A Mulberry Street house is a “lonely reminder”

March 18, 2019

I’m not sure when the low-rise buildings at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets were torn down.

But if there’s any upside to the bulldozing of another old New York corner, it’s that we now have an amazing side view of the Federal-style house at 149 Mulberry.

The view is almost a portal into the early 19th century city, when modest but well designed row houses like this one lined New York’s downtown streets and housed well-off families.

Mulberry Street might have had actual Mulberry trees when this two-story (plus an attic) home was built in 1816.

Characteristic of its style, the wood frame home features dormer windows, Flemish bond brick facade, stone lintels, and a gambrel roof.

It was originally constructed up the street at 153 Mulberry by Stephen Van Rensselaer III (below left).

A War of 1812 general and New York politician, Van Rensselaer was the scion of an insanely wealthy family that owned land in upstate New York as well as in Manhattan. After he built the house, it was assessed at $3,750, which seems astoundingly low.

“The house was one of many in the area erected by [sic] Van Rensselaer,” stated Andrew Dolkart in his book, Guide to New York City Landmarks.

After Rensselaer vacated the home and new residents moved in, it was moved to this site between Grand and Hester Streets in 1841.

Here it’s held court for 178 years, watching Mulberry Street’s fortunes rise and fall as the neighborhood went from fashionable to working class to an enclave of poor Italian immigrants by the early 1900s.

The house earned landmark status in 1969, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission noting its stone stoop with original iron handrails and the “beautifully composed” cast iron panels with wreaths with bows and arrows.

This stretch of Nolita is now fashionable again. But the Stephen Van Rensselaer House “is a lonely reminder of the small Federal-style row houses built in Lower Manhattan in the early 19th century,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Gaze at it in all its glory before a new building rises and blocks the side of the house from view for another century and a half.

[Fourth photo: MCNY, 1932: 33.173.168; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia; Sixth photo: NY Department of Records Tax Photo 1940]

The penthouse dwellers of early 1900s New York

March 18, 2019

Living in a New York penthouse is synonymous with wealth and luxury. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early 20th century, well-heeled New Yorkers began giving up their single-family mansions in favor of apartment living. But no one wanted to reside on or near the building roof, where smoke belched from chimneys and unsightly water tanks were constructed.

Instead, rooms and shack-like houses near or on the roof were given to servants, like these two New Yorkers, happily posing for photographer George Bain on top of an unidentified “skyscraper” apartment residence that city resident today would kill for.

When penthouses were rebranded for the elite in the 1920s, rooms for building staffers and servants were relocated to the lower floors.

The 1905 hotel named for a Gilded Age beauty

March 18, 2019

When it opened in 1905 at 7 East 27th Street, it was the Hotel Broztell: an elegant, 250-room Beaux Arts hotel with an entrance flanked by globe-like lamps and decorative touches on the limestone facade.

After a renovation in 2014 (at right), the hotel was rechristened the Evelyn.

The new name pays homage to Evelyn Nesbit, one of the most famous beauties of the Gilded Age.

Nesbit was a model and actress whose rise and fall in the city centered right here in this Madison Square Park neighborhood.

Born near Pittsburgh in 1884, her father’s death left Nesbit’s family penniless. After many stops and starts she, her younger brother, and her mother moved to Manhattan in 1901, taking rooms on East 22nd Street.

The teenager’s beauty caught the eye of artists and photographers. Soon Nesbit was a much sought-after model and chorus girl in the Broadway musical hit Florodora.

She also caught the eye of architect Stanford White. “Stanny,” as he was called, was famous for the buildings he designed, many of which were in the East 20s.

The middle-aged White was also famous for his interest in pretty young showgirls.

He was introduced to Nesbit by another chorus girl, who brought her to the apartment he kept at 22 West 24th Street.

Of the apartment, Nesbit later described being ushered into “the most gorgeous room I have ever seen….It was hung around with velvet; divans and great billowing cushions were everywhere, tiny little Oriental tables, all the impedimenta of luxury, were displayed on either hand.”

