What’s the commotion at City Hall Park?

April 24, 2014

Something’s drawn a crowd downtown at the edge of City Hall Park, according to this penny postcard, stamped 1912. A tangle of wagons on the right, and adults and kids swarming the curb in front.

City Hall Park 1912 2

Just another spring or summer day in a park featured in many vintage postcards? Without a caption, we’ll never know.

There’s the kiosk for a City Hall subway stop, and the statue of Nathan Hale, relocated many times in its 120-year history.

So many ways to kick back in 1960s Central Park

April 24, 2014

If the skyscrapers and hotels in the background were cropped out, you might not even know these images were taken in Central Park.

Dancersincentralpark

But they were. In the summer of 1961, Life =photographer Leonard McCombe documented New Yorkers enjoying pastimes and pleasures in the park, about a century old at the time.

Fishingincentralpark

His photographs came together in an essay in the magazine. All 26 published photos are available in the Life archive.

Horsecarriageincentralpark

These five really capture the joys of a lazy warm New York afternoon, and all the ways to enjoy the 800 or so acres of the world’s most famous park.

[No more carriage rides in the park if our current mayor gets his way...]

Dogsinfountaincentralpark

In 1961, you could have taken a dip in the waters of Bethesda Fountain (well, dogs could, apparently), fish in Harlem Meer (or is that the pond?), or kick a soccer ball around the lawn.

Coolingfeetincentralpark

Or kick off your shoes, sit back on a boulder, and dip your toes in cold water while having a smoke.

Of course, these women would be hauled off the jail today; ex–Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in all city parks in 2011!

[Photos: Leonard McCombe—Time & Life Picture/Getty Images]

Art Nouveau beauty on a Fifth Avenue building

April 24, 2014

Baltmanfifthaveentrance3In 1906, distinguished fine goods store B. Altman & Company opened this Italian Renaissance palazzo–inspired store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

The new store helped transform “middle” Fifth Avenue from an elegant street of small shops and mansions to a commercial boulevard fronted by several department stores.

 B. Altman went out of business in 1989. Yet the lovely flagship building still stands, taken over by CUNY’s Graduate Center.

BAltmanfifthaveentrance2

The Fifth Avenue facade is stunning: the columns, the bays, and especially the “curving, Art Nouveau style metal and glass canopy, supported by elaborate wrought-metal brackets” above each entrance, in the words of the CUNY Graduate Center website.

Baltmanfifthaveentrance4These ornate entrances are essentially unchanged. “The B. Altman & Company building remains an exemplar of American neo-Renaissance commercial design, and a landmark in the cultural history of New York,” the CUNY site notes.

It’s a little slice of old New York beauty amid the express buses and Empire State Building crowds and throngs of shoppers.

New York mourns Lincoln, the martyr president

April 21, 2014

News of President Lincoln’s assassination made it to New York City on the morning of April 15. A city that for four years had been divided in its loyalty to the President was now awash in gloom.

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“All Broadway is black with mourning—the facades of the houses are festooned with black—great flags with wide and heavy fringes of dead black give a pensive effect. . . ” wrote Walt Whitman.

LincolnlynginstateWhile Lincoln’s body remained in Washington, the grieving continued. “An Easter Sunday unlike any I have seen,” wrote lawyer George Templeton Strong in his diary.

“Nearly every building in Broadway and in all the side streets, as far as one could see, festooned lavishly with black and white muslin. Columns swathed in the same material.”

“Rosettes pinned to window curtains. Flags at half mast and tied up with crape. I hear that even in second and third class quarters, people who could afford to do no more have generally displayed at least a little twenty-five cent flag with a little scrap of crape.”

Nine days after his death, Lincoln’s corpse arrived in New York, one of many stops his funeral train would make before reaching Illinois, where the “martyr president” would be buried.

