Magic and motion of 1920s Broadway at night

July 28, 2014

It’s an enchanting night in Times Square in this colorful postcard, and the Paramount Building, with the Paramount Theatre at street level, takes center stage.

Opened in 1926 in an era of grand movie palaces, the Paramount captured the city’s attention and imagination.

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The lobby “was modeled after the Paris Opera House with white marble columns, balustrades, and an opening arms grand staircase,” explains Cinema Treasures. “The ceilings were fresco and gilt. . . . in the main lobby there was an enormous crystal chandelier.”

During World War II, the globe and clock were painted black, so potential enemy invaders couldn’t see.

The Paramount Theatre bit the dust in 1964, and the building is now used for offices. Here’s a much more sedate daytime version of the same stretch of Broadway just a decade earlier.

A century of fire hydrants cooling New York kids

July 28, 2014

I’m not sure exactly when the first New York City fire hydrant was wrenched open so neighborhood kids could play in the cool rush of water on a hot summer day.

Citykidslotharstelterhotday1952

But this very New York way to chase away the heat may have caught on and been officially sanctioned in the late teens, when John Hylan was mayor (below, in 1921, in a NYC Municipal Archives photo).

“The mayor is particularly good to children,” the Queens borough president was quoted saying in a New York Times article from 1925.

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“It was his great heart that ordered the streets closed so that children could have a safe place in which to play, and it was his heart that ordered the policemen and firemen in summer to give the children baths from fire hydrants so that they might keep cool.”

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Since then, the spray—or trickle, as this NYPL photo of some boys on the Bowery in 1919 shows—from fire hydrants has cooled off millions of little New Yorkers, legally or otherwise.

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This AP photo was taken on Mulberry Street in 1936, the year of an exceptionally brutal heat wave.

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Turning Mulberry Street into a river looks a lot more exciting than hanging out under a giant shower at Lexington and 85th Street of “Croton surf,” as the caption to this 1920 NYC Municipal Archives photo calls it.

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New York in the 1960s could be pretty gritty, but at least the hydrants worked. Photographer Bruce Davidson captured this photo in 1966 of a boy on 100th Street.

A 10-day heat wave gripped the city in 1953, and Life magazine photographers captured some wonderful images of kids opening a hydrant (and then a police officer putting a stop to the fun).

[Top photo: "Hot Day," Lothar Stelter, 1952 ©Lothar Stelter]

How Columbus Circle almost became Hearst Plaza

July 28, 2014

For miles up Broadway, New York pays tribute to its greatest newspaper and media figures, from Newspaper Row near City Hall to Herald Square, Greeley Square, and Times Square.

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William Randolph Hearst (right) must have realized this after he came to town in the 1890s.

HearstbuildingAlready a San Fransisco newspaper baron, he arrived to take over the New York Journal and build a media empire here too.

But waging war with against other papers with his sensationalist journalism wasn’t enough. He also began buying real estate at sparsely populated Columbus Circle, near the New York Journal offices (at left, in 1912).

His intention: to add to the map of the city something called “Hearst Plaza,” which would be the headquarters for his growing company and would rival Herald Square and Times Square in size and prestige.

Williamrandolphhearst“William Randolph Heart envisioned a headquarters building as early as 1895, and began purchasing huge amounts of property—in and around 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Columbus Circle area,” states the Hearst Corporation website.

He finally broke ground for a Hearst headquarters building on 57th Street and Broadway in the 1920s.

“The selection of this site was directly related to the commercial and cultural development in the Columbus Circle area and to Hearst’s intention to establish Hearst Plaza in the area.”

HearsttowerThe headquarters (above), a six-story Art Deco beauty with allegorical figures representing art and culture, opened in 1928.

But what happened to the great plans to turn Columbus Circle into a monument to his empire?

The Depression hit, and then World War II, both of which made a huge dent in the Hearst Corporation’s bottom line.

Columbus Circle didn’t need the Hearst name to thrive; it went on to become a bustling commercial center and gateway to the Upper West Side.

Hearst headquarters was built to support a skyscraper on top, in anticipation of the development of Hearst Plaza.

Newyorkjournal1898Yet wasn’t until 2006 when a skyscraper was actually completed there—the glass trapezoidal Hearst Tower (above).

Hearst did make one other contribution to Columbus Circle: he made the call for funds to build the Maine Monument, completed in 1913, honoring the battleship that exploded in 1898 off Cuba.

How to outsmart the heat in summer 1899

July 21, 2014

MCNYsodawateradToday we survive summer heat waves with air conditioning and gelato runs.

But the “can’t-get-aways” of the 19th century city had to rely on other ways to keep cool, reports this cheeky New York Times Illustrated Magazine article from July 23, 1899.

One tactic was to loiter near electric fans: in offices, barber shops, and restaurants.

“When [fan loiterers] find a fan that suits them they plant themselves, so to speak, and remain as long as possible in placid enjoyment of the breezes furnished by other people’s money,” wrote the Times.

Fountains, Madison Sq. Park on hot day

“Every proprietor of an electric fan becomes acquainted during the heated term with these electric fan fiends.”

Some people engaged in “violent exercise.” These are the “misguided people who, given a temperature of a hundred in the shade, will choose a century run on a bicycle as the most enjoyable way of passing the time.”

Golf, baseball, and tennis “also have their enthusiastic hot-weather devotees, as a visit to Central Park any afternoon will testify.”

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Socializing on a roof garden was an option, or heading to the mall at Central Park to hear free music, or splashing around “gleefully as dolphins” in the fountain at City Hall Park—though the latter was reserved for newsboys.

You could always catch a cool breeze by riding streetcars, transferring from car to car to the farthest and coolest parts of the city.

“The happiest man of the season is one who has just discovered that he can ride from the Battery up to Hastings-on-Hudson for 8 cents,” states the Times.

