All that remains of a now-defunct Bronx hospital

June 18, 2018

With their many rooms and spacious lobbies, many hospitals from early 20th century New York City have been repurposed into co-ops and condos.

Think St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, the former French Hospital on West 30th Street, and a turn of the century hospital devoted to cancer on Central Park West.

But Union Hospital (above in 1970), founded in 1911 in the Bronx “for the treatment of all ailments,” continued its mission as a health facility even after closing in 1997.

The 1920s-era building the hospital once occupied still sits on East 188th Street and Valentine Avenue. Stripped of prewar details, Union was remade into Union Community Health Center, part of nearby St. Barnabas Hospital.

A few remnants of the old hospital remain. First, there’s the entrance sign, in a typeface that feels more Victorian than Roaring 20s.

Then there’s a cornerstone with the hospital name engraved on it, as well as the year the building opened: 1922.

That’s just a decade after Bronx County was formed, and in the middle of a time of enormous urbanization and expansion in what was once a rural part of the city.

[Top photo: Union Community Health Center]

Summer among the tenement houses in 1879

June 18, 2018

“Among the tenement-houses during the heated term—just before daybreak” reads the caption to this 1879 illustration of New York’s poverty-stricken slums in the summertime.

Under a gaslight, adults and kids try to catch a breeze and sleep on the front steps of a rundown grocery, as well as on the roof and beside open windows.

In July and August, any New Yorker who could left the city for cooler weather in the country. These residents remained behind to deal with the oppressive heat made worse by the airless rooms of tenement flats.

They don’t even have fire escapes to sleep on, which 20th century city residents used as beds for hot summer nights.

A teen swims from Manhattan to Coney Island

June 18, 2018

Most contemporary New Yorkers would think twice about swimming in the city’s waterways.

But a century ago, marathon swim contests captivated the city, with thousands of fans cheering on competitive swimmers who tested their endurance in New York Harbor and the city’s rivers.

One of these competitors was 17-year-old Rose Pitonof. Born in 1895, the “swimming marvel,” as the New York Times later called her, won swim races in her home city of Boston.

That was pretty impressive in an era when most people didn’t know how to swim, and it was still controversial for women to pursue any kind of athletics.

On September 19, 1910, Pitonof attempted to swim the 17 miles from East 23rd Street in Manhattan to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier.

According to the New York Sun, she completed the course—which took her down to the harbor and then to Norton’s Point on the western end of Coney Island (where Sea Gate is today) in five hours and six minutes.

She did the same course a year later and won again, swimming 21 miles as she navigated three bridges amid choppy East River waters while doing the breast stroke.

“Coney Island never held a more enthusiastic or demonstrative crowd than that which welcomed the girl swimmer at Steeplechase Pier yesterday afternoon,” wrote the New York Times on August 14, 1911.

“From the time she first made her appearance around Norton’s Point thousands gathered along the shore to watch her progress and cheer her on to victory, and all bathing was suspended for practically the last hour of her swim.”

“At the finish of the swim she appeared in no way fatigued, and her only nourishment was a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich.”

Pitonof wasn’t just an athlete—she was a performer too, and she worked the vaudeville circuit demonstrating high dives and other tricks.

She attempted a few more long-distance swims in the 1910s, including an English Channel swim (which another teen swim sensation from Manhattan completed) and a route from Sandy Hook to New York, but was unable to finish either.

She died in 1984, a generation before the launch of the Rose Pitonof Swim, an annual event that recreates her record-breaking journey from the East 20s to Coney Island.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

The church wall that protected Irish immigrants

June 11, 2018

Manhattan has no shortage of beautiful and historic houses of worship.

But walking by St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which spans Prince Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets in what was once working-class Little Italy and is now a neighborhood of boutiques and coffee spots, makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the early 19th century.

The Gothic Revival church building, the weathered tombstones, the black cast-iron fence surrounding a yard of grass and trees all give off a quiet, ghostly feel.

And then there’s the 10-foot brick wall surrounding the churchyard, which doesn’t say keep out as much as it feels like a protective moat around the church and the worshippers inside.

Apparently that protective function is exactly why the wall was built.

In the decades after the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in 1815 (it was the city’s second Catholic church), an orphanage and parochial school opened as well.

Soon, a tide of Catholic immigrants fleeing poverty and later famine across the Atlantic made their way to the city.

It wasn’t as if Catholics were welcomed to New York with open arms before then. But the multitudes of Irish coming to the city in the 1830s and 1840s spurred on a nativist movement against them that resulted in lethal gang brawls and the burning of Manhattan’s third Catholic church on (now defunct) Sheriff Street by arsonists.

In response, church leaders built the 10-foot brick wall that still stands today.

“Although the exact date of construction is unknown, stories suggest that in 1835, Bishop John Hughes was compelled to station parishioners on already-extant walls so as to protect the cathedral from a fire-wielding anti-Catholic mob,” stated Place Matters.

Bishop Hughes was John Joseph Hughes, an Irish-born priest who was consecrated as a bishop at St. Patrick’s in 1838—and eventually became the first archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.

wall

“In the following years, nativist mobs had advanced on St. Patrick’s several times but were turned back after receiving reports that armed Irish defenders—posted by Bishop Hughes—were stationed along Prince Street and behind those brick walls which had been specifically constructed to protect the Cathedral,” proclaimed the church website.

After the Civil War, the Irish were still scorned, but the nativist movement lost steam. The inside of old St. Patrick’s burned in an accidental fire in 1866; it was rebuilt two years later.

The church walls were undamaged, so the same walls we walk by today, where vendors park their wares and fashionable people stroll and window shop, are the ones that helped protect vulnerable immigrants 175 years ago.

