No one agrees on the “best block” in the city — some people like the crooked alleyways of Greenwich Village, or the picturesque brownstone rows of Brooklyn. Some people like cute little stores; some people like doormen with white gloves.
But the “grandest block” is a little more quantifiable. And in the five boroughs, it is difficult to think of a grander block than 91st Street from Fifth to Madison, built largely to conform to the tastes of Andrew Carnegie, whose giant house of 1901 is now the Cooper-Hewitt museum.
Grand signifies big, inspiring, aspirational and, almost always, expensive, because resources, whether public or private, are necessary for such ambition. Real estate brokers sometimes refer to 70th from Park to Lexington as the best block in New York, but its wonderful miscellany of high-end townhouses does not really offer grandeur.
To qualify as grand, a stretch needs more than just the 200 feet of a typical north-south block in Manhattan. Otherwise, the four contiguous mansions on Fifth from 78th to 79th Street would put that block in contention.
And around the corner, 79th from Fifth to Madison was at one time quite grand, but a vulgar apartment house replaced the Brokaw mansions in the 1960s, and the block became choked with traffic as thick as coal dust.
The 1881 guidebook New York Illustrated was of the opinion that Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn “surpasses anything which can be found in New York,” and the broad yards of the mansions still surviving there present a civilized aspect entirely lacking in Manhattan streets. But too much later construction has brought low the avenue’s architectural ambitions.
Central Park West has a certain grandeur, certainly more than Fifth, which is now an architectural hodgepodge. But most of the apartment buildings on Central Park West are quotidian — nice, certainly, but essentially mass housing.
The classicist Henry Hope Reed devoted his life to the grandeur of New York, whether Roman pomp or frothy Beaux-Arts, and in a 1962 column in The New York Herald Tribune he called 91st Street from Fifth to Madison “the noblest perspective in the city.” He lived a few blocks away, and knew 91st Street when the Carnegie family lived there; it is to them that New York owes what may fairly be called its grandest block.