The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

June 7, 2021

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

A 1970s remnant of a Crazy Eddie record store

June 7, 2021

I have no idea why the original owner of this yellow paper bag from Crazy Eddie’s held onto it for so long. But when it turned up for sale at a vintage shop (pressed in plastic, no less), I couldn’t resist spending a few bucks to own a piece of 1970s/1980s New York history.

If you lived in the New York City area in those decades, then you remember the electronics store and record/tape shop Crazy Eddie—mainly for the commercials, which featured a DJ named Jerry Carroll gesturing and shouting that the store’s prices were insane. (Sometimes in a santa claus cap for the annual Christmas in August sale.)

The original Crazy Eddie was on King’s Highway in Brooklyn. But the store’s TV ad schtick and actual low prices spread franchises to the Bronx, Manhattan, upstate, and Long Island.

Unfortunately it was all over for Crazy Eddie’s owners by the 1990s, thanks to inflating sales numbers and other illegal business practices that mandated store closures and jail time. New Yorkers turned to other electronics stores like (Nobody Beats) the Wiz and J&R Music World, but these too are long gone from the cityscape.

A quick Google maps check shows that the original King’s Highway store is now a bank branch.

[Second image: New York Daily News February 22, 1980; third image: Youtube]

A metalwork dreamscape at a 1929 Gracie Square co-op

June 7, 2021

Ever since the far eastern end of 84th Street was rebranded Gracie Square in 1929 (after Archibald Gracie, whose summer home is now the mayor’s residence four blocks north), this one-block stretch alongside Carl Schurz Park has (mostly) been lined with tall, elegant apartment houses.

These buildings, off East End Avenue overlooking the East River, radiate a stuffy kind of luxury. But something very imaginative makes 7 Gracie Square stands out from its more staid neighbors.

It’s the magnificent metalwork on the front doors and window grilles—featuring a bestiary dreamscape of elephants, gazelles, plants, leaves, and curlicue, wave-like motifs that looks like snails or shells.

Of course the doors are the creation of an artist: a painter and muralist named Arthur W. Crisp. After relocating to New York City from his native Canada in the early 1900s, Crisp studied at the Art Students League and shared a studio on 34th Street.

Unlike most people working in creative fields, Crisp had some money by the late 1920s. He bought property on the future Gracie Square and commissioned a builder and architect to construct an apartment house, wrote Christopher Gray in a 2011 Streetscapes column in the New York Times.

“Crisp retained George B. Post & Sons, along with Rosario Candela, and they designed a tepid Art Deco facade of red brick, with vertical runs of brick set at an angle,” stated Gray.

Why Crisp decided to decorate the doorway entrance in various types of metal—and what inspired his vision to make this “tepid” building so unique—remains a mystery.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Crisp lived in one of the building’s maisonettes, according to Gray. He left behind his last name, which he playfully embedded in one of the iron window grilles to the left of the front doors (below).

Crisp didn’t stay long at 7 Gracie Square. In 1935, the building went bankrupt, Gray wrote, and at some point Crisp relocated to Charlton Street.

The building went co-op in 1945—and the dreamy, fanciful doors still greet residents, catching the eye of the occasional passerby when the sun hits the metal and creates a powerful gleam.

[MCNY X2010.7.2.8894]

Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment armory, day and night

May 31, 2021

Designed to look like a Medieval fortress with towers and turrets, the 14th Regiment Armory—also called the Eighth Avenue armory—has been part of Park Slope since 1893.

In daytime or at night, this block-spanning armory with brick and bluestone trim is a Victorian wonder, as these postcards (the first one with glitter!) from the collection at the Museum of the City of New York reveal.

It owes its existence to the wave of armory-building undertaken by New York between the Civil War and World War I. Not many survive, but putting the spotlight on one on Memorial Day will hopefully encourage New York to take a closer look at these magnificent beauties.

