CC Photography and Modeling: Favorite Picks from the NYC Tax Photo Collection

In a previous post, I referenced the fact that New York City has now made its entire collection of property tax photos available online.  Think of this as Google Street Views before there was Google.  There are two series:  1940 and 1980.  I’m concentrating on 1940 today because these black and white images really show a lost world.  New York City was just beginning its transition from quaint Victorian architecture to modern steel, glass, and concrete.  Plus you get to see quite a few cars of the ’30s when they were still being used as “daily drivers”.

But before we get to that, I have to tell you that when I was in my early teens (c. 1980), my favorite toy in the world was this HO scale model railroad layout that my father built for me.  He created the mounting board and laid the track.  I concentrated on scenery:  Streets, buildings, trees, and all the other little visual details.

Models set up on the dining room table.  The towered red brick building in the center is based on the 1888 Masonic Temple in Newport, Kentucky.


I had big ideas about making the “town” look better and better.  Trouble is, the nicer store-bought HO scale model buildings were downright expensive.  So I decided to make my own.

However, I needed inspiration–pictures of actual buildings to work from.  I found this book in the Morris County Library, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan by Danny Lyon.  Inside were photos of Victorian buildings with lots of character that were being demolished in the course of various urban renewal projects.  This intrigued me for several reasons.  I had visited Manhattan many times, and had seen the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Trade Center, the New York Auto Show, the Cloisters, and other points of interest.  But what really fascinated me was what you saw as you traveled through the city–the “ordinary” streets and blocks and their buildings, many of them old and ornate–nothing like what I was used to seeing in the well-tended but bland NJ suburbs that I called home.

I also copied buildings I found in New York City:  A Photographic Portrait by Victor Laredo and Thomas Reilly, Changing New York by Berenice Abbott, and reprints of Scientific American’s Architects and Builders Edition from the 1880s.

R to L: Masonic Temple, Newport KY;  Fulton & Cliff St., Fulton near Nassau St., 120 Chambers St., 287 Broadway (all NYC); High & West Market St. Newark NJ.


Me in Mr. Terry’s art class, cleaning up. (No, that’s not my real hair!)  It was Halloween that day.


One day I casually mentioned to my high school art teacher that I had made these building models.  He told me to bring them in so he could see them.  Mr. Terry liked them enough to put them in the hallway display case where they were on display for a number of weeks.


I also made a model of the St. George Building on Beekman & Cliff Streets. The was the largest and most difficult of the models. Unfortunately, it got damaged and lost and I don’t have a picture of it.  Photo from Destruction of Lower Manhattan/Danny Lyon, c. 1965.


So from trips to New York and photo images from these books, I had in the back of my mind all these architectural “hidden gems” scattered throughout the city.  Recently I started looking through NYC’s property tax photos, and sure enough some of my “favorites” were shown, but from a different perspective and a different time:

Fulton & Cliff Streets, 1960s; Danny Lyon


Fulton & Cliff Streets, 1940.


Same intersection today.


One block north: St. George Building, Beekman & Cliff Streets, 1940.


Close-up view brings the cars and the details of the facade into sharper focus.


St. George Building was replaced with this.


Here are a few more notables:

In 1937, Berenice Abbott photographed the Wheelock House at 661 West 158th Street.


Here’s the tax photo, taken three years later by NYC officials. The “ultimate haunted house”, it sits forlornly, awaiting its doom.


No one would know the house was ever there.


Abbott also photographed the Third Avenue car barns, which housed the electric trolley cars of the Third Avenue Railway. (Third Avenue & 65th Street, 1936)


Couldn’t find a tax photo, but the car barn was demolished in 1949 and the Manhattan House Apartments now occupy the site.


Another foreboding Second Empire pile, Gus Hill’s Minstrel Theatre stood at Park Avenue & 129th Street. (Berenice Abbott, 1935)


By the time the tax photographers got there in 1940, Gus Hill’s Minstrels was already gone, and a gas station is being built.


