Murray Hill - Manhattan
From Tea Parties to Terrified Nannies, Strange Days in Inclenberg
The name Murray Hill comes from the Murray family who lived and farmed 29 acres stretching from 33rd to 39th streets east of Madison Avenue in the mid-18th century. Robert Murray, an Irish immigrant who became one of the city’s leading merchants, rented the land and built his farmstead, naming the area Inclenberg, Dutch for beautiful hill. Murray’s house, Belmont, was situated at the top of the hill.
On a sweltering September day in 1776, Robert’s wife Mary saw British commander William Howe anchor five Men-of-War ships in the bay on the East River. Having recently prevailed in the Battle of Long Island, Howe was in pursuit of George Washington’s ill-prepared and retreating troops. While most of the soldiers were well north of Inclenberg, General Israel Putnam ("Old Put” to his friends) still had a battalion south of the British army’s disembarkation point. The larger and better-trained British forces would have decimated Putnam’s troops were it not for the fast thinking of Mrs. Murray and the insatiable British thirst for a cuppa.
Mrs. Murray sent a note to General Howe and his officers, inviting them to join her and her daughters for a spot of tea. Howe initially declined, reportedly saying, “I do thank you, madam, but I must first catch that rascally Yankee, Putnam.” While it's hard to imagine a British general deploying the decidedly Elmer Fuddian descriptor “rascally,”1 it's even harder to believe he fell for the trick and ultimately accepted the invite. It's unclear if it was the witty repartee, the wiles of the Murray daughters, or the bottomless cups of Earl Gray, but the two-hour tea proved enough of a diversion that Old Put was able to slip past the redcoats and rejoin Washington’s troops. They would eventually defeat the British at the Battle of Harlem.
While I was reading about this tea party, a vague image of a print my parents had hanging for years in their dining room popped into my head. I recently had a chance to inspect said print and found that it indeed depicted this momentous day in Murray Hill history. I couldn't get an explanation for why we had the print or where it came from, but I took it as a sign. Of what? I’m not so sure.
Lindley Murray, the only survivor of Mary and Robert’s twelve offspring, would also make his mark in history. In 1795 he released The English Reader: Or, Pieces In Prose And Poetry, Selected From The Best Writers. Designed To Assist Young Persons To Read With Propriety And Effect; To Improve Their Language And Sentiments; And To Inculcate Some Of The Most Important Principles Of Piety And Virtue. : With A Few Preliminary Observations On The Principles Of Good Reading.
With a title like that, it's easy to see why it became an instant bestseller, briefly becoming the most-read book in the world. It didn’t hurt that Oprah Book Club influencer of his time, Abe Lincoln, called it the “best school book ever put into the hands of an American youth.”
About ten years ago, ordinarily sleepy Murray Hill was rocked by an overzealous clergyman’s passion for the ringing of church bells. As long as anyone could remember, the bells at The Church of Our Saviour on Park and 38th tolled twice a day. At noon and 6 PM. But that all changed when the new pastor, the Rev. Robert J. Robbins, burst upon the scene with a brash personality and the bells to back it up. Father Rogers decided that twice a day wasn’t enough bells and upped the ringing regime to 13 times a day with bonus chimes on weekends.
The neighbors decried the uptick describing the digital bells as akin to “Chinese water torture.” Father Robbins accused the complainants as “anti-Christian” and said that he had been through this experience many times before “in a previous assignment.” He declined to elaborate on what exactly that meant.2
Two days after this story came out, in what would on the surface appear to be a brazen act of retaliation, the bells started their tolling at midnight, continuing throughout the night. The campanophilic pastor attributed the late-night cacophony to “mechanical issues”.
While the tension seems to have abated, it turns out the extreme urge to ring bells was the least of Father Robbins’ concerns as he has also been embroiled in a number of controversies reported on by the Catholic blogosphere. The ChurchMilitant.com website (not an endorsement) lambasts Robbins’ decision to take down religious icons commissioned by his predecessor, labeling the move a “wreckovation”. They also complain of his “lavish renovations for his rectory, where he lives with the parish organist” - that is when he isn’t “on vacation in his villa in the opulent Hamptons”. Perhaps for everyone involved, it’s good that Father Robbins has since moved on to a church in Yonkers.
How Low Can You Go? Solow
If you have ever driven up the FDR on Manhattan’s east side, chances are you’ve noticed a large, empty plot of land overlooking the East River just south of the UN. Manhattan’s most significant undeveloped piece of land. One of the most valuable pieces of real estate in one of the most expensive cities in the world, occupied only by weeds. Previously, the land housed a Con Edison power station.
