Archive for February, 2011

The cat who lived in a Bowery dive bar

February 28, 2011

Minnie, the tabby cat currently residing at McSorley’s in the East Village (and facing a lawsuit), isn’t the first feline to make her home in a downtown drinking establishment.

This sly tuxedo kitty can be seen in a couple of 1940s photos of Sammy’s Bowery Follies—a legendary 1890s-style saloon at 267 Bowery that was part fleabag dump and part tourist trap.

No saucer of milk for this street cat. When a patron at Sammy’s nodded off, he made his move.

The block known as “Genius Row” in the Village

February 28, 2011

Stephen Crane (at left), O. Henry, Willa Cather, opera singer Adelina Patti—they all spent time bunking in one of the red brick row houses on Washington Square South between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place.

Dubbed “Genius Row” because of its brain trust of creative residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the block was dominated by one row house in particular: the “House of Genius” at 61 Washington Square South.

Leased by a Swiss woman named Madame Blanchard in 1886, the House of Genius became a boardinghouse for bohemian writers, musicians, and artists—the only people she’d rent to.

“The third and fourth floors were also emblazoned with artistic murals and poetry etched by the former guests,” according to the New York Preservation Archive Project.

But after Madame Blanchard died in 1937, a developer bought Genius Row, planning to bulldoze the row houses and put up a high-rise.

Village residents fought hard against the plan, but the developer secured evictions and reduced the entire block to rubble.

In the end, however, he didn’t get his high-rise. In 1948 he sold the property to New York University, which constructed a student center there.

[Writer and Village resident Willa Cather]

Vintage ads fading away on brick buildings

February 28, 2011

This Chatham Square faded ad is tricky to decipher because it’s actually two ads, one painted on top of the other.

The newer ad is for Turkish Trophies, an old cigarette brand. Underneath it is the word “for” in yellow, and a long word with a fancy F.

That’s for Fletcher’s Castoria, a children’s laxative popular in the 19th century. Fletcher’s had ads all over the city; here’s one on 109th Street and Second Avenue.

Thurston & Braidich are described as “drug merchants” whose store at 130 William Street was damaged by a fire in 1901, according to a New York Times piece that year.

But in his 1902 obituary, Adolf Braidich is described as a gum importer. Whatever his game was, an ad bearing his name is still holding up in Tribeca.

When indie video stores popped up in the 1980s

February 24, 2011

It’s August 1984, and while thumbing through this month’s edition of downtown arts newspaper the East Village Eye, you come across this New Wave–esque ad.

How exciting to see that a video store will be coming to East Ninth Street. I bet it did a pretty good business there for awhile too.

Whatever happened to New York’s pickpockets?

February 24, 2011

Apparently, they’re a dying breed. An article in Slate today stated that in 1990, the NYPD logged 23,000 reports of pickpocketing.

By 2000, the number was less than 5,000. And these days, pickpocketing is so rare, police no longer keep stats on it, Slate reported.

But flash back to the first half of the 20th century, when colorful scare stories of pickpockets were all over New York newspapers.

The one above, from a 1922 edition of The New York Times, warns about a pickpocket subtype called the “lush worker.”

“The lush worker patrols the streets late at night and when he sees a drunk ‘tails’ him. If convenient and if his proposed victim is intoxicated enough, he makes friends with him. Perhaps he helps him across a crowded street, and takes his watch in pay for the service.”

A second subtype: the lady pickpocket. From a 1916 Times story:

“These women, and there are quite a number of them, do their stealing in the department stores and in the fashionable candy shops and ice cream and soda water ‘parlors’ on Fifth Avenue.

“They dress well, and like the male pickpocket, two or more of them usually work together. The one who does the stealing passes the plunder to her sister pickpocket, so if she is caught and searched nothing will be found on her.”

The last of Harlem’s free-standing mansions

February 24, 2011

The Harlem enclave known as Sugar Hill was named for the wealthy African-Americans who moved into the fine row houses there during the 1920s.

But the area began attracting big money makers decades earlier, in the 1880s. All that’s left of these Gilded Age pioneers are a handful of gorgeous, free-standing mansions.

