Lying south of 42nd Street down to 30th Street, and bounded roughly by Madison Avenue and the East River, Murray Hill has a mystique all its own. There, right in the middle of Manhattan, you’ll find anything you’re looking for in terms of residences. In the vicinity of the Empire State Building on 34th Street, Murray Hill is best recognized as a neighborhood where time has transformed old carriage houses into charming renovated homes. Brownstones here are elegant yet unpretentious turn-of-the-century buildings, and newly constructed luxury high-rises further diversify the residential mix.
Conveniences abound here, and the location lends prime access to travel. Just south of Grand Central, Murray Hill is an established neighborhood with a lowkey, residential feel. It’s also where history and culture rub shoulders with trendy cafés, shops and restaurants. Adding to the mix is the eclectic nightlife of nearby Gramercy, Union Square, the East Village and Flatiron District. For the many who work in Midtown, commuting to work becomes a leisurely stroll. People in Murray Hill tend to enjoy getting to know others in their building, and all share the same enthusiasm for their special piece of Manhattan.
The neighborhood in the East 40s, today dominated by the United Nations, is known as Turtle Bay, named after a cove in the East River that reached from about 45th to 48th Streets. Whether the bay got its name from the many turtles in its waters or because of its “bent blade” shape (Dutch word, “deutal”), the land around it was granted in 1639 by Dutch Gov. William Kieft to two Englishmen, George Holmes and Thomas Hall. James Beekman owned a nearby parcel from 49th to 51st Streets, which is today known as Beekman. In the mid-19th century, several notable literary figures sought refuge in Turtle Bay, then a rural suburb. Modest brownstones later replaced the large country homes. Turtle Bay Gardens, Sutton Place and Beekman have attracted literary and theatrical people like Humphrey Bogart, Irving Berlin and the Barrymores. Today, Turtle Bay and Beekman are among the city’s more genteel residential neighborhoods, withgracious brownstones and luxury high-rises attracting diplomats, the affluent young and a few celebrities.
The land now considered Murray Hill was originally known as Inclenburg, not far removed from the wilderness in 1753, the year Robert Murray moved to New York City from Pennsylvania. He took up residence at the corner of Queen (now Pearl) and Wall Streets, and owned Murray’s Wharf at the foot of Wall Street, where he conducted an importing business. Murray also purchased a large tract of land from the City Council for his country estate during the Revolutionary War period, and called his new home Belmont. Murray Hill, as the estate quickly became known, extended roughly from what is now Madison to Lexington Avenues, and from 33rd to 39th Streets.
Though they were Quakers, the Murrays also upheld the traditions of wealthy New York society, entertaining the likes of George Washington and other prominent guests. Legend has it, perhaps mistakenly, that after the British landing at Kips Bay, Murray’s wife detained General Sir William Howe and his chief officers at tea, so allowing the American troops stationed in lower Manhattan to escape up the West Side to Harlem Heights.
By 1786, both Robert and Mary Murray had died, and his younger brother John purchased the land. His will dictated that the estate be divided by lot equally among his children. In 1834, the Murray family legacy was destroyed by fire, just as the city plotted a regular street grid through the area and construction of the New York and Harlem Railroad blasted through the heart of the area. Eleven descendants of John Murray registered with the City Surveyor on February 22, 1847, creating the Murray Hill Restriction, which in effect banned the use of the land for the building of anything other than a “brick or stone dwelling.” Written into property deeds, the Restriction would be the bane of real estate developers for over a century. High-rise apartment houses were, of course, later inevitable.
As for the family, they had acted just in time where their investment was concerned. In 1848, Lexington Avenue was opened from 30th to 42nd Street, and in 1851, the Fourth Avenue railroad tracks were covered over from 32nd to 40th Streets. The eight-block stretch was renamed Park Avenue for the lavishly-planted and well-groomed paths developed for visitors’ enjoyable strolls. People of wealth were moving up from lower Manhattan, and Murray Hill became a muchfavored destination. From their mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, the Astors ruled society in the late 1800s.
Commerce sprang up at the neighborhood’s eastern borders, and in 1878 the Third Avenue El opened, as did a diversity of shops designed to serve the middle class and new immigrants who filled the east and north areas of Murray Hill. The Grand Central Depot opened at the north end of the Park Avenue Tunnel in 1871, and by the following year, the surrounding blocks became hotel territory, one of which was the elegant Murray Hill Hotel which stood until the 1970s, and featured regular patrons like Presidents McKinley and Cleveland, Mark Twain, and “Diamond Jim” Brady.
By the 19th century’s close, Murray Hill had taken on a character that is still evident today, with opulent mansions between Fifth and Park Avenues, and elegant brownstones between Park and Lexington Avenues. In 1886, the great financier John Pierpont Morgan came to the area, and his family’s presence in the neighborhood would be felt long after the Astors had moved further uptown thanks to his purchase of his mansion and now-renown library on Madison Avenue from 36th to 37th Streets. Benjamin Altman moved his department store uptown from Sixth Avenue and 19th Street, seeking to take advantage of the areas’ lack of zoning restrictions and build the biggest, finest store in the city. Within a few years of its opening, Altman’s was joined by such distinguished commercial establishments as W. & J. Sloane, Arnold Constable & Co., Bergdorf Goodman, and the original Tiffany studios.
Between the two World Wars and continuing into the post-war period, Murray Hill underwent many physical changes. Though most of the exquisite mansions and brownstones originally built by the wealthy have been torn down or stripped of detail, a select number of homes and carriage houses remain to remind us of Murray Hill in its heyday. Townhouses dating from around 1900 are still standing at 19 and 21 East 37th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, and others at 157 and 159 East 35th Street and 149 East 38th Street. Murray Hill is now, as it was then, a unique residential enclave in Midtown Manhattan.
Kips Bay is a small East Side community reaching from 27th to 40th Streets, from Second Avenue to the East River. In 1655, Jacobus Kip owned a farm around Second Avenue and 35th Street, stretching to the East River, which curved inward at the time, forming a bay. Kips Bay later became a beachhead for British troops invading the city in the Revolutionary War and the site of an American rout that caused one of George Washington’s uncontrolled temper tantrums. His ill-trained, exhausted recruits, who were defeated on Long Island, broke before broadsides from the British warriors in the bay and left in panic. A furious Washington tried to turn them around.
In the mid-19th century, the country estates found in Kips Bay were subdivided around the time of the Civil War, giving way to rows of brownstone houses. The arrival of Second and Third Avenues brought about a decline in the area, which recovered only after the demolition of the El.
The Beekman mansion Mount Pleasant (built 1765) stood near the river at about 51st Street, and for awhile during the Revolution served as British headquarters. In 1783, James Beekman got his house back and there entertained American officers and staff entering New York on Evacuation Day. Although the neighborhood around the Beekman farm remained pleasant, elsewhere in the area deteriorated into slums. Turtle Bay’s resurgence began around the end of World War I with the development of Turtle Bay Gardens, the renovation of individual brownstones, and the greening of Sutton Place and Beekman. After the coming of the U.N. in 1947, the area evolved into a reliably safe and beautiful place to live.