Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

Hoffbauerarainynewyorkstreet

He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

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The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

Hoffbauerrainynightinnyc1912

The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.

Meet the shiny new Port Authority Bus Terminal

March 23, 2015

It’s long been considered one of the city’s ugliest buildings, an “iron monstrosity” and the center of 1970s and 1980s sleaze that just can’t escape its sketchy reputation.

Portauthorityopeningphoto

In 1950, when the gleaming, efficient-looking Port Authority Bus Terminal at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street opened, the place was on the receiving end of lots of love.

Just listen to this promotional newsreel on the new terminal, which raves about the escalators, the shops, the 31 bus ticket windows you can visit for a ticket to “any city of town in the United States.”

According to the reel, the bus terminal stands “among the milestones of the century.”

Well, that’s stretching it. But at the time, the idea was pretty good—up until then, Manhattan had eight smaller bus terminals scattered around Midtown.

[Top photo: PANYNJ; Newsreel: Historic Films via YouTube]

What became of the Triangle factory owners?

March 23, 2015

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.

Blanckandharris

From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.

Blanckandharrisfactoryafterfire

“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

The Mall: the only straight path in Central Park

March 16, 2015

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set out to recreate nature when they designed Central Park, laying out windy paths and serpentine walkways that would follow the woods and pastoral settings they had planned.

But they did allow one formal concession, the only intentional straight line in the park: a quarter-mile “promenade,” as they called it in the 1850s, where New Yorkers could mingle.

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The Mall was “specially designed to accommodate the width of carriages passing through its bounds,” explains centralpark.com.

“Around the turn of the century, these carriages would drop off their wealthy inhabitants at the Mall’s starting point, where they could enjoy the natural scenery and mingle with people of lesser status. When these visitors finally reached the Bethesda Terrace, their carriages would be waiting to bring them to their next destination.”

And for the little ones, goat and donkey cart rides!

What remains of the East River’s long-gone slips

March 16, 2015

 Slipold2015Old maps of Lower Manhattan (like the one below, from 1842) list them: the many slips created along the East River to facilitate ship transportation in a city dependent on maritime trade.

 From Gouverneur Street to Whitehall Street, 12 slips offered “access to the shoreline by small craft such as ferries and farmers’ market boats,” states oldstreets.com. “There were markets at most of the slips at one time or another.”

Slipsmap1842

Today, some exist in name only. Eleven were gone by the middle of the 19th century, early victims of the city’s valuable real estate. The last one disappeared by 1900.

Slipmarket2015“It was the need for additional land that caused the passing of New York’s historic slips,” states a 1924 New York Times article.

“Those alleyways of water were two blocks long and as many wide, flanked about by rocking wharves at which tied up the small boats belonging to mother vessels further out, or the mother vessels themselves if not too large.”

“And with the passing of these slips passed also the romance of the clippers, our country’s first sailing vessels.”

What wonderful names they had! Some were derived from prominent Dutch-born landowners, like Coenradt and Antjie Ten Eyck (Coentje—later Coenties—Slip).

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Others were named for the businesses nearby, like Coffee House Slip, once at the end of Wall Street where several coffee houses had popped up in the late 18th century (above, in a New York Times sketch).

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There was also Fly Market Slip, a corruption of the Dutch vly, meaning valley, according to oldstreets.com.

The rest were Gouverneur, Rutgers, Pike, Market, Catherine, James, Peck, Burling, and finally, Old Slip.

The most sensational actress of the 1860s

March 16, 2015

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.

Adahmenkenmazeppa

She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.

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Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

A settlement of shacks on upper Fifth Avenue

March 9, 2015

Recognize this block, which is less of a block and more of a hilly, rocky lot?

It’s Fifth Avenue at 101st Street in 1894, when this stretch of the future Museum Mile was still the province of the poor and vulnerable.

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“A semi-rural hilly area with modest row houses and shanties at the end of the 19th century, Carnegie Hill was really discovered by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who purchased land on Fifth Avenue around 90th Street in 1898 and built a 64-room mansion,” states the New York Times in a 1994 article.

A Times article from 1905 appears to describe one of these shanties.