Soon Nesbit was visiting White here on her own. At first, their relationship was more paternal, she later wrote. But after White encouraged her mother to leave town one weekend, he invited Nesbit over and subsequently drugged and raped her, she later alleged.

The Evelyn hotel is also just down the street from where Madison Square Garden once stood. Designed by White, this second incarnation of the Garden had a breezy rooftop that was popular with the city’s movers and shakers.

It was here on the roof garden one warm night in June 1906 where Nesbit’s mentally ill and extremely jealous husband, Harry Thaw, approached White from behind and shot him dead.

The ensuing courtroom drama was considered the first “trial of the century” by city newspapers. (Thaw was ultimately found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.)

Little inside the Hotel Evelyn remains from the Gilded Age. The facade is preserved, and a hotel employee told me the original marble floor remains. (At left, the hotel in 1910 next to the once equally elegant Prince George Hotel.)

But how many guests know of the hotel’s namesake and that the events surrounding her fame and then scandal happened within five years right here in today’s Flatiron neighborhood?

(Second Photo: MCNY, 1906; 93.1.1.6019; fifth photo: New-York Historical Society)

The smallest pedestrian bridge in Central Park

March 11, 2019

Central Park is a wonderland of beautiful bridges. At least 36 bridges and arches wind through the park, allowing pedestrians to discover all the landscapes Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux put into their 1850s Greensward plan.

On a recent visit, I think I may have come across the smallest bridge in the park. This lilliputian rustic wood span is part of a footpath through the Ramble, the wooded area surrounding the Lake.

If it has a name, I couldn’t find it. But it crosses Azalea Pond, according to the Central Park Conservatory. Though it’s “newly constructed,” it appears to be an homage to Central Park’s co-designers, who succeeded in recreating the serenity of nature in the industrial, bustling city.

A city printmaker of “twilight, shadow, mystery”

March 11, 2019

Like other New York City printmakers in the 1930s, Armin Landeck’s etchings and engravings focus on the city’s dark corners and mysterious pockets.

[“Housetops, 14th Street,” 1937]

His work displays the kind of familiarity with the city one would expect from an artist who grew up peering around the early 20th century Manhattan of dimly lit bars, shadowy elevated trains, and hidden tenement roofs.

[“Pop’s Tavern.” 1934]

But he was not a New York City native. Born in Wisconsin in 1904, Landeck arrived in Gotham to study architecture at Columbia University and attend summer classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street.

[“Manhattan Vista,” 1934]

“By the time of his graduation from Columbia in 1927, he had become interested in printmaking and had bought a used press,” states the website for the National Gallery of Art. When he couldn’t find a job as an architect, he turned to printmaking.

Though he lived in Connecticut, he taught in New York and had a studio on 14th Street. Landeck spent much of his career rendering nocturnes of rooftops, stairwells, street corners, and other “secretive places amid the very public place, Manhattan,” as the New York Times put it in a 1998 article.

[“Manhattan Nocturne,” 1938]

“Like Hopper, Landeck uses the human figure sparely; he was more interested in the surroundings, and his ambience of choice obviously was urban,” stated the Times.

[“Approaching Storm,” 1937]

In a 1980 Times article, Landeck addressed the fact that often the only person in one of his prints is the viewer. “That there are no people is intentional on my part, because I look at New York in terms of theater very often,” he said.

Landeck’s work became more abstract as the 20th century continued, but no less accomplished. Still, his prints from the 1930s and 1940s might best exemplify his style. Armin was “ever the master of twilight, of shadow, and mystery,” as one 2003 book title described him.

[Prints 1, 2, and 4: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Print 3: Artnet; Print 5: Artnet]

A home for Swiss immigrants on West 67th Street

March 11, 2019

New York was a city of immigrant benevolent societies in the 19th and early 20th century.

These private organizations provided temporary lodging, job help, and social connections to new arrivals (and struggling older residents) who hailed from a specific country of origin.

Some of the first of these “foreign relief” societies, as one 1892 guidebook called them, were set up in the early 1800s by New Yorkers of English, French, and German descent.