Lincolnfuneralunionsquare

A ferry brought the funeral rail car from Jersey City to downtown New York. An enormous procession viewed by thousands wound its way from the ferry landing at Desbrosses Street to City Hall, where the open casket would lie in state for 24 hours.

An estimated 120,000 New Yorkers waited to pay their respects. “Thousands passed reverently before the remains throughout the day and night, and thousands more were turned away, unable to gain admittance,” wrote The New York Times.

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By one o’clock the next day, April 25, a second procession of 50,000, with thousands more watching from the sidewalks and building windows (including a young Teddy Roosevelt, seen here), accompanied the funeral hearse up Broadway to Union Square.

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The procession continued to a train depot at 30th Street and Tenth Avenue. There, Lincoln’s body was loaded onto a train to continue its journey to Illinois. New York was left to deal with its grief.

A souvenir from the other New York World’s Fair

April 21, 2014

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World’s Fair. There, New Yorkers were introduced to the touch tone phone, caught their first sight of the Unisphere to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and were able to view Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Worldsfair1939matchbook

Amid all the nostalgia for that fair, it’s worth remembering the century’s other New York World’s Fair. The 1939 version, also in Flushing Meadows, captured the imagination of the Depression-era city.

Worldsfair1929matchbookanicin1

This Art Deco souvenir matchbook features the fair’s logo: an image of the Trylon obelisk and 18-story Perisphere, the iconic, futuristic buildings that helped make the fair seem so magical.

Both symbolized the promise of the Machine Age. Yet after the end of the fair, they were scrapped and used for armaments in World War II.

Wow, look at that pill box. No childproof safety features!

The West Side girl who swam the English Channel

April 21, 2014

GetrudeederlepicGood thing the heavy Victorian female “bathing outfit” of the late 19th century evolved.

Thanks to lighter, tighter suits, women began taking up swimming—like young Gertrude Ederle. Born in 1906 to German immigrant parents, Trudy learned to swim at the Jersey shore. She dubbed herself a “water baby” and broke dozens of distance records.

She medaled in the 1924 Paris Olympics. But her greatest achievement was yet to come.

GetrudeederlesouvinerphotoIn the 1920s, crazy competitions of strength and endurance were all the rage, among them attempts to swim across the English Channel.

Men had made the 21-mile trip, but no woman had—until August 1926, when 20-year-old Trudy left Dover, England smeared in grease and made it ashore in Cape Griz-Niz, France after 14 hours and 20 minutes in choppy, rough waters.

On August 27th, when she arrived home from Europe, New York City went wild with celebration.

“Airplanes circled overhead as her ship steamed up the Narrows, the harbor swarmed with the biggest fleet of small craft ever seen, and cheering admirers packed Broadway as she rode to City Hall in a blizzard of ticker tape, confetti, and flowers,” wrote Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

“The Daily News gave her seven full pages of coverage and a new road roadster, and after a stop at City Hall to accept the key to the city from Mayor Walker, she rode home to a neighborhood that had become a sea of flags, bunting, and ‘Welcome, Trudy’ signs.”

Getrudeedlerlecrown

Her father’s butcher shop at 108 Amsterdam was decorated with bunting. The next day 5,000 people turned out on West 65th Street for a block party in her honor (above).

GertudeederleparadeTrudy received offers from Hollywood and Broadway and was deluged by marriage proposals. But after the hoopla died down, she mostly returned to living a quiet, unassuming life.

 She moved to Queens and working as a swimming instructor for deaf children (her hearing was seriously damaged in the water of the Channel).

The swimmer dubbed “America’s Best Girl” by President Coolidge after her feat died in 2003 at age 98.

She hasn’t been totally lost to history; in 2013, the city opened the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, complete with a pool, in her old neighborhood on West 60th Street.

An 1890 spring morning in the heart of the city

April 14, 2014

Frederick Childe Hassam’s “Spring Morning in the Heart of the City” gives us an overcast, lush view of Madison Square Park’s (yes, once the center of New York!) carriage traffic and well-dressed pedestrians.