Shacks5thave1895116th

“Within a stone’s throw of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion . . . stands a gabled shanty within 20 feet of Fifth Avenue of such scant dimensions and poverty-stricken appearance that it would be despised among the hovels that house some of the poorest of the city’s residents.”

Upperfifthave2015Shanty settlements like these seemed to dot Fifth Avenue farther north, like the ones seen in this photo, dated 1895.

A cross street is not listed on the photo, unfortunately. But note the lamppost; it wouldn’t be long before developers rush in, ushering in an upper Fifth Avenue of hospital buildings and stately apartment residences that still exist today.

[Top two photos: MCNY]

A wood telephone booth hides on 54th Street

March 9, 2015

After an 88-year run in a townhouse on East 54th Street, Bill’s Gay Nineties closed in 2012.

Billsphonecloseup

The shuttering of the former speakeasy turned saloon and restaurant was a big loss for New Yorkers who love a time warp and a mahogany bar.

BillsphoneboothReopened and rechristened Bill’s, it’s a cleaned-up version of the old place, with much of the same decor, framed old photos, and finishings (and the silver dollars long embedded into the floor).

And luckily, the old wood telephone booth (with a phone with separate coin slots for quarters, dimes, and nickels!) off to the side of the front doors is still in place as well.

Sightings of wood phone booths are rare in Manhattan, so it’s a relief that this one wasn’t turned into a coat check or closet.

But why in the world does the staff keep one of those yellow wet-floor warning signs in there?

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An 1860s fashion accessory for New York ladies

March 9, 2015

Demorestsbriscoecenterforamericanhistory1877Even with the Civil War going on, New York City in the 1860s was a stylish metropolis.

Well-off women (and there were many, thanks in part to money pouring in from wartime industry) decked themselves out in “carriage cloaks of moire and amber velvet, to sable or mink furs, and to gowns of organdy, grenadine, and brocade silks in deep and brilliant magenta, gold, or fuchsia,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

The hoop skirt was the most fashion-forward style. But with a hemline that brushed the ground, it was tricky to wear in New York City, which at the time consisted of muddy, manure-filled streets and iffy trash and snow removal services.

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That’s where a woman famously known as Madame Demorest comes in.

The American-born head of her own fashion empire, she invented something called the “Imperial Dress Elevator” that was made of a series of weighted strings, so a woman could discreetly raise and lower her hoop skirt to avoid dirtying up the hemline as she strolled past filthy gutters and curbs.

Dresselevatorad

“The dress elevator was so popular that ‘Imperial’ became the code name for any device that raised a skirt,” wrote Anne Macdonald in Feminine Ingenuity.

Madamedemorestnypl“When women asked each other, ‘are you wearing your imperial today?’ they knew what they meant.”

Madame Demorest’s (at left) fashion empire was vast: she ran an emporium on Broadway, invented a sewing machine, sold inexpensive dress patterns that copies the styles of the day, and put out a magazine that was enormously popular through the 19th century.

Mostly forgotten today, she paved the way for women in fashion and business in the 20th century.

[Photos: Top, Briscoe Center for American History; bottom: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Who was crowned Miss Brooklyn in 1939?

March 2, 2015

All spring, the contest was heavily advertised in the Brooklyn Eagle. Any single woman born in New York City and currently living in the borough between the ages of 16 and 23 could enter.

Missbrooklynfinalists2

Interestingly for a beauty contest, beauty was not necessary, according to the Eagle. “Judging will be on the basis of poise, personality, and appearance,” the guidelines stated.

MissbrooklynrulesThe judges, a group of business leaders, were tasked with looking for someone who exemplified the “typical local girl.”

Hundreds of women entered the competition that year, with several deemed finalists (and getting their photos in the Eagle) before the winner was revealed during Brooklyn Week at the World’s Fair in May.

So who won? The crown went to Miss Elinore Bertrand, 16, of West 2nd Street, who attended Bay Ridge High School.

Missbrooklyn1939She was awarded $25 and the chance to compete for Miss New York later that summer.

Bertrand (at right) seemed to be a bit of a sore loser. After she failed to grab the Miss New York title, she was so upset, she ran away to Philadelphia!

Miss Brooklyn wasn’t the only beauty contest of the era. Miss Rheingold, running until 1964, may have been even more popular.

And Miss Subways, which existed from the 1940s to the 1970s, was huge citywide.


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