In 1832, the Swiss Benevolent Society joined them. Though fewer immigrants from Switzerland came to America than from other European nations, Swiss people did settle in New York—and like all newcomers, they benefited from ties to their home country.

The organization funded a home for Swiss immigrants first on Bleecker Street in 1873, then in a converted brownstone at 108 Second Avenue a decade later.

But downtown Manhattan was becoming a little too commercial (and downscale), so the society decided to build a new home uptown.

In 1905, the Swiss Home (at right) celebrated the opening of its new Gothic-inspired building at 35 West 67th Street. It was designed by a Swiss-born architect, John E. Scharsmith.

Supposedly modeled after the town hall in Basel, this four-story lodging house—still extant on this lovely Upper West Side block—is a “Beaux-Arts interpretation of the Northern European Renaissance,” states the AIA Guide to New York City.

It may be a blend of styles, but the exterior of the home is quite delightful, with arched, cathedral-like windows and a gabled roof.

Befitting a home designated for Swiss immigrants, the underside of the cornice features shields representing different regions of Switzerland.

Note the boot scrapers flanking the first-floor entrance, each decorated with an S and an H.

Based on the opening day ceremony, which included singing societies and dedications in German, French, and English, the Swiss Benevolent Society was quite proud of the building.

It could accommodate 80 residents and featured sitting rooms, a reading room (above), a smoking room, a kitchen, a dining hall, 29 bedrooms (below, separated by sex), and interestingly, a fumigator.

The Swiss Home fulfilled its mission, but empty rooms were often available. In 1912, the home took in 14 survivors of the Titanic from various nationalities.

At some point, it was converted into a residence for women, referred to in this 1982 New York Times article as “Swiss Town House.” Today, it’s owned by CUNY and is home base for Macaulay Honors College.

[Second, fourth, and fifth photos: Swiss Home Dedication Program; Third Photo: NYPL 1913]

The Dakota almost alone on the Upper West Side

March 4, 2019

Completed in 1884, the Dakota might be the most famous (and most visually spectacular apartment) house in New York City.

It’s even more incredible when you see it standing alone with the trees of Central Park in the distance—at a time when the “West End,” as the Upper West Side was called in the 1880s, was being parceled out for development.

Only a lovely row of townhouses a block over hint at what this part of Manhattan would soon become.

Photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The New Republic, which ran a thorough overview of the building’s early history a few years ago.

What became of 5 tenements on Elizabeth Street

March 4, 2019

What a difference 107 years make on the tenement block of Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston Streets.

In the first photo, taken in 1912 by Lewis Wickes Hine, trash is strewn on the uneven Belgian block pavement. Broken-down carts line the sidewalk; boys huddle in the doorway of a bar bearing a sign for the Kips Bay Brewing Company, founded in 1910.

Kids run around, men stand by storefronts, and laundry hangs from fire escapes laden with pots, pans, and other household items.

It’s a Little Italy street of poverty—but it’s also a hive of human activity, rich with the unpretty details of daily life.

Amazingly, the string of tenements at 260 to 268 Elizabeth Street still stand. They’ve been cleaned up and repainted, and the fire escapes are uniform and clean, almost elegant.

Expensive boutiques and a roasting company occupy the storefronts. The Kips Bay bar is gone, as is the tenement across Houston Street. The block is still and tidy, absent of human energy.

But the little 1820s Federal-style house with the dormer windows on the corner still hangs on. (It was once Colonial Cafe, RIP!)

[Top photo: LOC]

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

The men who worked the Brooklyn docks in 1912

February 25, 2019

Painter George Bellows captured early 20th century New York’s lovelier moments: a blanket of bluish snow over the Battery, a girl’s enchantment with Gramercy Park, and carefree boys swimming off an East River pier.

But this social realist also cast his eye on the city’s grittier scenes. “Men of the Docks,” completed in 1912, is one of those—showing us a group of men literally pushed to the margins of Brooklyn, where they’ve gathered on a raw morning at an East River pier and face uncertainty.

These day laborers, “await jobs on the docks of Brooklyn on a grey winter morning. The towers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance,” states London’s National Gallery, where the painting hangs.