Archive for June, 2011

Two famous writers meet in Washington Square

June 30, 2011

Imagine two celebrities today greeting each other on a Greenwich Village street, then sitting on a park bench together just shooting the breeze, apparently unrecognized.

That’s what happened one day in September 1887, when Mark Twain took the train from his Connecticut home to New York to meet Robert Louis Stevenson, the popular writer of Treasure Island.

“The Scottish-born Stevenson was staying near the square at a hotel on Tenth Street and University Place,” writes Emily Kies Folpe in the wonderful It Happened in Washington Square.

Stevenson, suffering from tuberculosis, was passing through the city on his way to an upstate sanitarium.

“The two famous writers strolled down to the park and, following Stevenson’s doctor’s orders to take in the sun every day, settled down on a sunny bench to enjoy a good talk.”

So what did they discuss? According to the website of the Hotel Albert (now a co-op), where Stevenson likely stayed on 10th Street:

“The two men settled comfortably into a sunny part of the northwest corner of the park and spent the next five hours telling stories to one another, ‘regardless of wives, lunch and doctors, from 10 a.m….until 3 in the afternoon.'”

Twain moved to the Village in 1900 and spend the rest of his life as a New Yorker. Stevenson died at 44, seven years after his park meetup with Twain.

Neon signs that give New York its glow

June 30, 2011

Like faded building ads and  kitschy store signs, colorful neon bar and restaurant signs are icons of the city. The incandescent glow they give off makes nighttime New York feel warmer and more enchanting.

I don’t know how long the sign has been lighting up MacDougal Street, but Monte’s red-sauce joint has been around since 1918.

The sign is a little worn and the neon partly stripped off, but French bistro Tout Va Bien (“everything is fine”) has been going strong for three generations on West 51st Street.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner—all meals will be served at the Waverly Restaurant (minus the last two letters) at Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place.

It’s not to be confused with the ultracool Waverly Inn several blocks over on Bank Street.

Lower Fifth Avenue before the Flatiron Building

June 27, 2011

Prior to the iconic 1902 building’s opening, the land it was constructed on went by some interesting names.

In the 1850s, the triangle-shaped plot at 23rd Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue was known as the “cowcatcher,” possibly because cows from nearby farms often wandered into it to avoid traffic, according to The Flatiron by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

Cows on 23rd Street? That name had to be a holdover from an even older New York.

“Cowcatcher” could also have come from the fact that the land resembled the three-sided metal device that back then was attached to the front of locomotives to prevent derailment in case livestock crossed the tracks.

In the 1880s a real rich estate developer, Amos Eno, put up a seven-story apartment house on this slice of the ultra-fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

The cowcatcher moniker fell out of favor and the triangle was called Eno’s Flatiron—or just the Flatiron, because it looked like, well, a flat iron.

The 1902 Flatiron Building was actually officially named the Fuller Building when it opened.

But most city residents still called it the Flatiron—or more derisively “Burnham’s Folly,” after the architect whose design was not nearly as beloved 109 years ago as it is today.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; right: New York Public Library digital collection]

A Broadway chorus girl gets away with murder

June 27, 2011

Of course, Nan Patterson, a pretty chorus girl in the 1900 smash Broadway hit Florodora and daughter of a Treasury Department bigwig, insisted she didn’t kill her married boyfriend, gambler Caesar Young.

But the evidence against her was strong.

On the morning of June 4, 1904, Nan and Caesar were taking a hansom cab to a Hudson River pier where Caesar and his wife were to board a transatlantic ship.

At West Broadway and Franklin Street, a shot rang out from the cab. Caesar lay dying in Nan’s lap, a bullet in his chest.

Nan told police Caesar shot himself, upset that she was leaving him. The cops said no way: the bullet entered Caesar from an angle not compatible with suicide. And anyway, Caesar’s gun was found in his pocket.

Arrested for murder, Nan’s sensational trial attracted a ton of media interest and resulted in two hung juries. In the end, she went free.

“The prosecutor concluded that no jury would unanimously believe that such a sweet young thing could commit so brutal a crime,” writes Patrick M. Wall in The Annals of Manhattan Crime.

[Photo: Bain News Service; Floradora program cover, 1900]

The sad cemetery angels of Brooklyn

June 27, 2011

The gentle hills and slopes of Brooklyn’s Evergreens Cemetery are filled with figures of angels: intermediaries between earth and heaven and messengers from God who guard the graves of the dead.

Different angel poses have different meanings. The one above appears to be dropping flower petals, which supposedly symbolizes the spreading of blessings.

