Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1930s’

The mystery quote on the Daily News building

June 27, 2014

DailynewsfacadeThe (former) headquarters for the New York Daily News, on East 42nd Street, is a 1930 skyscraper masterpiece.

The enormous lobby, with its illuminated revolving globe and compass points set into the floor, is an impressive monument to wonder and the bigness of the universe, as well as a nod to the newspaper’s global perspective.

Then there’s the huge facade framing the 39-story building’s main entrance.

Dailynewsbuilding1931This bas relief features the newspaper name, an urban cityscape, and a crowd of people, with this inscription: “he made so many of them.”

What does it mean?

It’s part of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”

Sounds like an homage to the regular New Yorkers who made the Daily News, which got its start in 1919 as the city’s first tabloid, one of the nation’s biggest newspapers throughout the 20th century.

Dailynewsfacadequote

At the time of the building’s opening, the News had an impressive circulation of 1.3 million. Now it’s roughly half that.

Walker Evans’ “lineup of faces” on the subway

June 9, 2014

Walker Evans might be best known for his stark, intimate photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers across a Deep South landscape of roadside cafes and churches.

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But Evans also has an extensive history as a New York City street photographer. A St. Louis native, he settled into a Bohemian life in Manhattan in the 1920s, first intending to be a writer before discovering a different kind of poetry in photography.

Subwayportraitswalkerevanaccord

He captured glimpses of everyday city street life, taking pictures of people on tenement stoops and inside lunchrooms. And from 1938 to 1941, he took his camera underground and shot closeups of anonymous New Yorkers on the subway.

He shot these unsentimental subway portraits secretly, hiding the camera lens between the buttons of his coat, waiting for just the right moment to click the shutter hidden in his coat sleeve.

Subwayportraitsevans87thbway

“Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“‘The guard is down and the mask is off,’ [Evans] remarked. ‘Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.'”

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In 1991, The New York Times reviewed a National Gallery exhibit of Evans’ subway photos. “Evans makes no particular political argument through his subway pictures,” the article states.

“Instead he presents a cross section of people, unposed and anonymous, forming what he called a lineup of faces.”

Subwayportraitsevansmanpaper

It wasn’t until 1966 when the subway portraits were published in Many Are Called, a book with an introduction by James Agee, who collaborated with Evans on his 1939 portrait of tenant families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Viewing these naked, powerful images today, they demonstrate that subway riding in 1938 was pretty similar to today: a dance of looking away, getting lost in dreams or worries, busying yourself with a newspaper, or finding yourself the object of an off-putting subway stare.

[Photographs copyright Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The jet-age Airlines Terminal on 42nd Street

May 31, 2014

In the 1930s, the future of passenger air travel looked bright—if still out of reach for the average New Yorker (a NYC to Europe flight cost $375, or more than five grand in today’s cash!)

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To make flying more convenient, the city constructed the Airlines Terminal Building, an appropriately futuristic, Art Deco-inspired structure on 42nd Street in Midtown.

Here, passengers didn’t actually catch their flights but could pick up tickets for any airline serving New York.

Airlinesterminalbldg19501The idea was that “you could buy your ticket in town and ride in comfort on a dedicated bus to LaGuardia or Newark airports,” explains citynoise.org.

Of course, LaGuardia Airport wasn’t LaGuardia yet—in 1939, it opened as New York City Municipal Airport, where Pan Am, American, United, Eastern, and an outfit known as Transcontinental & Western Air, aka TWA, flew out of.

Located across the street from Grand Central, it was a wild building, with kind of a space age crown flanked by two eagles on top.

Airlinesterminalbldg1970s

The Airlines Terminal Building outlived its usefulness. It was bulldozed to make room for the headquarters for Phillip Morris, which has occupied the address since the early 1980s.

[Middle photo: MCNY collections; bottom: Citynoise.org]

Riding the gritty High Line of the 1930s

January 27, 2014

HighlinefreighttrainCould anyone in 1934—the year the High Line opened—have predicted that the gritty elevated rail line running along Manhattan’s West Side in and out of factories and warehouses would be turned into a grassy, pedestrian-packed park 75 years later?

Probably not. These Parks Department photos reveal the High Line of a more industrial New York, a city with a bustling manufacturing base all along the far West Side.

A freight train heads downtown in the first one—dropping off raw materials or picking up finished products.

