Beautiful sailing ships at the South Ferry station

September 29, 2014

If you’ve ever taken the 1 train to its last, lovely, looping stop at the South Ferry/Whitehall Street station, you’ve probably seen them—15 beautiful terra cotta plaques depicting a sailing ship on the water.

Southferryplaque

The officials in charge of building the first New York City subway line in 1904 did a lot of things right. Not only did they hire brilliant engineers and planners, but they brought in designers to create inspiring decorative features on platforms.

Ceramic plaques like these were installed in the earliest stations. Each plaque reflects something about the station’s neighborhood or history: a sloop for South Ferry, a beaver at Astor Place, a steamboat at Fulton Street.

Southferryplaquesign

South Ferry’s ships might be the most magnificent of all, and it’s one of just a few stations that has a monogram panel with the station’s initials.

Centre Street at Park Row: five views, 150 years

September 29, 2014

You wouldn’t know it by this low-rise buildings and muddy road. But when this photo was taken in the early 1860s, the intersection at Centre Street and Park Row was the nexus of New York’s political and publishing worlds.

Centrestreetparkrow1860s

On the left out of view is City Hall. At right is Tammany Hall, until 1868 headquarters for the Democratic political party machine.

The spire of St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church rises above the Tryon Row Buildings, topped by a sign that says “printer.” North of St. Andrews at this time is Five Points, the city’s terrible and notorious slum.

Centrestreetparkrow1890

Here’s the same intersection (from a slightly different vantage point) in 1890. The Tryon Row Buildings have been replaced by the First Judicial District Civil Court, notes the caption to New York Then and Now, which published the photo.

“The horsecar of the Fourth and Madison Avenue line is on its way uptown to Harlem, having just come from Park Row,” states the caption. “Begun in 1832, it was the first streetcar railway in the world.” At right are the offices of a popular German-language newspaper called New Yorker Staats-Zeitung.

Centrestreetparkrow1920s

Fast forward to 1925, and things are very different in this Brown Brothers photograph. Gone are the telephone poles and horsecars, replaced by street lamps and street cars.

The newspaper business has long decamped uptown. The Staats-Zeitung building was bulldozed to make way for the New York Municipal Building, opened in 1909. On the left is the lovely New York City Hall of Records, constructed in 1902.

Centrestreetparkrow1974

By 1974, Edmund V. Gillon, Jr.’s image shows us a canyon of city, state, and federal buildings, contemporary street lamps and lots and lots of car traffic.

And Tryon Row, which lent its name to the buildings in the 1860s photo? It appears to have been demapped by now.

Centrestreetparkrow20132

The traffic in 2014 is mostly by foot and bicycle. On a warm early fall afternoon, Centre Street and Park Row is packed with tourists and city dwellers enjoying City Hall Park or crossing the street to take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And look, they brought back the old-style street lamps!

The most radical woman in 1870s New York City

September 29, 2014

VictoriawoodhullToday, she’d fit right into the city’s progressive political world.

But when she arrived in New York from her home state of Ohio in 1868, 30-year-old Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a century ahead of her time: an advocate of suffrage, socialism, and sexual freedom.

First, she was a Wall Street trailblazer. In a stock market–obsessed post–Civil War city, she and her sister opened the first female-owned brokerage house. Newspapers had a field day, dubbing the two the “Bewitching Brokers.”

Victoriawoodhullbewitchingbrokers2

The sisters did have some help. Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt gave them an assist; when they first came to New York, they worked for the doctor-distrusting Vanderbilt as his “medical clairvoyants.”

VictoriawoodhulladThey also launched a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, which ran the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Perhaps her most audacious move was her run for president in 1872 on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, which she organized. Her platform sounds more 1972 than 1872.

Victoriawoodhullvoting

“She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor, among other things,” explains the History Channel.

Henrywardbeecher2Woodhull’s presidential aspirations obviously didn’t pan out (above, attempting to vote, Election Day 1872). Her support for free love was just too much.

“Yes, I am a free lover,” she addressed her critics at a Boston campaign stop.

“I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can; to exchange that love every day if I please…. and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere….”

She also ran into trouble when she outed popular Brooklyn preacher and national abolitionist leader Henry Ward Beecher (above) as an adulterer. Beecher was one of her fiercest critics, and arguably a hypocrite. But her move backfired.

American Feminist Reformer Victoria Claflin Woodhull“Instead of being shocked by the revelations, the press rushed to Beecher’s defense while U.S. Marshalls arrested Woodhull for transmitting pornographic materials through the mail (one of the articles used the word “virginity”), states one source.