[First postcard: F2011.33.1067; Second postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2288]

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

The body of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War comes to City Hall

May 31, 2021

The metal coffin reached Jersey City by train at half past three o’clock on May 31, 1861. It was loaded into a hearse and onto a ferry, and when it arrived in Manhattan it was brought to a parlor inside Astor House—at the time New York’s most luxurious hotel, on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

For several hours there, the coffin lay under a large draped American flag. Family, friends, and National Guardsmen mourned the man inside it, whose “pallid features,” as the The Sun described them the next day, could be seen through a piece of oval glass.

“Few would have recognized in the ghastly features the gallant commander once so full of life and intelligent,” the newspaper wrote.

At 10 pm, the coffin went back in the hearse for the short trip to City Hall, where flags stood at half-mast and black and white crepe hung over the entrance. “Here an immense crowd had assembled on the steps and in front of the building, awaiting the funeral cortege,” wrote The Sun.

Politicians, such as mayor Fernando Wood, paid their respects. Soon the public was allowed to enter, and over the next few hours 10,000 New Yorkers passed by the coffin that contained Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, 24, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

“Remember Ellsworth” was a popular rallying cry among Union supporters during the War Between the States. Today, Col. Ellsworth, who commanded a funeral cortege similar to that of Abraham Lincoln’s four years later, has largely been forgotten. Who was he, and why did the death of this young lawyer from upstate earn such an elaborate farewell in New York City?

Part of it had to do with his status as a dashing young law clerk and National Guard Cadet who took a job in the Springfield, Illinois office of future President Lincoln. “The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him,” stated Smithsonian magazine.

Ellsworth also had a deep interest in military science. When President Lincoln put out the call for Union troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War, he responded by “raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops,” according to the NPS.

The 11th New York Volunteers were also known as the First Fire Zouaves, since many members of this unit—with their distinctive flashy uniforms and billowy pants—were recruited from New York’s volunteer fire departments.

In May 1861, Ellsworth returned to Washington with his Fire Zouaves. On May 24, the unit went to Alexandria, Virginia to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flying from the roof of a hotel called Marshall House, which could be seen from the White House roof 10 miles away.

The next day, “Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest,” wrote the NPS.

Jackson, a “zealous defender of slavery,” Smithsonian magazine stated, was then shot to death by one of the fire zouaves, Cpl. Francis Brownell.

The death of Col. Ellsworth so shook President Lincoln, he reportedly said, according to a PBS.org article on Ellsworth, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” Before Col. Ellsworth’s body came New York’s City Hall, Lincoln had it lay in state at the White House.

Col. Ellsworth became something of a folk hero, his image and actions reproduced in lithographs and sheet music. His story stuck in New York City’s memory through the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, an Ellsworth memorial was dedicated in Greenwich Village: It’s the flagpole at Christopher Park, the triangle across from Sheridan Square. (Above, a marker on the flag pole.)

[First image: Billy Hathom/Wikipedia photo of a portrait; second image: whitehousehistory.org; third image: Currier & Ives lithograph/Wikipedia; fourth image: Musicology for Everyone; fifth image: Corbis via Smithsonian magazine; sixth image: The Historical Marker Database]

The solitary pleasures of browsing books in New York City

May 24, 2021

Is there anything more irresistible than stopping to browse the outdoor tables of castoffs and curiosities at a New York City bookstore?

It’s an activity that city residents have enjoyed probably since books became mass market products. And unlike many things New Yorkers do, this one is generally solitary.

The highest concentration of book stores would have been along Book Row, on Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and Union Square. This stretch became the bibliophile center of Manhattan in the early 1900s and continued for decades. (Above, a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1940).

New and used bookstores sprang up in this quarter-mile strip (above, Mosk’s at Astor Place in 1935), allowing literary-minded New Yorkers to spend a few minutes, a lunch hour, or an entire afternoon flipping through pages.

Of course, Book Row has pretty much vanished except for the Strand. And bookstores like these exist across Manhattan, supported by book lovers even in an era when reading generally means downloading onto a screen.

The last two bookstore images are also part of Book Row, but their names are either hard to make out or lost to history.

But even seeing the photos of books and browsers on a random city sidewalk brings on excitement. Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and see what treasures await in those outdoor shelves?