[Second image: NYPL, 1880; fourth image, NYPL, 1850s; fifth image, NYPL 1862]

What the bronze reliefs on 195 Broadway mean

June 11, 2018

Inspired by ancient Greece, the 27-story office tower at 195 Broadway features a marble lobby and interior classical columns.

The building, completed in 1922, also paid tribute to what qualified as modern communication at the time. This was the new headquarters for AT&T, after all, and company heads topped the tower on the Fulton Street side with a sculpture called “Genius of Telegraphy,” a 24-foot winged male figure cast in bronze holding bolts of electricity in its hand.

“Gold Boy,” as that statue was nicknamed, is no longer there. But four bronze reliefs on the facade of 195 Broadway still exist. Instead of paying tribute to modern communications, they hark back to ancient times.

The four reliefs are collectively titled “The Four Elements,” an early work by sculptor Paul Manship, who designed the Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Plaza.

Manship honored the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. According to Landmarks Preservation Committee report from 2006 (the year 195 Broadway was deemed a landmark site), the panels there today are copies of the originals.

They’re somewhat racy for the 1920s, with topless female figures. And it’s a little strange to see them outside the latest branch of trendy retailer Anthropologie, which now occupies the ground floor.

But the Art Deco touches—and the elements they celebrate—make these reliefs an inspiring break along the canyons of Lower Broadway.

[Top photo: Blue Rock Construction]

Lovely houses and lush front yards on 18th Street

June 4, 2018

Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerie must have been something. But contemporary New Yorkers can get an idea of what it looked like thanks to three charming houses on East 18th Street.

Stuyvesant was the final director-general of New Amsterdam. After the British took over in 1664, he moved out of the city center and resided on his 120-acre bouwerie, or farm—roughly bounded by today’s 5th to 15th Street east of Fourth Avenue to the East River.

Stuyvesant died in 1672 and was interred at St. Mark’s Church at Second Avenue and 10th Street, on his bouwerie.

As the East Side went from countryside to part of the city In the 18th and 19th centuries, his heirs sold off land to developers eager to put down roads and build homes for a growing New York.

One of those heirs was Cornelia Stuyvesant Ten Broeck, who in 1852 leased land on today’s 18th Street to several men who worked in the construction trades.

Ten Broeck stipulated in her lease that these men put up “good and substantial dwelling houses…being three or more stories in height and constructed either of brick or stone,” according to a 1973 Neighborhood Preservation Center report.

The results of that lease are still part of the city today: three lovely brick houses with vast, lush front yards and iron fences and entryways at 326, 328, and 330 East 18th Street.

The three sister houses, built in the popular Italianate style of the mid-19th century, “recall a period when rows of one-family dwellings were beginning to line the city’s ‘uptown’ side streets from the Hudson River to Avenue A,” the NPC report says.

The houses themselves are somewhat modest. But the decorative ironwork on the porches and entryways give them a New Orleans kind of feel.

And the deep front yards are an unusual feature in Manhattan, though as the above black and white photos (from the 1930s to the 1970s) show, the yards didn’t always feature thick greenery.

The trees and bushes shading our view of the houses look like they sprang up on their own, ghostly reminders of the trees and bushes of Stuyvesant’s bouwerie three centuries earlier.

They lend a bucolic feel to this stretch of the cityscape . . . almost like what Stuyvesant’s bouwerie might have looked like.

[Third photo: NYPL, 1938; Fourth photo: MCNY/Edmund V. Gillon 2013.3.2.2325; Fifth photo: MCNY/Edmund V. Gillon 2013.3.2.2326]

The relics on tenements at a Lenox Hill corner

June 4, 2018

On the east side of First Avenue at 69th Street are two tidy tenements—and each one has a curious remnant of old New York on its facade.

The tenement on the north side has the cross streets carved into it at the corner. Look up to the second story, and you’ll see “1st Ave 69th St.”

These cross street carvings used to be very common in tenement neighborhoods, and many can still be found, if mostly faded and crumbled.

Perhaps they functioned as streets signs on poorer blocks that didn’t have actual signs in the early 20th century, when the tenements went up.

I’d heard that some of these signs were meant to tell elevated train riders where they were—but that’s not the case with these, since First Avenue never had an elevated train.

The cross street signs on the tenement across the corner is more unusual.

This one has two handmade “69st” signs etched in, as if finger-painted on the plaster.

More tenements with cross streets on them can be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn—especially in older neighborhoods like Williamsburg, downtown Brooklyn, the East Village, and the Lower East Side.

The doctor’s summer home on West 94th Street

June 4, 2018

Today, the rich and distinguished summer in the Hamptons. In the mid-1800s, they summered on the Upper West Side.

The “delightful palazzo” above was the summer mansion of Dr. Valentine Mott, the most prominent physician in 19th century New York—a pioneer of heart surgery who at the age of 75 helped Civil War battlefield hospitals implement anesthesia.

His year-round residence was on fashionable Gramercy Park. But when summer hit, he hightailed it to today’s West 94th Street and the former Bloomingdale Road.

Built in 1855, the country house “was at almost the farthest reach for summer residences away from the city,” according to Old New York in Early Photographs.

Today, the house would be smack in the middle of Broadway. Back then, this was the country; the Upper West Side as we know it today was a collection of estates and small villages in the mid-1800s, like Harsenville and Strycker’s Bay.

Dr. Mott died here in 1865—but his summer house lives on in a photo taken by French-born New York photographer Victor Prevost the year the house was built.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: Wikipedia

The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

May 28, 2018

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]