Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

An 1890 spring morning in the heart of the city

April 14, 2014

Frederick Childe Hassam’s “Spring Morning in the Heart of the City” gives us an overcast, lush view of Madison Square Park’s (yes, once the center of New York!) carriage traffic and well-dressed pedestrians.

Hassam frequently painted Madison Square; this elite area of the Gilded Age city was near his studio on 17th Street.

Childehassamspringmorning

“While discussing the picture in 1892, Hassam said his intention was to focus upon the group of cabs in the foreground and to have ‘the lines in the composition radiate and gradually fade out from the centre.’” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“He also noted that ‘all those people and horses and vehicles didn’t arrange themselves for my especial benefit. I had to catch them, bit by bit, as they flitted past.’”

A 19th century painter’s moody, snowy New York

February 27, 2014

His impressionist paintings, veiled in twilight-like shades of blue and gray, reveal city’s beauty and enchantment.

And the Metropolitan Museum of Art calls him “the foremost chronicler of New York City at the turn of the century.”

Childehassamwinterdaybrooklynbridge

["Winter Day on Brooklyn Bridge"]

But you may never have heard of Frederick Childe Hassam—a popular and prolific painter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose work is still acclaimed, but perhaps not to the degree it deserves.

Childehassamnewyorkstreet1902

["New York Street," 1902]

Born to a well-off family in Boston, Hassam worked as an illustrator and then began exhibiting his paintings, earning accolades for his lovely cityscapes of Boston and Paris.

After moving to New York in 1889, he fell in love with the city. It certainly shows. His depictions of the Gilded Age city may be his most striking, illuminating city streets, parks, and people with radiant strokes of color and light.

Childehassamcalvarychurchinthesnow

["Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square"]

Hassam was not without critics. Some admonished him for not showing the struggle and hardship brought on by industrialization, while others questioned his so-called pedestrian subject matter.

“The man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him,” Hassam said in 1892.

Childehassamfifthaveinwinter1892

“Fifth Avenue in Winter,” above, was reportedly one of his favorites. It was painted from the studio space he rented on Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.

Childehassamsnowstormmadsq1902

["Snowstorm, Madison Square," 1890]

Hassam’s moody, magical scenes of New York covered by snow show us a city very similar to the wintry New York of today.

Cabs wait for passengers, confident, fashionable young women stroll unescorted, and weary pedestrians in black hats and lace-up boots trudge through the snow on their way to and from Brooklyn.

Hassam painted wonderful scenes of rainy day New York too, like this one near Madison Square.

One century and three views of East 23rd Street

January 13, 2014

The area surrounding Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was ultra-trendy in post–Civil War New York, first as a residential enclave and then an entertainment and shopping district.

Fifthave23rdstreet1911

By 1911, when this photo was taken (it comes from New York Then and Now, published in 1976), the area was less fashionable.

But it had its landmarks and haunts—Madison Square Park on the left, commercial loft and walkup buildings, and out of view on the right, the 1902 Flatiron Building. and look, no traffic lights!

Fifthave23rdstreet19741

“The eight-story Hotel Bartholdi, built in 1885 at the southeast corner of Broadway and East 23rd Street, was named after the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty,” states the caption. “It was home for many sportsmen attending events at nearby Madison Square Garden.”

By 1974, this corner was forlorn and dingy. The Bartholdi Hotel was torn down after a 1970 fire; buildings on its left that had housed art galleries were destroyed in a terrible 1966 blaze that killed 12 firefighters. “The demolition of the four buildings  created a large parking lot,” the book states.

East23rdstreet2014

In 2014, this corner—now part of the buzzy new NoMad neighborhood—is hot once again. Surrounding lovely Madison Square Park are apartment buildings and new and reconfigured co-ops.

There’s no room for a parking lot in this incarnation of Madison Square. Broadway south of 23rd Street has been pedestrian plaza-ized.

One small thing remains: a few old-school wood water towers.

A little girl’s diary sheds light on the 1849 city

January 9, 2014

“I am ten years old to-day, and I am going to begin to keep a diary,” wrote Catherine Elizabeth Havens on August 6, 1849.

CatherinehavensandfatherCatherine only kept her diary for a year. But lucky for us, as an adult, she had the foresight to publish it in 1919.

Now, future generations can peek into what day-to-day city life was like for kids in the mid-19th century.

Well-off kids, that is. The daughter of a businessman (with her father at right), she first lived on exclusive Lafayette Place, then in Brooklyn, where she tells us her brother “liked to go crabbing.”

