The unusual clock hands on a Third Avenue union sign

October 25, 2021

I must have passed the sign for the Metallic Lathers Union on Third Avenue in Lenox Hill a hundred times before finally noticing it the other day.

There’s a little history on it: the current union came out of an original union of wood, wire, and metal lathers workers that was organized in 1897. But what really caught my eye was the street clock attached to the sign, with its streamlined, Art Deco look.

The clock hands could be tools of some kind, perhaps a tool a lather might use? (A lather installs the metal lath and gypsum lath boards that support the plaster, concrete, and stucco coatings used in construction.)

This lathe cutter looks something like the clock hands. Maybe it’s a stretch, but perhaps the clock reflects something about the work these union members do in an industry vital to the growth of the city.

These ‘automobile stables’ on 75th Street might be the city’s first garages

October 25, 2021

Back in the days when New Yorkers got around town by horse and carriage, wealthy Gothamites built separate private carriage houses blocks away from their own mansions.

Inside these carriage houses (many quite lovely), broughams and phaetons were parked and horses cared for. In a small second or third floor area, a coachman and groom could live and work, making sure the carriage was ready when the owner wanted to use it.

By the turn of the century, however, the motor car hit the scene. Though some thought these “devil wagons” were just a fad, others realized they would soon replace horses and become the preferred mode of transportation for posh city residents (who were the only people who could afford a car at that time).

In 1902, a man named Edmund C. Stout was one who saw the future. That year, Stout bought five brownstone houses at 168-176 East 75th Street and converted them into what he dubbed “automobile stables,” according to a 2013 paper by Hilary Grossman from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture.

“Soon after completion, they were noted in the New York Times as the first automobile garages erected for private use in the city,” stated the Upper East Side Extension report by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Stout gave his automobile stables an architectural makeover, adding a fourth floor, removing the stoops, and trading the out-of-fashion brownstone style for a more arts and crafts look with fanciful rustic red brickwork.

“The buildings were sold off to New Yorkers who sought a place to keep their automobile and house their chauffeur,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times column from 1988. “Each building originally had a charging station for electric automobiles.”

The automobile stables weren’t just for cars. The LPC report had this to say: “According to the New York Times, each building was initially outfitted with ‘a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.’ Other sources indicate that the upper-stories may have actually housed the private chauffeurs of the owners.”

Who were these owners? Millionaire C.G.K. Billings owned number 172, per the LPC report; Billings is best remembered as the man who arranged a black tie dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s in 1903. George F. Baker, a financier and philanthropist, owner number 168. Banker Mortimer Schiff purchased number 174.

Though the popularity of automobiles soared in the early 1900s, some of the automobile stables were converted for other uses. By 1912, number 172 was thought to have been used for an embroidery business, according to the LPC report. Numbers 172 and 176 may have been turned into residences.

Number 176 housed a physician’s office for more than a decade, from 1966 through 1979, per the LPC report, “while number 172 hosted a number of different businesses simultaneously in 1964, including an antiques store, custom dress-making store, and
artist studios.”

Today, the five former automobile stables are residential units, and only numbers 168 and 174 still have a first-story garage, the LPC report states.

A small number of Manhattanites are lucky enough to have private garages, including the owners of the house next door to this row at number 178—the rest do without or fork over big bucks to park underground.

[Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

There’s a lot going on outside the Third Avenue Railroad Depot in this 1859 painting

October 18, 2021

Sometimes a painting has so much rich detail, it just knocks you out. That was my reaction to this magnificent scene of the Third Avenue Railroad Depot between 65th and 66th Streets, painted two years after the depot opened in 1857.

Amazingly, the painter of this “precise representation” of the depot, William H. Schenck, was also the company’s superintendent, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the work.

In 1859, this stretch of what would become the Upper East Side (near the Treadwell Farm Historic District) was mostly untouched by developers, though some wood houses are off in the distance. Street lamps stand on corners, however, and the road looks paved.

