Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Turtle Bay: Long on charm. Short on turtles.

Some historians say Turtle Bay was given its name because of an abundance of turtles in the creek that ran into it. 

Others say it had nothing to do with turtles; it's a corruption of the Dutch word "deutel" which means "a bent blade," the bay's shape.

But by 1868 the bay had been entirely filled in by breweries, gasworks, slaughterhouses, cattle pens, coal yards and railroad piers.  Any turtles had long since fled in terror.

Turtle Bay when it was actually a bay (Wikipedia)
It was not until fifty years later, in 1918, that Charlotte Hunnewell Sorchan bought 11 houses on the south side of 49th Street and nine houses on the north side of 48th, and created the Turtle Bay Gardens in the space between them in the middle of the block.

There are 10 missions to the United States in Turtle Bay,
and 88 to the United Nations
Mrs. Sorchan is described in "Manhattan's Turtle Bay: Portrait of a Midtown Neighborhood" by Pamela Hanlon (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), as "a sophisticated, creative, energetic woman" who had traveled extensively in Europe and fallen in love with the idea of squares of houses with common gardens in the middle.

The gardens, which are truly gorgeous, are there today, but you can't see them unless you either have a house on one of those streets, or have a friend who has one, or are in the real estate business and get to visit when one comes on the market. 

But there are plenty of other charming little semi-secret places in Turtle Bay that are public, and I'll get to them in a minute.

Amster Yard.  What you see in the distance
is not more of the garden but a mirror
set into an arch that makes the garden
appear to go on forever.
The neighborhood was further improved in 1956, when the elevated railway, which had cast sooty shadows over Third Avenue since 1878, was taken down. 

Tall and elegant office buildings sprang up along the avenue, and apartment buildings replaced old tenements on the side streets.

Today the area, officially bordered by the East River and Lexington Avenue, and 43rd and 53rd streets, is full not only of beautiful old townhouses and newer apartment buildings, but also of charming little nooks and crannies that are all but invisible to the casual observer.

Beekman Place, both blocks.
Amster yard is a pretty little enclave reached by an unobtrusive gate on the north side of 49th Street just east of Third Avenue.  The gate is open, and behind it there's an alleyway that leads to a small garden.

I was afraid the garden was private, but none of the people sitting at the little tables told me to leave, and I later found out it is indeed open to the public.  While exploring, I was startled to see myself approaching.  Turns out the garden is made to look a lot deeper than it is because of a large mirror set into an arch at the end.

Footbridge to the East River
If you walk all the way to the eastern end of 51st Street, on the north side of the street where the sidewalk ends, you'll find another small and easily missed gate that opens to a stairway. 

Halfway down the stairs is a footbridge that will lead you to another set of stairs leading down to park benches where a few people are relaxing by the river.

If you don't walk across the footbridge but continue the rest of the way down the first set of stairs, you'll get to Peter Detmold Park, another one of those places nobody seems to know about. 

Peter Detmold Park, deserted on  a
summer afternoon. 
But before you descend, take a short stroll along the two blocks that comprise Beekman Place, possibly the most beautiful two blocks in the city.  Auntie Mame lived on Beekman Place. So did another fictional character, Robert Redford's, in "The Way We Were."

In real life, it was the address of Huntington Hartford, Aly Khan and various Rockefellers.

The gardens and lawns of United Nations Plaza, 42nd to 48th, First Avenue to the river, are temporarily off limits due to construction, which, a guard told me, is to be completed in 2015.  When that happens, they will once again be a lovely place for a stroll.

So what does it cost to live in Turtle Bay?

What's behind those beautiful
apartment buildings on Beekman Place.
The average rent for a two bedroom, two bath apartment is $7,250.  For a one-bedroom it's about $3,425.

If you prefer to own, the average price for a two bedroom, two bath condo is about $2,300,000.  For a co-op, it's significantly lower at $1,200,000, and you might even snag one for under a million.

One bedrooms run about $865,000 for a condo and $550,000 for a co-op.

It's a neighborhood definitely worth considering.  Hey, Katharine Hepburn, Leopold Stokowski, Maxwell Perkinds, Henry Luce, E.B. White (who wrote "Charlotte's Web" while living on 48th Street) and Irving Berlin all lived here.  Why shouldn't you?

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