A Happening Place Moving into Murray Hill

Want to know what it is like to live in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan—that strip between Madison and Third avenues that runs roughly between 29th and 38th streets? You could ask someone who lives there, but be forewarned - the answer you get will depend on who you talk to.

One resident may name-drop celebrities often seen in the area restaurants—familiar faces from the nearby Court TV studios, CNN's Anderson Cooper, gossip columnist Liz Smith, top chef Rocco DiSpirito, or pop singer Nick Lachey's latest squeeze, Vanessa Minnillo. Another may talk about how Murray Hill is now a happening hangout for the young post-college crowd, and yet another may talk about the appeal of the striking pre- war building architecture and the quiet feel of the neighborhood. One common concurrence runs through all of these diversified answers - those who live here are very fond and fiercely loyal to their neighborhood.

Total Transformation

As famous as Murray Hill is for its architecture and central location, its history is just as interesting, especially hearing from someone like Alfred Pommer, owner and operator of NYC Cultural Walking Tours. Among many other notable neighborhoods, Pommer conducts two- and three-hour walking tours of Murray Hill. He's quick to point out an important plaque located on 37th Street and Park Avenue. "It talks about how Mary Lindley Murray might've saved the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War."

According to the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association (MHNA) history (www.murrayhill.org), "The land originally known as Inclenburg was not far removed from the wilderness in 1753, the year Robert Murray moved to New York City from Pennsylvania and took up residence at the Corner of Queen (now Pearl) and Wall Streets." He owned Murray's Wharf and purchased a large plot of land that he called Belmont. "Murray Hill—as the estate quickly became known," according to the association, "extended roughly from what is now Madison to Lexington Avenues and from 33rd to 39th Streets.

Pommer explains that according to legend, after the battle of Long Island, George Washington ran across the East River, and the Continental Army was left behind in Manhattan. General Putnam and Aaron Burr surprised the troops and the Continental Army broke and ran. "Half the army was above 34th Street and half was below," says Pommer. "Right in the middle was the Murray Farm. Mary Murray invited the General in for tea, and if he had not squandered the whole afternoon at the farm (he was known as a ladies' man and the Murrays had three or four beautiful daughters) he might not have lost that opportunity. Instead Washington was able to send scouts and envoys to that part of Manhattan and got his troops united again. That was the first victory of the Revolutionary War and it might not have happened if Washington hadn't united his forces."

The Murrays were wealthy Quakers, and later the affluent Astor family moved to the area too, opening a mansion with a ballroom that would hold 400 people. According to the MHNA, as far as the social hierarchy of the day was concerned, "Those were the only 400 who counted."

Commerce sprang up as the onetime farm was engulfed by the rapidly growing city. The Hotel Belmont and the Grand Union Hotel were built and according to the MHNA's website, "The magnificently rococo Murray Hill Hotel stood until the 1970s. It was the crowning glory of the gilded age, with red and white marble floors, carmine plush furniture and rococo walls and ceilings in its 600 rooms—among its regular patrons were Presidents McKinley and Cleveland, Mark Twain and 'Diamond Jim' Brady.

"In 1847 there the Murray Hill Restrictive Agreement was passed, which put restrictions on a deed of land as to what could be built there that affected the townhouses and the architecture," says Pommer. "You couldn't build factories or buildings of 'low caliber.'"

That meant no more slaughterhouses or tanneries, and curtailed the construction of block upon block of ramshackle tenements like the ones further downtown. While the restriction made the area much more pleasant to call home, its According to the MHNA, "Written into property deeds, the Murray Hill Restriction would be the bane of real estate developers for over a century."

Protecting the Past

Further solidifying Murray Hill's status as a primarily residential haven, the MHNA has fought for historic landmarking throughout the area, which has resulted in the designation of 10 New York City landmarks within the neighborhood.

After achieving landmark designation for the historic core of Murray Hill, the MHNA's Preservation and Design committee continues to monitor the historic district for violations and works with building owners to help them maintain their properties in accordance with preservation guidelines. The committee describes Murray Hill now as it was then—a unique residential enclave in midtown Manhattan.

It hasn't been without its tough times though, as Pommer explains. "In the 1970s when the city almost went bankrupt, the prices dropped and it was at a low point because the docks—which had the greatest economic input to the city—were lost because of containerization. The New York longshoreman's union wouldn't agree to it and argued about it, so the [shipping] companies moved to New Jersey and New York lost almost every dock on the river. The miracle was that we were able to come back. But for a long time, crime went up, morale got low and corruption started to soar."

Pommer explains that the turnaround happened in the 1970s and 1980s when the city was given money to avoid bankruptcy. "During those years, Murray Hill was in bad shape," he says. "Now, Murray Hill is diversified—it's residential, businesses and retail. I grew up in New York City and used to Murray Hill as a middle income area, but that's hard to say now—it's now a microcosm of New York City."

Who's There Now

Award-winning culinary authors Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page relocated from Boston to Murray Hill in March of 1992. Back then, they say, it was a quiet neighborhood, but Dornenburg and Page have enjoyed witnessing the area's total transformation over the ensuing years, including the addition of two W Hotels and the renovation of nearby Grand Central Terminal. Even their own apartment building has undergone a residential demographic makeover—today, their neighbors tend to be younger professional couples, rather than the older longtime residents who occupied it when they arrived.

"It's fun to make discoveries," says Dornenburg. "One of our favorite things about living here is just running errands because of the architecture and views. One of my favorite walks is down Lexington between 36th and 37th Streets, where you get this great view of the Empire State Building and old brownstones."

