In the Heart of Things A Look at Murray Hill and Kip's Bay

For all the permanence that its centuries-old history suggests, the midtown neighborhood of Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay is a neighborhood with a little bit of everything. A gently evolving mix of turn-of-the-century brownstones rubs shoulders with modern high-rises. Restaurants and storefronts stand cheek-to-jowl with small office spaces. Parents pushing strollers walk the streets alongside commuters and tourists. According to Suzanne Stern of Flat Iron Real Estate, "The area is considered neat and nifty in the sense that it’s well kept with all the amenities of New York and it’s close to everything."

Location is Everything

Trying to pinpoint the exact borders of Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay can be tricky. It depends on whom you talk to and which maps you consult. Some sources fix the borders at 30th and 40th Streets, east of Fifth Avenue while others set it between 34th and 42nd Streets between Third and Fifth Avenues, with Kip’s Bay stretching to the east. Blue Guide New York extends the western border to Madison Avenue, nestling Kip’s Bay in a small area between Second Avenue and the East River, starting at 27th Street and edging north to 40th. As critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in a 1997 New York Times essay, Murray Hill is an area that becomes "more and more itself and never quite arrives."

At its heart, however, the neighborhood has always been a stable one, providing homes for generations of New Yorkers looking for that perfect centralized location. Its position in the heart of Manhattan makes it ideal for professionals with midtown offices. Within easy reach of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Williamsburg Bridge and Grand Central Station, it’s choice territory for those on the go. On foot, residents are a short walk from the New York Public Library and a slew of other grand New York icons like the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Madison Square Garden.

"Murray Hill offers incredible access into and out of the city," says Matthew Newman, senior vice president of Maxwell-Kates, a Manhattan management company serving several co-op and condo buildings in the area. "It’s absolutely a perfect central location, yet it still has a residential feeling."

The Starting Point

As hazy as its borders have grown in recent decades, Murray Hill began as a very specific point on the map. In 1753, importer Robert Murray and his wife Mary took up residence at the corner of what are now Pearl and Wall Streets. They purchased land in an area once known as Inclenburg for a country estate bordered by what are now Madison and Lexington Avenues and 33rd and 39th Streets. George Washington was among the estate’s better-known visitors.

Kip’s Bay came to life nearly a century before. In 1655, Jacobus Kip purchased a farm near present-day Second Avenue and East 35th Street, extending to the East River. The area remained mainly pastoral until the mid-19th century, when post-Civil War building led to rows of brownstone homes. The arrival of the Second and Third Avenue elevated trains created economic and social decline, ending only with the removal of the tracks several decades ago.

One of the Revolutionary War’s more harrowing moments took place on the fields of Murray Hill and the sands of Kip’s Bay. On Sept. 15, 1776, five British warships docked at Kip’s Bay, disgorging a mass of troops who proceeded to rout the untrained colonial troops stationed there, scattering the men. According to legend–and the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association Web site–Mary Murray invited British commander General Sir William Howe and his men to take tea with her, giving the American troops a chance to escape and regroup. The following day–thanks, perhaps, to Mary Murray’s hospitality–the colonial army regained its lost ground with a victory in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

Following Robert Murray’s death, his estate was divided equally among his children. In 1834, city planners drew a street grid through the area to accommodate family homes. In 1847, the residential flavor of the area was guaranteed, thanks to the Murray Hill Restriction law. Written into all area property deeds, the restriction banned the building of anything other than a "brick or stone dwelling," meaning that blacksmith shops, breweries, and eventually other industrial facilities would never encroach on the neighborhood.

By the mid-1850s, as residents of lower Manhattan begin a northward pilgrimage, many of New York’s wealthiest citizens began calling Murray Hill home. The famed Astor family took up residence on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street. Financier J.P. Morgan came to the area in 1886. Nearly 100 members of New York’s 1892 social register were Murray Hill residents.

Small shops not prohibited under the development restrictions flourished at this time. Groceries, millineries, and shoemakers began setting up shop as the neighborhood grew. The original Tiffany studios stood at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 37th Street, and Bergdorf Goodman was doing steady business by the early 1900s.

As the years progressed, the wealthiest of Manhattan’s residents trekked farther northward, allowing a healthy influx of middle-class families into Murray Hill. Apartment and multi-family units began springing up throughout the neighborhood, with the Judge Russell house at the corner of Park Avenue and 37th Street becoming the first co-op conversion in the area, opening its doors in 1922. The neighborhood maintained its highbrow historic appeal, however. FDR’s first home boasted a Murray Hill address, as did a home commissioned by Robert Todd Lincoln for his daughters.

In the latter half of the 20th century, as high-rises became more dominant throughout the city, they made their presence known in Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay as well. Muschamp describes I.M. Pei’s Kip’s Bay Towers–which extend from 30th to 33rd Streets between First and Second Avenue–as "the most successful demonstration of modern urbanism in New York."

That Certain Something

It’s not so much the architecture of Murray Hill that earns such fondness from its residents, but a more subtle amalgam of factors. "It has a feeling of quiet, cleanliness, and activity," says Stern, and the neighborly vibe is growing perpetually, according to Newman.

"The area’s become more residential," Stern says. "There are more families moving into the neighborhood." Whereas Murray Hill’s demographics once skewed toward an older population, these days younger people are moving in and buying homes for the long term. Once people get there, they tend to stay, says Newman. He cites the case of a building he works with; the building originally housed 70 units–now it’s down to 63. Residents keep buying adjoining apartments, expanding and rebuilding rather than moving.

Many of these newer residents arrived in the neighborhood several years ago, when properties were significantly undervalued compared to the rest of Manhattan. "Prices in Murray Hill and Gramercy Park North have traditionally been under market," Newman says. "They’re finally coming up to market prices." Eight years ago, a large one-bedroom co-op with a living room and L-shaped dining room sold for $260,000. Six years later, a one bedroom "wreck" which had to be gutted before rebuilding, sold for $475,000. "There’s been a 20 percent price appreciation in less than two years on co-ops in the area," Newman says. "Studio and one-bedroom condos have gone up 15 to 20 percent."

According to Stern, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. "As the real estate markets rose, more people began looking at Murray Hill because you could get more for your money."

Come for the Convenience, Stay for the Ambience

Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay residents not only enjoy the rich history of their neighborhood, but they also relish the "small town" feel while nestled amid the vibrant big city. Sunny days bring flocks of people to nearby Bryant Park for live events, or quiet afternoons throwing the Frisbee. Retailers have taken advantage of the area’s popularity as well. "There are wonderful stores and specialty shops," Stern says. "There are restaurants and the new Kip’s Bay Plaza 3,100-seat movie theater. People are spending their recreational time in the area."

What the Future Holds

Despite fluctuating financial and real estate markets, Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay stand to fare well. Always a steady neighborhood, the area is considered stable and somewhat more immune to the economic roller coaster effect. "Murray Hill is not a marginal neighborhood," says Newman. "When the economy goes south, the first areas to suffer are marginal areas that had explosive growth. Murray Hill is better able to weather change because of its location."

Whatever the reasons for its popularity, the neighborhood seems to have a bright future. "I see the area continuing to grow in the next few years," says Stern. Murray Hill and Kip’s Bay can handle the expansion–after all, their borders aren’t set in stone.

Liz Lent is a freelance writer specializing in real estate.

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