A New York socialite dubbed “King of the Dudes”

March 31, 2014

EvanderberrywallchowdogEvery era in New York history has its characters.

And in the late 19th century city, which celebrated extravagance and excess, socialite and clotheshorse Evander Berry Wall was one of the most colorful.

Born in 1860 into a wealthy family, he inherited $2 million by his 21st birthday.

That was an incredible sum in the Gilded Age, and it enabled party-loving Wall (who sported a monocle, and insisted on only drinking champagne) to not work for a living and instead indulge in his love of fashion.

Evanderberrywall1888How much of a fashionista was this guy? Reportedly he owned 500 pairs of pants, 5,000 ties, loved loud colors and patterns, and changed his clothes six times a day.

“He wore waistcoats that dazzled the eye. He wore violet spats. His spread-eagle collars and startling cravats kept New Yorkers agog,” wrote The New York Times in his 1940 obituary.

In the 1880s, he battled for the title of best-dressed New York man with another foppish dandy. Wall eclipsed the other guy during the Blizzard of 1888, when he entered the luxurious Hoffman House bar clad in thigh-high black patent leather boots.

From then on he was crowned “King of the Dudes.” Dude was kind of an insult at the time, but Wall embraced it with pride.

In 1912, he and his wife (yep, he was married) began living abroad in Europe.

EvanderberrywallmonocleHe befriended royalty, indulged his love of social events and horse racing, and took his beloved chow. wherever he could.

He’s best remembered by his outfits, of course, and as the epitome of the Gay 90s.

“To the end he was a fabulous and eccentric dresser of his earlier days—stiff shirts, tailcoats, Byron collars—and he never went to Longchamps in season without his silk hat even if, as he complained, valets no longer knew how to ‘keep the gloss on your topper,’” wrote the Times.

The only shame is that no color photos survive to really show off what a bon vivant fashion plate Wall truly was.

An anarchist bomb explodes on Lexington Avenue

March 31, 2014

Lexington103rdstreetsignIn 1914, labor leaders and anarchist groups had John D. Rockefeller Jr. in their sights.

They blamed Rockefeller, head of U.S. Steel and one of the world’s richest men, for the Ludlow massacre—the deaths of striking workers and their families at a Rockefeller-owned mine in Ludlow, Colorado in April.

LexingtonavebombAnarchist leader and New Yorker Alexander Berkman ( below), who had served time for attempting to murder industrialist Henry Frick in 1892, called for Rockefeller’s assassination.

Other anarchists and labor leaders, roughed up during a subsequent protest at Rockefeller’s Tarrytown estate, also felt that a bomb left at Rockefeller’s estate would be appropriate payback.

So out of a top-floor apartment in a tenement house on Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street, several men armed with dynamite and batteries set to work.

Alexanderberkman

On July 4—Independence Day, oddly enough—the bomb exploded prematurely, killing three anarchists, the girlfriend of one, and injuring other residents of the otherwise unremarkable tenement in working-class Italian East Harlem.

“Lexington Avenue and the thickly populated intersecting streets in the neighborhood were crowded with men, women, and children on their way to seashore or park to spend the holiday, when suddenly there was a crash like that of a broadside from a battleship,” wrote The New York Times.

“Simultaneously the roof of the tenement house at 1626 Lexington Avenue was shattered into fragments and the debris of it and the three upper floors showered over the holiday crowds, some of it falling on roofs two and three blocks away.”

Lexingtonavenuebombsite2014Four mostly mangled bodies were eventually found. The dead were IWW (International Workers of the World) leaders or followers with “anarchist leanings,” as the Times put it.

A week later, about 5,000 people came to Union Square to hear a tribute to the would-be bombers.

As officials investigated, Berkman first denied any involvement. He later admitted that he was aware that the bomb was destined for Rockefeller’s estate.

Here’s the tenement at 1626 Lexington Avenue today; its anarchist past long obscured.

A pioneering photographer captures the 1910s

March 24, 2014

Born on the Upper West Side in 1890, Paul Strand became a pioneering filmmaker with his eerie silent Manhatta in 1921, among other motion pictures during his six-decade career.

[Below: American City, 1916]

Paulstrandamericannyc1916

He’s also one of the first street photographers—credited with establishing photography as an art form in the teens and capturing haunting images of people amid the sleek, dehumanized early 20th century metropolis.

[Below: Wall Street 1915]

Paulstrandwallstreet1915

Strand’s interest in photography began during his student years at the Ethical Culture School. Photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine was his teacher, and Hine introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, artists who greatly influenced Strand’s work.

Paulstrandblind1916Stieglitz soon became a mentor. “In early 1915, his mentor Stieglitz criticized the graphic softness of Strand’s photographs and over the next two years he dramatically changed his technique and made extraordinary photographs on three principal themes: movement in the city, abstractions, and street portraits,” states the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“During the 1910s, New York thronged with pedestrians, carriages, and automobiles, and the streets became the unavoidable symbol of flux, change, and modernity.”

Strand did something revolutionary at the time: he abandoned posed photography in favor of portraits of people unaware of the camera.