Her family finally settled on Ninth Street near Fifth Avenue. “It is a beautiful house and has glass sliding doors with birds of Paradise sitting on palm trees painted on them. And back of our dining room is a piazza, and a grape vine, and we have lots of Isabella grapes every fall.”

CatherinediaryexcerptThe city is getting too built up, she writes. “I walk some mornings with my nurse before breakfast from our house in Ninth Street up Fifth Avenue to Twenty-Third Street, and down Broadway home.

“An officer stands in front of the House of Refuge on Madison Square, ready to arrest bad people, and he looks as if he would like to find some.”

Catherine goes to a girls’ school; she likes piano lessons but dislikes history. Her family occasionally attends the “brick church” on Beekman Place and Nassau Street (below). She and her school friends raise $300 to help victims of the Irish potato famine.

Like all super-aware city kids, she knows all the leading attractions. She visits Vauxhall Gardens, mentions a wax figure at Barnum’s Museum, and remembers how moved her father was when he saw Jenny Lind sing at Castle Garden.

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She gets cream puffs from Waldick’s Bakery on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and chocolate on Broadway and Ninth Street. “Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they have molasses candy that is the best in the city.”

CatherinediarymarblecemeteryShe tells us about the sounds of old New York. “Stages run through Bleecker Street and Eighth Street and Ninth Street right past our house, and it puts me right to sleep when I come home from the country to hear them rumble along over the cobblestones again.”

Catherine shops A.T. Stewart’s store on Chambers Street and likes Arnold and Constable on Canal Street, where “they keep elegant silks and satins and velvets, and my mother always goes there to get her best things.”

CatherinediarybrickchurchAnd she loves playtime in the park. “I roll my hoop and jump the rope in the afternoon, sometimes in the Parade Ground on Washington Square, and sometimes in Union Square.”

 The adult Catherine dedicated her published diary to her nieces and nephews, so perhaps she had no children of her own. I would love to know what happened to this thoughtful, literate girl, whose words give us a wonderful window into the pre-Civil War city.

[Third image: The Spangler Farmhouse, once on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue and included in the published version of Catherine's diary]

Which city park hosted the first Christmas tree?

December 9, 2013

The honor goes to Madison Square Park, where on December 21, 1912 a 60-foot tree arrived on a truck from the Adironacks.

Christmastreeraising

The enormous tree, raised and supported by a block of cement, was decorated with 1,200 colored lights (donated by the Edison Company).

ChristmastreemadsqlightsA  ceremony beside the tree on Christmas Eve attracted thousands and “cheered the lonely and destitute.”

“All around the park on every path, apparently unmindful of the cold, stood a reverential audience, cheering the music and praising the idea of a public Christmas tree, but not once growing boisturous in the smallest degree,” wrote The New York Times on Christmas Day.

Having a living room or parlor Christmas tree  was an established custom in the city. But a community tree outside in a park? That was a new idea.

Christmastreemadsqlights2“It is hoped by those who have worked for it and hope to personify in it the great Christmas spirit that the placing of a great outdoor Christmas tree may become a national custom, taking the place in America of the older customs of older lands,” stated The New York Times on December 21.

New Yorkers loved it. Pretty soon, Christmas trees became the norm in parks and squares.

[Photos: Bain News Service. They are not dated, but they seem to all show the same tree in Madison Square Park]

New York City pioneered so many emblems of the modern Christmas, like the custom of a holiday tree and the red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus.

The men who built the roadway on 28th Street

December 7, 2013

You rarely consider the effort that went into building the typical unfashionable Manhattan side street. Laying those granite blocks looks like hard work, and there’s no equipment or machines in sight.

Building28thstreet

The caption of this photo, dated October 2, 1930, reads “Elevated shot (from El station) of men laying blocks down street-activity makes pattern.”

It’s from the wonderful New York City Municipal Photo archive. Here’s another look at the street, the Sixth Avenue El Station, and the thousands of granite bricks waiting to be laid down.

I love the ad inside the stairwell of the el station: graham crackers.

The racy painting at a Madison Square bar

November 4, 2013

HoffmanhouseIn 1880s New York City, few hotels could match the elegance of Hoffman House, on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets (at left).

And the hotel’s mahogany-walled grand bar and salon was famous in the city.

This was where New York’s titans of industry and political power brokers congregated. Boss Tweed was a regular, along with Grover Cleveland, William Randolph Hearst, and Ulysses S. Grant.

