Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

A golden goddess topping Madison Square Garden

September 2, 2014

She was the second statue of Diana to grace the top of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, the sportsman’s playground with the glamorous roof garden that opened in 1890 on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

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But this figure of the gilded goddess was the most famous, a 13-foot huntress who balanced on one toe aiming a bow and arrow for 32 years.

Illuminated at night by electricity, her slender form, the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, could be seen as far away as New Jersey.

Dianamadisonsquaregardenfaraway

And it goes without saying that her nudity offended some New Yorkers, particularly Anthony Comstock, head of the self-created New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Newyorksocietysuppressionvicelogo“The naked figure immediately caused outrage in some, and delight in others; it became known as the Statue That Offended New York,” states Atlas Obscura. “Critics led by the moralizing Anthony Comstock demanded it be taken down, whilst others flocked to see the sensuous Diana, glittering in the sunlight.”

To shush the critics, White had Saint-Gaudens drape a pennant over the statue to obscure Diana’s private parts. It quickly blew off in the wind, much to White’s delight.

DiananytDiana scandalized some residents, and she was witness to a scandalous murder on the roof in June 1906.

That’s when White was shot dead by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. White had carried on a relationship with Nesbit since she was 16.

In 1924, Madison Square Garden was set to be demolished. Diana’s fate was hotly debated.

Some wanted her to grace the Municipal Building; others thought she should go atop the New York Life tower, which was replacing the Garden.

Where did she end up? In storage for six years, and then the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she greets visitors in the entrance hall to this day.

The Labor Day parade hits Union Square in 1887

August 30, 2014

A contingent of tobacco workers packed into a horse-drawn wagon turn west through the north end of Union Square in this Labor Day parade photo from 1887.

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It’s another first New York City can lay claim to: the first Labor Day parade was organized by the Central Workers Union to show “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” in the city.

At the time this photo was taken, the parade is only five years old. But it caught on quick. By 1894, the nation begins to celebrate “National Labor Day” on the first Monday of September.

[Photo: MCNY Digital Gallery]

The end of a Madison Square Gilded Age mansion

August 22, 2014

In 1859, Leonard Jerome—one of the richest men in New York City, who amassed a pile of cash in stocks and a name for himself as a horse fancier—made a promise his wife.

JeromemansionLOC1877

“I’ll build you a palace yet!” he told her, while the two were temporarily living abroad and enjoying the social swirl of Paris.

Jerome was a competitive and driven man who would build a racetrack in the Bronx and make and lose fortunes throughout his life. But he certainly stuck to his pledge.

Jeromemansionmadave1870nypl

Once back in New York later that year, he bought a parcel of land on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, a posh neighborhood of new brownstones reserved for New York’s wealthiest.

Jeromemansion1968The Jeromes didn’t want a brownstone, however. Instead they built an extravagant mansion inspired by the architecture of Paris (top photo, in 1877).

“The result was the most lavish statement of the Parisian Second Empire style as applied to domestic architecture in New York before the Civil War,” wrote Wayne Craven in Gilded Mansions.

Jenniejerome“Its design broke with the uniformity of the Knickerbocker brownstones, for the Jerome mansion possessed the signature mansard roof with dormers and a richness of decorated architectural surfaces, especially around doors, windows, and dormers.”

For the next few decades, the Jerome mansion was the site of incredible balls and concerts in the mansion’s theater. And conveniently, Madison Square Garden was soon built across the street (second photo).

In 1867, Jerome’s finances collapsed, and his womanizing compelled his wife to relocate to France with their three daughters (including Jennie, future mother of Lord Winston Churchill, above).

He moved out of his palace, leasing it to the Union League Club.

Jeromemansion19682

By the 20th century, with Madison Avenue no longer stylish, the mansion changed hands and underwent alterations by the University Club and the Manhattan Club.

MerchandisemartAs the decades went on, the Manhattan Club moved uptown, and the Jerome mansion fell into disrepair—a faded reminder of a long-gone era.

In 1965, the house received landmark status from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was put on the market for $850,000 (above photos, from 1967), but found no takers, and was demolished in 1967.

In its place rose the 42-story tinted glass skyscraper known as Merchandise Mart (left).

[Top, third, and fourth photos: Library of Congress; second photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

August 11, 2014

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.

Madisonsquarepostcard1900s

Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.

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Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

Going for a swim at Madison Square Garden

August 9, 2014

Imagine if every summer, the interior of the current Madison Square Garden was transformed into an enormous swimming pool, with diving platforms, seats for spectators, and a 25-foot waterfall.

Madison Square Garden as a Swimming Pool

Pretty cool, right? A pool like this actually did exist during the summer of 1921—host to swim competitions and diving shows, and open to the general public too.

