Why is City Hall decked out in flags and bunting?

September 15, 2014

Is it the Fourth of July? Memorial Day? Commemoration of a recently deceased mayor?

Nope. City Hall is draped in flags and bunting, with hundreds of officials dressed in black at the front entrance, to celebrate the official ground-breaking of the New York City subway on March 24, 1900.

Openingofsubwaydig1900mcny

In a next-day article, The New York Times noted the pomp, the excited crowds, and the police holding everyone back.

NYTheadlinemarch251900“Tunnel day was a greater day to the people, for it marked a beginning of a system of tunnels in future years and for future generations which will have wide extensions not only in Manhattan but eventually will go under the waters of the East and North Rivers, and whose ramifications will find lodgment in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and possibly even Staten Island before this town is a great many years older.

“Tunnel transit, moreover, means that Harlem, 125th Street, will be reached in 13 minutes, says chief engineer Parsons, who has worked it out to mathematical certainty, and points beyond with proportional celerity.

“Therefore the people rejoiced, for they have been promised great things.”

[Top photo: MCNY Collections Portal]

The firemen tomb in a former Village cemetery

September 15, 2014

James J. Walker Park at Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place is named for the colorful, corrupt, showgirl-loving former mayor, who governed the city during the highs and lows of the Jazz Age and the start of the Great Depression.

Stjohnscemeterytomb

But like most city parks, this landscaped stretch of playgrounds and ball fields had a more somber start—as a necropolis.

From 1799 to 1858, this acre of green served as an active burial ground called St. John’s Cemetery, part of Trinity Church.

Hudsonpark1895mcnyAn estimated 10,000 New Yorkers were interred there—mostly lower-class immigrants who lived in what had once been a posh residential enclave and slowly became a rougher-edged waterfront neighborhood by the middle of the 19th century.

When the city banned burials in this part of Manhattan, St. John’s slid into disrepair.

“The cemetery has for many years been in a dilapidated condition,” wrote The New York Times in an 1894 article about the new park to be built over the dead. Beer bottles and other trash littered the grounds.

“The monuments have toppled over, and many of the tombstones have fallen.”

Stjohnscemeteryfiremancryptnypl

“Many of the bodies will undoubtedly be removed, especially those contained in the underground vaults. Thousands of those buried in ordinary graves long ago mingled with the earth.”

Because relatives of those buried there were likely also deceased, “it is probably that thousands of the friendless dead will be allowed to rest in peace under the surface of this new park, as they do in the old Potter’s Fields, now known as Washington Square and Tompkins Square Parks, respectively.”

StjohnscemeteryplaqueToday, beneath kids playing T-ball and soccer, the “friendless dead” remain, with the occasional marker turning up during construction.

The only visible remnant of the the burial ground is a fascinating artifact: an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen from Engine Company 13 who were killed fighting a blaze on Pearl Street.

StjohnscemeteryhelmetsTheir tomb (today and in a 19th century photo at its original site, above) is marked by a granite coffin with stone helmets resting on top.

It’s near the bocce courts on the St. Luke’s Place side.

[Second photo, MCNY Collections Portal; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The beautiful fortress near Gramercy Park

September 15, 2014

When plans were being drawn up for the new armory for New York’s fabled 69th Regiment in 1901, architects Richard and Joseph Hunt (sons of Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) rejected the Medieval style of most city armories of the era.

Instead, they created something new, commanding, and beautiful.

69th armory postcard

This Beaux-Arts fortress, spanning Park and Lexington Avenues at 25th Street, still had a military feel, with its massive drill hall and gun bays along the Lexington Avenue side.

Twin plaques on the facade list the Civil War battlegrounds where the “fighting 69th” earned their nickname from Robert E. Lee.

It’s a solid, beautiful armory, one of a small group in Manhattan that still remains—used for shows, fairs, and of course, the famous 1913 Armory Show, where modern art made its startling New York City debut.

A faded store sign emerges on Hudson Street

September 15, 2014

Hudson Street has a long history. But I have no idea when this shop had its run at 428 Hudson, near Morton Street.

Hudsonstreetstoresign

 So the question is, what’s the name of the place—do those faded letters really read A. Roid’s?

New York City’s “open-air” schools for sick kids

September 13, 2014

Despite advances in sanitation, New York City at the cusp of the 20th century was a breeding ground for illness, especially in the city’s crowded downtown slums.
Outdoorschooljacobriis19103

Trash- and manure-filled streets combined with dark, dank tenements enabled the spread of a host of communicable illnesses, with tuberculosis among the most dreaded.

Outdoorschooljacobriis1910mcnySo education officials launched an unusual type of school for children thought to have or be predisposed to the White Plague: outside classrooms.

Holding class outside, or in an unheated indoor area with all the windows wide open, meant exposure to fresh air and light, and both were thought to combat tuberculosis.

The idea came from a German “open air” school started in 1904. Other cities adopted them, and New York’s first outdoors school launched in 1908 on an abandoned ferry.

Over the next few years, other outdoors schools opened their doors to tuberculosis kids, malnourished kids, even kids described as “nervous, irritable, or anemic.”

