchased the land in 1844 for $10,000 a price worth around $322,580 factoring in inflation for today’s market. That’s quite a steal for land within Manhattan.
Astor’s purchases of Manhattan land came at a period of time–The Panic of 1837–in which Manhattan was experiencing a freefall of property values. This period of time was considered by economist Milton Friedman to be comparable to the Great Depression that would hit between 1929 & 1939 crippling the American economy. The Panic of 1837 saw many homeowners losing their properties to foreclosure, unable to pay their mortgages. Capitalizing on this economic downturn, Astor’s empire flourished.
Dubbed by Axel Madsen as America’s First Multimillionaire, at one point Astor was able to purchase an entire city block in Harlem for a measly $2,000 when it was estimated to be worth one million dollars.
Astor’s critics condemned him for leaving areas undeveloped or unmaintained–a charge that fell on his property speculations due to their lack of consideration for community improvement. He would typically purchase land and subdivide it, leasing to developers or tenants who would be responsible for the property taxes and upkeep. When the lease expired, Astor raised rents and sometimes even bought buildings his tenants had constructed for a steal seeking maximum returns with no consideration to whether developers built industrial buildings or residential homes.
Astor biographer James Paxton stated that Astor’s mission was “To get all he could and to keep nearly all he got. The love of accumulation grew with his years until it ruled him like a tyrant.”
Charles Buek, the developer of Astor Row, was commissioned by wealthy clients to construct gorgeous, elaborate, and large private homes and apartments. Among these affluent clients were George Moore, Charles Dana, Charles M. Fry, and John A. Stewart. While Buek and his partner, Charles Duggin concentrated on Manhattan’s East Side on Lexington and Madison Avenues, they also constructed some buildings in and around West 72nd Street. Unfortunately, not all of Duggin & Buek’s projects survived the test of time. Among their survivors are buildings at 829 Madison Avenue, 20 East 69th Street, and of course, Astor Row.
Among the first speculative townhouses built in Harlem, Astor Row’s homes’ design is very unusual. The houses are set back from the street and all have front yards, an oddity in Manhattan, with wooden porches–unique among Manhattan homes. Constructed in three spurts between 1880 and 1883, Astor’s grandson, William Backhouse Astor Jr. drove this wave of development. His efforts during the building spree would soon produce the original Waldorf Astoria hotel.
In its original iteration as Astor House, the eponymous luxury hotel was unprecedented in its lavish offerings. From carpeted corridors, to free bathing products and complimentary maid service, only the wealthiest could afford to stay in this decadent Greek Revival near present-day City Hall Park.
Celebrities including “King of the Wild Frontier” Davy Crockett, author Charles Dickens, and the Senator and three-time Secretary of State (under Presidents Harrison, Tyler & Fillmore) Daniel Webster were among Astor House’s most esteemed guests.
After his death, Astor Jr. left the homes to be divided between his grandchildren, Mary, James, and Sarah Van Alen. While they owned the the houses until 1911, Max Marx, a real estate investor, who traded them for an apartment building in Washington Heights for ten of the westernmost houses.
The New York Times once wrote that these homes were “…one of the most attractive and exclusive home centers [in Harlem]…” demonstrating “…a picture of domestic tranquility and comfort which few other blocks in the city possess.”
So popular were these homes that the waiting list for them spanned years, and originally rented for $1,100. While the homes were originally exclusive to white New Yorkers, James Cruikshank bought 20 of the 28 houses in 1920 and leased them to black tenants, although Philip A. Payton Jr. is largely credited as the black realtor who opened the area to New York City’s black community. His Victorian row house survives to this day. Over the years, residents abandoned the homes forcing the area into a decline as an illegal drug market cropped up.
As the homes fell into disrepair due to lack of upkeep and maintenance it wasn’t until 1981 when the houses were designated city landmarks that money was funneled into their restoration. Previously described by the 1978 AIA Guide to New York City to have “…restrained beauty which has been tarnished by years of economic distress,” the decaying homes were in need of a major facelift not to mention plumbing, electricity, and heat.
Restorationists included the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Vincent Astor Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, and New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and was overseen by Li Saltzman and Roberta Washington. Millions in public and private funding and the Harlem revival slowly saw the area improve. Brooke Astor was also among those to fund her family’s heritage revitalization.
Famously, to raise money for Astor Row’s renovation, Ella Fitzgerald performed a 1992 Radio City Music Hall benefit concert.
While most of the homes have been updated and restored, some still sit boarded up and unoccupied waiting for new owners and renters to tend to them. Following the Astor Row’s extensive restoration, the area is beginning to once again resemble the neighborhood it once did when they were built. Burgeoning condominiums such as The Lenox at 380 Lenox Avenue, coffee houses, retail businesses, a new supermarket, and gourmet eateries such as a mini donut shop, the revitalization has seen home prices rise in Astor Row with some going for $2 million. If only John Astor could see his investment now!
with lower prices that downtown Manhattan, Harlem’s main drag, Lenox Avenue–otherwise known as Malcolm X Boulevard–is the place to go for food, cocktails, and entertainment. Residents’ favorite stops include Astor Row Cafe, a funky coffee house, aptly named wine bar Barawine featuring a French bistro menu, Pa-paya Seed a healthy frozen yogurt & smoothie cafe, and speakeasy social club La Bodega 47 which focuses on rum based fabulous cocktails. For the weekend brunch-set, BLVD (formerly Boulevard Bistro) features American soul food but also serves up killer lunch and dinner options. Retro options like Harlem Shake feature snacks and desserts, and of course the milkshakes for which they’re known.
Residents find the commute to downtown, the East Side, and the Westside quite easy
The express stop for the Number 3 subway can be found on the corner of Lenox Avenue & 125th Street, a mere seven minute walk. On Lexington and East 125th the Lexington Avenue express takes ten minutes by foot, and Times Square and Grand Central can be reached in around 30 minutes.
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