Thursday, July 5, 2012

East 87th Street

If you walk around the streets of New York, particularly the old residential neighborhoods, you will occasionally pass small group of houses that were probably part of an entire block when first built.  Some people are blessed to live in such a house on such a block, while the rest of us can only wonder what life is like inside.

The Church and its Garden
Franny and David Eberhart are so blessed.  Moreover, it was the  home of David’s parents, and carries with it the burdens (or privileges) of tradition and responsibility.  Sometimes, these extend not only to the house but to the neighborhood as well; Frannie tends the garden at the church around the corner as well as her own. 

But first, the house and the block.  The houses on the western end of East 87th Street off Second Avenue were built by the Rhinelander family in 1890 as rental properties.  They were designed by Renwick, Aspinwall and Russell, the architects of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

The Eberhart House
It was one of six houses, a not uncommon configuration in Manhattan in the late 19th century.  The entire city was divided up into 25x100 foot lots: four lots purchased at the same time could hold six houses.  The group of six at the eastern end of the street were built in 1886, and designed by another famous architect of the time, Henry Hardenburg of The Dakota fame.

The houses were built for families of modest means; the initial renter was a postman.  Marcus Eberhart, the first of the family to arrive in this country, came in the 1870’s and worked at Steinway Pianos.  Later, the family had a foundry on East 76th street producing manhole covers.  The Eberharts bought the house from the Rhinelanders in the 1950’s and passed it on to David and Franny in 1977.   The house could have no wiser custodian than Franny, who is the Chair of the Historic House Trust of New York City

It is an airy, beautiful house, with a broad landing for a central staircase that rises from a full-width open parlor floor, wrapping around itself all the way up to a sky light.  The house is never dark, the fate of so many brownstones.

Steps Through the Eberhart Garden
The Eberharts’ garden is directly off the dining room, which had been the kitchen before they flipped the rooms.  The grade of the garden was 3 ½ feet higher than the new dining room doors, so the garden was pushed back, and steps cut through a ridge of schist, which still remains.

As all north-facing gardens in the city, it is green and cool, but offers a limited palette.  Some plants have done very well; a sycamore planted bare-root is now six stories high, and annuals have been added since my visit.  But I think it’s fair to say that Franny’s gardening heart lies around the corner at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 316 East 88th Street.

Built by the Rhinelander granddaughters in1897-9 as a tribute to their father and grandfather, it sits next to the family’s Children’s Aid Society, designed by Calvert Vaux.  The church was a settlement church, free of charges for pews, and open to all.  It was built to serve a neighborhood of immigrants and transients, it was planned to foster clubs and societies designed to improve social conditions.  It remains a community church to this day.

The North Facade
 It occupies 11 full city lots plus an additional parcel purchased to accommodate a sizeable garden, which sets the buildings back from the street. It continues to provide a quiet space in an increasingly hectic city.  You would not know that the disruption of the Second Avenue subway construction is only a block away.

“I’ve been working in the garden for 30 years. David and I were married here,” Franny says.  When asked how much time she devotes to it?  “Not enough. A dozen other people volunteer regularly, but the driving force behind us is Helen Palmer, who lives across the street and looks after the garden.  There is no budget for the garden, but we manage to add a few azaleas.  People arrive with plants, and we plant what they bring.”

The day I visited the garden, the lawn was carpeted with falling cherry blossoms, a dogwood was getting ready to open, iris foliage had made its appearance, azaleas were blooming and boxwood anchored the corners.  The golden brick glowed and the gates were open. 

The gates are always open.  A magnificent tower dominates the site; you can’t miss it.  If you are in the neighborhood, stop by and sit for a while.  Amid the city’s constant re-building, it’s reassuring to know that some things will always be here.


  1. Wonderful informative article. Well written. Thank you.

  2. I know this house and garden well - Franny being my Pen Friend of some sixty years - great to read all the history of the house and garden and also the church - a lovely article.

    Wendy UK