Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

A glorious vintage color view of Times Square

October 20, 2014

It’s impossible to get tired of viewing vintage color postcards of Times Square (still Longacre Square in this image, though it must have been produced later than 1904, when the official new name came along).

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There’s The New York Times tower in the center, with the word “victory” underneath the Times signage, plus what looks like a flag or bunting…could it be for World War I?

The gorgeous Hotel Astor is on the right. Streetcars and automobiles intersect at what looks like an kiosk-style subway entrance. On the extreme right is Wilson’s Dancing Academy, where author Henry Miller met his second wife, June.

A city library designed to look like an open book

October 20, 2014

BPLwikiWhen you view it at street level, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library looks like an imposing literary fortress, with a magnificent front door lined with Art Deco motifs of famous characters from great books.

But the architects behind it also gave the building a whimsical touch: they designed it to be shaped like an open book. The spine is at Grand Army Plaza, with one cover along Eastern Parkway and the other on Flatbush Avenue.

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“In the nearly thirty years that had passed since breaking ground on the Central Library building in 1912, the modernist aesthetic, with its clean lines and austere façades, had taken hold. . .  .

“The new library building would be briskly modern, and the very shape of the building—with two wings stretching out like the covers of an open book—would reflect the purpose of the institution itself,” states the Brooklyn Public Library website.

BPL1941

The open-book design is probably best viewed from the air, but the second photo, taken during construction, offers a sense of it. Clever, right?

The literary past of a once-seedy Gramercy hotel

October 4, 2014

Looking at the facade of the former Kenmore Hall Hotel, at 145 East 23rd Street, you can imagine the kind of place it was when it opened in 1929.

Like so many of the new hotels built in the Jazz Age city, it was a place for the city’s young smart set, with a roof garden, skylit lobby, and swimming pool.

Kenmorehallpostcard

It was also a hotel with a hidden literary rep. Shortly after the 22-story building opened, struggling young writer Nathanael West became its night manager.

MisslonelyheartscoverNathanaelwestIn the 1930s, West earned fame for his novels Miss Lonelyhearts (inspired by a real Brooklyn Eagle advice column to the lovelorn) and Day of the Locust.

During his time on the Kenmore’s graveyard shift, West reportedly worked on Miss Lonelyhearts while letting writer friends like Dashiell Hammett, Edmund Wilson, and Maxwell Bodenheim crash in empty rooms.

KenmorehallhoteltodayWest died in 1940 in a California car accident with his wife, Eileen McKenney (of My Sister Eileen fame). In subsequent decades, Kenmore Hall changed hands; as East 23rd Street became seedier, so did the hotel.

By the early 1990s it was an infamous SRO hotel where the city’s downtrodden lived in squalid quarters and drugs and crime were rampant.

Since 1999 the cleaned-up Kenmore is an SRO offering affordable housing—plus a little-known literary pedigree.

[Bottom photo: Emporis]

Was a beloved book written on Macdougal Street?

August 30, 2014

Macdougal Street in the West Village casts a huge literary shadow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis drank and ate at Polly’s and the Minetta Tavern. Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara hung out at the San Remo and the Kettle of Fish.

Allcotthousemacdougal

And around the corner, Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven while living at 85 West Third Street in the mid-1840s.

But there’s another literary claim to fame on Macdougal Street. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott reportedly wrote part of Little Women from her uncle’s double-wide red townhouse at numbers 130-132.

Louisamayalcott“In 1868, Louisa May Alcott sat at her desk before the second story window in her uncle’s house on MacDougal Street and penned the final paragraph of Little Women, states this New York University web page, by way of City Guide NY. (NYU owns the house now.)

The  joined houses at 130 and 132 MacDougal Street had been built in 1852 and purchased by Alcott’s uncle. Alcott remained in her uncle’s house until 1870.”

Despite what NYU says, there’s some dispute over whether Alcott wrote any of her story about the March family here.

Alcott reportedly wrote the novel at her family’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Louisamayalcottb&wAn 1880 New York Times article on Alcott, by that time nationally famous, states that she wrote the novel in Boston.