[Above: Blind, 1916]

Paulstrandcentralparkscene1915-16

[Above: "Central Park Scene, 1915"]

He stated his reasoning: “I felt that one could get a quality of being through the fact that the person did not know he was being photographed … [and I wanted to capture] these people within an environment which they themselves had chosen to be in, or were in anyway.”

Paulstrandmanfivepntssqny1916Strand shot images of the poor, of immigrants, of workers, of the blind and disabled, of aging New Yorkers in parks. His work reveals the humanity amid a modern city on the move, bustling with traffic, crowds, and commerce.

“Treating the human condition in the modern urban context, Strand’s photographs are a subversive alternative to the studio portrait of glamour and power,” states the Met.

[Above: Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916]

“A new kind of portrait akin to a social terrain, they are, as Sanford Schwartz put it, ‘cityscapes that have faces for subjects.’”

See the 10-minute Manhatta here—it’s a treasure.

1970s city store signs that burst with color

March 24, 2014

Treat yourself to a Monday morning explosion of old-school color—courtesy of these New York store signs that give off a very 1970s vibe.

Acepumpsign

Ace Pump got its start in 1936, and still deals in engineering supplies on superluxe 21st Street in Chelsea.

20thcenturygaragesign

I’ve always loved the 20th Century Garage sign, as well as its name, which must have sounded very modern at one time. It’s near Tudor City on East 48th Street. It looks like it was made before the 1970s, no?

Jeromefloristsign

Jerome Florist, on 96th Street and Madison Avenue, has been selling arrangements to Upper East Siders (and the area’s abundance of hospitals) since 1929.

Capitalelectronicssign

Once known as Capital Audio & Electronics, this Duane Street shop took the electronics out of its name, perhaps to sound less 1970s-ish.

Vernonavepharmacysign

Pharmacy signs like this one in Queens—no-frills, no brand names, with a neighborhood vibe—have mostly disappeared from city streets.

New York’s high-school student strike of 1950

March 24, 2014

StudentstrikebrooklynpubliclibraryIt all started with a proposed teacher pay raise.

In 1950, New York City high school teachers called on Mayor William O’Dwyer to increase their 2-5K yearly salaries by $600.

O’Dwyer balked, offering no more than $200. In response, teachers stopped supervising extracurricular activities. So O’Dwyer’s administration suspended sport teams, clubs, and other school groups.

With their extracurriculars gone, students were angry.

To protest O’Dwyer, they staged a student strike over three days in late April, ditching their morning classes or not showing up at all.

SchoolstrikeheadlineInstead, thousands of high-school kids (mostly from Brooklyn) marched to City Hall in Lower Manhattan, with the number of strikers swelling on the third day.

“Carrying banners on which their pro-teacher sentiments were scrawled in lipstick, they held up subway trains, wrecked automobiles, and dared police to break them up and were prevented only by hasty police action from forcing their way into the office of Mayor O’Dwyer, who had refused to discuss higher salaries,” wrote Life on May 8.

Studentstrikelifemagazine

Of the strikers, The New York Times reported, “The vast majority of the youngsters were laughing and good-natured, and moved when they were asked. A few tried to stand their ground and spoke sharply to the police about ‘democracy’ and ‘people’s rights.’”

Studentstrikelifemagazine2By that third afternoon, the police had cleared out the students, and most returned to class the next morning.

School officials claimed the strikes were organized by “subversive elements,” according to Life. The teachers insisted they had nothing to do with it and denounced the striking students.

Was it worth it? Well, it took another 18 months for the city and the teachers to reach a pay compromise, and extracurriculars didn’t resume until September 1951, according to an excellent piece on the strike from Brooklynology.

[Top photo: Brooklynology/Brooklyn Public Library; Life magazine]

Old Brooklyn’s adorable schoolyard gardeners

March 22, 2014

The whole farm-to-table food movement? It’s not as new to affluent Brooklyn as you’d think.

In 1905, this group of young, sun-protected (look at those wide-brimmed hats and bonnets!) residents posed next to their wheelbarrows and watering cans in their backyard school garden.

Prattlittlefarmerskindergarten1905

They were enrolled in the kindergarten at Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, which apparently had a little plot of land to help these city kids learn about dirt, seeds, and growing their own food.

Identifying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims

March 22, 2014

TriangleshirtwaistcorpsesThe fire started at 4:40 p.m. It was Saturday, March 25—a workday in 1911.

As flames quickly turned the top three floors of the Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place into a “roaring cornice of flames,” dozens of employees crowded the windows and fire escapes.

Half an hour later, when the fire had been extinguished, 146 Triangle Waist Company workers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. The grim task of identifying so many victims had begun.

Triangleshirtwaistcorpsesgreene

Over the next several hours, their corpses were laid out on the sidewalk, tagged, put in coffins, and loaded into wagons.

They were going to Charities Pier, off East 26th Street—nicknamed “Misery Lane” because it was the makeshift morgue where city officials routinely brought victims of lethal disasters.

