Two towers that almost replaced Grand Central

July 10, 2014

HyperboloidWhen Grand Central Terminal was built in 1913, the architects of the Beaux Arts train station expected it to be the base of a skyscraper someday.

In the 1950s developers proposed one. The tower design they commissioned had the space-age name the Hyperboloid: a wasp-waist, 80-story structure (at left) created by one of the century’s most innovative architects.

“Working for developers Webb & Knapp, I.M. Pei proposed an 80-story tower with a circular footprint and, thanks to a taper halfway up the shaft, an hourglass profile,” explains skyscraperpage.com.

Grandcentralmarcelbreuer“Its facade was crisscrossed by structural supports; overall the building resembled a bundle of sticks. At the base of Pei’s building, and again in its upper levels, the floors were left open and the structure was left exposed.

“Grand Central Terminal would have been demolished to make room for the tower, just as Penn Station was demolished a few years later to make room for Two Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden.”

Plans for the Hyperboloid, of course, never came to pass. But it wouldn’t be the only tower proposed for the Grand Central Terminal site.

Air rights were sold to another developer in the 1960s, and architect Marcel Breuer came up with this (very Pan Am Building-like) skyscraper, which would sit on top of the terminal (at right).

Grandcentralexterior

By then, Grand Central had been deemed a historic landmark by the Landmarks Commission. A fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1978 resulted in Breuer’s tower getting permanently derailed.

[Second image: The Architecture of Additions, by Paul Spencer Byard, via City Review]

The “Jews’ Highway” crossing the East River

July 10, 2014

Williamsburgbridgepraying1909As the second (and some say much less attractive) bridge spanning the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge didn’t score the same adulation as the Brooklyn Bridge did.

Opened in 1903 and until the 1920s the longest suspension bridge in the world, the humble Williamsburg sparked the migration of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the cramped Lower East Side to slightly more spacious Brooklyn.

The bridge scored such heavy traffic from Jewish New Yorkers in the early 1900s, the tabloid-ish New York Tribune called it the “Jews’ Highway.’”

“In its early years, the walkway, which was wide enough for pushcarts, was so crowded with peddlers transporting their wares to and from Manhattan that one newspaper dubbed it the ‘Jews’ Highway,’” writes Victor Lederer in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Williamsburg.

Williamsburgbridgepostcard

Watch a fantastic news clip of opening day on the bridge and the top-hatted dignitaries who ceremoniously walked across it first.

[Photo: Jews praying on the Williamsburg Bridge, New Year's Day, 1909, from the LOC]

Three centuries of Broadway and Murray Street

July 7, 2014

For most of the 19th century, the intersection of Broadway and Murray Street was the city—a bustling nexus of commerce and city government with notoriously heavy traffic.

Broadwaymurrayst1887

This photo, from New York Then and Now, dates to 1887. Without traffic signals of any kind, crossing Broadway could be tricky, as these pedestrians demonstrate.

City Hall Park is on the right; the building on the right corner is A. T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace” dry goods emporium. Note the telegraph and telephone wires on wood poles.

It’s worth remembering too that underneath this stretch of Broadway, the city’s first subway got its ill-fated start in 1870.

Broadwaymurraystreet1974

Eighty-seven years later, this downtown corner is still busy. Loft buildings and office structures line the west side of Broadway, like the lovely Home Life Insurance Building, constructed in 1894.

A.T. Stewart’s department store building is still there—from the 1910s to 1950 the home of the New York Sun newspaper. The beautiful clock was still there last time I checked.

Broadwaymurrayst2014

Today, the intersection looks almost unchanged from 1974, save for more visible traffic and pedestrian lanes markings and the loss of the pub at the corner of Warren Street on the west side. It’s now a bank branch.

A fading sign of Williamsburg’s industrial past

July 7, 2014

On Kent Avenue is this well-preserved reminder that Williamsburg was once known for its industry and factories.

And the bonus faded ad: a GE logo!

GEfadedadwilliamsburg2

Cleaners Sales & Equipment Corp was in Williamsburg at least into the 1990s. There’s an address for it in Orangeburg, New York now.

Frank Jump has a little more company background.