One school was located on Carmine Street, on top of a public baths building. Another opened at Public School 33 (which may have been on West 28th Street).

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Horace Mann, the private school then in Morningside Heights, also started a rooftop school, described as “closed on three sides only, the south side being entirely open with a drop curtain to close that side in time of storm,” explains a 1914 report.

Outdoorschoolsittingoutbagbeals“The floors are made of wood. Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary in exceptional cases.”

Kids handled the bracing weather by wrapping themselves in “sitting out bags” (right).

Well-meaning as it was, this educational movement apparently died out quickly. In 1914, the medical director of New York City’s open-air schools came out against them, citing bad weather and the expense of building truly stable structures on the roof.

“With the changeable climate of New York City, and the extremely raw weather in the winter, I am distinctly in favor of keeping classes within buildings,” he says in this 1918 book on open-air schools.

Openairschoolps51anemicclassesloc

[Top three photos: Jacob Riis, 1910, MCNY Collections Portal; fourth photo: Jessie Tarbox Beals, Library of Congress; fifth photo: PS 51 "anemic classes" from the Library of Congress]

What remains of a once-proud Bronx borough hall

September 13, 2014

Would anyone try to put a photo of the current Bronx Borough Hall on a souvenir postcard today? Probably not. But the Bronx’s first city building, now that’s another story.

Bronxboroughhall

Completed in 1897, the year before the Bronx joined the new five-borough New York City, this brick and terracotta Renaissance-style edifice was situated high on a bluff in today’s Tremont Park, facing Third and East Tremont Avenues.

BronxboroughhallnyplA grand staircase was added in 1899 to ease the way down the sharp incline toward Third Avenue.

Lovely, right? Too bad it’s one of those structures that never received much affection.

By the 1900s, as the Bronx was transforming itself from a more rural “annexed” district to a crowded urban enclave, borough officials complained that the building was too small.

StaircaseparkodysseyWhen a new borough building went up on the Grand Concourse in 1935, most city offices moved with it.

By the 1960s, only the Bronx marriage license office stayed behind. After a fire, the city knocked down Old Borough Hall in 1968.

All that remains is the ghostly grand staircase, seen above in a 2014 photo from the website Park Odyssey.

 [Middle photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Gilded Age nightlife venues live on in today’s city

September 13, 2014

Hippodrome1900sApartment buildings in the city do it all the time: they take their name from a previous structure that once occupied the site in an older New York.

There’s the Lafayette apartment building on East Ninth Street, which harkens back to the old Lafayette Hotel that attracted artists and writers in the early 1900s.

And Harsen House, on West 72nd Street, got its name from the 19th century West Side village of Harsenville.

Hippodrome2014

But it seems like fewer commercial structures take the name of the building they’ve replaced—which is why it’s refreshing to see that a 1950s office tower at 1120 Sixth Avenue calls itself the Hippodrome.

Hippodromewiki2014What’s the Hippodrome? Built in 1905 by the creators of Coney Island’s Luna Park, it was a 5,200-seat theater of vaudeville stars and spectacular exhibits, many with animals.

New Yorkers flocked to the Hippodrome to see operas, the circus, and even a famous 1918 show where Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear.

Tastes and neighborhoods change, and by the 1930s, the Hippodrome was hosting Jai Alai and wrestling before being demolished in 1939.

An even more illustrious spot in New York’s entertainment graveyard is the Haymarket, the notorious dance hall that was the center of the Tenderloin.

thehaymarket1

This was the late 19th century city’s vice and sin neighborhood, the subject of a famous John Sloan painting from 1907 (above).

050 Headlines se FINAL.inddThe Haymarket, which featured risque can-can dances and female customers who were actually prostitutes, was situated at 66 West 30th Street from 1878 to 1911.

The building is gone, of course; right now, the site remains unoccupied. But not far away at 135 West 29th Street, a loft building rose earlier in the 20th century.

Haymarketbuilding2014The owners officially dubbed it the Haymarket Building and installed a nice plaque with some interesting backstory, a nod to one of the most famous nightlife venues in New York history.

[Hippodrome building today: from Wikipedia]

One photographer’s abstract, shadowy New York

September 8, 2014

Some photographers turn their cameras to the faces of people, capturing depth and unguarded emotion in human expression and behavior.

Alvin Langdon Coburn found quiet, abstract beauty in the light and shadows of the landscape of turn of the century New York City.

Coburncoalcart

["The Coal Cart," 1911]

Born in 1882 in Boston, Coburn received his first Kodak as a child in 1890. Infatuated with this relatively new medium, he learned the craft and experimented in the darkroom.

In his 20s, he traveled to New York City and Europe to study with greats such as Edward Steichen. Like leading photographers Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, Coburn was part of the Pictorialist movement.

Coburntheoctopus1912

["The Octopus," 1912, taken from the top of the Met Life Tower in Madison Square Park]

Pictorialists “argued that photography was a creative art form, on a par with other visual arts including painting, and not simply a mechanical means of objectively recording the world,” states this post from amateurphotographer.co.uk.

