The storied days of The Buchanan

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Myths and history of an East Side apartment building


  • The Buchanan courtyard.

New York has thousands of apartment buildings. Some, like the multiple Trumps, are famous. Others hide in plain sight like the historic Buchanan, whose simple brick façade from 47th to 48th Street on Third Avenue masks a block-long interior courtyard, a private trash alley, and a secure place in New York transportation history.

In 1875, the only ways for New Yorkers to move north/south around Manhattan were horse-drawn carriages, Broadway buses, and a short New York Elevated Railroad from South Ferry to Grand Central Depot on East 42nd Street. To improve travel for a growing population, New York State told New York City's mayor to appoint a Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners who, on September 6, proposed a Third Avenue El. In December 1891, with about five miles complete, the original contractor resigned. Two months later Thos. Crimmins & Co. stepped in, advancing both the train and The Buchanan.

Until it closed on May 12, 1955, the El had a two-level local station on East 47th Street, which Crimmins considered the perfect site for apartments. So did Lafayette Anthony Goldstone, the architect whose designs included the 12-story S. Jarmulowsky Bank at Canal and Orchard (the first “skyscraper” on the Lower East Side) and the Montana Apartments at 375 Park Avenue (replaced by Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in 1958).

In 1927, the Crimmins/Goldstone marriage gave birth to The Buchanan, a delivery attended by myth. Myth #1: The building was named for President James Buchanan. No, it was named for the Buchanan Farm, land the Dutch gave to British farmers in East MidTown's Turtle Bay. Myth #2: The Queen of England still owns the land under the building. No. Myth #3: The Buchanan was built for British servants. Yes, there are several small servants' apartments on the second floor, and some servants may have been British, but in the 1930s, The Buchanan housed socialites with names such as Iselin, Dahlgren, and Havemeyer. Two decades later, there was Minot Frazier “Mickey” Jelke, the Good Luck Margarine heir convicted of running a house of ill repute, although not in The Buchanan. In between, there were writers and politicians, and in 1952, a famous owner: Harry Helmsley, who bought the building in 1952 for $1,000,000, one third less than what it cost Crimmins and Goldstone to build it.

At one point, Helmsley tried but failed to turn the building into a co-op. Today more than 70 rent-controlled or -stabilized tenants remain to cope with the developers who bought The Buchanan in 2016, tossed the market-rate tenants, and began to re-wire, re-plumb, and gut their now-empty units to add extra bedrooms. As anyone who has lived through even a small renovation — think a kitchen or bathroom — knows, this comes with noise, dust, and grime. In a large building with multiple renovations, you can expect to add non-working elevators, newly liberated mice, stop-work orders, and the inevitable dueling landlord and tenant lawyers.

Now, with several apartments complete, the new owners are seeking new tenants at new monthly rents approaching five figures for a list of amenities such as a gym and a library.

Ninety years after the first deal was struck and 88 years after a Sunday in June when the thermometer hit 77 F, the Yankees beat the Red Sox 6-to-4, an ad in The New York Times offered a one-bedroom at an annual rent of $1,150. The ad touted The Buchanan as alluringly “COOL! And in the middle of New York. In the gentle splash of a fountain — trees — a quiet garden — there is relief from the relentless sun and stuffy, noisy streets — at the Buchanan, 5 minutes walk from Grand Central. The garden is a pleasant place to linger and affords a delightful view from your windows. The rooms are large and light: there are big foyers, fire-places, real kitchens ... ” (New York Times, June 30, 1929)

Whether the Trump World Tower, three blocks east at 48th and First, will live as long and engender such praise, is an open question.

Carol Ann Rinzler is the author of more than 20 books on health, including “Nutrition for Dummies” and

“Spare Parts: In Praise of Your Appendix and Other Unappreciated Organs.”

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