Archive for November, 2009

The East River waterfront, 1906

November 30, 2009

Here is bustling, turn of the century Lower Manhattan, before skyscrapers. The Woolworth Building won’t be built for another seven years. The Williamsburg Bridge is just three years old; the Manhattan Bridge is three years away.

Shipping is still the lifeblood of the city, and probably no one can imagine that South Street will be just a tourist attraction before the century is over.

Things look dark, packed, and coated in grime. But the city radiates excitement and beauty.

Vintage New York house numbers

November 30, 2009

These 19th century–looking numbers and letters on random buildings give the city such an old-timey vibe. A terra cotta relief on East Ninth Street marks a particularly lovely apartment building:

No. 1 Sylvan Terrace, in Harlem, has a very colonial feel:

This walkup on Weekhawken Street is especially sweet; the entire street name is painted above the door:


Hubert’s: freaks and fleas in Times Square

November 30, 2009

Coney Island wasn’t the only place New Yorkers could go to ogle side-show exhibits. From 1925 to 1969, Hubert’s Museum in Times Square—next door to the Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street—housed freaks of all stripes.

For 25 cents, you could catch a glimpse of Olga, the bearded lady, whose facial hair measured more than 13 inches. And the Man From World War Zero, who had a terribly deformed face.

There was also Susie the Elephant Skin Girl, Lady Estelline the sword swallower, voodoo jungle snake dancer Princess Sahloo, Prince Randion, human caterpiller, and a man who could blow up balloons and smoke pipes through his tear duct.

Tiny Tim started out singing at Hubert’s. Famous freak Zip the Pinhead did time there as well.

Hubert’s had something else going for it: the city’s last flea circus. Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus operated in the basement. There, real fleas attached to very thin wires raced miniature chariots on a teeny tiny track.

Hubert’s is long gone, but you can still see it on film: A scene from 1969’s Midnight Cowboy has John Voight strolling past.

“Central Park Winter”

November 25, 2009

Charles Parsons painted these ice skaters in 1862, during the park’s infancy. Ice skating was quite a fad among middle- and upper-class New Yorkers at the time. Even the little dog on the right is getting into it.

Later this painting was made into a lithograph by Currier & Ives.

Turkey Day with the inmates at the Tombs

November 25, 2009

On December 1, 1903, The New York Times ran a long article covering how city orphanages, missions, hospitals, “Magdalen” asylums, and other charitable institutions celebrated the holiday. That almost always meant a big turkey dinner and religious speakers.

The Times also reported how Thanksgiving was celebrated in city jails—like the Tombs, the nickname given to a succession of jail complexes located downtown. The moniker stemmed from the original Tombs, built in 1838 on Centre Street, which looked like an Egyptian mausoleum.

Here’s a couple of inmates—or guards?—hanging out in the interior of the Tombs in the late 19th century.

What the Times had to say about how the men there spent turkey day:

“There were 424 prisoners in the Tombs. They had 150 turkeys, chicken ad lib, 200 pounds of potatoes, 100 mince pies, and cranberries, nuts, and other goodies. Then they listened to addresses by the Rev. J.J. Munro and the Rev. W.W. Gilliss, respectively Presbyterian and Episcopal clergymen. Mr. Gilliss passed a cigar to each of the men prisoners.

“Such an array of prisoners were in the various Police Court prisons as to lead to the suspicion that many had gotten themselves locked up in order to be sure of a Thanksgiving dinner. None was disappointed.”

Building facades spared from the wrecking ball

November 25, 2009

I guess the developer of this residential high-rise at 931 First Avenue and 51st Street deserves praise.

He could have bulldozed the entire circa-1892 Romanesque revival elementary school building located on this corner and put up his high-rise at street level. 

Instead, he kept the beautiful facade in place and built a condo tower inside it.

It’s kind of the same story with this new New York University dorm, a sleek, 26-story tower in the East Village.

It was constructed behind what’s left of St. Ann’s, on East 12th Street near Fourth Avenue, which spent most of its life as a Catholic church. Put up in 1847, it started out as a Baptist church and even housed a synagogue in the 19th century.

When NYU made its plans for the dorm a few years back, they decided to preserve a portion of the church’s facade and the gothic tower.

The real first New York City subway

November 23, 2009

It must have been a good idea in the 1860s. That’s when inventor Alfred Ely Beach decided to construct an underground rail system powered by compressed air—think of those little pneumatic tubes that offices used to exchange memos in pre-email days.

The pneumatic subway was plagued by problems. Beach couldn’t get a permit to build it because Tammany Hall politicians had plans for a subway of their own. But he managed to get it going in secret.

Fifty-eight days later he had a tunnel running from Warren Street across Broadway to Murray Street, a distance of about 300 feet. He opened it to the public on February 26, 1870.

Passengers traveled in the line’s one deluxe car, and the station under Warren Street featured carpeting, paintings, and a grand piano. The cost of a ride: 25 cents (all of it donated to charity).

“Such as expected to find a dismal, cavernous retreat under Broadway, opened their eyes at the elegant reception room, the light, airy tunnel and the general appearance of taste and comfort in all the apartments….” commented The New York Times.

Of course, the pneumatic subway didn’t work out. Beach never got the financing to extend the line to Harlem as he had hoped. And advances in engineering made the air-powered subway obsolete.

Beach’s subway closed in 1873. The tunnel was used as a shooting gallery and then shut off for good by 1900, damaged by a fire in the building above it.

In 1912 workers excavating a tunnel for the N and R trains came upon the old tunnel and wooden subway car (at right). So where is the tunnel now? The consensus seems to be that it was destroyed during construction of other downtown stations.

The rats of the Graybar Building

November 23, 2009

New York City buildings are decorated with images of horses, goats, elephants, birds, even squirrels. But only on the Graybar Building, an office tower next to Grand Central Terminal, will you find rats.

Yep, three cast-metal rats are depicted climbing above the building’s entrance at 420 Lexington Avenue.

So why rats? It’s not clear, but the architects who built the tower in the 1920s seem to be depicting the cone-shaped objects attached to mooring lines of ships that deterred rats from getting on board.

Or maybe it’s some kind of commentary on the rat race of professionals who ply their trades in office buildings like the Graybar every day.

What happened to a Bed-Stuy dress form factory?

November 23, 2009

The Ellanam Adjustable Form Company made a name for itself with its “adjustable” dress form—a three-dimensional headless, limbless female mannequin used for sewing.

The breakthrough adjustable model, heavily advertised to housewives in the early 20th century, could be easily altered to accommodate clothes of any shape or size.

They must have been pretty novel; several of these dress forms command a decent amount of cash on online auction sites.

 But what happened to Ellanam? They seem to have vanished, and their former home at 378 Throop Avenue near Tompkins Park looks residential. Another reminder of Brooklyn’s days as a manufacturing hub.

A snapshot of tenement life

November 18, 2009

An unknown photographer captured this New York mother and her two babies in an old-law tenement apartment in 1916. 

Like most flats in old-law tenements (so named because they predate “new” turn-of-the-century laws mandating better living conditions per apartment), it’s dark, squalid, and unventilated.

That window probably looks out onto a narrow courtyard, if not just another room in the same apartment.


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