Archive for October, 2012

Celebrating Halloween in Central Park in 1936

October 29, 2012

Except for the pumpkin obscured in the background, there’s nothing particularly Halloween-esque about this poster, designed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936.

Though it looks like the carnival is geared toward adults, this poster for the same Halloween event clearly has kids in mind. I’d love to know what the prizes were.

Both are part of the Library of Congress’ excellent WPA poster collection from the 1930s and 1940s.

New York’s last gas lamp in a West Village alley

October 29, 2012

Is there an enclave in New York City lovelier than Patchin Place?

This one-lane stretch of circa-1850 brick walk-ups in the West Village is shaded by ailanthus trees and blocked off from traffic by a wrought-iron fence.

It’s shabby-romantic, the former home of many early 20th century writers.

But this little mews off West 10th Street and Sixth Avenue also contains an incredible 19th century old New York relic at its far end.

It’s the location of the last original gas lamp and stanchion in New York City.

The simple, elegantly designed lamp still illuminates the alley at night, and it helps light up the Christmas tree residents place in front of it every December.

Unfortunately, it’s no longer powered by gas; the lamp was wired for electricity in the 1920s.

Imagine the lovely glow it must have cast on Patchin Place until then!

The 1940s tourist attractions of the “Penn Zone”

October 29, 2012

If you think the streets around Penn Station are crowded with out-of-towners now, imagine how jammed they must have been in the 1940s.

Back then, this was the “Penn Zone,” according to this vintage postcard, a stretch of Midtown brimming with massive hotels and must-see sites for tourists.


Some are still here, of course, such as the Empire State Building and Macy’s (number 8). But the original Penn Station (2) bit the dust in 1963, and the Hotel McAlpin (4) is now called Herald Towers and is a rental apartment building.

Gimbel’s (10) and Sak’s 34th Street (9) are ghosts. The Hotel New Yorker (6) keeps packing them in, while the Hotel Martinique (3) endured a tortured history as a 1980s welfare hotel before reopening as a Radisson.

The “enigmatic emptiness” of a city sidewalk

October 25, 2012

“Edward Hopper’s haunting realist canvas evokes an enigmatic emptiness that has become the artist’s trademark,” states the caption accompanying this 1924 painting on the website of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

“His sparsely populated New York cityscapes, bleak New England views, and lonely interiors share the same stark simplicity.”

“In New York Pavements Hopper used bold cropping, an elevated point of view, strong diagonal lines, and a simple, bleached palette to achieve an odd and detached effect.”

“From a bird’s-eye perspective, the only hint of narrative is the figure emerging from the lower left.”

It’s such an ordinary city scene yet so disquieting. Who is the nun with the baby carriage, and what neighborhood is this?

The 19th century “slave market” at Union Square

October 25, 2012

If you were an actor in the 1860s to 1880s, you spent a lot of time in Union Square.

This was the city’s theater district. The Union Square Theatre, Academy of Music (below right), and other spaces attracted big evening crowds.

Photo studios, play publishers, costume shops, and other theater-focused businesses thrived during the day.

Desperate, out-of-work actors congregated here too, in a section of 14th Street deemed the “slave market,” where managers and theater agents went to fill their casts for an upcoming show.

“Until the 1880s, the south side of Union Square on 14th Street was called the Rialto, after the name of the busy commercial district in Venice,” writes Irving Lewis Allen in City in Slang.

“In the 1860s, actors lounged around the base of the great equestrian statue of George Washington, and there they had what they and passersby called the slave market for those seeking employment through the casting offices in the area.”

A New York Times article from 1921 also explains that the south and east sides of Union Square came to be known as “The Slave Mart”:

“An actor out of engagement would stand around waiting, as the saying was, to ‘sign up’ for the next season. As soon as he had ‘signed up’ he would convey the tidings to his associates and then would be seen no more—until the next season.”

The slave market disappeared when the theater district moved uptown . . . and booking agencies took over the task of filling casts. Out-of-work actors, however, are still plentiful in New York City.

A 1983 art show on the Williamsburg Bridge

October 25, 2012

Could this May 1983 ad be the first sign of the coming artist colonization and eventual gentrification of Williamsburg?

Published in the now-defunct downtown arts monthly East Village Eye, it promoted an outdoor sculpture exhibition set up on the Delancey Street side of the empty and decrepit Williamsburg Bridge.