The streetcars pulled by horses follow the rails in and out of the depot. People are scattered about; some are on horseback, and one man steers a wagon full of goods. A hot air balloon sails through the sky, what’s that about?

“In addition to highlighting the contemporary popularity of the horse-drawn streetcar, Schenck also included a hot-air balloon in the sky, identified in tiny letters as the Atlantic,” the Met states. “The balloon’s owners, John Wise and John LaMountain, hoped to fly it across the Atlantic Ocean to initiate an entirely new form of transportation, but they never succeeded.”

Sadly, the Third Avenue Railroad Depot was destroyed by fire four years later.

The story of the house-size rock between two apartment buildings off Riverside Drive

October 18, 2021

West 114th Street between Riverside Drive and Broadway is a quiet sloping block of light brick rowhouses, similar to other side streets in the area.

But there’s one massive difference that sets West 114th apart: the 100-foot rock lodged between two houses and walled off behind an iron fence.

This hulk of Manhattan schist was nicknamed Rat Rock years ago by locals, who were understandably spooked by the rodents that used to enjoy nesting there, according to a 2000 New York Times article.

Like all the rock outcroppings found in Manhattan, the story of Rat Rock began hundreds of millions of years ago, when the bedrock that helps support skyscrapers was formed. Manhattan schist is a type of bedrock, and while most bedrock lurks beneath ground, geological fault lines forced some rocks to the surface, The Times piece explains.

Having big boulders above ground wasn’t a problem in Central Park. Though some were dynamited away when the park was being built, others were left behind to provide a rustic feel amid the lake, pond, and pastures.

Rat Rock in 1917

But when developers encountered rocks like this on the street grid, they either blasted them away or left them alone. For unknown reasons—perhaps because it’s just so enormous—Rat Rock remained, and builders worked around this break in the streetscape.

Apparently, it’s here to stay. The land is owned by Columbia University, and they have no plans to get rid of it. “The lot and development rights are incredibly valuable, but removing the rock could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” states The Times.

Enormous boulders like this didn’t get in the way of nearby development a century or so ago, however. The Museum of the City of New York has this 1903 photo in its collection of a similar rock thwarting the building plans of a row of houses on Riverside Drive between 93rd and 94th Streets.

I’m not so sure this photo is labeled correctly; it doesn’t look like the Riverside Drive of the era to me. But assuming it is, the rock has long been removed.

Over on the East Side, this undated photo shows rock outcroppings at Fifth Avenue and 117th Street, with modest houses built on top of them far off in the distance. The rocks here are no longer.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Third image: New-York Historical Society; fourth image: MCNY x2010.11.3102; Fifth image: MCNY 93.91.367]

The faded ad that sent newcomers to the Hotel Harmony in Morningside Heights

October 18, 2021

So much of New York’s past can be gleaned from the faded ads on the sides of unglamorous brick buildings. Weathered by the elements but still somewhat legible, they featured a product, a place, or a service that offers a bit of insight into how city residents once lived.

Case in point is the wonderfully named Hotel Harmony. The color ad for this “permanent and transient” hotel can be seen on Broadway and West 114th Street.

Based on the ad, the Harmony sounds like a run-of-the-mill hostelry aiming to come off as a little high class, especially with that tagline, which is supposed to say “where living is a pleasure,” per faded ad sleuth Walter Grutchfield.

The Hotel Harmony in 1939-1941

The actual Hotel Harmony was a few blocks away at 544 West 110th Street. The tidy brick and limestone building first served as the headquarters of the Explorers Club, but by 1935 it was converted into a hotel, according to Landmark West!

What kind of people lived or stayed here? Based on how little activity from the hotel made it into newspapers of the era, I’m going to guess quiet types who blended into the neighborhood. Robbers held up the night manager in the 1950s and made off with cash; a resident described as a limo driver died at Knickerbocker Hospital, then on Convent Avenue in Harlem; his obituary stated.

