Columbia Forum
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Building Morningside Heights
The path to The Seven Storey Mountain
Rosalind E. Krauss: Picasso/Pastiche
The artwork of Burton Silverman

Building Morningside Heights

The Colosseum; Andrew S. Dolkart
Since the 1890s, when University President Seth Low and the Board of Trustees decided to move Columbia from Madison Avenue to create "the Acropolis of New York," Morningside Heights has been known for its dramatic and distinguished institutional architecture. But if the University's development was shaped by architect Charles Follen McKim's master plan, argues Andrew S. Dolkart '77 Architecture, speculative builders shaped the surrounding neighborhood. In this excerpt from Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development (Columbia University Press), Dolkart, who is an adjunct associate professor in the School of Architecture, moves beyond the campus to consider residential development in Morningside Heights.

The builders responsible for the development of most early twentieth-century apartment houses in New York City a nd almost all of the apartment buildings on Morningside Heights reflect the major changes that were occurring in the city's ethnic composition during this period, especially the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Italians and Eastern European Jews. The entry of immigrant Italians and Jews and the children of these immigrants into the worlds of real estate, building, and investment coincided with the advent of the apartment building as the most popular form of middle-class residence in Manhattan. Speculative residential development had long been a field open to immigrants since the construction, sale, and leasing of such buildings was not tied to social connections, as was the construction of private homes for the wealthy. In the nineteenth century, a substantial proportion of the city's speculative rowhouses had been erected by Irish builders, while German immigrants had erected many of the tenements on the Lower East Side. All one needed to become involved in speculative development was sufficient capital for the initial investment in land and construction, and the ability to get a loan. Many immigrants speculated in a small way, often risking money on only one or two projects. Others became professional builders, investing in the construction of many buildings.

The most active builders on Morningside Heights were members of the Paterno family, which had emigrated from Castelemezzano near Naples. Stories differ as to how the four Paterno brothers--Joseph, Charles, Michael, and Anthony--became involved in apartment house construction. The most romantic tale, as told in Joseph Paterno's New York Times obituary, has the young immigrant newsboy shivering at his post on Park Row, watching a tall office building rise. "'Papa,' he asked, ' why do they make the business buildings so high?' ' Because it pays,' his father replied....'[T]his is the American way.' The bright-eyed newsboy wrinkled his brow and frowned, while making change for a customer. 'But, papa, if this is so why don't they make the houses and tenements high, too, as they will bring more rent?' The father smiled and patted his son's curly head. 'You have an eye for business, my son. Perhaps some day you may build some high houses.'" From that day on, the story continues, "it became Joseph's ambition to build skyscraper apartment houses." This story notwithstanding, it is far more likely that Joseph and his brothers became involved in construction because their father, John Paterno, had been a builder in Italy and eventually became a partner in the New York building firm of McIntosh & Paterno. 

In 1898, John Paterno began construction on two of the earliest apartment houses on Morningside Heights, a pair of modest structures at 505 and 507 West 112th Street (demolished). At John's death in 1899, Joseph and his brother Charles were brought in to complete the unfinished buildings. From this beginning, the Paterno brothers went on to contribute significantly to the construction of apartment houses in New York City, undertaking their "most extensive construction in the Columbia University neighborhood." In 1907, Charles Paterno established his own business, the Paterno Construction Company, with his brother-in-law Anthony Campagna. Working independently and in joint ventures, the members of the Paterno family built 37 apartment buildings on Morningside Heights, ranging from modest six-story structures to the impressive Luxor, Regnor, and Rexor on Broadway at 115th and 116th Streets and the Colosseum and Paterno on Riverside Drive and 116th Street. The Paternos were active on Morningside Heights during the entire span of apartment house development in the area, beginning with John Paterno's modest apartment buildings on 112th Street in 1898 and ending with Joseph Paterno's enormous 1924 building at 425 Riverside Drive. The Paternos were so proud of their buildings that the facades of some of their grandest works are emblazoned with initials referring to the family--"P" for Paterno, " JP" for Joseph Paterno, or "PB" for Paterno Brothers. These initials often baffle modern viewers, but were probably recognized by many people at the time the buildings were erected, perhaps assuring potential renters that these were quality apartment houses.

The Paterno family built 37 buildings on Morningside Heights.

The vast majority of other builders active in the Morningside Heights neighborhood were Jewish. Many were small-scale builders involved with only a few buildings, but others established major careers as apartment-house developers. Some built under their own names or as corporations that bore their names, but the most active Jewish builders incorporated as real estate firms with names stripped of Jewish ethnic identity. For example, Edgar A. Levy, Jacob Stein, and Leo S. Bing were partners in the Carlyle Realty Company, Jacob Axelrod was president of the West Side Construction Company, and Charles Newmark headed the Carnegie Construction Company. Like the builders, many, but by no means all of the architects commissioned by the speculative developers to design apartment buildings were also from Italian and Jewish backgrounds, including Gaetan Ajello, Simon Schwartz, Arthur Gross, George and Edward Blum, and William Rouse. However, the builders did not necessarily hire architects of their own ethnic background. While Paterno Brothers commissioned three buildings from Italian architect Gaetan Ajello, the firm was most loyal to the Jewish architects Schwartz & Gross. The Jewish building company, B. Crystal & Son (incorporated by Bernard and Hyman Crystal), hired the Jewish architectural firm of George & Edward Blum for two buildings, but used Ajello for four additional structures, while the Jewish building firm West Side Construction almost always hired the non-Jewish architect George Pelham. 

The architects who specialized in apartment-house design rarely trained at the leading architectural schools or apprenticed in prestigious offices. Rather, most were practitioners who, if they had any formal architectural training at all, had been educated in less prestigious offices or in technical schools. Since these architects were not welcome in the higher echelons of the architectural profession because of their ethnic background and "inferior" training, they entered the field at the least prestigious end, designing speculative apartment houses. In fact, in the first decades of the twentieth century, few apartment house architects were members of the American Institute of Architects or the Architectural League of New York, bastions of the professional elite. 

As a neighborhood that was part of the first wave of middle-class apartment-house construction in New York City, Morningside Heights contains an early concentration of speculative apartment buildings designed by these architects. Three firms, George Pelham, Neville & Bagge, and Schwartz & Gross, were responsible for more than half of the apartment houses on Morningside Heights and, indeed, for thousands of other apartment buildings located throughout Manhattan. Thus, they were among the most prolific designers ever to work in New York City. Although generally unheralded, it was Schwartz & Gross, George Pelham, Neville & Bagge, and other speculator architects who, by the sheer volume of their work, created the architectural character and texture of many of New York's neighborhoods, while more prestigious architects like McKim, Mead & White, Carrere & Hastings, and Delano & Aldrich designed only a small number of great monuments that are set amidst the city's more typical speculative buildings. 

From Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development by Andrew S. Dolkart. Copyright © 1998 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press.