The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline

January 15, 2018

Bowler hats, thin shoes, and shabby coats that need a good washing—what the men on this Bowery breadline in 1910 are wearing tells us everything we need to know about them.

The bars they’ve lined up next to are advertising Ehret’s and Schaefer beer, both once manufactured in Manhattan (Schaefer eventually relocated to Brooklyn.)

[George Bain Collection/LOC]

Park Avenue’s terra cotta tapestry of grotesques

January 15, 2018

Sometimes you come across an apartment building with a facade that takes your breath away.

That was my experience recently on a walk past 898 Park Avenue. This 14-story Romanesque beauty on the corner of East 79th Street finished in 1924 is a medley of terra cotta detailing, figures, and faces.

The design is described as “Tuscan-style terra cotta ornamentation” by Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan. It’s also been called “Lombardy Romanesque” or “Tuscan Tapestry,” Alpern says.

Whatever the style is called, it’s delightful, as Alpert also points out. The facade belies the reputation Park Avenue has as a stretch of New York with staid, fortress-like residences.

There’s a playfulness at 898 Park. The cerulean and tan arches on the second story contain bas relief images of men sleeping, eating, and what appears to be inventing. (Newyorkitecture.com has closeups.)

And the grotesques affixed to the ground floor arched entryway—they have disturbingly weary faces. But then again, they have been watching passersby for 94 years.

[Top photo: Streeteasy.com]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

This is Lower Manhattan as it looked in 1642

January 8, 2018

“The Great Highway” is Broadway. The “Common Ditch” was a rather filthy canal that once filled in became Broad Street.

And before landfill reshaped the Lower Manhattan shoreline, the waters of the North River (the Hudson to you and me) lapped at Greenwich Street.

It’s hard to believe that today’s city sprang from this tiny settlement. The map was drawn in 1897, but it purports to show the New Amsterdam of 1642.

At the time, Manhattan was resplendent with brooks and hills and had a colonial population in the hundreds. Things were hardly rosy; the director of the profitable fur-trading colony launched a war against native Americans that almost doomed it.

While Broadway, Greenwich, and Broad Streets still exist, other locations on the map are long gone. The Fort was Fort Amsterdam; the Sheep’s Pasture was filled in. The West India Company’s Garden is the present site of Trinity Church.

The garden sat on a bank overlooking a stream and was something of a lovers’ lane, “the resort of lad and lass for sentimental walk,” according to an 1874 guide, The Old Streets of New York Under the Dutch.

“Here, they viewed together the glories of the bay, illuminated with beams of setting sun . . . and listened to music of the wave, breaking over what was then the pebbly shore.” Romance-minded New Yorkers still head downtown to enjoy gorgeous views.

Finally, look at the names attached to the land grants: Stuyvesant, Van Cortland, Gerritsen, Ten Eyck—all names you can find on a map of the city today.

[Map at top: NYPL Digital Collections. Enhanced map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

The Flatiron Building rises in the rain and fog

January 8, 2018

Jessie Tarbox Beals captured this image of a wet winter day in Madison Square, with cars stacked up on the side of the park on the left and the Worth monument and Flatiron building (a mere 18 years old!) on the right.

Tarbox Beals is best known as a pioneering female photographer who won fame for her intimate images of Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s—only to struggle to make a living after the Depression and dying penniless at Bellevue in 1942.

The mystery behind a Bedford Street stable sign

January 8, 2018

Bedford Street is a stunning historic block, but there is one building on this lovely Village lane that’s always piqued my interest.

It’s number 95, a circa-1894 brick beauty with a Victorian era cornice and ground floor brownstone stable.

There’s something else that gives number 95 such an old New York feel: the insignia above the stable doors, which bears the name “J. Goebel & Co. Est. 1865.”

So who was J. Goebel, and what did he do at 95 Bedford Street? The clue is in the three stacked cups in the fanciful sign.

No, he wasn’t a brewer, though the grapes under the cups seem to imply that. Julius Goebel was a German immigrant who either manufactured or imported crucibles made out of a rare kind of clay found in Germany.

Goebel operated his business on Maiden Lane in the late 19th century, according to Walter Grutchfield. His son, who took over for him after his death, moved the company to 95 Bedford Street in the 1920s.

That’s the decade when the building (originally a stable) was converted to office space and into apartments, per the 1969 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

The established-in-1865 thing is likely a nod to the year Goebel started his company—and it could very well be the year he landed in New York, a turbulent year indeed.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

Toasting the new year at a dimly lit New York bar

December 31, 2017

It’s probably the oldest New Year’s Eve tradition in New York: gathering with others at a saloon or tavern and raising a glass (or flute, cup, or growler) as the clock strikes midnight.

That’s what photographer George Bain captured these festive folks doing circa 1910, inside a dark room under glass chandeliers and decorative wall-mounted plates. If only we knew the bar or restaurant they where they celebrated!

[Photo: Bain Collection/LOC]

A boy remembers New Year’s calling in the 1860s

December 31, 2017

The tradition—a carryover from colonial New Amsterdam—died out with gaslights and elevated trains.

But going “calling” on New Year’s Day was still in full swing in the 1860s, as sculptor James E. Kelly remembers in his memoir of later 19th century New York, Tell Me of Lincoln.

“There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day,” recalled Kelly. “Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it.”

Kelly lived with his middle-class parents in the West 50s off Eighth Avenue. He and his pals hoofed it on January 1 to the homes of neighbor girls, who waited to receive callers in a very gender-specific and competitive ritual.

“Girls prepared all sorts of refreshments and vied with each other with the number of callers. . . . “Small boys ran from store to store bursting in with yells: ‘Wish you a happy New Year, what are you going to give us?’ The streets were filled with cutters and sleighs with jingle bells—it was joy inspiring.”

“After church, two or three of my friends would gather at my house, and well primed with cake, coffee, or lemonade, we would start out for the day visiting our neighbors and gradually extending our circle.”

“The glow and tingle of the walk was heightened by the gust of warm spice-laden air that greeted us, and as our pretty little girl schoolmates received us at the doors in all their holiday finery.”

“We lined up on the sofa, and they overwhelmed us with  the embarrassment of riches: oranges, cake, apples, lemonade, coffee, doughnuts, raisins, and spice New Year’s cake, etc.”

Kelly and his chums were adolescents, so mingling with girls meant lots of awkwardness—with the girls giggling and tugging at their short dresses and the boys spilling drinks. We “would whack or punch each other on the knees, till we finally mustered up the courage to bid a happy New Year and start for the next house.”

For slightly older men and women, calling served as a socially acceptable way for the sexes to meet and greet and potentially find a match.

“New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra.”

“The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters.”

“Among those who received special attention were some young veteran soldiers, whose empty sleeves gave the girls an excuse to hover around and serve them.”

“Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.

“One sang by request the then popular song, “Ever of Thee,” while a taller and fairer on accompanied her lightly on the harp.”

Kelly also recalls the demise of calling. “As years went on, some exclusive [families] used to hang out baskets on the door knob to receive cards from the pilgrims of friendship.”

“This sort of frigid acknowledgment soon killed the enthusiasm, and after a few seasons, the joys of New Years calling were no more.”

Now for a little girl’s version of the holiday, here’s an excerpt from an 1850 diary. Want to revive the tradition? Join guests at the Merchant House Museum on January 1.

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

A Harlem hotel’s holiday gift for New York City

December 24, 2017

This piece of Harlem street art on the side of the Park Avenue Hotel at 125th Street says it all. Season’s Greetings from Ephemeral New York!

This photo is a good six or seven years old, but Google tells me the mural is still there. Can anyone confirm?