Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.

Draftriotsarson

Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]

Draftriotsseventhregiment

Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]

High-school girls in 1910 celebrate Midsummer

June 23, 2014

New Yorkers in 2014 enjoyed the summer solstice by going to the Mermaid Parade, testing out the new roller coaster at Coney Island, and cruising on Citibikes.

In the 1910s, they did it by reviving an ancient holiday most commonly celebrated in northern Europe: Midsummer’s Day.

Midsummersdayfestival1911The idea of bringing back this once-popular summer event—a festival of food, dancing, and maypoles—began with a group of students from all-female Washington Irving High School on 15th Street and Irving Place.

WilliamgaynormayorThey decided that Midsummer’s Day should be celebrated in the modern city with a traditional folk festival, with Mayor William J. Gaynor (left) in attendance.

According to a New York Times article, six girls sent and signed this very fanciful, slightly hippie-ish letter to Mayor Gaynor:

“Whereas the great family known as the City of New York should, like other happy families, take part in the joys of its daughters, you, the honored father of the city, are advised that your girls are minded to meet you in the family garden, Pelham Bay Park, June 24, 1910, and to pay you filial respect, to entertain you with songs and games, and otherwise celebrate our family loyalty.”

MidsummerdayfestivalrelayMayor Gaynor, impressed with the idea, promised to bring his wife and enjoy a luncheon on the grass in the Bronx with 2,000 Washington Irving students, alumni, and family members.

After eating, a Midsummer procession was to occur. “Competitive songs and dances will follow, with the ancient midsummer torch race and other traditional games,” the Times wrote.

Midsummerdayfestivalfling

I couldn’t find an account of how the Midsummer Day festival went off. And unfortunately, when it came time to do it again in 1911, the Mayor didn’t show, according to a 1911 Times article.

But thousands of Washington Irving girls did. These photos, from the Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, are from the June 24, 1911 festival.

Ghostly reminders of New York’s old buildings

June 12, 2014

Every building in New York has a story—even the ones that no longer exist, except as phantom remnants of an older, forgotten city.

Ghostlyoutlinechelsea

I’m drawn to the faded outline of this little walkup in Chelsea. Once pressed against the side of a grand turn of the century warehouse or department store, it hung on for years, crooked and stooped.

Ghostlyoutlineseast31st

I don’t know when this building, a perfect square with a tall chimney on East 31st Street, met the bulldozer. But I love that it refuses to be erased from the block.

GhostoutlinesAllenstreet

This Allen Street tenement reveals the remains of maybe three separate smaller structures, probably taken down at different times.

Ghostlyoutlinewest40s

How many people once lived and worked in this squat building in the West 40s, and what did they see when they looked out their windows? I wonder if they would recognize the cityscape of today.

Ghostlybuildingeast20s2

On the side of a brownstone in the East 20s are at least two building impressions—two layers of another New York.

Check out more phantom buildings and their remains here.

The first ambulance hits the streets of Manhattan

June 2, 2014

Can you imagine being in pain and riding to the hospital in this?

It’s the first ambulance in the city (and reportedly the nation), launched in 1869 to ferry the sick and injured to Bellevue Hospital.

Bellevueambulance18701880mcny

The idea for an ambulance service came from a Civil War surgeon, who realized that hurt soldiers would be brought to medical tents via flimsy stretchers and carts, which often resulted in further injuries.

EdwarddaltonSo army doctor Edward B. Dalton (right) developed a vehicle with a roof and shock absorbers that could transport casualties quickly and safely.

After the war, Dalton was hired by the Department of Charities and Corrections to start a civilian ambulance corp.

In June 1869, two lightweight, 800-pound vehicles hit the (often unpaved and muddy) streets.

“Ambulances were staffed by a driver and an ‘ambulance surgeon,’ in fact, an intern fresh out of two years of medical school,” states emsmuseum.org.