The Hotel Harmony has been defunct since the 1960s, when Columbia University bought the building and converted it into a dormitory fittingly called Harmony Hall, Landmark West! reported. The repurposed hotel remains…and so does the spectacularly preserved sign that sent many visitors to the hotel’s doors for days, weeks, perhaps years.

[Second image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; third image: BWOG Columbia Student News]

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

The flimsy shacks where New Yorkers lived on a pre-luxury Riverside Drive

October 11, 2021

After “Riverside Avenue” officially opened in 1880, it was billed as Manhattan’s new elite thoroughfare, soon to rival Fifth Avenue as a street of Gilded Age mansions.

Riverside Drive and 111th Street

On Riverside, “‘any ordinary millionaire’ could afford to construct what the Record & Guide considered a proper millionaire’s home; ‘a fashionable edifice surrounded by grounds and having such approaches in the way of lawns and walks that will heighten the architectural ensemble,'” quoted Peter Salwen in his 1989 book, Upper West Side Story.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Though Riverside Drive (the name was officially changed in 1908) never replaced Fifth Avenue in wealth and luxury, it came close—attracting monied Manhattanites who paid builders and architects big bucks to construct elaborate mansions overlooking Riverside Park with Hudson River views.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1905

But despite the high-class dwelling houses going up on this avenue of gentle curving carriage drives, many parts of the Drive still reflected a much poorer area, one where residents lived in flimsy wood houses that could be described as shacks or shanties.

Who lived in them? Probably longtime residents who were eclipsed by the Gilded Age economy. Before the late 19th century, this stretch of what became the Upper West Side was dotted with farms and industry from the Hudson River, and there were no developers interested in getting their hands on what eventually became expensive land.

One resident was a man known as “Uncle Jim” Miller. He made headlines when he died in his shack “on fashionable Riverside Drive opposite 170th Street,” as The New York Age put it in a 1922 story.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1892

Miller, a laborer, made the paper because he was the “last squatter” on Riverside Drive, dying in his “one-room board shack” strengthened by “sheets of tin” after 22 years living there. He was 73.

Riverside Drive opened in sections, with the Viaduct bringing the Drive to 135th Street by the turn of the century. What did the Drive’s wealthy residents think of their struggling neighbors, who they must have seen on strolls or bicycles, or from their motor cars?

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, 1897

Of course, the presence of rundown shacks in close proximity to multi-story mansions really wasn’t all that unusual at the time. Even Upper Fifth Avenue had its shanties and sad wood houses, such as this one on today’s 89th Street.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 17 or October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; third photo: The New York Age; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: New-York Historical Society]

The Gilded Age painter devoted to ‘scenes of every-day life around him’

October 11, 2021

“I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him,” Childe Hassam said in 1892, three years after this Boston-born Impressionist painter settled permanently in New York City.

“New York Winter,” 1900

Painting scenes of everyday life around him is exactly what Hassam did for the next four decades. From his first studio at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, he began depicting random moments in the Gilded Age city. His Impressionist style brilliantly captured light and color: of gaslit lamps, snowy sidewalks, rain-slicked umbrellas, and the sky at the “blue hour” just before twilight.

“Messenger Boy,” 1900

Perhaps his best-known works are urban landscapes near Washington Square, Union Square, and Madison Square, and Ephemeral New York has posted many examples over the years. But ultimately, Hassam was interested in what he termed “humanity in motion.”

“The Manhattan Club,” 1891

“‘There is nothing so interesting to me as people,’ he remarked in 1892,” according to an article from Smithsonian Magazine. “’I am never tired of observing them in every-day life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me.’”

“Broadway and 42nd Street,” 1902

Hassam’s subjects engage in habits and rituals New Yorkers still take part in, and they occupy a city that looks familiar to us today. Despite transportation options like elevated trains, streetcars, and horse-drawn cabs, Gotham was a city of walkers, then and now.