HoffmanhousesaloonPart of the reason they made the venue their regular haunt was its sense of privacy and luxury—plus the famous cocktails.

But it may also had to do with the nude paintings hanging along the walls, especially “Nymphs and Satyr,” a suggestive, eight-foot depiction of voluptuous young women by French artist Adolphe Bouguerneau.

This was racy stuff (if not exactly great art) to Victorian-era New Yorkers.

Usually the painting was covered by a thick velvet drape, but when it was open, patrons could discreetly view it by looking in the mirror on the opposite wall.

“Nymphs and Satyr” became a huge tourist attraction. It was such a sensation, even women were allowed to peek at it—but only one day a week, as ladies were normally barred from the bar.

Nymphsandsatyr“A quartet of ripe, naked maidens prancing around a preoccupied faun was for 24 years the despair of Victorian moralists and the delight of the clubmen who crowded Manhattan’s Hoffman House bar,” wrote Time in 1943.

By 1901, the painting was in storage, and after the Hoffman House closed in 1915, it remained there. In the 1940s, it was purchased at auction and given to the Clark Institute in Massachusetts

Until 2014, you can see for yourself the painting that titillated Gilded Age New York at the Met, where “Nymphs and Satyr” is currently on display.

Working girls in a New York office in 1910

September 5, 2013

No, not that kind of working girl. These are the young women who spent their days as clerks more than 100 years ago, filling out forms and filing papers in the new office culture of the 20th century.

Metlifepostcard

They sit at desks instead of cubicles, rely on pens and paper rather than computers, and wear the same tidy outfit and hairstyle. They don’t appear much different than the office workers of today.

This image comes from a postcard of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company actuary office. Perhaps it’s a floor in the lovely tower on 23rd Street that still stands today.

The dates on New York’s buildings and signs

September 2, 2013

I love looking up at old signs and facades and seeing the date the building or business opened. Sometimes the numbers are more functional than architecturally beautiful, but it’s always worth knowing how long a store or service has been around.

Northerndispensarysign

The sign for Northern Dispensary, kind of a walk-in health clinic for Greenwich Villagers in the early 19th century, has one of the oldest dates I’ve seen: 1827.

Treissbuilding

By comparison, the Treiss Building, on Atlantic Avenue on the Cobble Hill-Brooklyn Heights border since 1872, is practically a newbie.

1894datefirehouse

Ornamentation like this, from the facade of a city firehouse established in 1894 in the Flatiron District, is always a treat. And the AD is a nice touch.

Thomasdrugs1904

I’d love to go back in time and see what Thomas Drugs, on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, looked like in 1904.

Yonahshimmelsign

Judging from its shabby-chic faded look, the sign for Yonah Shimmel Knishes, on Houston Street, just might actually have been painted in 1910.

The influx of bachelors in Gilded Age New York

August 26, 2013

Bachelorchase&bakerpianoadToday’s New York is a city of singles.

But until about 150 years ago, it was impractical and expensive for unmarried adults to live alone (as well as morally suspect when it came to unhitched women).

Things changed in the 1870s—for guys, at least. “With the growth and industrialization of New York City in the 19th century, the work force consisted of very large numbers of unmarried men,” explains a 2004 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

“The number of bachelors in the city ranged from 125,000 (about 13 percent of the population) in 1870 to nearly 45 percent of the male population over the age of 15 in 1890.”

WilbrahamapartmentsAll these unattached guys had to live somewhere. One solution for men with  cash was a new type of housing called the bachelor flat.

Bachelor flats were basically apartment residences that consisted of a suite of rooms or just one room, sometimes with a kitchen and bath; sometimes without.

Many of these bachelor flats are long gone. But some still exist.

There’s the Benedick on Washington Square East (mentioned in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth), the Gorham on Broadway and 18th Street, and a lovely copper-topped, circa-1890 building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 30th Street called the Wilbraham.

Wilbrahamdoorway“The Wilbraham catered to single professional men of means,” noted the LPC report. “The 1900 census listed eleven single male ‘boarders’ at the Wilbraham, ranging in age from 28 to 80: two lawyers, two treasurers, two company ‘secretaries,’ a music professor, a drygoods clerk, a silk manufacturer, an architect, and an actor.”

The guys at the Wilbraham didn’t have their own kitchens. But there was a communal dining area, and they had plenty places to eat in their neighborhood—then a posh, happening area.

The bachelor flat concept didn’t last long. By 1927, the Wilbraham was open to women, and today, it’s a regular apartment building.

Bachelors are still here, of course, along with their female counterparts.


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