A wet and windy night in Washington Square

October 27, 2014

Washington Square enchants in Everett Shinn’s depiction of a blustery and busy night there in 1910. A member of the Ashcan School, Shinn favored scenes of city life and social realism.

Everett Shinn - Washington Square, New York, 1910

“He painted tenement fires, bread lines, and theater scenes, but he especially liked to depict the parks and squares of the city; Washington Square, a 13.5 acre park in the midst of New York City’s Greenwich Village, was his favorite,” states the website for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which owns this painting.

When asked for his opinion on the most beautiful place in New York, Shinn replied, “When I want to be sure to find beauty I go to Washington Square. . . . No matter what the conditions may be under which I see it—no matter what my mood may be—I feel almost sure that it will appeal to me as beautiful.”

The rich widow haunting an uptown mansion

October 27, 2014

ElizajumelyoungIf you visit the lovely Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights and see a mysterious red-haired beauty, don’t be alarmed.

It’s just late-18th century New Yorker Eliza Jumel, a notorious social climber who spent much of her adult life in the home, shunned by society and eventually a recluse.

Born in Rhode Island in either 1773 or 1775 to a prostitute mother, Eliza spent her childhood in a workhouse before making her way to New York City in the 1790s to become an actress . . . and marry a rich, socially prominent man.

Young and beautiful, she began an affair with Stephen Jumel, an older French-born wine dealer.

Morrisjumelmansion“Eliza became Jumel’s mistress and for four years he gave her all the material possessions she could desire, but even those could not give her the respectability of ‘proper’ society that she so desperately sought,” wrote Michael Norman and Beth Scott in Historic Haunted America.

Eliza wanted to be married, so she feigned illness and begged Jumel to marry her. He agreed.

Aaronburr“According to legend, no sooner had the priest married the couple and left the house than Eliza sat up in bed and began brushing her long red hair,” state Norman and Scott.

The Jumels moved from Whitehall Street to the Roger Morris House, a summer home miles from the city that served as George Washington’s temporary headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

They redid the place with the latest furnishings from France. But Eliza was shunned by New York’s social scene and went back and forth to France with her husband, finally returning to their home before 1832, the year Jumel died.

It wasn’t long before she found her next wealthy, connected man.

ElizajumelolderIn 1833 she married former vice president Aaron Burr. It lasted a year, thanks in part to Burr’s womanizing ways and desire for Eliza’s inherited money.

For the next three decades, as New York City grew and changed, Eliza remained in her uptown mansion, living and dying alone in her early 90s in 1865.

Though buried five blocks away in Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street, her spirit supposedly haunts her former home, now surrounded by city streets.

“A governess for a child of one of Madame’s nieces said dreadful rappings would occur in the floors and walls of the old woman’s former bedroom,” wrote Norman and Scott.

Elizajumelold“One relative said her ghost, clad in all white, actually stood by her bed.”

And in the 1960s, a group of schoolkids reported seeing “a red-haired woman come out on the balcony and press a finger to her lips.

“She rebuked them for their noisy behavior. Her husband was ill and not to be disturbed, she chided.”

[Top: Eliza as a young beauty; second image: the Morris-Jumel Mansion today, from morrisjumel.org; third image: Aaron Burr; fourth image: Eliza Jumel and younger relatives; fifth photo: Eliza, older]

Why a Turtle Bay YMCA is the “railroad branch”

October 27, 2014

The first YMCA opened in 1852 in Manhattan (the mission was to “provide young men new to the city a Christian alternative to the attractions of city life”), and since then, the Y has been an integral part of New York City.

YMCAcloseup

But one in particular, the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street between Third and Second Avenues, has an interesting name inscribed above the entrance: The Railroad Branch.

Grandcentralterminal1875The location seems removed from the energy and activity of Grand Central Terminal, five blocks and three avenues away. But there is a connection.

The branch was originally established in 1875 “to provide housing for the nation’s railroad men,” states the YMCA’s New York website.

“One of many “Railroad YMCAs” throughout New York City and across the country, the forerunner of the Vanderbilt YMCA was housed in the basement of the New York Rail Station on the site of today’s Grand Central Terminal.”

Vanderbiltymca“These railroad workers found clean overnight accommodations, affordable meals, and an array of programs to occupy and enrich their time between journeys,” explains the website. Among these programs were Sunday church services and a library and reading room.

“Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was the initial branch chairman, personally led Sunday Bible classes for the railroad workers and their families,” according to Y records.

The current building opened in 1932, but it must have been decades since any railroad workers bunked there.

[Second Photo: Grand Central Terminal in 1875]

A glorious vintage color view of Times Square

October 20, 2014

It’s impossible to get tired of viewing vintage color postcards of Times Square (still Longacre Square in this image, though it must have been produced later than 1904, when the official new name came along).

Timessquarepostcard

There’s The New York Times tower in the center, with the word “victory” underneath the Times signage, plus what looks like a flag or bunting…could it be for World War I?

The gorgeous Hotel Astor is on the right. Streetcars and automobiles intersect at what looks like an kiosk-style subway entrance. On the extreme right is Wilson’s Dancing Academy, where author Henry Miller met his second wife, June.

Halloween greetings from an older New York City

October 20, 2014

“The desire of young people to avail themselves of the Halloween idea with its funny and weird traditions has found many methods of expression in this city,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1894.

