Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1900’

East Side kid Harpo Marx recalls his tailor father

June 12, 2014

Young Groucho and Harpo Marx with a DogBefore he and his brothers hit comic paydirt, Adolph “Harpo” Marx (left, with Groucho) spent his early 1900s childhood in a tenement on East 93rd Street.

Though his family of 10 struggled, he credits his parents for not letting poverty make “any of us depressed or angry,” he wrote in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…about New York.

While his mother, Minnie, set out to make her boys stars, it was father Sam “Frenchie” Marx, an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine, who helped keep the family together.

With Father’s Day approaching, here’s Harpo recalling his father’s warmth and magic in their tenement kitchen:

“Frenchie was the family housekeeper and cook. He was also the breadwinner. Frenchie was a tailor by trade. He was never able to own his own shop, and during the day his cutting table and sewing bench took up the whole dining room with lengths and scraps of materials overflowing in the kitchen.”

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“At six o’clock he quit whatever he was working on, in the middle of a stitch, and stashed his profession in the hall, materials, tools, tables and all, and turned to the task of making dinner for ten or eleven or sixteen people.”

Sammarxheadshot“With food he was a true magician. Given a couple of short ribs, a wilting cabbage, a handful of soup greens, a bag of chestnuts and a pinch of spices, he could conjure up miracles.”

“God, how fabulous the tenement smelled when Frenchie, chopping and ladling, sniffing and stirring and tasting, and forever smiling and humming to himself, got the kitchen up to full steam!”

Frenchie Marx (above in 1915, third from right) died in 1933 at age 73. He watched his sons become big stars, and he even had a cameo role in 1931’s Monkey Business.

Railcars and rain along the Hudson River

December 23, 2013

George Bellows‘ “Rain on the River,” from 1908, depicts the gray Hudson and its smoky railroad high above Riverside Park under a foreboding sky.

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“His view from a rockly ledge above Riverside Park surveys a freight train making its way along the New York Central’s famous Water Level Route,” states the caption to this painting, which belongs to the Rhode Island School of Design museum.

“The string of railcars echoes the rushing diagonal that marks the near bank of the Hudson River. Aggressive brushstrokes indicate reflective surfaces that are animated by graphic observations: a lone pedestrian scurries acros a rain-slicked path, and a horse-drawn cart awaits a delivery of scavenged coal.”

The caption goes on to say that Bellows considered this one “one of my most beautiful things.”

New York Harbor under a magical full moon

August 26, 2013

“New York Harbor by Moonlight” states the caption of this postcard, which probably dates to about 1900, when the harbor was all about industry and commerce.

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The boats working the harbor are reminders of that—see the smokestack pumping out white smoke. But that moon sure casts a romantic, enchanting glow.

The horsecars and gas lamps of West 42nd Street

May 20, 2013

Fabled 42nd Street has long epitomized New York’s bright lights, glamour, and energy.

But not the 42nd Street at the turn of the last century, as this circa-1900 photo, from New York Then and Now, demonstrates.

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That year, the midtown block of 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a still-residential stretch of muddy Belgian blocks, a single gas lamp, and horse-pulled streetcars.

“The horsecars were run by the 42nd Street, Manhattanville and St. Nicholas Avenue Railway as a crosstown line between the Weehawken ferries at the west terminal and the Hunters Point Ferry to Long Island City at the east end,” the caption tells us.

The church on the right is the West Presbyterian Church, and the el tracks on the left won’t be torn down until the 1930s.

42ndstreetfifthavenue1974

By 1974, almost nothing remains, and West 42nd Street looks much more familiar to contemporary eyes.

“The building with the curved front is the Grace Building, built 1970-1972 on the site of Stern Brothers Department Store, which stood here from 1913 to 1969, having previously operated on West 34th Street for 36 years,” reads the caption.

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Today, 42nd Street looking toward Sixth Avenue reveals more glass office buildings, a replica of an old street lamp, plus many of the same buildings from 1974—such as the Grace Building and the Gothic-like entrance to 11 West 42nd Street.

It’s not in the photo, but I imagine Bryant Park, which would be on the left, looks very different—this park had a bad reputation until the 1980s.

No one was taking there lunch break or watching movies on the lawn then!

Strolling through Riverside Park to Grant’s Tomb

April 24, 2013

A few solitary, turn-of-the-century New Yorkers took advantage of the quiet, lovely paths of the upper portion of Riverside Park in this vintage postcard.

Grant’s Tomb, opened to much fanfare in 1897, looms ahead.

