Sipping cool water from a city fountain in 1900

July 27, 2015

Drinking fountains began showing up in New York City parks in the 1880s, often paid for by wealthy private citizens and supported by temperance groups, reports this Huffington Post article.

Madisonsquareparkwaterfountain

Providing cool refreshing water to passersby and park-goers was a wonderful idea. But yikes, look at the communal cups everyone had to drink out of!

This photo dates to about 1900, right about when people were realizing that sharing cups was a good way to spread germs. Pretty soon, the cups were replaced by bubbling, cup-free fountains.

The mysterious Star of David on Upper Broadway

July 27, 2015

HispaniahallUpper Broadway above 150th Street is home to many lovely apartment residences, mostly built in the early 1900s.

That’s when the neighborhood where James Audubon’s farm, Minniesland, stood in the 19th century was transformed by real estate speculators into up-and-coming Washington Heights.

One hidden gem with a curved facade is the six-story apartment building at West 156th and Broadway.

Named Hispania Hall (perhaps a nod to the Hispanic Society of America museum, which opened a block away in 1908), it was billed as “artistic, comfortable, and substantially built” when it was completed in 1909.

Hispaniahallstarofdavid

It also contains an unusual symbol: a cast-iron fence that’s topped with a Star of David. Why a Star of David? It was likely added in or after the 1930s.

Hispaniahall2015“In the 1930s, many German and Jewish refugees found a new home in the neighborhood,” states the website for the Audubon Park Historic District.

“Within a few block of this corner were ten Jewish institutions, including the Prospect Unity Club, Lublo’s Palm Garden, and several synagogues.”

Today it’s an easy-to-miss reminder of the neighborhood’s ethnic makeup decades ago.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The luxury power center of the Gilded Age city

July 27, 2015

When the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel was set to open in 1859, it was mocked as “Eno’s Folly,” after the developer who built it.

Fifthavenuehotelpostcard

With the city’s hotel district farther south on Broadway, why would anyone pay to stay on the outskirts of the city’s center, as Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was at the time?

But after its grand opening, the Fifth Avenue Hotel became the city’s premier luxury residence and made Madison Square the focal point of post–Civil War New York.

Fifthavenuehotelreadingroom

Among the amenities: rooms with private baths and fireplaces and the first “vertical railway”—aka, elevator—ever installed in a hotel.

Presidents and kings stayed there, attended to by a staff of 400. The city’s richest men, like Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, congregated in the drawing rooms. Local politicians held court.

In 1908 it was demolished; its demise serves as a bookend of the Gilded Age. Today the building occupying this spot houses the Italian dining emporium Eataly.

[Bottom image: the hotel’s reading room, a decidedly all-male place. NYPL]

What Brooklyn looked like in summer 1820

July 20, 2015

Landscape artist Francis Guy painted “Summer View of Brooklyn” in 1820 from the vantage point of 11 Front Street in today’s DUMBO.

That means this collection of tidy barns and houses would be located under the Brooklyn Bridge. That even looks like a nascent Manhattan skyline, with steeples, in the distance.

Francisguysummerscene

Things have changed a lot in 195 years. A summer view of today’s Brooklyn from Front Street would look more like this, with crowds sweltering on line at Grimaldi’s pizza.

Frontstreetbrooklyn

Guy painted the same scene from Front Street in winter 1820 as well. The winter scene is more detailed, with various residents working and going about their day.

Who were the hardy Brooklynites he depicted? This key from the Brooklyn Museum decodes their names and which house belonged to who.

The short life of Strangers’ Hospital on Avenue D

July 20, 2015

Strangershospital2015Built in 1827, the brick building at 143-145 Avenue D, at Tenth Street, is the oldest structure in Alphabet City.

The many-times-remodeled building served first as the Dry Dock Banking House, then as a laundry, cigarette factory, clothing store, even a squat.

But for three years, from 1871 to 1874, it was the Strangers’ Hospital, an institution built by John Keyser, a manufacturer turned philanthropist who had already funded a lodging house called the Strangers’ Rest on Pearl Street.

In a benevolent-minded, Gilded Age city, he established a home “for the relief of suffering” for the “deserving sick poor.”

Strangershospitalbook

It was not intended, “for the benefit of the wealthy, who in times of sickness can command the comforts of a well-ordered home and the attendance of a skillful physician of surgeon,” said the president of the Strangers’ Hospital on opening day in February 1871.