98 Bowery, a website that chronicles the East Village/Lower East Side arts scene of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, has a writeup and photos of the Williamsburg Bridge Show, as it was known:

“The neglected promenade seemed like the perfect place for a large-scale sculpture show. For two years, the sculptors grappled with the strict requirements imposed by the city’s Department of Transportation, which administers the deteriorating bridge.”

“The opening coincided with the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge, a synchrony which attracted attention to the show. The works, however, also attracted vandals and thieves, and a number of sculptures disappeared before a week had passed.”

You might recognize at least one artist’s name: Tom Otterness. He’s the sculptor behind those whimsical brass figures and critters at the Eighth Avenue and 14th Street subway station.

Where was the West Side town of Strycker’s Bay?

October 22, 2012

Until the late 19th century, the Upper West Side consisted mainly of the suburb of Bloomingdale and some smaller villages, such as Carmanville (or Carmansville), Manhattanville, and Harsenville.

Another long-gone village was Strycker’s Bay, spanning present-day 86th Street to 96th Street. It took its name from an inlet at 96th Street that’s since been filled in.

“The elevated area of Bloomingdale that included Oak Villa was generally called Striker’s Bay, and was the heart of the wealthy suburb,” wrote Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

“It reached roughly from merchant John McVickar’s sixty-acre estate at modern 86th Street, with its winding drive and large Palladian house, to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Bloomingdale’s second church, which stood above a pretty stream at 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.”

The name and its many spellings came from Gerrit Striker, who built a farm at 97th Street and Columbus Avenue.

What kind of hamlet was Strycker’s Bay? Probably a sleepy one, though there was a ferry to take residents downtown.

Later in the 19th century, the farmhouse became the Striker’s Bay Tavern, a “‘secluded little snuggery’ at the foot of a steep lane with a dock and, in later days, a small station of the Hudson River Railroad,” writes Salwen.

It sounds like quite a party spot. “The lawn by the river made a fine dance floor, and behind the house there were targets for shooting parties.”

Today the hamlet is gone, but the name survives as part of the Strycker’s Bay Neighborhood Council, which supports affordable housing, and the Strycker’s Bay Apartments on 94th Street.

[Maps: Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council]

Once a grand estate, now a park in Brooklyn

October 22, 2012

Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge is a gorgeous public park high along a glacial ridge overlooking New York Harbor.

But the cast-iron fence at its entrance on Colonial Road poses a question.

What does the EWB insignia mean?

It stands for Eliphalet William Bliss, a wealthy manufacturer of torpedoes, tools, dyes, and sheet metal presses who had factories in Brooklyn.

The 26 acres of Owl’s Head Park were once his personal estate, built not long after the neighborhood known as Yellow Hook was renamed Bay Ridge.

Bliss bought it in 1866 from Henry C. Murphy, a former mayor of the city of Brooklyn and congressman.

This stretch of windy, scenic Shore Road in Bay Ridge was a popular place for wealthy men to create their dream homes, and Bliss was no exception.

Bliss renovated the mansion, added a horse stable, and constructed an observatory tower.

He died in 1903, and in his will he offered his estate to the city at less than its true value for a park—which it became officially in 1928.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department; bottom photo: Brooklyn Historical Society]

A bronze tablet celebrates a subway milestone

October 22, 2012

When the first stretch of the New York City subway opened in 1904—from the old City Hall Station to 145th Street under Lexington Avenue—the fanfare was incredible.

A ceremony was held downtown, Mayor George McClellan played motorman on the first trip, excited New Yorkers gathered outside newly built stations, and 25,000 riders per hour packed the trains.

But when the subway reached another milestone four years later—the IRT line was extended to Brooklyn—there was no celebration.

Instead, a bronze tablet was put up inside the Borough Hall Station commemorating the underground uniting of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

It’s still there, grimy and easy to miss, on a mezzanine-level wall before the staircases leading to the 4 and 5 platforms.

A Riverside Drive mansion and monument

October 18, 2012

The gentle bend at Riverside Drive and 89th Street, seen here in an early 1900s postcard, is host to the majestic Soldiers and Sailors Monument—dedicated in 1902 to Union Army veterans.

On the opposite corner is something interesting: another view of the Isaac L. Rice mansion, built in 1903 by a wealthy lawyer when Riverside Drive was lined with grand free-standing homes and rivaled Fifth Avenue in luxury.

The Isaac L. Rice mansion is still there today, but maybe not for much longer unless it gets the maintenance it needs.


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