The pool was the idea of boxing promoter Tex Rickard, who leased the Garden, then on Madison Avenue and 26th Street, for a series of Friday night fights.

MSGpool1921popularmechanics

“In addition to a full slate of boxing matches, Rickard’s plan for the Garden included remodeling the structure, adding seating capacity (bringing it to 13,000 seats), and turning the giant amphitheater into the world’s largest indoor swimming pool during the summer months,” states Tex Rickard: Boxing’s Greatest Promoter.

MadisonsquaregardenIIUnfortunately the pool didn’t last much longer. Rickard gave up his promoter’s license after being accused of improper behavior with a couple of teenage girls.

That didn’t end his career though. He helped finance the creation of a new Madison Square Garden on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, which opened in 1925.

The circa-1890 arena, designed by Stanford White, with the new pool (above) was demolished.

Browsing the Flat Iron Restaurant menu, 1906

August 4, 2014

Since it opened in 1902, much has been written about the Flatiron Building, the triangular beauty that helped usher in New York’s 20th century skyscraper era.

Flatironrestaurantmenucover1906nypl

The Flat Iron Restaurant and Cafe, though, seems to be lost to the ages.

By 1906, Madison Square was no longer a desirable residential neighborhood for the city’s elite, as it had been earlier in the Gilded Age.

It was now a bustling commercial district, and that seems to be reflected in the menu offerings, which include an incredible selection of not-expensive shellfish, meats, and sandwiches.

Flatironmenu

I wonder if any contemporary city restaurant will bring back things like clear green turtle in a cup, eels in jelly, and breaded calf brains?

The rest of the four-page Flat Iron menu can be found here.

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Lovely, empty skybridges linking city buildings

June 21, 2014

They’ve been part of New York City since the 19th century: short, enclosed bridges that look like railway cars (and could make for pretty cool little apartments) connecting one building to another.

Functional yet decorative, these skybridges still exist all over the city—many in unusual corners and alleys.

Skybridgestaplestreet

One of the loveliest is this skywalk in Tribeca. Built in 1907, it linked New York Hospital’s House of Relief (such a wonderful name for a medical facility), at the corner of Hudson and Jay Streets, to a new hospital annex across Staple Street, then an industrial alley.

The annex housed a stable and laundry facility; you can imagine early 20th century nurses carting sheets and gowns and blankets back and forth across the skybridge day after day.

Skybridgechelseamarket

The transverse in Chelsea near Tenth Avenue has cathedral-like windows that let in lots of light.

Since 1930, it has connected the former Nabisco factory (today’s Chelsea Market, where the Oreo was invented!) to a former Nabisco office building.

Skybridgemetrolifetower

This gem on 24th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, bridging the Metropolitan Life Tower to the MetLife North building (no longer occupied by MetLife, though), has a graceful arch and appropriate Art Deco touches.

It almost looks like an old-school diner in the air.

Skybridgegimbels

Perhaps the most striking of all is the copper skybridge at the former Gimbels building on 32nd Street. Constructed in 1925, it actually resembles a bridge; it linked the main Gimbels department store to a new annex across the street and three stories into the sky.

The Bowery Boys recently posted a fascinating and rare glimpse inside this mostly abandoned walkway over Herald Square. Gimbels is long gone, but the transverse remains, and the photos are ghostly.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia]

New York’s old-school food trucks and carts

June 2, 2014

The whole food truck trend, with vendors selling everything from artisanal waffles to handmade geleto on the streets of New York? (Below, “hot Vienna waffles” on 22nd Street and Broadway.)

Hotviennawafflersvendorbway22nd

Been there done that, these vintage images remind us. Trying to make a buck by selling drinks and eats from a vehicle is probably as old a practice as the city itself. Hot corn, for example, was a big seller in the early 19th century.

Clamsmulberrybend

Clams and oysters were also very popular street food through the 1800s. This clam vendor, on Mulberry Bend, must have a layer of ice on the bed of his wagon—how else could he keep his wares cold?

Popcornvendorsixthave1895

A “pop corn” vendor (“always hot”) attracts a well-dressed lady on Sixth Avenue and 15th Street in 1895. At the time, this stretch was the famed Ladies Mile shopping district of grand department stores.

Parkrow1896milkvendor

The milk wagon has arrived on Park Row, this 1896 photo shows. “Pure Ice Cold Orange County Milk” is at the top of the menu, followed by fresh churned buttermilk and a milkshake—for a nickel.

Hotroastedjumbopeanuts1937wpa

Here, it’s 1937, the middle of the Depression, and under the Elevated tracks a peanut vendor takes a cigarette break.

