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Turtle Bay: A Touch of Class

Turtle Bay, a microcosm of New York City, contains all sorts of buildings from tenements to luxury coops and condos, as well as elegant brownstones. Its office buildings range from architectural wonders to ultra-modern glass buildings.

There are several architectural masterpieces in Turtle Bay. The Beekman Hotel , an art deco edifice built in 1928, which recently received Landmark status, stands at 49th Street and First Avenue. At its top is the restaurant and lounge, Top of the Tower, which affords a spectacular view of the river and the skyline.
The old General Electric Building at 570 Lexington Avenue has undergone a rebirth: a painstaking restoration of the interior lobby floor.

Within and above the Romanesque Revival building on the northwest corner of 51st Street and First Avenue (931 First Avenue), a 19-story apartment tower is being built in a renovation that will save the 1892 façade (see Of Note, p. 4).

The best known is the Chrysler Building at Lexington and 43rd Street. As this building was nearing completion the architects pulled a bit of deception on the builders of 40 Wall Street, which was being built at the same time. When the Chrysler Building reached a height of 925 feet, the architects led the public to believe this was the maximum height. The builders of 40 Wall did not stop at 925 feet, but added another two feet to make sure theirs was the tallest building in the world. The architects of the Chrysler Building had secretly assembled a tall stainless-steel spire, which they raised through the top of the building and bolted in place. This added 123 feet to the building, making it, at the time, the tallest in the world.

One of Turtle Bay's interesting luxury apartment buildings, Riverhouse at 437 East 52nd St., was built in 1931. It has a panoramic view of the East River, tennis and squash courts, a swimming pool, and a ballroom. At one time there was a private dock for the convenience of visiting yachts.

Tudor City, a cluster of 1920s apartment buildings in Tudor style built on abutments over First Avenue and United Nations Plaza, boasts two parks.
The 52-story building known as 100 United Nations Plaza is remarkable for its summit: an eight-step pyramid.

The enclave called Turtle Bay Gardens comprises eleven townhouses on the south side of 49th Street and nine on the north side of 48th Street, midblock between Second and Third Avenues. New York socialite Charlotte Hunnewell Martin purchased the structures in 1918 and within two years she had renovated the houses and arranged the gardens so that each leads to a common 12-foot-wide path down the center. Mrs. Martin then sold the houses to friends at cost. Celebrity residents have included actors Katharine Hepburn and Tyrone Power, composer Stephen Sondheim, jurist Learned Hand, conductor Leopold Stokowski, Maria Bowen Chapin (founder of the Chapin School), publishing personalities Maxwell Perkins, Henry Luce, DorothyThompson, and E. B. White, who wrote about the neighborhood for The New Yorker. White also wrote Charlotte's Web while living on 48th Street. Although not part of Turtle Bay Gardens, 211 East 48th Street is a townhouse designed by the famous architect William Lescaze as his own residence and office. It is credited as the first modern town house in New York City.
Beekman Place between 51st and 50th Streets, and including East 50th Street running one block west from Beekman Place, is known as the Beekman Place District. The streets were formerly cobblestones and the area consists mainly of luxury town houses, each with its own character. One of the buildings has gaslights burning on either side of one of its entrances and there is an old bishop's crook lamppost on the southeast corner of Beekman Place and East 51st Street. This area was home to many celebrities including Ethel Barrymore, Katherine Cornell, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Irving Berlin, Huntington Hartford, members of the Rockefeller family, and former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. One Beekman Place was home to novelists John P. Marquand and Mary McCarthy.

Other well-known figures who have made their homes in Turtle Bay include: Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, Mary Lasker, Mary Martin, John O'Hara, Maxwell Perkins, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre Soltner, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Wolfe. The house at 225-227 East 49th Street, built in 1926, was home to Efrem Zimbalist, renowned violinist, and his equally celebrated wife, the opera star Elma Gluck. It served as the 17th Precinct Station House in the fifties, and was later divided into apartments. A violin is carved over the door as well as a singing angel.

The east side of First Avenue between 51st and 53rd Streets has hardly changed since the area was developed in the 1860s and 70s. Numbers 312 and 314 East 53rd Street are a pair of wooden townhouses, built in 1866 in the style of the French Second Empire. Number 312 has been designated a landmark, but Number 314 was denied landmark status because it now has aluminum shutters instead of the original wooden slats.

The neighborhood has several parks where the public can unwind. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park, at 47th Street between Second and First Avenues, has become the jewel of Turtle Bay. Its latticed-domed pavillion housed the Turtle Bay Association's beautiful Christmas tree during the holidays and the park was host to the TBA cider and caroling party. The lighted fountains lend a fairyland quality at night. Also in the park: the Katharine Hepburn Garden; the "glass house," which will offer light refreshments; and possibly, come spring, a green market. Opened in August of 1999, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park is the gateway to the United Nations, its Secretariat, and the institution's parks and statues.

Peter Detmold Park, at the eastern-most end of 51st Street, contains gardens, a dog run, and a footbridge that crosses over the East River Drive. On 49th Street just off the Drive is MacArthur playground, which is greatly enjoyed by the growing population of Turtle Bay's younger inhabitants (see story, p. 4). Between Second and Third Avenues on 51st Street is a small oasis called Greenacre Park. Standing next to the Sutton Place Synagogue, which serves the United Nations, it is one of the most used public open spaces in Manhattan. Another vest-pocket park, the James P. Grant Plaza, sits on 44th Street between Second and First Avenues.

This ultra-urban area began life as Deutal Bay Farm (which surrounded a cove shaped like a bent knife blade ("deutal" in Dutch). The farm's cove was home to many turtles and the name Turtle Bay emerged. Although residents no longer feast on turtles from the bay, which fell victim to landfill in 1868, they can always avail themselves of the many fine restaurants in the neighborhood.

Claudette and Bob Blumenson moved to Turtle Bay in January, 1999. Their curiosity about the neighborhood led to this article and they now say "We have moved into a truly remarkable area of New York City."


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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
(212) 751-5465
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