“They used a wide variety of techniques to express emotion and mood, and were particularly known for producing atmospheric, soft-focus portraits and landscapes.”

["Fifth Avenue From the St. Regis," 1913]

Coburn exhibited photos in galleries and was commissioned to do portraits of notable men of the era, such as George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. Soon, his work took a more abstract turn.

“Like many photographers associated with Stieglitz, Coburn by 1910 sought to shed the romanticism of the pictorial movement and bring photography more in step with abstract painting and sculpture,” states the National Gallery of Art website.

“He made photographs looking down from the tops of tall buildings to explore the use of flattened perspective and geometric patterning. During World War I he became involved with the Vorticists, a group of British artists, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, who sought to construct a dynamic visual language as abstract as music.”

Coburnbroadwayatnight1905

["Broadway at Night," 1905]

“As a photographer of cities and landscapes (1903–10), he concentrated on mood, striving for broad effects and atmosphere in his photographs rather than clear delineation of tones and sharp rendition of detail,” states MOMA.

Coburnflatiron1912

["Flatiron Building," 1912]

“He was influenced by the work of Japanese painters, which he referred to as the ‘style of simplification.’ He considered simple things to be the most profound,” continues the MOMA website.

AlvinlangdoncoburnselfportraitCoburn didn’t stay in New York long. He moved permanently to the UK in 1912.

By 1918 he had given up photography professionally, devoting the rest of his life to the study of mysticism and the occult.

He died in Wales in 1966, leaving a legacy of enchanting images of the New York of a century ago: the soft glow of early electric lights, 22-story skyscrapers casting monstrous shadows over parks and sidewalks, and the presence of powerful machinery interrupting the serene beauty of nighttime streets.

[Right: self-portrait, 1905]

A long-gone Chelsea alley called Franklin Terrace

September 8, 2014

West26thstreetsignWhile flipping through a book of New York City street maps from 1996, I noticed a section of West 26th Street off Ninth Avenue marked as “Franklin Terrace.”

It’s nowhere near Franklin Street in Tribeca. And it doesn’t seem related to nearby London Terrace, developed in 1845 as a residential stretch on Ninth Avenue at 23rd Street and now the name of the famous apartment complex on the same site.

FranklinterracemapFranklin Terrace was new to me. But a little research revealed that old New York did have a tiny courtyard off the south side of West 26th Street with this name.

“Here is a whole community of five or six houses with a little yard and a fence around it, all its own, in one of the most congested sections of the city, and the best part of it all is that a whole house of eight or nine rooms may be had for $30 t o $35 a month!” states a 1915 article in the New York Press.

Franklinterraceheadline

The piece puts Franklin Terrace at number 364 West 26th Street, and describes it as a “blind street.”

Franklinterracenyt1912

“An ordinary gateway with a small iron gate leads to it. There is a paved yard with a row of old-time dwellings one one side and a couple of old-time trees that persist in bloom” (below left).

Franklinterracemcny1900Franklin Terrace dates to the 19th century, as the article makes note of the lack of “modern” conveniences. “Gas and hot and cold water, perhaps, but no electric lights, steam heat, or furnace,” the writer adds.

When did it fade into history? It’s unclear.

A 1925 New York Times short mentions that the houses here were being redeveloped and modernized “with  exteriors of old English type architecture with court and gardens (below right).”

Franklinterracenypl

Within four decades, Franklin Terrace was gone. Since 1962, the 10-building Penn South cooperative, from 23rd to 28th Streets between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, with its lawns and playground, has occupied the site.

Why a book of tourist street maps from 1996 lists long-demapped Franklin Terrace is a mystery.

[Third image: New York Press article, 1915; fourth image: New York Times, 1912; fifth image: MCNY Collections Portal; sixth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The fading 9/11 Memorial under Union Square

September 8, 2014

Unionsquare9:11memorialhallwayInside the Union Square subway station, just past the small transit police precinct, is a long, sparsely populated corridor. At about the halfway mark is an understated wall of remembrance to the thousands of victims of the September 11 attacks.

It’s right out there in public along a wall of white tiles. As visible as it is, it’s also one of the quietest and most unassuming 9/11 memorials in the entire city.

Office-like paper labels have been affixed to the tiles, each with the typed name and hometown of one of the dead.

Unionsquare9:11memorialwall

There’s no bronze plaque, no poetry, no pomp, no statues. Just names on tiles, some marked by poignant handwritten notes from loved ones.

Unionsquarememorialfisher

It’s been up since 2002. “Erected this month by the Manhattan-based nonprofit group ArtAid, the memorial’s missives grow daily,” states a Daily News article from March 30 of that year, which noted that the MTA had no plans to take it down.

Unionsquarememorialdavid

Time has taken its toll on the wall. Some of the labels have fallen off or otherwise disappeared, while others are fading out and hard to read.

Still, if you like your public memorials to be uncrowded and inconspicuous, or you remember how Union Square become kind of a gathering place for New Yorkers in the days after the towers fell, this is the place to be on September 11.


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