Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1930s’

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.

Highlinefromwestbeth1935

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.”

Hopperroominbrooklyn1932

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.

Thirdavenuegoeller

“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.”

A 1930s painter’s coarse, crowded Coney Island

June 6, 2013

Social realist painter Reginald Marsh frequently depicted soldiers, sailors, floozies, burlesque dancers, moviegoers, bums, and other colorful characters that populated New York in the first half of the 20th century.

Reginaldmarshpipandflip

And he had a special fondness for Coney Island—the rougher edges of the boardwalk and beach, that is, filled with garish sideshows (“Pip and Flip,” from 1932, above), skimpy bathing suits, the promise of fun and adventure on a five-cent carnival ride.

Reginaldmarshwonderlandcircus

[Above: "Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island," 1930]

“Marsh explained that he was drawn to Coney Island ‘because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds—crowds of people in all directions, without clothing, moving—like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens,’” according to this recent piece on Marsh on the Smithsonian Institution’s blog.

Reginaldmarshsteeplechase

[Above: "Geroge C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park," 1932]

It’s a part of Coney Island that hasn’t been totally erased with all the new development. You can still catch in glimpses.

A Brooklyn housing project praised by architects

February 28, 2013

WilliamsburghousesaerialPublic housing complexes rarely get any love—especially for their design.

But it’s a different story with the Williamsburg Houses.

This group of 20 buildings on a sprawling site on Bushwick Avenue earned big props for its Modernist touches, designed in part by Swiss architect William Lescaze.

“When the complex opened in 1938, its design was revolutionary,” wrote The New York Times in 2003.

Williamsburghouses2013

“Rather than follow the emerging public housing pattern of large red-brick apartment houses scattered across lawns, the development was four stories tall, clad in tan brick with decorative blue panels and European Modernist features like doorways sheltered by aluminum marquees.”

WilliamsburghousesLOC2“The buildings were set at a rakish 15-degree angle to the street grid, a feature designed to sweep fresh air into the courtyards and spill sunlight into the windows of the 1,622 apartments.”

In their 1939 guide to New York City, the Federal Writers’ Project added that the 25-acre location was once home to 12 slum blocks.

“All apartments—two to five rooms—are equipped with electric stoves, refrigerators, and modern plumbing, and supplied with steam heat, hot and cold water.”

Williamsburghousesstore2013Oh, and the 6,000 working-class New Yorkers who moved in were charged rents between $4.45 and $7.20 per week.

After a long post-war decline, the Williamsburg Houses underwent a restoration in the mid-1990s.

That turned up a hidden treasure: WPA murals by pioneering abstract artists. They’d been neglected for years and hidden behind coats of paint in community rooms.

The Brooklyn Museum has the restored murals on view now.

The development earned landmark status in 2003, the third public housing project in the city to do so.

Bits of light illuminating the East River at night

January 18, 2013

There’s a moody blue-black sky over the lower end of a smoke-choked East River in this painting, “Night, East River, New York,” by Danish-born Impressionist and New York transplant Johann Berthelsen.

Berthelsenpainting

Streaks of flickering light from the Brooklyn side illuminate the tugboat, the bridge, and the belching smokestacks of a long-gone industrial city.


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