“Old Bottleman,” 1892

New York was also a class-structured city in Hassam’s era, as it remains today. Elegant men and women enjoy leisure time while cab drivers, messengers, doormen, vendors, and other workers earn a living around them.

“View of Broadway and Fifth Avenue,” 1890

Critics then and now have pointed out that Hassam’s work lacks the rough edges and raw social realist energy of many of his contemporaries. “In New York, for example, he ignored the new heterogeneity and hardships, romanticized symbols of modernism such as skyscrapers, and emphasized fast-fading Gilded Age gentility,” states Boston’s Gardner Museum.

“Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue,” 1893

Hassam had a simple answer for his critics and those in the art world who latched onto trends. According to the Smithsonian Magazine article, he told a critic in 1901: “I can only paint as I do and be myself. Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint.”

A spectacular old-school sign on Orchard Street

October 4, 2021

Now this is what I call a spectacular vintage New York City store sign, found—where else?—on Orchard Street between Delancey and Rivington.

Sadly, S. Beckenstein is no longer with us. According to Bowery Boogie, this fabrics store founded by Samuel Beckenstein in 1919 (first in a pushcart, then an actual shop) shut its doors on Orchard Street and moved to the Garment District in 2003.

Perrotin, a bookstore and gallery, remains, and must be maintaining the wonderful throwback signage.

A guide to now-defunct Greenwich Village street names in 1865

October 4, 2021

Greenwich Village is one of the oldest sections of New York City, so you’d think the street names of this former country outpost would have been set and established by the mid-19th century.

But a look at an antique map from 1865 proves otherwise. Sure, most of the streets carry the same name they do today; you could certainly use the map to get around from 14th Street to Houston.

Still, a surprising number of streets have names that are unfamiliar and feel, well, wrong. Take 13th Avenue, on the far left side of the map, for starters (below, at Gansevoort Street, in the 1920s).

Never part of the original street grid and built on landfill in the 1830s, this neglected road went from West 11th Street to 25th Street along the Hudson River. Any plans to extend it or improve it seemed to end in the early 20th century, when almost all of it disappeared from the cityscape.

From 13th Avenue let’s go to Troy Street, the old-time name for West 12th Street, which then turns into Abingdon Place, another vanished name. Why it was called Troy is unclear, but perhaps it was the name of an 18th or 19th century landowner. The street got its name in 1827, according to oldstreets.com.

Six blocks south of Troy is Amos Street, which the map helpfully explains is now West 10th Street. Who was Amos? That would be Charles Christopher Amos, according to nycgo.com, the heir to landowner Sir Peter Warren. Amos also lent his name to Charles and Christopher Streets.

Closer to Washington Square is another ghost street: Clinton Place, today’s West Eighth Street. (Above photo shows 31-33 East Eighth Street, formerly 41-39 Clinton Place in 1928.)

“Eighth Street (Sixth Avenue to the Bowery) was named Clinton Place in memory of Dewitt Clinton, an American statesman, whose widow lived a few doors away on University Place,” explains the Village Alliance. “The street kept the name Clinton Place until the turn of the century.”

Laurens Place, below Washington Square, was a poor tenement strip in the mid-19th century dubbed “rotten row.” Rechristening it LaGuardia Place and then below Houston Street West Broadway gave it much-needed cachet.

Amity Street’s name origin is also unknown (above, showing the “Midnight Mission for Fallen Women”). “Opened in 1806, it was renamed West 3rd Street in 1875,” notes oldstreets.com. Toward the East Village was elite, terraced Albion Place, “a row of 12 houses on the south side of East 4th Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue.”

Finally, I’m curious about St. Georges Place, which appears to be the new name of East 13th Street at Second Avenue. Was a church with the same name nearby, or could this have been a long-forgotten row of posh houses similar to St. Luke’s Place and St. Marks Place?

[Map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc. via Raremaps.com; second image: NYPL; third image: oldnyc.org; fourth image: NYPL]