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New York City’s Historic Wood Frame Houses

Which houses stand long enough to tell a story? How does a seemingly ordinary structure survive demolition in a gentrifying neighborhood? Two wood-framed houses on East 53rd Street have seen 150 years of New York history. These houses tell the story of a neighborhood, a real estate economy, and a city that continue to evolve and accidentally leave treasures behind. How will these houses be defended as a valuable piece of history, and what do they represent?

By 1866, New York City was well-acquainted with the danger and ever-present threat of Great Fires. There’d been at least two fires by this point (1776 and 1835) that ravaged Lower Manhattan; most buildings were constructed from wood at this point, and when one burned to the ground, many others did too. Above 23rd Street, it was rare to see a wood-framed building in the mid-19th century but to prevent further devastation, the City passed a new law in 1866 that prevented wood-based construction in New York City altogether.

Built by carpenters James and Robert Cunningham, 312 and 314 East 53rd Street were among the final buildings to be completed before the 1866 legislation was passed. This street at the time would have been largely industrial, lined with factories and slaughterhouses. These single-family houses stand closer to 2nd avenue, with obvious wooden frames and stairs up to the front door; their English-style basements have high ceilings, which means the parlor floors are raised up above street level. As a result, the 1,250 square feet of adjoining gardens behind the houses have two different ground levels.

For the first 50 years, 312 and 314 were quiet; home to milkman Francis Lahey and Elle Crawford, respectively. They were traded in a real estate deal, as payment for a larger Harlem building, in 1909 and would continue to exist quietly, away from the public eye, until the end of the 1920s.

At that point, Lincoln Kirstein (the founder of the New York City Ballet) moved into #312 and set the stage for writer/artist residents and visitors for decades to come. Was it Kirstein’s arrival that marked these buildings as noteworthy? After Kirstein, Muriel Draper and her son, a dancer, moved in. They likely entertained artists and public figures like Henry James and Gertrude Stein in their parlor and garden. Elite New Yorkers in the late 20s and early 30s socialized at 312 and 314 East 53rd Street. Its first resident was a milkman, just 80 years prior.

In the early 1930s, acclaimed writer/critic Edmund Wilson moved into #314. Similar to the Drapers, Wilson would’ve entertained high society, arts-industry guests. It is said that T.S. Eliot stayed overnight in #314 in 1933.

Both Wilson and Draper left their homes and the structures remained separately owned, despite the adjoined nature of the buildings. Cecilia Staples, a wealthy store window display designer, moved into #314 in 1961 and promptly painted it pink. She lived with assorted pets–tortoises, birds, eighteen fish, a dog, and others–and decorated it in a pop-art style that drew attention to it again.

Both houses were being considered for landmark status in 1968; #312 was landmarked but the owner of #314 resisted at the time. When construction began on the corner of 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue in 2000, #314, unprotected by Landmark status, was almost demolished. Instead, the Preservation Committee saved the building and it was put on the market for $1.5 million. Then in 2011, 145 years after #312 was a milkman’s house, it sold for $3 million.

Why do you think these wood houses have so uniquely stood the test of time? Was it the architects who took a final risk before the city’s aesthetic changed forever? The Landmarks Committee, who validated them as important structures at 2 points in history, 40 years apart? The wealthy residents, or the real estate developers who will continue to keep the apartment occupied? What might stand in a way of an “important” house or building getting recognized? Which houses would you save if you were taken with telling the story of a city?