The anonymous men who built Central Park

July 14, 2014

When Central Park opened in stages in 1859 through the 1860s, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux scored much of the credit for the park’s beauty and brilliance.

Centralparkbuilding1859nypl

But what about all the anonymous men who did the physical work—the laborers tasked with taking 843 rocky, swampy acres and reshaping it a man-made oasis of nature?

[Below, finishing the staircase at Bethesda Terrace]

Centralparkbethesdastairs1862nyplHere’s a little of what we know about them. “By the spring of 1858, more than three thousand men were busy dredging, clearing, grading, and planting—laboriously remodeling every feature of the rugged landscape,” wrote Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: an Illustrated History.

“There were German gardeners, Italian stonecutters, and an army of masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and road-building teams.”

Most of the low-level laborers were Irish and German, “often paid only a dollar a day and drawn, Olmsted said, from the ‘poorest, or what is generally considered the most dangerous, class of the great city’s population.'”

Centralparkpipesreservoir1862nypl“To prevent any trouble with the Irish, African Americans were excluded from the workforce entirely,” state Burns and Sanders.

It was grueling, dangerous work. Boulders had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder, then loaded onto horse-drawn trucks; “blasting foremen” were paid an extra 25 cents a day, according to The Park and the People, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar.

[Above: the pipes running under the new reservoir]

Centralparkarsenal1862from6thnyplAfter the ground was ready, “workmen installed ninety-five miles of underground pipe, creating an artificial drainage system—itself a masterpiece of sanitary engineering—then set to work relandscaping the entire site with 6 million bricks, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, 25,000 trees, and a quarter of a million shrubs,” wrote Burns and Sanders.

Pavers working on the park’s walks and drives were also paid more than day laborers, as were stonecutters, who ended up making $2.25 a day in 1860—an improvement over the wages paid in the late 1850s, on the heels of the Panic of 1857.

[Above: the view of the Arsenal from 6th Avenue]

Where did this army of workers live? “A park laborer’s average income might pay the rent for one room with sleeping closets in a Lower East Side tenement or for an uptown shanty,” write Rosenzweig and Blackmar.

Centralparkpromenadenypl

Though many lived downtown in boardinghouses or with other laborers’ families, “the relative absence of park workers from the city directory, however, suggests both their transience and their concentration in uptown wards.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A little girl goes missing in 1960s Chelsea

July 14, 2014

EdithkiecoriusphotoIt was February 1961, Washington’s birthday. Four-year-old Edith Kiecorius had taken the subway from her Brooklyn home with her widowed mother and brother to visit her uncle in Manhattan.

Her uncle’s apartment was on Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, in the “deteriorating” neighborhood of Chelsea, as one newspaper described it at the time.

Edith spent the afternoon playing outside on the sidewalk. Her uncle left her alone for a few minutes to buy cigarettes, and by the time he came back around 4 pm, the little girl in a purple snowsuit had vanished.

In an era without Amber Alerts or even 911, police seemed to pull out all the stops to find her. Over the next week, they set up special hotlines for anyone who may have seen her; they searched rooftops, sewers, and the bottom of the Hudson.

Edithkiecoriuspolicegetty

“Detectives leafed through records of mental hospitals for women recently released and checked death lists,” reported the New York Times, as the police felt the person who took her might have “a frustrated mother instinct.”

Edithk307west20thstOn February 27, Edith’s body was found on a bed in a one-room flat at 307 West 20th Street (at left today), a “dingy Chelsea rooming house,” as a front-page Times piece put it. She’d been sexually assaulted and beaten to death.

The killer was captured a few days later. Fred Thompson, a 59-year-old drifter who had just rented the room in the West 20th Street house. He admitted to cops that while in a drunken stupor, he lured Edith to his room by telling her that he had his “own little girl” she could play with.

He assaulted and beat her, then left her in the room while he spent days drinking on the Bowery. When he learned that police had found Edith’s body and that he was the prime suspect, he fled to Philadelphia and then to a New Jersey chicken farm.

Edithkfredthompsonnyt“Assistant Chief Inspector James J. Walsh of the New York City police said after questioning Thompson he had said, ‘I know I deserve my full punishment for what I did,'” the Times wrote.

“Asked what he meant by ‘full punishment,’ Thompson was quoted as saying ‘life imprisonment or the electric chair.'”

Thompson was tried and found guilty later that year; the verdict carried a mandatory death sentence.

But according to one source, Thompson, above, was instead institutionalized for the rest of his life.

[Second photo: Getty Images; Fourth photo: NYTimes]

Leaping off the roof and into the Hudson River

July 10, 2014

Was it safe to swim in the Hudson River in 1948? Probably not, but that didn’t stop this boy from jumping three stories from a pier while his friends watched from the roof.

Boyleapingintohudsonruthorkin2

It’s a wonderful image captured by photographer Ruth Orkin, perfectly titled “Boy Jumping Into Hudson River.”

Orkin was a commercial photographer and filmmaker who moved to New York in 1943. An archive of her images can be browsed here.

[©estate of Ruth Orkin]

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]


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