What was inside? A rolling bed, surgical lamp, pillows, and blankets. Medical supplies included bandages, tourniquets, a stomach pump—plus a straitjacket, handcuffs, a flask of brandy, and drugs like amyl nitrate and morphine!

Bellevueambulance1895

“In addition, the ambulance surgeon carried a black leather satchel containing hypodermic syringes, tracheotomy tubes, a Nealaton’s probe, catheters and dressings for minor wounds,” writes emsmuseum.org.

Bellevueambulance1908mcny

Instead of a siren on top, a bell operated by a foot pedal alerted pedestrians that the ambulance needed to get through. Telegraph communications let drivers know where to pick someone up.

NY3dBookIntCover-1In a rapidly growing city, the service was a big success. Five more ambulances were added in 1870, and by 1891, Bellevue had more than 3,000 ambulance calls.

As time went on, ambulances changed. The second photo is from 1895; the third, 1910.

The ambulance corp is another advancement from post-Civil War New York, a time of incredible modernization in the city. Read more about it New York City in the Gilded Age. [Photos: Museum of the City of New York; emsmuseum.org]

A faded apartment ad on a Murray Hill building

May 19, 2014

The white-brick residence at 155 East 38th Street doesn’t appear to be any different than the hundreds of others like it in Manhattan.

Murrayhillaptad

Except for one thing: the north side of the building sports a super old-school ad for apartment vacancies—air-conditioned, from 1 to 4.5 rooms!

The old OR exchange stood for ORchard, indicating a Lower East Side realty office ORegon.

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]

How New York City invented the penthouse

May 16, 2014

Penthouse1930sbereniceabbotPenthouse: the word conjures up luxury and exclusivity.

Thing is, it’s a clever 1920s rebranding of the top of a building, where no one with any choice used to want to live.

For most of the city’s history, the single-structure mansion was the preferred domicile for the rich.

At the turn of the 20th century, monied New Yorkers were increasingly occupying “French Flat” cooperative apartments.

But even then, the undesirable rooftop apartment was given over to servants. Until the city and its tastes changed in the Jazz Age.

Penthouse60gramercy1941

“By the end of the 1920s, the cliff dwellers of Manhattan were beginning to appropriate for their own pleasure the once forlorn roofs of apartment buildings,” writes Donald L. Miller in his excellent new book on New York in the 1920s, Supreme City.

Penthouserestaurant30cps“The ‘Cinderella’ of New York architecture, the ‘penthouse,’ or roof apartment, had for decades been considered the least attractive part of a high building, a boxlike residence for the servant class, set among soot-scarred chimneys and wooden water tanks.”

Now, with a vertical city making air and light the most luxurious commodities of all, developers and their wealthy clients had these “cramped dormitories for the laboring classes” torn down and “replaced by new luxury quarters.”

“[Reporter Virginia] Pope saw ‘a new chapter of New York’s social history . . . being written above the roof line,'” wrote Miller. “In there roof houses ‘New Yorkers achieved ‘a detachment impossible to any dwelling set on earth,'” wrote journalist William Irwin. “There were no neighbors in sight; ‘only the tainted air above Manhattan.'”

A 1924 New York Times article foresaw this new desire for penthouses, which were still very limited in number, and only a few dated farther back that the late teens.

Penthousetudorcity1930s

One penthouse in particular, “is a substantial affair of steel construction, cement floors, and wire embedded windows. Windows on four sides give on the towers and steeples, the skyscrapers and the occasional treetops of the city.

“A wide walled terrace looks up to a ceiling no one can touch, the blue sky of heaven.”

[Top photo: 55 Seventh Avenue in the 1930s, by Berenice Abbott; second: a 1940s Gramercy Park penthouse, NYC Municipal Archives; Third: a postcard from the Penthouse restaurant, Museum of the City of New York; bottom photo: a Tudor City penthouse in the 1930s, MCNY]

New York’s wonderful old-school pizza signs

May 3, 2014

With pizza gone high-end and foodie these days, it’s time to pay homage to the classic corner pizza parlor and pizzeria restaurant, where a slice of cheese generally costs the same as a subway ride and the store signage screams no-frills 1970s.