Streetcarnyc1906Then there was the “soda water habit,” which caused afflicted people to guzzle all kinds of creamy, bubbly concoctions and risk “dyspepsia.”

Finally, the article took New Yorkers to task for dressing inappropriately.

“Young professional men get an idea that dignity is a matter of dress, and go about on hot days wearing high silk hats and frock coats that give one a high fever only to look at them.

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“It is true that lanky young men with very lean calves affect knickerbockers in Summer, and stout elderly women appear in light, airy muslins that would be suitable for slender girls of sixteen, but beyond this, and the general appearance of straw hats and shirt waists, there are few indications in the dress of New Yorkers that Summer is with us.”

[Photos: soda water ad, NYPL; splashing in the fountain at Madison Square Park, LOC; the roof garden at the Ritz-Carlton, NYPL; a street car with open windows, NYPL; a free summer concert on the mall, NYC Parks Department]

A map of the trendy 1983 East Village art scene

July 21, 2014

“East Village galleries are multiplying like white rats,” wrote Carlo McCormick in the East Village Eye in October 1983.

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“What was once a small handful of peculiarly out-of-place storefronts that even this rag ignored is now an ever-increasing network of more credible and slicker galleries being written about by the likes of the Voice, the N. Y. Times, Art News, Arts Magazine, and Art in America plus a host of Japanese and European magazines that always seem to know what’s going on here before we do.”

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While the 1980s East Village art scene went bust before it could live up to the promise laid out in the article, this accompanying map gives a small sense of the neighborhood 31 years ago.

Another East Village Eye guide from 1985 runs down the club scene and bars where you’d be drinking if you lived there in the Reagan era.

Hmm, how many of these addresses are now fro-yo shops or bank branches?

What a 19th century manhole cover has to say

July 21, 2014

New York sidewalks and streets are a treasure of old manhole covers. Some are utilitarian, others decorative, but most are emblazoned with the name of the ironworks where they were made.

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But this one, on the sidewalk on 11th Street east of Fifth Avenue, is more like a cast-iron advertisement for the M. J. Dempsey Foundry, located on West 55th Street.

Dempsey made furnace grates, coal hole covers, boiler castings, and dumping grates. It’s a small reminder of the great infrastructure advances (steam heat, coal delivery, furnaces) that helped make the city an manufacturing and industrial powerhouse.

Fifth Avenue and the original Waldorf-Astoria

July 17, 2014

In late 19th century New York, Fifth Avenue reigned as Millionaires Row. But by the time this postcard was produced around 1910, the stretch of Fifth Avenue north of 32nd Street was shedding its reputation as a wealthy residential enclave.

The rich were migrating northward. Posh mansions were being razed to make way for commercial buildings, like offices and hotels.

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No hotel was as extravagant as the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the building on the left with the flag.

Waldorfastoria34thstreetviewBuilt as separate hotels in the early 1890s on the site of two former Astor family mansions, it was combined in 1897.

Times Shutter features a similar postcard, with some info about the hotel (it was the largest in the world, a gathering place for the rich and ostentatious, and the first to allow unchaperoned women!) as well a photo of the same stretch of Fifth today.

Today, the hotel is gone (the Empire State Building took its place two decades later), as is two-way traffic and that lovely streetlight on the left.

Gone too is Fifth Avenue with a quaint, unhurried feel.

[Another view of the Waldorf-Astoria, from 34th Street, right]

A Village poet and the hospital she’s named for

July 17, 2014

Ednastvincentmillay1Edna St. Vincent Millay is an emblem of 1920s Greenwich Village.

Bohemian, free-love advocate, and a writer of passionate, sometimes cynical lyrical poetry, Millay lived in various places in the Village beginning in 1917, most famously at 75 1/2 Bedford Street.

Considering how connected she is to the Village, it’s still surprising to learn that Millay, born and raised in Maine, was actually named after another Greenwich Village icon: St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Giving her the middle name St. Vincent was a way to honor the hospital that saved her uncle’s life just before Millay was born in 1892.

EdnastvincentmillayarchWorking as a stevedore on a ship, he became trapped below deck for days without food or water.

When he was found, he was brought to St. Vincent’s and nursed back to health.

Shortly after Millay was born, her aunt wrote this in a letter to her uncle, “the Vincent is for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother,”  according to Nancy Milford’s wonderful biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.

Millay referenced the city around her in her poems: riding the Staten Island ferry, the “fruit-carts and clam-carts” of MacDougal Street. She died in her upstate home in 1950.

Stvincents1931byroncompany

Founded in 1849 and closed abruptly in 2010, St. Vincent’s (above, in 1931) was bulldozed out of its longtime location at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street over the past year.

Swingset and sandbox on the East River in 1901

July 17, 2014

Ashcan School painter Maurice Prendergast was known for his bold, colorful depictions of leisure and play in European and American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This view of the East River looks like a tapestry or a mosaic.

Mauriceprendergasttheeastriver1

Is it showing Carl Schurz Park, on the Upper East Side? The way the land across the river looks, plus the small houses, could be Queens.

Update: David Patrick Columbia over at New York Social Diary took a look at the painting and wondering if this was Carl Schurz Park too. Here’s his investigation, with photos that seem to make the case.

The ices vendor setting up on East 110th Street

July 14, 2014

The ices offered by this street vendor are probably not artisanal or organic. But I bet they hit the spot on a hot summer day.

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Photographer John Albok captured the cones and syrups of one man’s cart in East Harlem in 1938, a neighborhood of Italians at the time with a small but growing influx of Hispanics.

The link from the Museum of the City of New York describes them as piraguas—the Puerto Rican treat sold by many vendors today.

[Photo: MCNY Collections Portal]


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