THE picturesque pocket of Victorian row houses on Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 106th Streets, which date from the time the thoroughfare got its name, has a calm Bostonian air that makes it seem a bit removed from city life.
Manhattan Avenue was not on the original street plan for New York City, but by 1868 it was mapped -- as New Avenue -- running north from 100th Street between what are now Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. This was well before any real development in the area, but in the mid-1880's sales activity picked up, and the thoroughfare received its current name in 1884. High land prices discouraged row house building on Central Park West, although in 1884 the New York Cancer Hospital -- now abandoned -- started its giant rounded building on Central Park West from 105th to 106th Streets.
The first building activity on Manhattan Avenue occurred in 1885, when Frederick Seitz put up the row houses on the west side of the street from 105th to 106th, designed by Joseph M. Dunn. The next year the developer John Brown built up the east side of the same block with houses designed by C. P. H. Gilbert, and in 1889 Joseph Turner had the architect Edward Angell design the houses on the west side of Manhattan Avenue from 104th to 105th.
Although other developers were still putting up traditional high-stoop brownstones elsewhere in Manhattan, all these buildings were brick, with stone and terra cotta trim and lower stoops; they were only three stories tall, costing between $8,000 and $12,000 to build. The houses designed by Gilbert, who later did Fifth Avenue mansions like what is now the original wing of the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street, are close to the Queen Anne style, with sunburst motifs in the gables, wavy linear ornament on the cornice, and multilight windows with stained glass.
Those by Dunn are a little wilder, with widely varying arches and gables. The critic Montgomery Schuyler coined the phrase ''reign of terror'' style to describe them because of their startling and alarming appearance. The Angell houses are neo-Romanesque and more sophisticated, although still quite varied. All have unusual ornament -- terra cotta panels with rivet-head figuring, sunburst ironwork and subtly varying brickwork.
The early occupants were modestly successful, like George B. Sharp, a stable owner, at 122 Manhattan Avenue; Albert H. Kohn, a jeweler, at 132; and Paris Fletcher, an electrician, at 138.
Sometime in the 1910's the family of Charles Gruppe moved into 138 Manhattan Avenue; a landscape painter, Gruppe lived there with his wife and three sons, Paul, a cellist, Karl, a sculptor, and Emile, a painter. At the same time more and more houses were renting out rooms -- George C. Hammer, a sea captain, was a roomer at 119 Manhattan Avenue.
By then, the houses on Manhattan Avenue were holdouts in a sea of tenements and apartment buildings, their status reinforced when the giant Frederick Douglass housing project went up at the southwest corner of 104th Street and Manhattan Avenue in the 1950's.
Daniel and Elsie Matos are among the senior residents of the row-house stretch of Manhattan Avenue -- they moved into the top floor of 122 Manhattan Avenue in 1959. ''We were living on East 117th Street and came over here for something different,'' Mrs. Matos said. Mr. Matos, a retired cabdriver, said that ''when we moved in this was a drug dealer's neighborhood.''
His building has spongy linoleum-covered stairs, ancient paint and battered front doors, but it also has its original encaustic tile vestibule floor and original woodwork. He said that his monthly rent was between $200 and $300 and he estimated that the rent for each full-floor apartment in the building was about the same. ''It's great -- you go to bed at night and you don't hear a fly in here,'' he said.
Ella S. McDonald bought the building at 138 Manhattan Avenue in 1972. She said that Karl Gruppe would not sell unless she and her husband promised not to convert the building into a rooming house. ''I said, 'What's a rooming house?' and he let us buy it,'' she recalled. ''The block was unbelievably bad. My family thought I had lost my mind -- a couple of houses were boarded up, street people all over the place, bongos 24 hours a day. But five or six of us families got together, and we decided we were not going to let the drug people push us out.''