Halloweencardnypl1

That year, Halloween parties were held in private homes, then dutifully written up, guest lists and all, in the Eagle.

SadiesmithhalloweenpartySocials featuring dancing and apple-diving, singing, and midnight flute-playing were organized, according to the Eagle.

Halloween fever had swept the city and become a commercialized venture, the holiday’s religious undertones long gone, this 1908 Eagle Halloween ad from Brooklyn department store Loeser’s makes clear—with masks, lanterns, candy, and nuts all on sale.

Halloweencardnypl3

Trick or treating and the annual Halloween parade in the Village hadn’t yet become a tradition, of course. But sending Halloween greeting cards seems to have been super popular by the turn of the century.

Halloweencardnypl2

These sweetly spooky early 1900s Halloween cards come from the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. More cards can be found here.

A city library designed to look like an open book

October 20, 2014

BPLwikiWhen you view it at street level, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library looks like an imposing literary fortress, with a magnificent front door lined with Art Deco motifs of famous characters from great books.

But the architects behind it also gave the building a whimsical touch: they designed it to be shaped like an open book. The spine is at Grand Army Plaza, with one cover along Eastern Parkway and the other on Flatbush Avenue.

BPLunderconstruction

“In the nearly thirty years that had passed since breaking ground on the Central Library building in 1912, the modernist aesthetic, with its clean lines and austere façades, had taken hold. . .  .

“The new library building would be briskly modern, and the very shape of the building—with two wings stretching out like the covers of an open book—would reflect the purpose of the institution itself,” states the Brooklyn Public Library website.

BPL1941

The open-book design is probably best viewed from the air, but the second photo, taken during construction, offers a sense of it. Clever, right?

Skating on the Central Park Lake under twilight

October 18, 2014

It’s almost that time of year again—just not in Central Park anymore. Painter Saul Kovner’s twilight scene on the Lake casts an enchanting glow on Depression-era skaters.

Skatingincentralpark1934kovner

Before you get any ideas, keep in mind that skating on the Lake was officially banned in 1950! Kovner painted other winter scenes in New York as well, like this one of a snow day in Tompkins Square Park.

A 34th Street renovation reveals a 1902 facade

October 18, 2014

Since 1985, the elegant limestone building at the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street—originally the Herald Square home of Saks—has been sheathed behind ugly blue mirrored glass.

Saks34thstreet1920s

The store had a long history as Saks 34th Street; in the 1960s it became a Korvette’s and was most recently occupied by Daffy’s.

But during its current renovation into a new branch of retailer H&M,the lovely old department store came back into view.

A sharp-eyed Ephemeral reader noticed that some of the blue glass panels had been removed. There, a sliver of the facade finally got a chance to breathe and reveal itself to Herald Square.

Saks34thstreet2014

Those windows look like they need a good scrubbing—that’s more than 80 years of 34th Street exhaust and grime up there! But it’s wonderful to see them in any condition after all this time hidden away.

[Thanks to Jeffrey P. for the "palimpsest moment" and photos.]

Sailing up New Amsterdam’s Broad Street Canal

October 18, 2014

It’s hardly surprising that when the Dutch arrived at the tip of Manhattan in the 17th century, they developed New Amsterdam so it looked a lot like, well, old Amsterdam back in Holland.

Newamsterdam1664

They dug dikes. They built windmills. They reportedly even planted tulips. And they created a canal out of a tiny inlet that ran from the East River, naming it Heere Gracht, after a much grander canal in Amsterdam.

Broadstreetcanalsketchnypl“In the twenty-two acre triangle bounded by the wall and the rivers, the Dutch set to work digging their familiar ditches,” wrote Gerard T. Koeppel in Water for Gotham.

“They transformed a deep, natural inlet on the east side of town into a large, timber-lined canal called the Heere Gracht (now Broad Street).

“Crossed by three bridges, the Ditch extended nearly to the wall, allowing unmasted boats to float at high tide ‘almost through ye towne.'”

Broadstreetcanalsketch2nyplIf the idea of a canal sounds lovely, it supposedly didn’t smell that way.

“At high tide small boats could carry goods three blocks into the heart of the city; at low tide, it was a foul-smelling open sewer,” wrote Eric Homberger in his Historic Atlas of New York City.

Still, it apparently was something of a focal point in town. “Lining the Heere Gracht were the homes of burghers and several taverns and breweries,” stated Homberger.

Newamsterdammap1600s

The Heere Gracht didn’t last much longer than New Amsterdam itself. Once the British took over, they filled it in, a good one hundred years before the Revolutionary War.

Thanks to its previous incarnation as a canal, Broad Street today remains one of the widest streets in Lower Manhattan.

A spooky Gothic skyscraper next to Trinity Church

October 13, 2014

Well, skyscraper by 1905 standards. That’s the year the 21-story Trinity Building finished construction.

Designed as a Neo-Gothic complement to Trinity Church on Lower Broadway, it’s loaded with gargoyles and creepy human faces, as well as fanciful gables and moldings topped by a gorgeous cupola.

Trinitybuildingpostcard

This vintage postcard doesn’t reveal all the incredible detail on the facade, but it’s a nice look at Broadway in 1910, I’m guessing.

The cemetery next door is so tourist-free and green, it looks like a lawn. And hey, streetcars!


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