Eighty years later, the little gas station building is still in use, now BP.


The Christian Mission on the East River waterfront has an ominous message: BE SURE YOUR SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT! (South Street and James Slip)


The old sailors who came ashore would never recognize the place!


This cheery confection is the Old Men and Women’s (Presbyterian) Hospital on Madison Avenue between 70th & 71st. In 1891 (a typical year) 3,300 patients were cared for, of which 3,200 were treated for free and scarcely more than $3,000 was received from paying patients!  From the website


Present-day view is at a slightly different angle so you can see the surviving church steeple in the background.


Perhaps the most beautiful Manhattan building that I never got to see was the Old Post Office at the southern tip of City Hall Park.


In its day, it was claimed that more people viewed this building than any other in the city–which for New York is really saying something. Sadly, this most fanciful structure was demolished in 1939.


Just as an aside, this is a drugstore on Broadway, c. 1875. A lot of people don’t realize how elaborate everyday bars, drugstores, clothing stores, offices, etc. were in those days. Also you could buy morphine, heroin, cocaine, etc. without a prescription–as long as you will willing to pay for it!  The marble-topped counters, solid wood cabinets, and chandeliers all eventually ended up in the dumpster, eh?



600 E. 138th Street, Bronx (1940)


Now FAT ALBERT (“Hey-hey-hey!”) An original building is seen on the right.


Charlotte Street, Bronx looked so neat and tidy in 1940 . . .


Charlotte Street, four decades later. How could this possibly happen? Photo: Camilo Vergara


Today–Same view as 1940 photo. Looks like suburbia–except for walls, fences, and iron bars over every window!



Batterman’s department store dominated the intersection of Broadway, Graham, and Flushing Avenues.


Even by 1940, Batterman’s has been shorn of its Victorian splendor, with upper stories and towers removed. A “Streamline-Moderne” facade has replaced the glories of old.


Here it is today.


In a city of extraordinary houses, one that deserves special mention is the residence of Niels Poulson, president of the Hecla Iron Works.  It was located on Shore Road and 89th Street in the Bay Ridge section.  This mansion was “built to last” with the finest and strongest materials available.  It had a steel frame, like a skyscraper.  The floors were steel-reinforced concrete.  The outside was clad in “high-art” decorated copper panels.  A cast iron fence surrounded the property.  Complete details on this incredible house are presented here.

The interior was a blend of cast iron, wrought iron, bronze, silver, and nickel;  all designed by Poulson himself.  Pastel-colored tiles covered the floor next to the twin dragons framing the fireplace.


View upward to second floor railing.



Alas, the house that was built to last forever only survived only 40 years (1890 to 1930).  In 1936 a new apartment house (“The Colonnades”) was erected on the site.

Ironically, Poulson’s factory at N. 11th & Berry Streets outlived his “Rock of Gibraltar” mansion. (Fun fact: Judging from the tax photos, there was NO GRAFFITI in New York in 1940!)


I’m ending this post on a positive note.  This may be my favorite photo of the whole collection–the architecture, the car, the lamp post, the cobblestone paving, the composition–it’s all there!

Long Island Safe Deposit Company, 1 Front Street, Brooklyn; 1868-69. Cast iron facade.  Photo from flickr by Steve Minor


What’s more, it survives!  Yes, somehow it survived urban blight, remodelers, vandals, and urban renewal schemes.  It is in fact older than the Brooklyn Bridge which looms above it.


137 West 48th Street, Manhattan (1940)


I’m sure the men who created these tax photographs had no real idea of the historical significance of what they were doing.  It was probably a boring, tedious job–going from house to house, block to block snapping pictures while holding up the “BLOCK-LOT” sign.  A way for photographers to make some steady cash in the late stages of the Great Depression when work was hard to get.  But I thank them for their precision and dedication;  and I thank the municipal government of New York City for digitizing the images and making them accessible to all!