“Most of her work has been done here; the first part of Little Women was written at the South End, and the second part in the Bellevue Hotel, on Beacon-Street, her favorite quarters. . . .”

LittlewomencoverAnd  in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, Cheever references the “manufactured” fact that Alcott penned part of the book here.

“Even the amazing NYU archivists have only been able to find references to the fact that Alcott wrote Little Women on MacDougal Street, nothing about how that fact came to be manufactured.”

A Village poet and the hospital she’s named for

July 17, 2014

Ednastvincentmillay1Edna St. Vincent Millay is an emblem of 1920s Greenwich Village.

Bohemian, free-love advocate, and a writer of passionate, sometimes cynical lyrical poetry, Millay lived in various places in the Village beginning in 1917, most famously at 75 1/2 Bedford Street.

Considering how connected she is to the Village, it’s still surprising to learn that Millay, born and raised in Maine, was actually named after another Greenwich Village icon: St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Giving her the middle name St. Vincent was a way to honor the hospital that saved her uncle’s life just before Millay was born in 1892.

EdnastvincentmillayarchWorking as a stevedore on a ship, he became trapped below deck for days without food or water.

When he was found, he was brought to St. Vincent’s and nursed back to health.

Shortly after Millay was born, her aunt wrote this in a letter to her uncle, “the Vincent is for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother,”  according to Nancy Milford’s wonderful biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.

Millay referenced the city around her in her poems: riding the Staten Island ferry, the “fruit-carts and clam-carts” of MacDougal Street. She died in her upstate home in 1950.

Stvincents1931byroncompany

Founded in 1849 and closed abruptly in 2010, St. Vincent’s (above, in 1931) was bulldozed out of its longtime location at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street over the past year.

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]

Explaining Coney Island to the rest of the world

June 30, 2014

Much has been written about Coney Island, once just a thread of sandy beach supposedly named for its rabbit population (konij is Dutch for rabbit).

By the 1880s, of course, this little outpost had become Sodom by the Sea—a tawdry playground of hotels, pavilions, dime museums, freak shows, amusement parks, exotic animals, and more, all bathed in thousands of colored lights.

Coneyislandny3d

The phenomenon that was Coney Island attracted hordes of working class New Yorkers as well as foreign journalists, who wrote articles attempting to explain Coney to curious readers outside New York City.

Lunapark1906These articles serve as an illuminating look at the spectacle that rose out of the sand in just a few short post-Civil War decades.

“Coney Island, one of the great resorts for the million, is reached from the foot of 23rd Street in about an hour,” wrote English novelist Mary Duffus Hardy in her account of traveling through the United States in 1881.

“A few years ago it was a mere wide waste of sand, and was bought by a clever speculator for a mere song; it is now worth millions of dollars, and is covered on all sides by a miscellaneous mass of buildings of all descriptions.

Coneyislandlunaparkmcny

“The hotels are crowded, every nook and corner of the island filled to overflowing during the season; the beach is covered with a lively mass of holiday-makers, all bent on enjoying themselves; gay bunting is flaunting and flying everywhere; musicians are hard at work, beating drums, scraping fiddles, and blowing trumpets, as though their very life depended on the noise they are making.

Coneyislandpaddlingmcny1896“Altogether, it is a gay, stirring scene. Coney Island is not a place where the fashionable or aristocratic multitude most do congregate; it is a rather fast, jolly, rollicking place, and serves its purpose well, as the health-breathing lungs of a great city. . .  .”

In a 1905 issue of The Cosmopolitan, another English writer, Richard Le Gallienne, explained Coney Island this way:

“If you are too superior to have your fortune told by some peasant woman who knows nothing about it, and knows that you know that she doesn’t—don’t go to Coney Island.

Coneyislandsurfave1896mcny“Coney Island exists, and will go on existing, because into all men, gentle and simple, poor and rich—including women—by some mysterious corybantic instinct in their blood, has been born a tragic need of coarse excitement, a craving to be taken in by some illusion however palpable.

“So, following the example of those old nations, whose place she has so vigorously taken, America has builded for herself a Palace of Illusion, and filled it with every species of talented attractive monster, every misbegotten fancy of the frenzied nerves, every fantastic marvel of the moonstruck brain—and she has called it Coney Island.

