Archive for November, 2012

Are these the last wood escalators in New York?

November 29, 2012

It’s the perfect time of the year to visit Macy’s: for holiday shopping, browsing Christmas displays, and to pay homage to the wonderfully creaky old wood escalators that still ferry customers between floors.

Could they really date to 1902, as the store implies here?

Head to the middle of the store to find them, and though the escalators on each floor have wood handrails, only the ones between the eighth and ninth floors have wood steps.

Don’t miss the warnings (not in the photos) about avoiding them if you’re wearing stilettos!

Partying with Zelda Fitzgerald in the 1920s

November 29, 2012

Every decade in New York, a couple comes along and serves as an emblem for the time.

In the first part of the Roaring 20s, that couple was F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

On April 3, 1920, reunited in New York, they married in a hasty ceremony in front of eight people at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, then the Commodore Hotel, getting kicked out of both for being too rowdy.

They celebrated their eviction by spinning giddily through the hotel’s revolving doors for half an hour. Zelda also earned wild child status when one night she jumped into the fountain at Union Square fully clothed.

“They did both look as though they’d just stepped out of the sun,” wrote Dorothy Parker.

Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a hit, and New York’s smart set was dazzled by the young couple. Zelda was particularly taken with the city’s nightlife, according to Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A Biography. In Zelda’s words:

“Girls in short amorphous capes and long flowing skirts and hats like straw bathtubs waited for taxis in front of the Plaza Grill; girls in long satin coats and colored shoes and hats like straw manhole covers tapped the tune of a cataract on the dance floors of the Lorraine and the St. Regis.”

“Under the sombre ironic parrots of the Biltmore a halo of golden bobs disintegrated into black lace and shoulder bouquets . . . . It was just a lot of youngness: Lillian Lorraine would be drunk at the top of the New Amsterdam by midnight, and football teams breaking training would scare the waiters with drunkenness in the fall. The world was full of parents taking care of people.”

Of course, the parties didn’t last. After moving to Paris later in the decade, the golden couple split, and Scott went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting, where he died of a heart attack in 1940.

By 1930, Zelda was in a Maryland mental institution. There, she perished a fire in 1948.

The broadway electric billboard that started it all

November 29, 2012

They’ve symbolized New York City for almost a century, the stories-high signs that blaze with light in the nighttime sky.

All of New York’s electric billboards originated with one: this 1892 “Ocean Breezes” ad on the north side of the Cumberland Hotel—at 23rd Street and Broadway that existed where the Flatiron Building is today.

“The sign, despite its unusually large scale, was a straightforward broadside type advertising a Coney Island resort,” writes Darcy Tell in Times Square Spectacular.

“Plain letters, three to six feet tall, spelled a multicolored text that filled most of the hotel’s wall. Electric flashers, newly invented, blinked six different lines in sequence.”

The electric ad was a runaway hit, with residents amazed by its “talking” format.

“Press accounts reported that it could be seen up Fifth Avenue as far as 57th Street and on Broadway as far as 34th Street.”

In 1896, The New York Times installed its own billboard at the Cumberland.

“[But] advertisers would soon come to prefer a different site, however—20 blocks to the north, in Times Square,” explains Tell.

Genteel Fifth Avenue at the turn of the century

November 26, 2012

Could this really be Fifth Avenue in the 50s, today one of the most expensive stretches of retail in the world?

The street sign appears to read 52nd Street. That means the two mansions on the left belong to the Vanderbilt family, as does the French chateau-like mansion next door.

That’s the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 55th Street rising in the center of the postcard.

The little laborers who toiled in New York City

November 26, 2012

It’s hard to fathom now, but children did a lot of work in the 19th century and early 20th century city.

They sewed garments, hawked newspapers, shelled nuts, made artificial flowers (above, in 1908) and delivered heavy packages, navigating streets and strangers (below, on Bleecker Street, 1912, by Lewis Hine).

Social reformers such as Lewis Hine documented many of these working kids in New York and around the country, pushing for tougher child labor laws, which were routinely ignored on the local level.

Below, newsboys and bootblacks on Mulberry Bend

“By the late 1800s, states and territories had passed over 1,600 laws regulating work conditions and limiting or forbidding child labor,” explains historyplace.com. “In many cases the laws did not apply to immigrants, thus they were often exploited and wound up living in slums working long hours for little pay.”

Above: a newsboy and a newsgirl at City Hall, 1896

“In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, better known as the Federal Wage and Hour Law. . . . It prohibited child labor under age 16 while allowing minors 16 and over to work in non-hazardous occupations.”

“Children aged 14 and 15 could be employed in non-manufacturing, non-mining, and non-hazardous occupations outside of school hours and during vacations for limited hours.”