[Top image: MCNY 80.102.136; second image: MCNY 2003.25.101; third and fourth images: NYPL]

The 1957 rallies to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn

May 24, 2021

By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall. Shabby Ebbets Field, opened in 1913, wasn’t cutting it for Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. He wanted a newer, bigger stadium for his team.

But one key city official wasn’t on board with O’Malley’s plan for a Buckminster Fuller–designed domed ballpark with plenty of parking at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. That man “was Robert Moses, who basically held veto power over any city project budgeted at more than $250,” wrote David Hinckley in the New York Daily News in 2017.

While Moses was trying to convince O’Malley to build his new ballpark in Fresh Meadows, Queens, O’Malley began scouting out sites 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, according to Hinckley.

In the spring of 1957, Dodger fans still thought they had a chance. So a group of Brooklyn businessmen led by Henry Modell (of Modell’s Sporting Goods fame) formed an organization aptly called the “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn Committee,” based at the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights.

Their goal, as outlined in a letter to the Brooklyn Tablet in May 1957, was to convince officials to go ahead with the domed stadium plan, have residents sign petitions, and “organize and stage borough-wide rallies and mass meetings to demand action.”

The rallies happened outside Brooklyn Borough Hall beside the imposing columns; adult and kid fans held placards, wore buttons, and hoped that a show of support would keep the beloved team in the County of Kings.

Unfortunately, these rallies didn’t make a dent. O’Malley announced his plan to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles at the end of the season. Ebbets Field was demolished in February 1960—by a wrecking ball designed to look like a baseball.

[Top image: Keyman Collectibles; second and third images: Brooklyn Daily]

Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village

May 24, 2021

The Village has always had dive bars that attract locals and luminaries. But The Golden Swan, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, might have been the first—and the most notorious in its day.

Inside this Irish tavern dating back to at least the 1870s, writers, artists, activists, and assorted Village characters of the 1910s gathered to drink. (National prohibition was looming, after all.) While the front of the tavern may have catered to locals and Hudson Dusters gangsters, bohemians made the back room—aka, the Hell Hole—their own.

Charles Demuth was a fan of the Swan. Demuth, who gained fame as a precisionist painter, captured the mood and mannerisms of the Swan’s nightly denizens in a visceral portrait from 1919 entitled “At the Golden Swan, Sometimes Called the Hell Hole.”

Here he “depicts himself and Marcel Duchamp, the acclaimed French Dadaist, seated at the left table of the popular meeting spot for young artists and bohemians,” wrote Christie’s in 2007.

“Other patrons included the artist John Sloan, who produced an etching of the bar in 1917 (above), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who incorporated it into some of his plays, including The Iceman Cometh,” stated Christie’s. Social activist Dorothy Day, journalist John Reed, and anarchist Hippolyte Havel were part of the crowd.

Sloan, whose studio was across the street on the other side of the Sixth Avenue El, depicted O’Neill (on the upper right) in his sketch. Both works give viewers a good idea of what the Golden Swan and Hellhole looked like. But Demuth’s feels rawer; you can feel the isolation among all the people packed into the small back room of a bar together, none of them looking at the person they’re sharing their table with.

Christie’s included an excerpt about the Golden Swan from the biography O’Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb: “The Hell Hole was a representative Irish saloon. It had a sawdust covered floor, rude wooden tables, and was filled with the smell of sour beer and mingled sounds of alcoholic woe and laughter. Its barroom was entered from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street the ‘front room,’ in which women were not allowed.

“Above the doorway swung a wooden sign decorated with a tarnished gilt swan. Farther east, on Fourth Street, was the ‘family entrance,’ a glass door that gave access to a small, dank, gaslit chamber known as the ‘backroom.’ Wooden tables clustered about a smoking potbellied stove, and it was here that respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer…”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928 to make way for the subway. But at the corner today is a patch of greenery known as The Golden Swan Garden.

[Top image: Christie’s, second image: Metmuseum.org; third image: New York Post/Getty]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]