“As America voted in 1872, its first female candidate sat confined in the Ludlow Street Jail.” Well, American men, anyway.

By 1877, Woodhull and her sister moved to England. There she married for a third time and continued to support suffrage and women’s equality. She died in 1927, seven years after American women went to the presidential polls for the first time.

The lost dinosaurs buried under Central Park

September 22, 2014

Mastodon bones and other fossilized creatures have turned up occasionally in New York City. But dinosaurs? Here’s the story.

In 1854, British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built giant models of dinosaurs, which were displayed at the Crystal Palace.

Hawkinsstudiocentralpark

Hawkins didn’t exactly know what dinosaurs looked like, but he based his models on the limited fossils available at the time.

CrystalpalacehadrosaurusHis models must have been impressive, as his show was a great success, thrilling audiences in England.

So in 1868, Andrew Green, one of the city planners in charge of Central Park, invited Hawkins to build dinosaur models in New York.

The models were to be housed in a Paleozoic museum planned for the new Central Park. Hawkins took Green up on the offer and began constructing his dinosaurs out of brick, iron, and concrete in a studio (above).

“In a studio in Central Park, crowded with his gigantic skeletal and full-bodied models, Hawkins worked on a 39-foot hadrosaur; his sketches show ferocious giant lizards: a large and scaly iguana head here, certain dragon features there,” states a 2005 New York Times article.

1869 Central Park Dinosaurs Hawkins full

Unfortunately, Hawkins’ work and the entire idea of a Paeozoic museum came to a halt thanks to William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt Tammany Hall political chief who took control of the park in 1870 and had no interest in building anything devoted to science or education.

Hawkins“The next year, a few months after Hawkins spoke out publicly against both the decision to forgo the museum and Tammany Hall itself, the Tweed Ring sent vandals to his studio to smash his models and dump them into a pit in the park,” the Times wrote.

Hawkins, understandably, left New York and went back to England. In the ensuing years, Hawkins’ (below) dinosaurs were mostly forgotten.

Despite periodic searches, his sabotaged dinosaur models have never been found.

“They still rest somewhere under the sod of Central Park, probably not far from Umpire Rock and the Heckscher ballfields,” states this CUNY site.

“Could one of the pitchers’ mounds really be a small embankment covering the severed head of Megalosaurus? Who knows, maybe so.”

One painter’s dreamy scenes of New York at play

September 22, 2014

Though he spent much of his life in his beloved Paris, Alfred Henry Maurer was a New Yorker from beginning to end.

Maurerrockawaybeach1901

Born in the city in 1868, he was the son of a German immigrant who worked as a talented lithographer for Currier and Ives.

After studying with William Merritt Chase, Maurer took off for Paris, the center of the art world at the time, where he worked in a mostly realist style, depicting beautiful women and cafe life in the city of light.

Maurercarrousel19011902

Briefly, Maurer returned to New York at the turn of the century. He won acclaim and awards, and in 1901 and 1902 he painted these enchanting scenes of New York’s Gilded Age leisure class at play.

Two paintings depict Rockaway Beach, the popular amusement playground developed in the early 1900s.

Maurerrockawaybeachwithpier1901

Another painting shows us a carousel in Brooklyn, with mothers and children watching the painted wooden horses under darkening skies.

MaurerselfportraitMaurer (in a self-portrait, right) didn’t stay in New York long—nor did he stick to his usual realist style.

Back in Paris again, he abandoned realism in favor of Matisse-influenced Modernism, doing abstract portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Examples of his later works can be seen here.

World War I forced him back to his family apartment in New York City, where he continued to paint and take part in exhibitions, but garnered little of the critical acclaim he’d had as a younger man.

He died in Manhattan in 1932, committing suicide by hanging in his father’s West 43rd Street home.

A faded ad hangs on in the Meatpacking District

September 22, 2014

From the 1890s to the 1960s, grocers Middendorf & Rohrs operated a wholesale store out of this red-brick building at One Little West 12th Street.

Meatpackingfadedad

The grocers are long-gone, of course, like the rest of the wholesale markets (including Gansevoort Market down the block) that once called this grimy stretch of Manhattan home.

But what a treat to see that the name of the place is still visible on the facade!

Meatpackingfadedadcloseup

Hmm, could this Rohrs be the same Rohrs who opened the beloved (and recently shuttered) coffee emporium on the Upper East Side in 1896?

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?


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