Photo: Matthew Kassel
Sometimes I avoid marveling too long at the buildings here in New York because I don’t want to look like a tourist. But those who don’t marvel are missing out. New York gratifies the gesture of looking up, perhaps more so than another city in the world. Often, though, you can’t make out the finer details of tall buildings with the naked eye. So last weekend I went up to the Gold Coast—the most opulent section of the Upper East Side, roughly between 59th and 78th Streets and Fifth and Lexington Avenues—with a giant lens on my camera to capture some of those details.
You’d be surprised at how much work has been put into them: the frozen, ironic face of a grotesque I photographed looks like it’s in on some joke that nobody will ever know; the cornices that stick out from the tops of the buildings hide all sorts of stone flowers and filigree and lions’ faces in their shadows.
For the sake of simplicity, I only photographed buildings along Fifth Avenue, and with the exception of the Ukrainian Institute (whose details are so funny and shocking), I stayed between 59th and 78th Streets.
The pictures are rounded up here in order, from south to north, so you can take a stroll up Fifth Avenue and look at them yourself. You might want to bring a pair of binoculars. It’s worth it.
In the mid-1800s, Central Park was constructed to serve a rapidly growing population of New Yorkers—Irish and German immigrants especially.
The park divided upper Manhattan in two; the West Side—known for its rough terrain—and the more accessible East Side.
Steam trains ran along Park Avenue, and separated the less affluent side to the east from the developing, ritzy area to the west.
In the 1890s, downtown capitalists and robber barons were attracted to buildings along Fifth Avenue—the Gold Coast.
And the economic explosion after World War II accounts for why the Upper East Side has remained a haven of luxury.
Residing along upper Fifth Avenue used to be looked down upon, but as affluence reached the area—in the form of Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Whitneys—the area began to take on the reputation it has today.
Some buildings with official side street addresses now use their de facto Fifth Avenue addresses as a status symbol.
In the 1890s, J.P. Morgan commissioned the construction of the Metropolitan Club—a palatial building—because he was not admitted to the Downtown clubs.
The club would serve as a more uppity competitor to the Union Club, which was admitting J.P. Morgan's upstart associates.
The ornate, arched front of Temple Emanu-El, America's largest reform synagogue, stands relatively low compared to the other high rise buildings in the area.
The Frick Collection, another low-standing building with a large yard and much art inside, was completed in 1914.
The Ukrainian Institute, right at the south end of Museum Mile, was built in 1899 in a French Renaissance style.
At the southernmost tip of the Gold Coast is the Grand Army Plaza, an estuary of statues and horse carriages and hotdog carts that feeds into Central Park and up Fifth Avenue.
Ukrainian Institute, 2 East 79th Street
Notable residents of the area include Woody Allen (often seen strolling down Fifth Avenue with his wife), Lady Gaga, Spike Lee, and Jonathan Franzen.
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