“Nor yet for the beggar who leads a life of dissolute idleness . . . . It is intended for the succor and restoration of the deserving sick poor, and in an especial manner for that sadly numerous class of people in this great city who have seen better days.”

BereniceabbottavenueDFour stories high, the Strangers’ Hospital had space for 180 beds, plus a reading room, chapel, and mineral baths.

Keyser, however, ran into some trouble in 1873. That’s the year the city finally indicted politico Boss Tweed and his ring for a host of crimes.

Keyser was exposed as as member of the Tweed Ring; the implication was that his “philanthropy” was in fact funds from city coffers.

The Strangers’ Hospital shut its doors, and Keyser declared bankruptcy.

Off the Grid put together a wonderful 4-part series on 143-145 Avenue D’s long, fascinating history.

[Middle image: from New York and Its Institutions: 1609-1872; bottom photo: 145 Avenue D in 1937, by Berenice Abbott]

The piece of Plymouth Rock in a Brooklyn church

July 20, 2015

PlymouthchurchBrooklyn’s Plymouth Church, on Hicks Street, is a 168-year-old Congregational church with a long and impressive history.

Founded by transplanted New Englanders, it reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad and was visited by President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

Pastor Henry Ward Beecher’s fiery abolitionist sermons and mock slave auctions made him famous.

(Beecher later gained infamy for having affairs with congregation members as well as for his 1875 adultery trial, but that’s another post).

Plymouthrockbrooklynnycgo.com

But the church has something else to boast about: it houses a football-sized chunk of the original Plymouth Rock, on display in a part of the church called the Arcade.

The backstory? Apparently the piece of rock came from a parishioner at neighboring Church of the Pilgrims.

Plymouth_Church,_Brooklyn,_New_YorkWhen Plymouth Church merged with Church of the Pilgrims in 1934 (and changed its name until 2011 to Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims), it acquired this artifact of colonial history.

Of course, no one knows for sure if Plymouth rock really was the landing place of the Mayflower in 1620. Real or fake, a fragment of this symbol of religious freedom has found a home in Brooklyn Heights.

[Second image: nycgo.com/Myrna Suarez; third image: Plymouth Church in 1866]

A rat attack near City Hall in 1970s New York

July 13, 2015

AnnstreetsignThe number one nightmare scenario of every New Yorker: coming into close physical contact with rattus norvegicus, or the typical city street and sewer rat.

Now imagine being attacked by a horde of these greasy creatures. That’s what actually happened to one woman while heading to her car parked on a street near city hall, where an empty lot that once held a tavern was now home to hundreds of rats.

It happened in the summer of 1979, during a tugboat strike that left trash and garbage rotting on city streets.

Annstreettheateralley

At about 9 p.m., a woman described by witnesses as being in her 30s was walking on Ann Street near Theatre Alley (above), south of City Hall.

“Judging from the various accounts, she seems to have been approached by the rats as she was walking toward her car,” wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

NYCgarbagestrike1981“She also seems to have noticed the rats coming near her, their paws skittering on the street. Witnesses said the rats swarmed around the woman. One climbed her leg and appeared to bite her.”

The woman understandably began screaming; a man tried to help her by waving his jacket in front of the rats, but unafraid, they simply climbed up the coat.

The hysterical woman finally made it to her car and closed the door, with the rats climbing all over it.

Theatrelley1999nyplWhen police arrived, “the rats were still there, scurrying through the streets and into Theatre Alley and into nests on a lot on Ann Street around the corner,” wrote Sullivan.

The unnamed victim of the rat attack was reported to city papers the next day. New Yorkers accustomed to living among rats shuddered.

Only the police doubted the story because nobody went to a hospital within 50 miles of the city for injuries consistent with a rat attack, wrote Jerry Langton in Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Sullivan’s book and newspaper accounts. however, take the story to be true.

[Third photo: garbage strike in a pre-gentrification New York City; NY Times; fourth photo: Theatre Alley in grittier days in 1999; NYPL/Dylan Stone]

The summertime beauty of Brooklyn in the 1880s

July 13, 2015

Indiana-born William Merritt Chase lived and painted in Manhattan, Munich, Venice, and the Netherlands.

[“Prospect Park, Brooklyn”]

Chaseprospectparlbrooklyn

But he also spent about four years residing in Brooklyn. Between 1887 and 1890, he and his new bride (and eventually their first-born daughter) lived with his parents in a home in the progressive, thriving city.

[“In Navy Yard”]

Chaseinthebrooklynnavyyard

He was apparently taken by Brooklyn’s lovely new parks and more bucolic sections, as he painted many landscapes and scenes of everyday life in the borough’s less urban outposts.

