of Amster Yard: Remembering Jimmy
By Rennie C. Weber
Instituto Cervantes, the cultural arm of the Spanish
Embassy, for a reported sum of $9 million recently purchased Amster
Yard, a harmonious blend of five landmarked buildings and gardens
located between 49th and 50th Streets east of Third Avenue. This
comes as good news to those of us who have curiously peered through
the locked entrance gate. The organization plans to hold many public
events at the site once they have finished remodeling.
A plaque mounted at the entrance to the Yard reads: "Because
of its unique character, architectural and aesthetic interest, Amster
Yard is hereby designated a New York City Landmark. Built 1869-1870,
altered 1945 by Harold Sterner, Architect."
The name Amster is not only remembered by this landmarked property
but by the people of Turtle Bay who knew its developer as a good
neighbor and a community activist who founded the Turtle Bay Association.
It was Jim Amster's passionate belief that a modern commercial world
and a comfortable residential lifestyle could coexist in Turtle
Bay and its surrounding area. Throughout the years, he directed
his talents and efforts to making this belief a reality.
"Jim piloted many activities in the area," said Eleanor
Jay, his devoted secretary of many years. "His efforts succeeded
in revitalizing Peter Detmold Park. The Amster Pavilion in that
park was named in his honor." She went on to recount other
When the city hatched a plan to fell trees and narrow sidewalks
so that 49th Street could serve as a major crosstown artery, he
helped to stop it by organizing community opposition. Peter Detmold,
a realtor who lived on 49th Street in the Turtle Bay Gardens, joined
the cause at Jim's behest, and the Turtle Bay Association was launched,
effectively turning neighbors into friends.
"Jimmy was ceaseless in his efforts for Turtle Bay," Ms.
Jay declared. "He chaired a host of associations, including
the Prescott Neighbor House and the Prescott House Day Nursery,
an early day-care center."
"I am a better person for having known him," recalls TBA
board member and historian, Jeannie Sakol. Because of Jim, I got
involved with the Prescott school and dozens of other things."
Amster first became aware of the area that would one day bear his
name in 1944 when a real estate couple he met at a party took him
to see the property. In spite of its dilapidated state, he saw potential.
With the help of art decorator Ted Sandier and architect-painter
Harold Sterner, Amster turned it into an enclave of one-to four-story
brick houses around an L-shaped garden beautifully landscaped with
flowers, trees and shrubbery, a world within a world for himself
and tenants connected with art and design.
Among the yard's most famous tenants were decorator Billy Baldwin,
who lived in the largest of the apartments for ten years; the tabletop
design firm Swid Towell, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and fashion designer
"Mr. Amster's decorating career began at Bergdorf Goodman where
he started their antique and decorating department," Ms. Jay
notes, recalling his distinguished career.
In 1938, Amster founded his own firm, which remained actively engaged
in major decorating contracts until his death in 1986. Among his
many clients were such celebrities as Vladimir Horowitz, Alan Jay
Lerner, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Dorothy Schiff, the Hormels
(meat packers), the Hoovers (vacuum cleaners), and the Hartfords
(Hotel Pierre and Waldorf Astoria, where he designed Peacock Alley).
Many other hotels and prestigious firms also sought out his services.
Prior to Jim Amster's day, histories of New York tell of the Yard's
diverse incarnations. Ancient bottles, pieces of marble and horse
skulls dug up in the area indicated that it was inhabited as early
as 1620. In 1830, it was serving as a terminal for the Boston stagecoach.
The first house to be built on the land was erected in l870. By
the 1940's it had become a decaying assortment of tenements, a boarding
house and some motley shacks. The Yard was covered in debris. Then
along came Jim Amster to leave his imprint, one of aesthetic sensibility
and gracious living.
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Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community
224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
Fax (212) 751-4941