Real estate developer Sheldon Solow, whose name is preceded by irascible in every article written on him, purchased the land in 2000. He demolished the plant, remediated the parcel, and then proceeded to do nothing with it. Eventually, he sold a small part of the southern portion of the lot, now the home of the American Copper Buildings.
Solow did oversee the construction of a building by starchitect turned star-harasser Richard Meier on the other side of 1st Avenue, but the majority of the weed and dirt-filled lot remained untouched.
Sheldon died in 2020, and his son, who goes by Stefan Soloviev, took over the family business. Stefan traded his father’s irascibility for impulsivity as this juicy Business Insider3 headline lays out:
He's got 20 kids, a $4.4 billion real-estate fortune, and a trail of terrified nannies: Meet Stefan Soloviev.
I’d rather not. Soloviev (who reverted to the pre-Ellis Island family name to spite his father) owns over 700,000 acres of ranch land in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as two railroads. When I first read about Stefan in 2018, he was already reported to have 15 kids, which seemed a mind-bogglingly high amount for a 42-year-old. A recent Forbes article claims he now has over 22 children! Too many for an accurate headcount. No wonder the nannies were terrified.
Unlike his father, Stefan does seem ready to develop the lot. In what is sure to make Murray Hill residents pine for the days when bells were their biggest problem, Stefan has plans for two new skyscrapers, a 1,200-room hotel (one room for each of his kids), an artificial hill topped by a gigantic Ferris wheel, and, fingers crossed, Manhattan’s first casino! Oh, also, the world’s “first museum dedicated to the subject of democracy.” The proposed “Freedom Plaza” will compete with casino projects put forth by Steve Wynn and Jay Z in Hudson Yards and Times Square.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Trigger warning, this week’s audio contains some pickleball field recordings. If you identify with the recent New York Times article, Shattered Nerves, Sleepless Nights: Pickleball Noise Is Driving Everyone Nuts, you may want to skip.
Some of you may recognize the following photo as the cover of Strange Days, the second record from psycedelcic blues rock band The Doors. The cover was captured by renowned rock photographer Joel Brodsky, who also photographed Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks covers. Brodsky used a Panon panoramic camera with 120-transparency film for the shoot. The location was Sniffen Court, a mews running on East 36th between Third and Lexington. With a mandate to evoke Fellini’s La Strada, Brodsky wanted to hire circus performers for the shoot.
The two recently retired acrobats were the only actual circus professionals available. According to their grandson on this Reddit post, they had recently traded their tightropes for clipping shears, embarking on their new careers as dog groomers. The strong man was a bouncer at the Friars Club, the trumpet player a taxi driver enlisted at the last minute because he had a great hat, and the mime was Brodsky’s assistant. He didn’t know how to juggle and Brodsky spent a considerable amount of his time chasing errant rubber balls down the street. The dwarves insisted they be hired as a pair, and the mysterious woman in the doorway was Zazel Whilde, a stylist that worked with Brodsky’s wife.
Probably the most famous building in Murray Hill is the McKim, Mead & White designed Morgan Library, commissioned by JP Morgan who had "wanted the most perfect structure that human hands could erect and was willing to pay whatever it cost". He even sprung for the $50,000 Anathyrosis upgrade, an ancient technique of dressing the joints of stone blocks so they didn’t need mortar. Renzo Piano designed the addition in 2006
For the Doors superfans out there, here is the official Strange Days video which was shot in the ’80s and is indeed strange
While I didn’t have occassion to dine there, the first result for a Yelp search on Thai food near me in Murray Hill was a restuarant called…Thai Food Near Me. The genius who came up with that one, the 21st century equivalent of naming your restaraunt AAA Thai, deserves a raise.
Maybe not so farfetched. From the Columbia Journalism Review: But “rascal” first appeared in the late 1300s, the OED says, to mean “people forming the lowest social class; the common people; the rabble.” Later it came to mean “an unprincipled or dishonest person; a rogue, a scoundrel.” Even as it was being used this way, by 1600 it had also come to refer to “a mischievous or cheeky person,” and was frequently “a playful or affectionate term of reproof.”
Kilgannon, Corey. “After Protests over All-Day Ringing, Manhattan Church’s Bells Chime All Night.” The New York Times, 23 Dec. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/nyregion/after-protests-over-all-day-ringing-manhattan-churchs-bells-chime-all-night.html. Accessed 12 July 2023.
Taylor, Kate , and Daniel Geiger. “He’s Got 20 Kids, a $4.4 Billion Real-Estate Fortune, and a Trail of Terrified Nannies: Meet Stefan Soloviev.” Business Insider, 6 Jan. 2022, www.businessinsider.com/stefan-soloviev-inherits-sheldon-solows-empire-temper-2022-1. Accessed 13 July 2023.