Archive for February, 2013

What did NYU frat boys look like in the 1890s?

February 28, 2013

Meet the bros from Psi Upsilon fraternity, posing in their house at the college’s University Heights campus in the Bronx in 1897.

The photo comes from a fascinating historical timeline on New York University’s website.

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A bong (or a hookah pipe?), goofy hats, experiments in facial hair—they don’t look that different from the NYU students flocking to downtown pubs and dive bars today!

A Brooklyn housing project praised by architects

February 28, 2013

WilliamsburghousesaerialPublic housing complexes rarely get any love—especially for their design.

But it’s a different story with the Williamsburg Houses.

This group of 20 buildings on a sprawling site on Bushwick Avenue earned big props for its Modernist touches, designed in part by Swiss architect William Lescaze.

“When the complex opened in 1938, its design was revolutionary,” wrote The New York Times in 2003.

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“Rather than follow the emerging public housing pattern of large red-brick apartment houses scattered across lawns, the development was four stories tall, clad in tan brick with decorative blue panels and European Modernist features like doorways sheltered by aluminum marquees.”

WilliamsburghousesLOC2“The buildings were set at a rakish 15-degree angle to the street grid, a feature designed to sweep fresh air into the courtyards and spill sunlight into the windows of the 1,622 apartments.”

In their 1939 guide to New York City, the Federal Writers’ Project added that the 25-acre location was once home to 12 slum blocks.

“All apartments—two to five rooms—are equipped with electric stoves, refrigerators, and modern plumbing, and supplied with steam heat, hot and cold water.”

Williamsburghousesstore2013Oh, and the 6,000 working-class New Yorkers who moved in were charged rents between $4.45 and $7.20 per week.

After a long post-war decline, the Williamsburg Houses underwent a restoration in the mid-1990s.

That turned up a hidden treasure: WPA murals by pioneering abstract artists. They’d been neglected for years and hidden behind coats of paint in community rooms.

The Brooklyn Museum has the restored murals on view now.

The development earned landmark status in 2003, the third public housing project in the city to do so.

A painter’s blurry, enchanting, elusive New York

February 28, 2013

Born in St. Louis in 1864 and trained in France, Paul Cornoyer made a name for himself in the late 19th century, painting landscapes and urban scenes in an impressionist style.

Cornoyermadsqintheafternoon1910

“In 1899, with encouragement from William Merritt Chase, he moved to New York City,” states oxfordgallery.com.

Here he opened a studio, became associated with the Ash Can school, and for many years was a beloved art teacher at the Mechanics Institute.

Cornoyerwintertwilightcenpark

“Celebrated for his lyrical cityscapes and atmospheric landscapes, Paul Cornoyer crafted an indelible impression of fin-de-siècle New York,” explains this fine arts site.

[Above: "Winter Twilight Central Park"; below, "Flatiron Building"]

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Well-known in his day, his typically rainy, muted depictions of New York City sold well and earned him fame, particularly “The Plaza After Rain” (below) and “Madison Square in the Afternoon” (top).

Cornoyerplazaaftertherain

He’s not a household name, but his vision of a New York with soft edges and blurred borders still resonates—reflecting a moody city filled with mystery and enchantment.

Street cleaning in the turn of the century city

February 25, 2013

Turn of the 20th century, that is. Before sweeper trucks came along, New York’s roads were cleaned with a contraption like this: a flimsy, horse-pulled cart with a water sprayer, squeegee, and roller at the rear.

Streetcleaninghorses

This photo, from the New York City municipal archives collection, is undated . . . and there’s almost no description of where it was taken.

It’s just another random moment in the early 20th century city no one could imagine would be of interest 100 years down the line.

The offensive statue kicked out of a city park

February 25, 2013

To artist Frederick MacMonnies, it probably sounded like a crowd-pleaser.

Commissioned in 1915 by the city to create a sculpture for City Hall Park, he carved a 55-ton piece of marble into “Civic Virtue”: a figure of a strapping young man holding a sword while standing astride two beautiful women, who symbolized vice and corruption.

Civicvirtueincityhallpark

“It represents virtue rising or overcoming temptation,” said Macmonnies.

But even before the 22-foot statue was unveiled in the park in 1922, it was under fire. Women’s groups claimed it was demeaning to have virtue represented by a male figure, while women were equated with vice.

CivicvirtuecloseupMacMonnies found the argument ridiculous and blamed “literal” minded people who didn’t think allegorically. “Temptation is usually made feminine because only the feminine really attracts and tempts,” quoted the Times.

Mayor Hylan thought it was “a travesty of good taste,” but the statue went up anyway, earning the nickname “Rough Guy” because of his naked, chiseled, somewhat caveman-like features.

Throughout the 1920s, petitions were filed to have Civic Virtue removed, and in the 1930s, with City Hall Park set for a beautification project, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses stated that he wanted it gone.

By 1941, rumor had it that Mayor LaGuardia was tired of seeing Civic Virtue’s muscular butt from City Hall. The statue was banished to Queens Borough Hall, where it languished for seven decades.