The second depicts the High Line south of Horatio Street, a section that was demolished in the 1960s.

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The vantage point: the former Bell Laboratories, now known as Westbeth, residential and commercial space set aside by the city for artists.

What was the last shipment to be transported by train via the High Line before it closed in 1980? A load of frozen turkeys.

Bold shapes and colors of a 1930s El station

January 23, 2014

Francis Criss’ “Third Avenue El” depicts an austere elevated station in 1933 devoid of people and trains. The coolness of the design contrasts with the warmth of colors.

ThirdavenueelCriss

Criss, usually described as a precisionist painter, created Depression-era urban cityscapes marked by bold colors and geometric shapes.

The subjects of these two downtown New York paintings still look the same almost a century later.

The lonely view from a room in Brooklyn

January 16, 2014

Edward Hopper provides few clues about the location or even the season in his haunting 1932 painting “Room in Brooklyn.”

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It’s a stark, isolating view of flat, impenetrable Brooklyn rooftops and a lone figure brushed by light in a neatened bedroom.

Is she reading? Contemplating? Or perhaps she’s looking down on the sidewalk, anticipating a guest’s arrival.

A snowy, windy day on the Sixth Avenue El

December 30, 2013

Martin Lewis’ 1931 drypoint etching “Snow on the El” reveals the Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street el station on a wet, snowy, blustery winter’s day.

Snowontheelmartinlewis1931

The woman in the foreground looks warm in her coat. The poor guy at the newsstand under the stairs probably isn’t so toasty.

More of Martin Lewis’ evocative etchings of New York in the 1930s can be found here.

Julian’s pool hall and an Automat on 14th Street

October 14, 2013

Certain defunct New York businesses are remembered with great fondness.

One is the automat—actually the 50 or so Horn & Hardart automats that used to exist all over the city. The fast food of their era, they dispensed hot coffee, sandwiches, baked beans, and pie to millions of busy New Yorkers cheaply and efficiently.

Automatjulians14thstreet

Another is Julian’s pool academy, a seedy but popular venue for decades that’s been gone from East 14th Street since 1991.

Who knew these two beloved establishments once shared the same building at 115 East 14th Street?

Automat14thstreetinside1935

An Ephemeral reader did, and he sent this photo, from 1933, showing the original location of Julian’s upstairs from an automat. The building was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for Zeckendorf Towers, and Julian’s moved across the street to the old Palladium building, once the Academy of Music.

The second photo, from the NYPL Digital Gallery, was taken two years later, showing the new revolving door at the automat. What a treat!

The haunting emptiness of “The Circle Theater”

July 22, 2013

There’s inertia and emptiness among the storefronts, candy signage, and subway kiosk entrance in Edward Hopper’s 1936 street scene The Circle Theater.

Thecircletheaterhopper

While the details have the realism of photography, “even here Hopper is defamiliarizing his subjects. The drug store, brightly lit up from within, is in a dark street and lights only a portion of it,” notes critic Rolf Gunter Renner, in his book Edward Hopper, 1882-1967.

“The window points up the emptiness of this system of signs: there is no one to read the message. In [the painting], a human figure, small and lost, is almost completely swallowed up by the colour contrasts of the buildings.”

Should we assume this is one of Hopper’s famous composite-like paintings, where he adds and subtracts bits and pieces of geography and architecture to create one scene—or was there really a Circle Theater next to a sad-looking drug store behind an old-school subway entrance somewhere in the Depression-era city?

A “dreamlike” vision of the Third Avenue El

July 8, 2013

In his 1934 painting “Third Avenue,” precisionist Charles L. Goeller depicts a crisp, geometrical street corner, with the gray elevated train tracks and then the sleek Chrysler Building looming in the distance.

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“The artist lived just a few doors east of this corner, yet his rendition of the familiar scene is strangely dreamlike,” states the website of the Smithsonian Institute, which has “Third Avenue” in its collection.

“Like his fellow painters in the precisionist movement, Goeller stressed the clean geometry of the modern city. All elements of his painting direct attention to the rising spire of the Chrysler Building, a vision of an ideal future shaped by American engineering.”

“Such foreground details as trash lying by the curb and scarred red paint where a sign has been removed from a wall seem deliberately introduced to contrast with the flawless edifice in the distance.”


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