Hassam frequently painted Madison Square; this elite area of the Gilded Age city was near his studio on 17th Street.

Childehassamspringmorning

“While discussing the picture in 1892, Hassam said his intention was to focus upon the group of cabs in the foreground and to have ‘the lines in the composition radiate and gradually fade out from the centre.’” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“He also noted that ‘all those people and horses and vehicles didn’t arrange themselves for my especial benefit. I had to catch them, bit by bit, as they flitted past.’”

The money motifs of a defunct 42nd Street bank

April 14, 2014

Bowerysavingsbank42ndstToday, 110 East 42nd Street is the elegant restaurant Cipriani’s.

But beginning in 1923, the building at this address served as the midtown branch of the Bowery Savings Bank.

On a street packed with lovely, innovative buildings, this one is worth a long look.

With its Romanesque arches and pillars, it’s a true cathedral of commerce.

BowerysavingsmanwithsackEven more impressive are the stone-carved figures and motifs that symbolize money.

They’re endlessly fascinating. Two grotesques face each other over a doorway: one carries a sack of money, the other has his hand out. Beehives and squirrels with nuts signal savings.

One carving depicts a woman holding an open jewelry box. Another has a man holding a sailing ship.

Bowerybankbeehivesquirrel

Some of the carvings are pretty bizarre. Along an entrance, a rat bites the foot of a man holding a beehive; in another image, a dead rat hangs from a rope. What’s this about?

BowerybankdeadratAt the top of a pillar is a carving of a bull, a man holding keys, and a woman with a bounty of goods.

The bull “symbolizes determination and reliability, the keys, guardianship, and the cornucopia, harvest and abundance,” states Marcantonio Architects blog.

“There also seems to be a native quality to the feathered leaves and the braided rope holding them together.”

Collectively, the images “convey lightheartedness through the details which are teeming with life and imagination, and, in light of recent events in the world of finance, a touch of irony as well,” the blog continues.

Above the entrance is the bank’s very old-school, humble motto: “A mutual institution chartered 1834 to serve those who save.”

Bowerybankpillar

Sounds very quaint to contemporary ears used to thinking of banks as agents of corruption.

Twenty years of Starbucks in New York City

April 14, 2014

If your experience in New York doesn’t stretch back more than two decades, then you’ve never known a time when the city didn’t have multiple Starbucks stores in almost every neighborhood.

Broadway87thstsignIt was 20 years ago this month when the first Starbucks opened on Broadway and 87th Street.

“At 3,000 square feet, this is the largest of the company’s 318 stores and also one of the largest coffee bars in the city,” wrote Florence Fabricant in her New York Times column on April 27, 1994.

That writeup didn’t capture the conflicting emotions many New Yorkers felt about having Starbucks descend on the city.

“When the store at 87th Street welcomed its first caffeine-charged customers in April 1994, national chains and upscale retailers and restaurants were not common in that part of the Upper West Side,” stated a New York Times article from 2003, the year the first store closed.

Starbuckseast20s

Starbucks “stirs conflicting feelings among people who live near their branches,” another Times article from 1995 said.

“Some see the coffee bars as promising signs of upscale development and badges of sophistication. Others are put off by the sprawling uniformity of Starbucks stores and fear that they may threaten the distinctive character of old-time establishments in their areas.”

Twenty years later, the opening of a Starbucks branch can still whip up the same opinions.

[photo: a Starbucks in the East 20s, one of 283 in the city]

Times Square: crossroads of the world in 1910

April 12, 2014

Is this Times Square, or 23rd Street facing the Flatiron Building? It’s clearly 42nd Street, with the card focused on the New York Times building that gave the square its name in 1904.

Timessquarepostcard

But when I first looked at the postcard, I immediately thought Flatiron.

Trolleys, traffic, ladies carrying umbrellas . . . and the Hotel Cadillac is on the left. What stories that building would be able to tell, if only it still existed.


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