Last year, Civic Virtue, falling apart and still lacking respect, found a new home: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where officials plan to restore it.

[Photo at right: from the Bridge and Tunnel Club]

A faded subway sign under the Chrysler Building

February 25, 2013

The Chrysler Building is one of those iconic city structures with its own subway entrance—like the New York Life building on 23rd Street and the KMart (formerly Wanamaker’s) at Astor Place.

Chryslerbuildingsubwaysign

Which means that once you get off the 4, 5, or 6 train at Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, you can follow a passageway that takes you through a basement arcade containing a handful of stores, to a staircase for the lobby.

There’s still a barber shop in that sub-lobby arcade, and a locksmith, and the Lexler Deli (a wonderful hybrid name!). But I’m sorry to say that the efficiently titled Chrysler Beauty Salon is no longer.

It was probably replaced by the Duane Reade down there. . . .

The very humble beginnings of Union Square

February 23, 2013

Behold the sparse, lonely junction of Broadway and the Bowery at 14th Street, as well as the patch of green in the foreground that marks the southern end of today’s Union Square.

This is how the square appeared to New Yorkers who ventured up this far from the center of the city in 1828—no big box stores, no M14 bus, no NYU students milling around.

Unionsquarebroadwaybowery

Amazing, right? Artist Albertis Del Orient Browere painted it from memory in 1885, according to Painting the Town, a book produced by the Museum of the City of New York.

In 1828, Union Square was called Union Place. “The building boom that would bring fine residences, elegant hotels, exclusive boarding schools, and subsequently, theaters and commercial enterprises to the square lay twenty years in the future,” the book says.

“Union Place, first called the Forks to describe the junction of the Bowery, Broadway, and University Place at 14th Street, originated as a burial ground for indigent people. As the city continued to grow, the cemetery was transformed into a park, making Union Square a desirable location for those wealthy New Yorkers who constituted the vanguard of the northward migration.”

An Art Deco globe illuminates a New York lobby

February 23, 2013

DailynewsglobeThe 37-story New York Daily News building, at 220 East 42nd Street, is pure Art Deco beauty.

And it’s even more of a masterpiece thanks to the illuminated 12-foot globe that’s been revolving under a black glass dome in the lobby since 1930.

“Around it, spreading across the floor like a giant compass and literally positioning New York at the center of the world, bronze lines indicate mileage to various international destinations,” writes Fodors.com.

“The Daily News, however, hasn’t called this building home since the mid-1990s, 15 years after it played the offices of the fictional newspaper the Daily Planet in the original Superman movie.”

Dailynewsbuildingglobevintage

It attracts lots of gawkers today, just as it has for 80 years. [Image above courtesy of New York Architecture]

A con artist known as “queen of the underworld”

February 23, 2013

Sophielyons2New York in the 19th century was packed with notorious swindlers.

Yet few were as infamous as Sophie Levy Lyons—the daughter of a shoplifter and granddaughter of a safe cracker who picked her first pocket by age six and continued stealing all her adult life.

That is, until she hit middle age, and renounced her criminal ways.

Born in 1848, Sophie spent her Manhattan childhood mastering the family business. Sent to Sing Sing three times by her 20th birthday, she was part of a gang led by another infamous female thief, Marm Mandelbaum.

In her teens she married bank robber Ned Lyons, who used his “earnings” to finance a cushy life for Sophie on Long Island.

Sophielyons1886But as a young mother, she longed for the con life. For years she alternated between stealing and stints on Blackwell’s Island.

“The key to Sophie’s success was that she was both a proficient technician and a convincing actress,” wrote Cait N. Murphy in Scoundrel of Law.

By age 50, after years of blackmail, jewel smuggling (she invented the hollowed-out heel trick), and a recent arrest for shoplifting from a dry-goods store on 14th Street, she gave up the swindler’s life.

Sophie relocated to Detroit, landing legit gigs investing in real estate and ministering to other cons.

In 1913 she wrote her autobiography, Crime Does Not Pay, then was murdered 11 years later. “She died in 1924—ironically at the hands of thieves,” wrote Murphy. A gang broke into her Michigan home and beat her to death while looking for her rumored wealth.

In a way, her crimes did pay: She left an estate valued at $1 million.

Once-hidden store signs from an older New York

February 20, 2013

Peel back a store sign in the modern city, and it’s possible that a sign behind it, from a rougher, earlier New York, will reveal itself.

Sneakerjeanssign

That’s what happened on Delancey and Essex Streets recently.

The glossy billboard advertising this sneaker and jeans store vanished (removed by the owners, or blown off by recent storms?) and a much older version reappeared—with a very sweet clock to boot!

Grandstreetdelisign

An even cooler glimpse of a different Manhattan can be seen behind the green awning for this deli on Grand and Lewis Streets.

Take a peek underneath, and the old-school sign for a corner magazine and card store (with an ice cream fountain!) makes an appearance.


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