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]

These tenements are always ready for July 4th

July 3, 2014

The iconic New York City walkup comes in all colors . . . but these are the only two I’ve ever seen that show off the red, white, and blue.

Redwhitebluetenements42ndst

This one is across the street from the Port Authority on 42nd Street. It’s the longtime home of Kaufman Army Navy Store, opened in the 1940s.

Why the American flag colors? A descendant of the store’s founder had the facade painted in 1969 as a “nod to the tradition of patriotism of military surplus stores from the 1950s,” quotes the New York Times in this story about Kaufman’s.

Redwhiteandbluetenementaveb

Not to be outdone, this tenement on Avenue B (aka, the “German Broadway”) and East Fourth Street wears its patriotic colors (plus a little gold) proudly.

The High Line could have been a swimming pool

July 3, 2014

Next time you’re strolling along the High Line, imagine yourself swimming it instead. If an idea generated from a contest had panned out, it might have been your city summer cool-off destination.

Highlinelappoolcontestentry

Back in 2003, the advocacy group Friends of the High Line held a contest seeking innovative ideas for the rusty, weedy rail viaduct that once brought goods in and out of the factories of the lower west side.

Highlinelappoolcontestentry2More than 700 entries from 36 countries were eventually displayed in Grand Central Terminal—among them a cow pasture, a wild meadow, and a roller coaster.

But probably the most whimsical entry  came from architectural student Nathalie Rinne from Vienna. She envisioned the High Line as a slender lap pool, a thread of blue amid brown and red warehouses and tenements.

The lap pool never stood much of a chance; the contest was mostly a way to get people thinking and generate support. In 2004, a traditional design contest resulted in the beautiful park that is the High Line today.

Yet on a sweaty summer day when even the breeze from the Hudson make the High Line feel stifling, a swimming pool won’t seem like such an impossible idea.

[Images: Friends of the High Line/Nathalie Rinne]

Watching Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park

July 3, 2014

Simonandgarfunkelonstage2It’s hard to imagine how rundown Central Park was in the early 1980s. Neglect, graffiti, and lack of funds in a broke city left it a place of patchy grass and unkempt ball fields.

One way to raise much-needed funds to help restore it? Hold a benefit concert.

That’s what brought Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel together on a cool Saturday night in September 1981, harmonizing in front of 500,000 fans, who carpeted the lawn with blankets, beach chairs, and coolers.

SimonandgarfunkelcrowdThe show was free, but money raised from merchandising and HBO rights was supposed to net $70,000 to benefit city parks. Amazingly, the promoters made good on their promise.

“The restoration money, [Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis] says, paid for landscaping beyond any damage done, ”and the other funds have gone for a variety of projects running from graffiti removal from walls to some of our recreation programs dealing with troubled kids,’” wrote the New York Times almost a year later.

SgconcertincentralparkThat reference to damage done? The crowd left behind tons of beer cans, bottles, and other trash that cost $20,000 to clean up as soon as Simon and Garfunkel left the stage.

They weren’t the only stars to play Central Park in the late 1970s and 1980s: James Taylor, Elton John, and Diana Ross also sang on the Great Lawn.

But perhaps the most popular concert of all was the one given by Garth Brooks in 1997—which brought in 750,000 fans.

[Bottom photo: via mrtopten.com]

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]

Buying produce from Bleecker Street pushcarts

June 30, 2014

Thanks to the bell tower of the Our Lady of Pompeii Church that’s still on the corner at Carmine Street, this soft, muted depiction of vegetable sellers and neighborhood shoppers at Bleecker Street is instantly recognizable.

Beladetirefortbleeckerst

It’s probably the early 1940s. Artist Bela de Tirefort, an Austrian native, painted many scenes of daily life around Washington Square Park and the Flatiron Building from the 1930s through the 1950s.

It’s not clear if this is also Bleecker Street, but the resemblance is strong.

Beladetirefortmarket

“In the 1940s, pushcarts made this street all but impassable,” states the Project for Public Spaces.

“Cart operators were forced by law to move indoors, but the street retained its association with food, and today’s Bleecker Street still contains some of the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, and delicacies to be found in the city.”

Thirty or so years earlier in 1915, Ashcan painter George Luks also took a stab at depicting the shops and crowds in this nighttime view of the opposite corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.


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