Archive for December, 2009

Celebrating New Year’s in old New York

December 30, 2009

The whole Times Square-ball drop thing didn’t start until 1904. Before then, the hip place to celebrate the holiday was at the base of Trinity Church, on Wall Street and Broadway.

Huge crowds would show—up to 15,000 people some years—looking to see and be seen as well as to hear the tolling of the bells to welcome the New Year.

The second Trinity Church, 1788-1841. The original burned down in the Great Fire of 1776, and the third one still remains there today.

And just like the all-night party in Times Square, the Trinity Church celebration attracted a bridge and tunnel group of revelers, as this New York Times article from 1897 reports: 

“The crowds came from every section of the city, and among the thousands, who cheered or tooted tin horns, as the chimes were rung out on the night, were many from New Jersey, Long Island, and even Staten Island.”

Rhinelander Gardens: then and now

December 30, 2009

Designed by James Renwick—architect of Grace Church on Tenth Street and Broadway and St. Patrick’s Cathedral—these “three-decker” row houses stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street since 1855.

I’m not sure what connection they have to the Rhinelanders—an old New York family—but the family probably owned the land they were built on, hence the name.

Another Rhinelander real estate site is just around the corner on Seventh Avenue.

Berenice Abbott took the photo in 1937. Rhinelander Gardens only lasted another 20 years. Amazingly, the city tore them down (and their lovely front lawns and cast-iron balconies!) to build P.S. 41.

The school is very 1950s. The tenement apartment building on the far right, the Unadilla, still exists.

Lost New York, by  Nathan Silver, published in 1967, has this to say:

“The setback fronts of the houses were the result of the imperfect match of the old Greenwich Village street pattern with the upper Manhattan grid. Some deep fronts can still be seen on 11th Street, but the Rhinelander row was demolished in the late 1950s.”

The elephants of Lexington Avenue

December 30, 2009

Above the entrance to the W Hotel at 49th and Lexington are four elephant heads—each with a trunk that wraps around a metal flagpole.

Even though they’re grimy and their tusks could use some whitening, they make for a triumphant sight.

Here are more pachyderms in New York City.

The W Hotel went through a bunch of name changes: It used to be the Hotel Montclair, then the Hotel Belmont Plaza—Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin got their start in the Glass Hat club there—and finally the Doral Inn.

New Year’s Day dinner on the Bowery

December 27, 2009

Fried rabbit on toast, canned Oyster Bay asparagus, hot mince and pumpkin pie—these and other delicacies were on the menu at M.F. Lyons’ Dining Rooms on the Bowery for New Year’s Day dinner in 1906.

And yep, those prices are in cents. I wonder what kind of residents showed up for this meal.

“Mike” Lyons’ restaurant has an interesting history. It was the sight of dinners featuring corrupt Tammany Hall politicians such as “Little Tim” Sullivan. 

Opened in 1872, it met its end in 1907, long after the Bowery’s heyday as an entertainment district.

“From 1,200 to 2,000 people were fed every night,’ a 1907 New York Times article reported. “At 3 in the morning there was a man back of every chair waiting to grab it, on special occasions, and the police patronage which had always been considerable increased.

“There was one class of patrons who continued faithful to the Lyons standard. This was the Lyons food line, composed exclusively of women, who at 5 in the morning were at the doors now closed with baskets,” the article continued.

“The left-over food was given to them without question or discrimination. These will mourn the passing of Lyon’s.”

The menu comes from the New York Public Library’s menu collection.

Prohibition-era New York’s favorite madam

December 27, 2009

Polly Adler was born in Russia in 1900 and immigrated to New York City when she was a teenager. But hers is no typical Ellis Island kind of story.

After toiling away in a Brooklyn corset factory, 24-year-old Adler found a more lucrative gig: supplying prostitutes, liquor, and an all-night party to top entertainers, politicians, and gangsters.

Adler created clubhouse-like brothels at different locations through the 1920s and 1930s. She ran a house of ill repute in the Majestic Apartments on Central Park West, as well as at other luxe addresses on the Upper East and Upper West Sides.

The famous and important of both sexes (Dorothy Parker was a regular) hung out and mingled. Mayor Jimmy Walker, Joe DiMaggio, and Dutch Schultz reportedly enjoyed the sexual services.

Adler was arrested more than a dozen times, exiting the madam business in the mid-1940s. She attended college, wrote her memoirs, and died in 1962 in Los Angeles.

P.T. Barnum’s “Living Curiosities”

December 27, 2009

Think of them as the cast of a reality show—so real they were actually on display 365 days a year at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.

One of the most popular tourist attractions on the city, the museum was located on Ann Street and Broadway from 1841 to 1868.

The “curiosities” were a revolving cast. In this undated photo are two albinos, three giants, two little people, and two “circassian beauties”—women from the Northern Caucasus. 

The “beauties” have the blown-out hair on the left. In the 19th century, women from this part of the world were believed to be unusually attractive and widely desired for Middle Eastern harems. Reportedly Barnum claimed that these two had escaped a Turkish harem.

How New York invented Santa Claus

December 23, 2009

It’s not really a stretch for New Yorkers to claim the jolly, red-suited dude as one of our own. “Sinte Klaas” was the nickname Dutch settlers gave St. Nicholas, a serious figure depicted in bishop’s robes celebrated every December 6.

Legend had it that St. Nicholas gave gifts to the poor, and he also rewarded children who had behaved all year.

St. Nicholas evolved closer to the Santa we know now in Chelsea resident Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

Here he’s depicted with a white beard and a sack on his back, climbing down the chimney to fill stockings.

Rather than a big guy in red, St. Nick is elfin, a “little old driver” in a “miniature sleigh” decked all in fur.

He finally became today’s large, red-suited hero thanks to Thomas Nast, the 19th century cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly. In 1863, Nast drew a plump character in a fur-trimmed coat with a stocking cap giving out presents to soldiers.

An 1865 Santa illustration by Nash for Harper’s Weekly has him holding a pipe, that familiar twinkle in his eye.

Is this the oldest photograph of New York?

December 23, 2009

It just might be, according to New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders. Taken at Broadway between Franklin and Leonard Streets, it’s believed to date to May 1850.

Looks like workers have torn up the street. On the far left, at 360 Broadway, is a building advertising carriages, and a block down Broadway is an ad for “Moffat” on the side of a taller structure. 

Who was Moffat? John Moffat was a doctor whose “Moffat’s Life Pills and Phoenix Bitters” made him quite wealthy in the mid-19th century. He and his family lived on Union Square, but he also owned the building that bore his name, at 337 Broadway.

Christmas with a Ziegfeld Girl

December 23, 2009

The Ziegfeld Follies—the popular part-vaudeville, part-burlesque revue staged on Broadway every year between 1907 and 1931—was never known as a Christmas show.

But the 1915 Follies did feature one holiday-themed number, entitled “I’ll Be a Santa Claus to You.”

The lyrics go like this:

“I’ll be a Santa Claus to you
If you’ll but say you will be true
I’ll bring you toys
Millions of joys
Presents that money can’t buy
Yuletide will be our honeymoon
You’ll ride beside me and we’ll spoon
Christmas it comes only once ev’ry year
I’ll make it come ev’ry day for you dear
I’ll be a Santa Claus to you.”

Sweet and kind of suggestive for a song written almost a century ago.

The United Nations in New York

December 21, 2009

The brand-new United Nations Headquarters, built on 17 acres along the East River in 1949-1950, as depicted in a postwar technicolor postcard.

These are the only 17 acres in New York City that are considered international territory—under the jurisdiction of the United States, that is. 


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