The Magic of Trueville

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The Upper West Side west of West End Avenue has traditionally been called the “West End.” The name conjures images of the apartment buildings of Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. But for me the neighborhood’s glory is its row houses. They’re why I call the neighborhood “Trueville.”

The area was slow to develop. The Upper West Side’s streets were platted in the Commissioners’ Plan (“grid plan”) of 1811, but when construction began on Central Park in the 1850s none of the streets had then been cut through. The Central Park Commissioners were given the job of guiding the area’s development to ensure that it would be a high-class residential district. The plan issued in 1867 called for the Upper West Side to be bounded on three sides by great parks, two of which, Riverside and Morningside Parks, were later built more or less according to the plan (Central Park was already there). Broadway, which had been the Bloomingdale Road and which the plan rechristened, grandiosely, the Boulevard, was to be a landscaped residential boulevard of mansions and villas.

After the toppling of Boss Tweed in the 1870s, however, a reform mayoral administration, to rein in expenses, pulled the plug on city building projects. Construction of Riverside Park, Riverside Drive, the Boulevard, and much else abruptly stopped. When the 1870s depression hit, shanties were the hallmark of the West End. Eventually, a private company built the Ninth Avenue El, and developers swarmed to the West End.

The 1890s were boom years, and no one personified the booming West End as did Clarence True, an architect and builder of fecundity. True was one in a line of architects who bristled at what he called “the wearisome sameness and unattractiveness” of the city’s row upon row of unimaginative houses — and decided to do something about it. Consequently, the West End abounds in True houses, typically picturesque with gables, projecting bays, elaborate brickwork, and trademark red tile roofs with a Mediterranean flair.

True started his architectural practice in 1889, and went on to design 270 or more houses on the Upper West Side. After 1894 True was as prolific a builder as architect. Nos. 40 to 46 Riverside Drive, between 76th and 77th streets, form a fine row, which True designed and built from 1896 to 1899. I am fond of a row at Nos. 316 to 326 on West 85th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, from 1892, which True designed but didn’t develop. It’s a wonderfully intact row, not of show-stoppers, but of the more typical houses True designed. Notable is the absence of stoops. For many of our row-house rebels (like True and Frederick Sterner) the high stoop, which some felt lent a pompous air to row house façades, was the first thing to go. In this row, we see True’s superb handling of materials. The sandstone, Roman brick, and tiles form a spectrum of reds.

The Upper West Side may have been America’s first neighborhood developed from the start with both apartments and townhouses. Just to the west at No. 350 West 85th Street is the “Red House,” a 1904 apartment house beauty by Harde & Short — in ways the apartment-design equivalents of True. This is a magical block in Manhattan’s most picturesque neighborhood.

The New York Sun

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