Above: A tired-looking bag peddler on First Avenue and 13th Street in 1935

The remains of a grand Upper Manhattan theater

November 26, 2012

Decayed, dingy, and partly obscured by a bodega sign, it’s easy to walk right by the former Hamilton Theatre and not have any idea of its hidden grandeur.

Built in 1913 by renowned theater architect Thomas W. Lamb, the Hamilton opened as a vaudeville house, entertaining residents of the rapidly booming upper Manhattan neighborhood now known as Hamilton Heights.

It was a startling beauty. “At the time, vaudeville was the most popular form of theater in the United States,” states the 2000 Landmarks Preservation Commission report designating it a city landmark.

“The Hamilton’s two neo-Renaissance style facades, facing Broadway and West 146th Street, are dominated by large, round-arched windows with centered oculi.”

“The upper stories feature cast-iron and terra cotta details including caryatids, brackets, and Corinthian engaged columns.”

By the 1920s, motion pictures nudged out vaudeville, and the Hamilton became an RKO movie theater in 1928.

It projected its last film in 1958, after which the building served as a sports arena, church, and disco.

Today the lobby of this stately palace has been carved up into retail outlets. Its grand theater, however, lies empty, as this ghostly photo from Cinema Treasures reveals.

Harlem Bespoke has recent news that one of the stores leasing retail space at the Hamilton is vacating the building. Maybe it’s time to restore the entire theater to its original loveliness?

[Top photo: Museum of the City of New York]

A thanksgiving message on a Harlem church door

November 22, 2012

A church in Hamilton Heights greets visitors at its doors with this message, from Psalm 100:4, a reference to a different kind of thanksgiving than our contemporary turkey/football/parade holiday.

The Upper East Side’s secret 19th century alley

November 22, 2012

If you’ve never heard of Henderson Place, a lilliputian cul-de-sac off of 86th Street and East End Avenue, you probably have plenty of company.

This is one of those dollhouse-like nooks tucked among big apartment houses that even longtime Manhattan residents never see.

But it’s such a pretty, well-preserved enclave of Victorian-era New York, it’s worth a walk-by.

Named for landowner John Henderson, the 24 Queen Anne–style houses (as well as others surrounding it that were demolished years ago, as shown in the undated photo) went up in 1882 for “persons of moderate means.

“The use of features such as wide arched entryways, terra cotta plaques, windows divided into tiny square panes, and projecting bays and oriels produced an enclave of buildings that were of a high level of design, even though they were not intended to house members of a higher social class,” states nyc-architecture.com.

The houses on the west side of Henderson Place were torn down in 1940, while the rest of the alley was designated a historical district in 1969.

Of course, they’re no longer in the price range of the typical person of modest means. According to this Streeteasy listing, one of the houses recently sold for about $4 million. Take a peek inside here.

[Vintage photo: Museum of the City of New York]

Who stole this Peter Pan statue from a city park?

November 22, 2012

You’d have to be pretty brazen (or very drunk?) to abduct a statue from a city park.

But there’s something extra heartless about making off with Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.

It happened 14 years ago in Carl Schurz Park, along the East River. There, a bronze Peter Pan has held court in the middle of a garden since 1975.

One morning in August 1998, however, Peter Pan vanished. “The statue was made by Charles Andrew Hafner in 1928 and showed the slender youth in his distinctive feathered cap and belted tunic sitting on a tree stump with a fawn, a rabbit and a toad at his feet,” wrote The New York Times.

“It had been cut off its stone base and weighed about a thousand pounds, officials said.”

Dozens of police officers investigated—this is the park that’s home to Gracie Mansion, after all. The next day, a scuba team found it at the bottom of the East River.

After divers recovered the statue, Peter Pan went back up in his usual spot in the park, where he’s been enchanting visitors ever since.

So who did it? Though no suspect was ever identified, “investigators said the disappearance of the beloved statue from Carl Schurz Park appeared, appropriately enough, to be the work of a band of overly high-spirited youths, perhaps latter-day Lost Boys who turned on their own icon,” a follow-up Times article stated.

A rainy day in Murray Hill in 1928

November 19, 2012

This Martin Lewis etching captures the slick sidewalks and belching smoke on a gray and dreary stretch of the East 30s.

“The Thirty-fourth Street Armory at Park Avenue, now demolished, is shown in the print at right,” states Paul McCarron in The Prints of Martin Lewis. “It was a few blocks from Lewis’s studio at 145 East Thirty-Fourth Street.”

It’s the same armory depicted in Quarter of Nine, Saturday’s Children, a Martin Lewis etching from 1929.

What became of the chateau-like structure on the corner?


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