The couple also love the restaurants that have opened—a true delight to the professional epicures. "I always complained that we had to leave the area to eat—but that's not the case anymore," says Page. "A great Moroccan restaurant just opened, and it's phenomenal. It's nice to have that variety in the neighborhood."

Traci Coulter found Murray Hill by accident after starting a new job. "I looked at about 17 apartments and this building was one that a friend had lived in for nearly seven years," says Coulter. "I loved it immediately, but I really didn't even get a chance to look at the neighborhood that day because it was about 20 below zero. Once I moved in and started walking around the neighborhood, I loved it. I just loved that it felt so homey, but still in the heart of the city. I know that a lot of people refer to this area as Midtown East, but that makes it sound so commercial. I love that there is such a mix of architecture, the fact that Tudor City, the UN - it seems like everything—is nearby."

Jon Lieb, who lives and works in Murray Hill as president of Thirty Ink Media and Marketing has lived there for more than a decade and says the location is ideal. "It's an 18-minute walk to Penn Station and a 12-minute walk to Grand Central Station," says Lieb, who admits that the nightlife has picked up over the decade.

"My favorite thing about the neighborhood is the strength of casual restaurants," says Lieb. There are also a variety of shopping stores, including a Gap and Banana Republic, in walking distance.

Michelle Betrock, a recent college grad, moved to the area from New Jersey to rent a place in Murray Hill. "I had friends of friends telling me about this area and that young professionals lived here," says Betrock. "The area got big because of word-of-mouth."

Buying Into the Hill

While it has location, architecture, restaurants and history, Murray Hill has yet to become the family magnet that neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Tribeca have become. According to Ivona Zeler, a vice president with The Corcoran Group, who focuses on sales at 77 Park Avenue, "The area has this kind of low-key, neighborhood appeal and lots of convenience. You can go 10 minutes in either direction and you're in the middle of everything—you're not in one little neighborhood."

In the real estate market, Zeler explains that aside from a brief slowdown in 2005, sales in Murray Hill have been more than robust over the last couple of years. "Now the fall was great, and the condos are having a good year. One of them sold more than $100,000 than the asking price."

Veteran Prudential Douglas Elliman broker Estelle Meister, who has 17 years experience in the business, has lived in Murray Hill the past 40 years. She has seen the neighborhood change dramatically but still believes the area holds good value compared to other trendy enclaves in the city. The area is attractive to young professionals, recent college grads, and first-time homebuyers, she says.

Warburg Realty's Burt Rubin is another broker that also calls Murray Hill home. With the trend towards new construction all over the city, Murray Hill too is starting to see more upscale buildings—like The Charleston and Park East - and a range of retail and residential services that other nearby neighborhoods are known for. There are also many fine restaurants to choose from whether you want the fancy cuisine found on Park Avenue or the ethnic specialties on First and Second Avenues. Unique to the neighborhood, says Rubin, who is also a trustee in the MHNA, is the fact that they have more trees than any other area in the city. And that harkens back to the Murray family's restriction on what could be built there as a barrier to commercial development.

"The reason it's so nice is that in 1847, the Murray family put a codicil in their will, and what that is - from about 35th to 38th Streets, it's now a historic district—it acted like a wall to commercial development southeast and east. So for the next few blocks going down, it's almost all residential development. It's very deeply residential. And it has good schools too. PS 116 won the national chess championships last year. We have a farmer's market on Saturdays, we're near the water. It's becoming much more family-oriented now. I like Murray Hill very much."

What's New

While Murray Hill's sidewalks aren't yet teeming with double-wide strollers and residential buildings full of young families, development in the neighborhood is still going apace.

A 21-story condominium building at 45 Park Avenue at East 37th Street is just one of many new projects being developed in the area. The residences at 45 Park are slated for occupancy in September of 2007, and include all the amenities and perks one would expect to see in a Park Avenue address. Units in this building are going for $1 million and up, says Meister.

In addition to that, there's the Park East at 117 East 29th Street, scheduled for occupancy in the summer of this year, and a whole slew of new condos going up just north of Madison Square Park. There's 15 Madison Square North, at 15 East 26th Street, with 40 new units; The Parkwood, which features 22 custom-designed residences at 31 East 28th Street; The Charleston at 225 East 34th Street between First and Second Avenues; and the Morgan Lofts at 11 East 36th Street between Madison and Fifth. Some of the new developments (like the Charleston) are entirely brand-new construction, while others—particularly those along Fifth and Madison Avenues - are renovations of existing historic buildings.

The Charleston, for example, is stocked with amenities such as a residents' only lounge with WiFi and a full entertainment center, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a dining area and catering kitchen, a sprawling dog run, a concierge and 24/7 doorman services, and a natural oasis awaits residents in the second-floor Zen garden. One-, two and three-bedroom units range from $600,000 to $2.43 million.

Zeler explains that, in her building at 77 Park, a one bedroom, one-and-a-half bath, 900-square-foot condo averages between $900,000 and $1.2 million. A two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot condo used to sell for little below $1 million, but now fetches between $1.3 million and 1.6 million. A three-bedroom, three-bath condo will easily go for $2 million.

On the rental side, says Zeler, prices are also strong this year. "I had a great experience recently with someone who bought [a unit] as an investment and rented it for $2,000 a month."

Regardless of your taste, chances are there's a building in Murray Hill you could comfortably call home.

As space in Manhattan becomes more and more of a premium, less well-known, more unsung neighborhoods like Murray Hill may continue to draw new residents with their mix of history, charm, accessibility, and convenience.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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