Trianglefireoutsidemorgue

“When the wagons arrived, they were met by a team of homeless men dragooned from the Municipal Lodging House, who were assigned to open the boxes and arrange them in two long rows,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

Trianglefiremorgue

“At midnight, the doors opened. The first in a growing line of friends and family members began shuffling up one long row and down the other. Low voices, slow footsteps, the cry of gulls, and the lapping of water punctuated the heavy silence.

“A faint sulfuric glow fell from the lights hung high in the rafters. They did little  to illuminate the coffins, however, so policemen stood every few feet holding lanterns.

Triangleunidentifiedprocession

“When a loved one paused at a box and peered close, the nearest officer dangled his lantern helpfully.

Trianglememorialevergreens“The light swayed and flickered over the disfigured faces. Now and then a shock of recognition announced itself in a piercing cry or sudden sob splitting the ghastly quiet.”

The task of identifying the dead lasted four cold, rainy days. Pickpockets and the morbidly fascinated lined up along with family members.

Within a week, all but seven bodies had been ID’d.

In April, they were honored in a procession (above) and buried together at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Why are these Dutch-style houses on 37th Street?

March 22, 2014

West 37th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is a gritty, mostly sunless stretch of Manhattan in the heart of what’s left of the old Garment District.

Dutchstylehouse37thstreet

So what in the world are these two houses that look like they belong in Amsterdam doing sandwiched between tall loft buildings and rickety old walkups?

Dutchstylehouse37thstreet2

The top one, at 18 West 37th Street, is actually quite charming—a stepped gabled gem masked by a tacky storefront.

Dutchhouseswallstreet1746The second one closer to Sixth Avenue looks like a poor man’s version of the first.

No original Dutch buildings from the 17th century survive in New York. But this 1880s sketch gives an idea of the kind of Amsterdam-like architecture that existed on Wall Street centuries ago.

These two replicas on 37th Street must be leftovers from a faddish 1890s revival of Dutch-style architecture.

The world’s tallest building for one year only

March 17, 2014

Opened in 1908, the slender, elegant Singer Tower, headquarters of the sewing machine company, rose more than 40 stories over Broadway and Liberty Street.

A marvel in its day, it spent one year as the tallest building in the world, only to be usurped by the Metropolitan Life Tower on 23rd Street in 1909.

Singertowerpostcard

Tourists paid 50 cents to visit its 40th floor observation deck. It was prominently featured in postcards, like this one above.

SingertowerLOCSixty years later, it met the wrecking ball.

“High above the intersection of Broadway and Liberty Street yesterday, a demolition torch blazed against the hazy sky as a steelworker cut into a beam on the tallest building ever to be demolished,” reported The New York Times on March 27, 1968.

“Yesterday the lobby looked as if a bomb had hit it. The Italian-marble surfacing and the bronze medallions with the Singer monogram were stripped from many columns and were being offered for sale.

“Holes pocked the elaborately sculptured pendentives that support the series of domes forming the ceiling. Plaster flaked onto a floor strewn with wood, shattered brick and discarded coffee cups.”

Colonial New York’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 17, 2014

In the Fifth century, the British-born missionary known as St. Patrick began converting the Irish to Christianity.

In the 18th century, St. Patrick got his first parade—held not in Ireland but on the streets of lower Manhattan.

Stpatricksdayparadeunionsquare

[St. Patrick's Day in Union Square, 1874]

Depending on the source, it was either 1762 or 1766. The small celebratory march took place near City Hall on March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick. The parade was composed of Irish soldiers serving in the British Army in a pre-Revolutionary War city.

Stpatricksday1909

[Marchers in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1909, then below in 1913]

The marchers wore green (banned in Ireland at the time) and played bagpipes, just like today. “The tradition of a militia-sponsored event was continued until 1812, when Irish-American fraternal and benevolent societies assumed organizational responsibility, although soldiers continued to lead the march,” wrote The New York Times.

Stpatricksdayparade1913

As Irish immigrants poured into the city in the 1840s and 1850s following the potato famine, the parade swelled to massive proportions.

Through the 19th century, it followed a circuitous route from Second Avenue and 23rd Street down to City Hall, up Seventh Avenue, and back again to the East Side before ending a Cooper Union.

Stpatricksdayparadecathedral

[the parade in 1949 at St. Patrick's Cathedral]

“Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall (1868-1872) attended the festivities dressed in emerald-green coat and shirt, and facetiously insisted that his initials were short for “Ancient Order of Hibernians,” the Times wrote.

The Irish may have been unloved as an ethnic group, but vote-hungry politicians realized they couldn’t ignore the popular parade and began making appearances.

Stpatricksdayparade1956

[In 1956, these Irish wolfhounds were the mascots of New York's celebrated 69th Army Regiment, aka the "Fighting Irish"]

“In 1887, newly-elected mayor Abram Hewitt broke tradition by refusing to review the parade or fly the shamrock flag at City Hall, lecturing the city that ‘America should be governed by Americans.’ He was not reelected,” reported the Times.

By the middle of the 20th century, the parade featured close to 200,000 marchers and millions of spectators. Despite its reputation for rowdiness and controversy over who can march and who cannot, politicians continue to show up, Mayor de Blasio not withstanding.


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