Streetvendor14thbwayregmarsh1938

This bundled-up seller appears to be selling pretzels out of a renovated baby carriage. The photo, from 1938, was taken on 14th Street and Broadway, ground zero for today’s food trucks and vendors.

[Top photo: Museum of the City of New York; second, NYC municipal archives; third, fourth, and fifth, Museum of the City of New York; sixth, Museum of the City of New York copyright Reginald Marsh]

A dazzling sunset from a West 23rd Street roof

May 31, 2014

“Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street,” completed in 1906, is another evocative take on the city by John Sloan, with a solitary figure, dramatic sky, and representations of daily life: laundry on a line.

Sloan had a thing for the triple combo of women, rooftops, and laundry, as these paintings reveal.

Sunsetwest23rdstreetsloan2

“A study of dramatic beauty and unexpected tranquility in an undistinguished urban landscape, ‘Sunset, West Twenty-third Street,’ displays Sloan’s ability early in his career to transform a utilitarian setting into a more sublime vista.”

Sloanheadshot1891That’s from the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, which has the painting in its collection.

“Although ‘Sunset, West Twenty-third Street’ could easily be understood as an image of an anonymous woman distracted from her laundry, the figure represented is the artist’s wife, Dolly, on the rooftop of the building that housed his studio.”

Where was his studio? At 165 West 23rd, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Here it is today via Google.

[Photo: John Sloan, 1891]

A peek into a New York boyhood in the 1850s

May 19, 2014

Letterstophilcover1982“It seems hard to believe that Twenty-third Street—which is the first street in the city of which I remember anything, could have changed in so short a time,” wrote Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn in an 1886 letter to his young nephew, Phil.

“The rural scenes, the open spaces, have vanished; and the small and quiet residences, many of them built entirely of wood, have given place to huge piles of brick and stone, and to iron and plate-glass fronts of the stores which now line the street.”

It was the first of 10 letters Gene would address to his nephew, recently collected in a thin, enchanting volume, Letters to Phil, published by New York Bound in 1982.

Each chronicles his memories between 1848 and 1856 of a small-scale New York that had yet to experience the enormous growth that made it an international capital by the 1880s.

NYC1842mapGene’s city had a population of about 500,000 and a northern boundary barely exceeding 14th Street. A descendent of a prosperous family that came to Manhattan in the 17th century, he shows what it was like to be a curious, privileged boy before the Civil War.

“Twenty-third Street and in fact all the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved,” he wrote. “There was plenty of room, plenty of dirt (clean dirt), and plenty of boys; what more could be desired!”

Gene writes of the games he and his friends played: marbles, “base ball,” and kite-flying. The also chased the pigs that ran around Sixth Avenue.

His Manhattan was a rural paradise. “Up town at this time was almost inaccessible. Of course there was no Central Park. Third Avenue was open to Harlem passing through Yorkville which was quite a large village  about 86th Street. . . .”

Harlemlane

Chelsea was located to the west of Gene’s home; Murray Hill, to the east. “Eighth Avenue was open to Harlem, and in connection with the Harlem Lane (now St. Nicholas Ave.) was the great road for fast driving.”

Madisoncottage2The business district, at City Hall, contained “none of those magnificent buildings now so common in the lower part of the city. A building of any kind six stories high was very rare.”

Downtown had all the theaters, as well as Barnum’s Museum. “It was a delight to go there on Saturday afternoons.”

The rough side of town was at Broadway and Houston Street, the site of St. Thomas’ church. “[Sic] Opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.”

Gene and his brother skated on ponds at 32nd and Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 57th. They headed over to Park Avenue south of 42nd Street on Saturdays and “played among the rocks and watch[ed] the trains.”

“Sometimes we would walk in the region which is now the Central Park. It was a very rough and rocky place, with plenty of woods and scattered trees and very few houses except ‘Squatters’ shanties.”

New York’s industry centered around transportation. The East River housed “Dry Docks” and shipyards. “On the Bowery at 6th Street was the ‘Hay Scale’ where the loads of hay brought in on that side of the city were weighed.

Gothaminn1870

“Facing this was the ‘Gotham Inn,’ quite a noted sporting tavern. On the corner of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street stood an old pear tree, which was planted on Gov. Stuyvesant’s farm in 1647.”

Gene gives a wonderful account of a free-range boyhood in a slower-paced city. But what he did with his life isn’t clear. He apparently never married; he may have lived a life of leisure. He died in 1922.

His nephew Phil is also a mystery. His 1952 obituary in The New York Times, however, says he lived on East 78th Street, was survived by a wife, and became a painter.

[Map of NYC in 1842; images from the NYPL Digital Gallery]


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