Why this angel has its finger to its mouth, I’m not sure. The flowers could indicate a tribute—or that a life in bloom ended too soon.

Not all angels have wings, but perhaps this grief-stricken figure is meant to depict the deep Christian faith of the departed.

Green-Wood Cemetery at the other end of Brooklyn has plenty of haunting angel figures too.

A Sunday rooftop ritual on Cornelia Street

June 24, 2011

Painter John Sloan captures three young women in a semi-private ritual in “Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair,” from 1912.

Watching the three from his studio at Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, Sloan called them unselfconscious performers in “another of the human comedies which were regularly staged for my enjoyment by the humble roof-top players of Cornelia Street,” according to this caption from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Rather than engaging in polite rituals in the elegant or exotic private habitats that American academics and Impressionists preferred to portray,” the caption explains, “these lightly clad Three Graces exhibit an easy camaraderie and a forthright relationship to the viewer.”

“They display their chests and bare arms as they perform their toilette, and their hair is freed from the decorous buns, ‘psyche knots,’ and other coiffures required for appropriate appearance in public.”

The breeze must have felt good up there on the roof. Here’s another John Sloan rooftop.

The 1870s version of Missed Connections ads

June 24, 2011

Think those missed connections/I saw you personals are only as old as Craigslist or the back page of the Village Voice?

Nah. They were around at least 140 years ago, according to a city guidebook called Lights and Shadows of New York Life, published in 1872, which reproduced several in its pages.

The book detailed the appeal of the “personals” printed in the first column of an unnamed city paper:

“Very many persons are inclined to smile at these communications, and are far from supposing that these journals are making themselves the mediums through  which assignations and burglaries, and almost every disreputable enterprise are arranged and carried on.”

So then as now, these missed connections-type ads don’t always have an innocent, romantic aim.

But apparently many did. “If a lady allows her face to wear a pleasant expression while glancing by the merest chance at a man, she is very apt to find some such personal as the following addressed to her in the next morning’s issue of the paper referred to.”

So what are the odds that any of these men hooked up with the lady they were looking for? I guess we’ll never know.

Wooden phone booths hiding on 57th Street

June 24, 2011

The Art Students League has been offering art classes and exhibits in a landmark building on West 57th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue since 1892.

Of course, these twin phone booths just inside the entrance probably aren’t quite that old.

But the details—wooden stools, glass doors, and fan switches (hey, it probably got hot quickly in a wooden booth, especially if you were having a tempestuous argument with the door shut tight)—have got to be midcentury.

The phones themselves? Hmm, maybe 1990? The phone books to the left look pretty ancient as well.

More charming relics from the pre-cell phone era can be found here.

The old Victorian boathouse of Central Park

June 22, 2011

“Boating on the lake has been a popular pastime from the Park’s earliest days,” states the Central Park Conservatory’s website.

Yet the Lake didn’t get a proper boathouse until 1874, when Calvert Vaux designed this one in the 1907 postcard below.

“With its charming Victorian touches, the building also featured a second-story terrace that afforded beautiful views of the Ramble,” explains the Conservatory.

“A popular draw for more than 80 years, the boathouse fell into disrepair by 1950 and was soon torn down. The iconic Loeb Boathouse that New Yorkers and visitors know so well today opened at the Lake’s northeastern tip in 1954, financed by philanthropist Carol M. Loeb.”

When the Eden Musee thrilled 23rd Street

June 22, 2011

The Eden Musee opened at 55 West 23rd Street in 1884—and New York had never seen anything like it.

Imagine an entertainment mecca that featured grisly and gaudy wax displays: think Queen Victoria, President Arthur, and an imagined scene from the Spanish Inquisition.

There was also a “winter garden” concert hall and periodic bookings of notable people at the time, such as Sitting Bull.

And don’t forget the robot named Ajeeb who challenged customers to a game of chess (a real human chess champion was hidden inside).

All this could be experienced for just 50 cents. No wonder New Yorkers packed the French Renaissance building off Sixth Avenue in the newly chic Madison Square area.

As the years went on, the Eden Musee “resort” had to up the ante. They held an annual orchid show, hosted vaudeville acts, even showed the first motion pictures.

Movies turned out to be its downfall. Audiences no longer wanted to see wax figures and live shows; they craved film.

A June 8, 1915 New York Times headline put it this way: “Eden Musee Faces Bankruptcy Court: Northward Movement of Stores and Moving Picture Craze Hurts Wax Works.”

But for more than 30 years, the place had a good run.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,702 other followers