[“Gravesend Bay (the Lower Bay)”]

Chasegravesendbay:thelowerbay

His favorite places seemed to be Prospect Park, Tompkins Park (below, now renamed Herbert Von King Park), Gravesend Bay, and even the Brooklyn Navy Yard (above, his wife is holding the parasol).

[“The Park”]

Chasethepark

Chase painted these pastoral parts of Brooklyn, “not only because they were part of his Brooklyn surroundings at the time; he also wanted to present them to the world as examples of ‘civilized urban landscapes’ that accorded with the European avant-garde model of modern life,” states the New York Times in an article on a Chase retrospective from 2000.

Chaseharborscenebrooklyndocks

[“Harbor Scene, Brooklyn Docks”]

By the 1890s, after relocating to Manhattan, he depicted Central Park in several paintings. They are lovely, but his Brooklyn work captures the beauty of the City of Churches in full summer bloom.

An iconic TV commercial from 1980s New York

July 13, 2015

Aside from the Crazy Eddie and Milford Plaza ads that ran constantly on 1970s and 1980s, is there any more iconic New York City commercial than Phil Rizzuto shilling for The Money Store?

“Can you imagine what you could do with $5,000, $10,000, $50,000?” the Yankee shortstop turned announcer bellowed in a series of ads for this national mortgage lender based in New Jersey—ads which seemed to run constantly whether it was baseball season or not.

PhilRizzutothemoneystoreThe commercials were terrible, but Rizzuto was a character, and every New York sports fan knew his face and his voice.

He left the Yankee announcer’s booth in 1996 and died in 2007 at 89.

Luckily YouTube has preserved Rizzuto’s Money Store ads in all their low-budget, 1980s glory.

Rocky remains of Central Park’s 1842 reservoir

July 6, 2015

Central Park’s great lawn is a lovely, sprawling place for sunbathing, picnics, and playing ball.

But it was never part of the original plan for the park because the land, located between 79th and 86th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, was already in use.

Receivingreservoirnyc.gov

In 1842, it was the site of New York’s new, 31-acre Receiving Reservoir, the body of water built to store fresh drinking water piped in from upstate via the just-completed Croton Aqueduct.

Built on high ground on rocky, unpopulated terrain, the reservoir held water that could easily flow down to the southern end of Manhattan, where the city existed at the time.

Receivingreservoirmapdavidrumsey

Unlike the grand Distributing Reservoir [on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue], designed in the popular Egyptian Revival style, the Receiving Reservoir was simple and practical,” states nyc.gov.

“Sloped embankment walls formed its rectangular perimeter. Both the outer and inner walls were covered with stone masonry. The walls were planted on top with grass surrounded by a double fence to create a mile long promenade.”

ReceivingreservoirnyplWhen Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began developing the park in the late 1850s, they weren’t too happy with the rectangular reservoir, which didn’t mesh with their pastoral, naturalistic design.

But since they couldn’t get rid of it, they hid it behind a grove of trees. A second receiving reservoir built in a more natural, oval shape in the 1860s just north of the original reservoir (above) fit their plan better.

With New York’s population in the late 19th century multiplying year by year and water usage increasing, the Receiving Reservoir’s days were numbered.

Receivingreservoir2015

After the completion of a new water tunnel in 1917, it was finally drained in 1929. Plans to turn the land into a World War I memorial and then a promenade linking the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Museum of Natural History didn’t pan out.

By 1936, the former reservoir was filled in with land excavated from the development of the Eighth Avenue Subway and Rockefeller Center—and the Great Lawn was born. (The second reservoir, renamed for Jackie Kennedy Onassis, still exists.)

ReceivingreservoirwallIncredibly, remnants of the Receiving Reservoir can be found here and there.

The bedrock that forms the edge of Turtle Pond is the same that formed the southwest corner of the reservoir,” states nyc.gov.

“Remains of the reservoir’s western wall can be found in a stand of trees north of the Delacorte Theater (above). The most impressive ruin is located along the 86th Street transverse wall where, tucked up against the east end of the Central Park Police Precinct is the northeast corner of the original Receiving Reservoir (pictured). Its sloped stone embankment wall is unmistakable.”

The ghostly, granite remains of the 42nd Street Distributing Reservoir can be seen on a lower wall of the New York Public Library.

[Images: top, nyc.gov; second, NYPL digital gallery; third, David Rumsey Map Collection; fifth, nyc.gov]


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