Susan Kathryn Hefti
Marx Brothers Place, where the childhood home of America's most beloved comic icons still stands, sits three quarters of the way up one of the steepest slopes in NYC. So, in addition to the cultural landmark that spawned Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo, the topography of this quiet little block informs its remarkable roofscape which steps down the hill, one house after another. The houses here, many of which were built even before Lexington Avenue was extended this far north, don't fight with or tame the landscape as we see throughout most of our city's development patterns. Instead, on Marx Brothers Place, the architecture goes along for the ride allowing the hill to dictate the stepped-down streetscape. For generations, tourists have flocked to this homey little block to see the house that built comedy. And, when they arrive, the tourists marvel at both sides of the block, a tiny 19th century village-like oasis ringed by the much taller buildings just one block east that are not only from a different era, but a different set of sensibilities.
Come and walk down Marx Brothers Place one late afternoon when the Corney Bakery has just taken sheets of scones out of the oven and the air is perfumed all the way up the hill. Stop in front of the Marx Brothers House and enjoy the blooms on the majestic Magnolia Grandiflora while you picture a young Groucho taking two steps at a time as he hurries home to his beloved mother, Minnie.
I have never seen another block where the ornate 19th century cornices form steps down the hill. It is truly one of the most unique roofscapes I have ever seen. Also, because the house sit high atop the hill and are only a few stories tall, we see the most romantic golden glow reflecting off the windows in late afternoon. To know Marx Brothers Place is to love it.
Sadly, because Marx Brothers Place is just one block shy of the Carnegie Hill Historic District, developers are trying to chip away at the beautiful streetscape. They have already demolished three side-by-side 19th century homes, designed by Gornsey, and unless Landmarks extends the CHHD one block to include this remarkable collection of 19th century homes, the plundering will continue until nothing is left of Marx Brothers Place. (June 2008)