NY3DBox“Ironic name—a place lonely with rabbits, a spit of sandy beach so near to the simple life of the sea and watched over by the summer night; strange Isle of Monsters, Preposterous Palace of Illusion, gigantic parody of pleasure—Coney Island.”

For more on Coney Island in the late 19th century, and all the other resorts and pleasure gardens where New Yorkers spent their leisure time, read New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.

[Photos: Top, New-York Historical Society; two through five: MCNY/Byron Collection]

Come to Ephemeral New York’s book launch!

June 12, 2014

NY3dBookIntCover-1Please join me in celebrating the release of New York in 3D in the Gilded Age, a look at the city in the era of gaslights, elevated railroads, and the solidifying of the modern five-borough metropolis.

It’s a reading/meet and greet for anyone interested in the city’s past, books, or both—open to the public and hosted by the wonderful Museum at Eldridge Street.

Date: Wednesday June 18, 6-8 pm

Location: The Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge Street between Division and Canal Streets (hit the link for directions)

RSVP required: contact@eldridgestreet.org

Free and open to all. Refreshments served—hope to see you there!

A new book by Ephemeral New York!

May 12, 2014

NY3dBookIntCoverAs longtime readers know, Ephemeral New York has been chronicling the city’s past since 2008.

I’ve enjoying researching and writing every post, and I’m so grateful for all the insightful comments and kind words from readers along the way.

On June 3, I’ll have something new to offer: a book. Titled New York City in the Gilded Age, it delves into one of the most dynamic periods in New York City history.

This is the era of gaslights, horse cars, and elevated railroads; of posh Fifth Avenue mansions and crowded tenements; of an explosion in population and industry as well as deep political corruption. It parallels our contemporary city, with its incredible growth amid a widening gap between the rich and poor.

 NY3DBoxNew York City in the Gilded Age features hundreds of exceptional, rarely seen photos and images from the archives of the wonderful New-York Historical Society. It’s packaged with 50 stereographs and a stereoscope viewer, providing a truly 3D look at the city in the late 19th century.

Over the next weeks, I’ll be featuring content and photos from New York City in the Gilded Age. I hope everyone enjoys this closer look at the people and events of this era.

Published by Black Dog & Leventhal in partnership with the New-York Historical Society, the book will be available at Barnes & Noble, the Strand, and many other stores on June 3 (and Amazon and Indiebound right now).

 Thank you again to everyone who has enjoyed Ephemeral New York over the years—it’s truly been a pleasure to produce this site.

Central Park West’s most enchanting apartments

March 17, 2014

SturbantallThe wonderful thing about New York is that you can pass a building hundreds of times before discovering its magic.

Which is how, on a rainy late afternoon with just a slant of sunlight left in the sky, I discovered the beauty of the Beaux-Arts gem the St. Urban.

It’s a 12-story apartment house at 89th Street, one of many French flat–style residences built in an almost unbroken line along Central Park West at the turn of the last century.

The building’s neighbors, the Dakota and the San Remo, are perhaps more flamboyant. The St. Urban’s beauty is more understated, and it stands today as an elegant throwback—described in one book as a “splendid anachronism” of gracious, Gilded Age living.

SturbancherubFacing the park is a porte-cochere—a magnificent recessed carriage entrance—illuminated by golden globes affixed to the limestone entrance.

The St. Urban’s sloping mansard roof and dormer windows give it a castle-like feel, which is underscored by its rounded, domed tower crowned with a copper lantern.

I’m not the only one enchanted by the St. Urban. In 2001, writer Andre Aciman had this to say about the building, in a New York Times Magazine issue that focused on the specialness of New York City.

Sturbanlobby

“As with Monet’s portraits of the Rouen cathedral, does the St. Urban stir so many images that changing the season, the cast of light or time of day changes the building as well?,” wrote Aciman.

Sturbanwiki

“All I know is that something in me is forever grafted here—which is why I dare not think of the city without this building, or of me without this city, or of this building without me.”


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