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The road beside the Hudson River looks more like the Henry Hudson Parkway, not Riverside Drive, no?

Up ahead, north of Grant’s Tomb, lies another little-known tomb of a child that still exists today.

Stay at the Hotel Arlington in Madison Square

January 25, 2013

According to this century-old postcard, $2 at the Hotel Arlington in genteel Madison Square gets you a room and a bath. Looking for a suite? That’ll run you at least $4.

Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 25th Street hasn’t changed excessively since the early 1900s. Madison Square Park is just as pretty, but it’s no longer all that centrally located.

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The Arlington Hotel building still stands and it’s still a hotel—a Comfort Inn. A low-rise holdout building that could be the one in the postcard (though remodeled) sits on its right.

The Gothic Revival church across the street remains. Built in 1868 by Richard Upjohn, it was once Trinity Chapel and is now home to a Serbian Orthodox congregation.

Lower Manhattan’s disease-ridden “lung block”

July 16, 2012

How would you like to live on a street dubbed the Lung Block by city officials?

This was the moniker given at the turn of the century to the gritty block bounded by Cherry, Catherine, Hamilton (Monroe), and Market Streets near the South Street Seaport.

The name comes from the high number of residents who suffered from contagious respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis.

“I know of no tenement house block in this city which is so bad from a sanitary point of view,” wrote Tenement House Commission head Robert De Forest in 1903.

“Every consideration of public health, morals, and decency require that the buildings on this block be destroyed at an early date,” he added.

Early 1900s journalist Ernest Poole recalled (by way of Philip Lopate’s excellent book Waterfront) that the Lung Block was home to 4,000 people, eight bars, and five “houses of ill fame.”

“And with drunkenness, foul air, darkness and filth to feed upon, the living germs of the Great White Plague, coughed up and spat on floors and walls, had done a thriving business for years,” recalled Poole.

The Lung Block finally bit the dust in the early 1930s, when public funds enabled developers to build Knickerbocker Village, which still stands at the site today (at right in 1934, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

There was at least one more Lung Block in the city: from Lenox to Seventh Avenues between 142nd and 143rd Streets in Harlem.

[Above photo: part of the Lung Block in the 1930s]

The “Bridge of Sighs” over a downtown prison

January 4, 2012

Venice’s “Bridge of Sighs,” built in 1602, connected the city’s prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

The name comes from a Byron poem suggesting that condemned prisoners walking back over the bridge would view Venice and then sigh before being locked up for years—or executed.

New York had its own Bridge of Sighs. It linked the criminal court building and the infamous Tombs prison bounded by Centre, Franklin, Elm (Lafayette), and Leonard Streets.

The inspiration for the name is the same. “The span was called ‘the Bridge of Sighs’ because condemned prisoners passed over it on the way to their deaths,” explains correctionhistory.org.

“The gallows were set up in the courtyard near the Bridge of Sighs and taken down immediately afterwards.

“Before the state began employing the electric chair at Ossining and Auburn prisons, the Tombs gallows had hanged some 50 convicted murderers.”

The postcard above shows the Bridge of Sighs connecting the criminal court building on the left with the new Tombs built in 1902 on the right.

Based on what correctionhistory.org says about gallows in the prison yard, plus the fact that the last hanging at the Tombs took place in the 19th century, there must have been a previous Bridge of Sighs connecting the first Tombs, constructed in 1838.

Perhaps this is it, in an illustration from the NYPL Digital Collection.

“New York Riverfront at Night”

December 27, 2011

By day, the turn of the century waterfront must have looked industrial and gritty, the air choked with smoke.

But at night, as this vintage postcard shows, it’s another world. The city is enchanting—lit up by the glow of the moon and electric lights inside and outside buildings.

Gilded Age New York’s lovely mermaid clock

August 12, 2010

Lots of New York buildings feature a clock on the facade.

But one of the most unique is this clock, supported by two mermaids, at the top of Gilsey House—an 1871 cast-iron beauty with a mansard roof and all kinds of ornamental touches.

In the late 19th century, the popular Gilsey Hotel, on the northeast corner of Broadway and 29th Street, was smack in the city’s theater district. 

But as the theater district moved uptown, the fortunes of this stretch of Broadway faded, and the hotel became a loft building.

Since the late 1970s, it’s been a co-op residence in a no-man’s-land best known for its knockoff jewelry and perfume wholesalers. But the neighborhood is primed for a comeback; the hipster Ace Hotel recently opened across the street.


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