Like the James Bailey House on St. Nicholas Place at 150th Street (at right). Call it the house the circus built: it’s the castle-like residence of James Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame.

Bailey had the 12,000-foot Romanesque Revival beauty (left, in a 1930s NYPL photo) built in 1888.

Harlem Hybrid has amazing photos of the interior here.

Recently sold (since 1951, it had been a funeral home, fittingly) and currently hidden by scaffolding, the granite house changed hands for a mere $1.4 million.

More obscure is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House around the corner on Edgecomb Avenue.

Constructed in 1890 by a rich publisher, it’s crowned by a clay tile roof and gabled dormers.

Who lives there now? According to this site, it serves as housing for homeless adults. But on a recent visit, no signs of life could be detected.

Both homes are landmarked, reminders of uptown Manhattan’s rich, elite past.

A shipment of sea lions at the Central Park Zoo

February 22, 2011

I’m not sure if this is the exact sea lion pool currently at the Central Park Zoo. But these funny creatures were clearly as big a hit with zoo-goers a century ago as they are today.

They may be the same sea lions described in a June 1891 New York Times article, about an “unexpected” addition of 23 adult and one infant sea lion, captured in California and then seized en route to Buffalo from a railroad car at 60th Street.

“The animals remained shut up in the tight box car all night without food or water,” reported the Times.

“Streams of water were turned upon the survivors, and two wagonloads of fish were fed them. They were carted in three stock-yard express wagons to the Menagerie.”

The breadline of hungry men in Freeman Alley

February 22, 2011

This narrow little passage off Rivington Street between Chrystie Street and the Bowery now attracts well-heeled, hipster New Yorkers looking for a table at retro Freemans restaurant, at the end of the alley.

But in 1909, there was a different kind of clientele in Freeman Alley craving a meal—desperate men on a breadline.

The breadline stemmed from the Bowery Mission, which had just relocated to nearby 227 Bowery. That building, a former coffin factory, was remodeled so its rear entrance opened to the back of Freeman Alley. Apparently the alley’s end wasn’t closed at the time.

That’s where Bowery Mission planners wanted the breadline to form. So night after night, men queued up in Freeman Alley, hoping for some food.

Freeman Alley is a bit of a mystery. No one is sure if it honors early 19th century surveyor Uzal Freeman, or if the name refers to the Second African Burial Ground, a cemetery for black New Yorkers on the site of Sara Roosevelt Park that was closed in 1853.

[NYPL Digital Gallery photo of the Bowery Mission Breadline]

Fancy flats—or low-rent tenement apartments?

February 22, 2011

In the late 19th century, could you class up a typical city tenement building by calling it a flat?

Looks like some developers thought so.

“French flats”—distinguished from tenement houses by modern luxuries such as parlors, dining rooms, servants’ rooms, and indoor plumbing—caught on in the city after 1870.

But considering that neither Williamsburg nor the East Village were upper-class neighborhoods, I doubt the residents who ended up in the Havemayer Flats, on Havemayer Street, or the Mascot Flats, at 6th Street near Avenue D, had servants.

Mascot Flats has an interesting recent history. Abandoned and then torn apart by thieves and drug addicts by the early 1980s, it was renovated in 1986 with help from Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity.

Check out photos of the pre-renovated interior here. A 1990 documentary, The Rebuilding of Mascot Flats, chronicles its rebirth.

The “watery slush” of Washington Square

February 16, 2011

The park was a favorite subject for Ashcan artist William Glackens, who depicts a late winter scene in “Washington Square, Winter” from 1910.

“Washington Square South was Glackens’s home from 1904 to 1913, and he painted more scenes of the square than any other subject except the beach near Bellport, Long Island,” states the website for the New Britain Museum of American Art, where the painting hangs.

“The Washington Square paintings were done in the winter, when the artist delighted in using paint to describe the thick mud, deep snowdrifts, and watery slush on the sidewalks.

“Once a fashionable address, it was by 1910 a diverse neighborhood, typical of the city of New York, which fascinated Glackens. Among the favored details that appear in his Washington Square series are the boy with the red sled, the green bus or trolley, and the woman in the flowered hat.”


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