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Sale 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 achievements.

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 Norman Norell.

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

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
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