Royalpizzasign

Royal Pizza has been feeding pies on Third Avenue and 39th Street since 1973. This privilege sign looks like it hasn’t been changed in decades.

V&Tpizzeriasignneon

With its wonderful pink and blue neon sign (decorated with illustrations of Venetian gondoliers!), V&T Pizzeria has been slicing pies since 1945.

Stevespizzasign

I don’t know the age of Steve’s Pizza, in the Financial District. But this is classic New York corner pizza signage.

Samspizzasign

Sam’s, on Court Street in Brooklyn, goes all the way back to 1930. In an otherwise good review, New York describes it as looking like a set from The Sopranos and having “the faint smell of a 1970s basement.”

Above-ground remnants of the Croton Aqueduct

April 28, 2014

CrotonwatermanholeIt was an amazing engineering feat: the construction of an aqueduct from upper Westchester to Manhattan that would bring fresh water to New York City.

Built between 1837 and 1842, the Croton Aqueduct fed a growing metropolis’ huge need for clean drinking water as well as water for fighting fires.

The water had quite a journey to travel. From the Croton River it crossed the Harlem River over the beautiful High Bridge.

Crotonaqueductgatehouse

Then it flowed into a receiving reservoir in the West 70s between Sixth and Seventh Avenues (not quite yet the middle of Central Park; the park hadn’t been built yet).

From there it reached the Egyptian revival–style distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and then to streets and households all over Manhattan (who paid an annual fee for the water, of course).

CrotonaqueductinsideThe old Croton Aqueduct was in use until the 1890s (the Harper’s Magazine illustration at left is called “Shutting Off The Croton”), when it was replaced by a new aqueduct by the same name and used through the 1950s.

Amazingly, some of the 19th century aqueduct gatehouses (where the inverted siphon pipes that carried the water connected) still stand.

One is fenced off at Amsterdam Avenue and 118th Street (above). Completed in 1895, it replaced an older gatehouse at Amsterdam and 119th Street.

Another gatehouse, at Amsterdam and 113th Street, has been repurposed into a senior center.

Crotongatehouseharlem

A third gatehouse is on Convent Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem—it’s a beauty (above).

The gatehouses and manhole covers aren’t the only visible reminders of the aqueduct. Incredibly, part of an old reservoir wall appears to remain in the south wing of the New York Public Library building, which was built on the site of the distributing reservoir. Catch a glimpse of it here at Daytonian in Manhattan.

When the circus thrilled at Bellevue Hospital

April 28, 2014

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus still comes into town every year. (And up until recently, by foot!)

But perhaps no one welcomed clowns, elephants, horses, and the rest of the dazzling show quite like the patients of Bellevue Hospital.

Circusbellevueelephants

From 1908 to the 1960s, the circus set up in the interior courtyard, where patients could watch the action in wheelchairs or stretchers from Victorian-era balconies.

Circusbellevue

“It was a picturesque and unusual spectacle, that audience of patients in pink-striped hospital robes or in gray ones, with a nurse here and a doctor there, and crowds of little children—some touched by the great white plague, some little cripples, and some little convalescents,” wrote The New York Times during a 1912 performance.

CircusbellevuecloseupThat year, an audience of 600 witnessed the band, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, and a “champion roper” who did “marvelous things with a lasso.”

By the 1950s, the audience numbered in the thousands.

In 1952, a Times reporter noted that on the day of that year’s scheduled show, “the marble corridors of the wards echoed with the chatter and rumble of prone-carts, wheelchairs, while nurses and attendants carried physically afflicted children and escorted adult patients to the temporary grandstands.”

CircusbellevueacrobatsBellevue discontinued the tradition in 1967, when the balconies were demolished for the construction of a modernized hospital building.

Ringling Brothers brought the tradition back in 2013, performing at Brooklyn Hospital Center before a show at the Barclays Center.


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