In September, CIM Group and developer Harry Macklowe broke ground on 432 Park Avenue, one of Manhattan’s most-hyped new condo projects. The 1,395-foot-tall residential tower, on Park Avenue between 56th and 57th streets, is slated to be the tallest residential building in the city.
But the area where the under-construction tower is located wasn’t always a sought-after residential neighborhood. This month, TRD took a tour of the site’s past lives, from Native American hunting ground to cow pasture to glamorous hotel.
Pre-1600s: Lenape hunting lands
What is now the East 50s was once a lush forest about 60 feet above sea level, according to Eric Sanderson, an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo and the author of “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.”
Before Europeans arrived in the 1600s, the area was full of mammals and about 50 species of birds, including hawks and bald eagles, said Sanderson.
The Lenape, Native American tribe that once inhabited much of present-day United States and Canada, first settled in the region after the last Ice Age. They used what they called “Mannahatta” island and its strategic waterways for hunting and gathering.
But most of the Lenape trails didn’t stray far from the coastline, Sanderson said, so the area that is now Park Avenue was mostly used for hunting rather than for Lenape settlements.
1600s to early 1800s: cow pasture
In 1626, the Dutch East India Company “bought” Manhattan from the Lenape for 60 guilders — about $1,100 today — and Dutch settlers claimed ownership of the entire island. At the time, only the southern tip of the island was developed for commerce, while everything north of present day Wall Street was mostly farmland.
By1664, when the English conquered the island and renamed it New York, the area that’s now the East 50s contained pasture land for cows, which roamed freely over the island (and provided beef for residents). Those fields remained largely undisturbed until the early 1800s, when plans emerged to develop the island with a grid-based system of roads. Fourth Avenue — the path that eventually became Park Avenue — was one of the earlier thoroughfares to be built.
1830s: New York and Harlem Railroad
In 1834, the New York and Harlem Railroad — now known as Metro North — was extended north along Fourth Avenue from 32nd Street to Yorkville, running alongside what is now the 432 Park Avenue construction site (see “NYC’s It buildings — past and present”). Since the area was hilly, Sanderson said, building the railroad required horses, steam engines and tons of dynamite.
“There were ridges there that they had to blow up,” he said. “It’s remarkable how much the topography has changed.”
At the time, the East 50s were relatively undeveloped; there was “little but tenements and flats along that stretch,” according to the New York Times. The only large structure nearby was the so-called Deaf and Dumb Asylum, according to an early map of the city.
Early steam rail cars created noise and pollution, so living alongside the tracks was not desirable, explained New York City historian Warren Shaw.
In fact, that’s how the avenue got its current name: A grass park was built along Fourth Avenue between 34th and 40th Streets, leading locals to call the road “park avenue.” The nickname caught on, and by the end of the 19th century, Park Avenue became the official name for most of the roadway — even though the northern portions were anything but a park.
“The name was aspirational … let’s put it that way,” Shaw said.
Late 1800s to early 1900s: Park Avenue building boom
In the early 1870s, noise and steam from the trains drew complaints as northern sections of the city became more densely populated. At the urging of citizen groups, the New York and Harlem Railroad sank and covered many of its tracks. Then when the railroad converted from steam to electricity just after 1900, the railroad rearranged its tracks to support a large steel deck holding new buildings and a new Park Avenue. “Private owners, whose properties began at 50th [Street], were quick to capitalize on a Park Avenue without steam and cinders,” wrote the New York Times. In 1907, the 12-story Mayfair apartment house was built at the corner of 57th and Park, right up the block from the 432 Park Avenue site. Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, and apartments, hotels and offices filled in the surrounding blocks, according to the Times.
1926 to 2007: Drake Hotel
Built in 1926, the Drake was one of many hotels to pop up along Park Avenue during the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, according to Shaw.
The Drake stood at 21 floors with 495 rooms. When it opened, it offered state-of-the-art amenities such as automatic refrigeration. Guests included some of the most popular stars of the era from actress Lillian Gish to Frank Sinatra.
During the post–World War II building boom, the corridor was largely transformed into a strip of modern office buildings, but the Drake remained. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the hotel continued to flourish, hosting the likes of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
“The Drake was one of the survivors of the old era,” said Shaw.
But in 2006, the Drake was bought by Macklowe for $440 million. Macklowe demolished the aging hotel, acquired two other adjacent lots, and announced plans for a record-setting skyscraper. But before finalizing the plans, he defaulted, prompting CIM Group to purchase the $510 million debt on the property. Macklowe remains involved in the project despite the default.
The two have since hired architect Rafael Viñoly to design 432 Park Avenue, where the 147 condos are reportedly selling for an average asking price of $5,800 a square foot. Already, more than 10 units are reportedly in contract or close to a contract signing.