The eerie facade of a Yorkville orphanage chapel

January 14, 2019

It’s a phantom relic of 19th century New York: the hauntingly preserved facade of an orphan asylum chapel built in 1898 at 402 East 90th Street.

Facing York Avenue to the east, the chapel facade rises several stories and is embedded into the side of a 12-story condominium.

And it’s in view for contemporary New Yorkers to marvel at thanks to a construction project that bulldozed the parking garage in front of it—which for decades had shielded so much of it from sight.

The chapel was once on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, founded in 1859 by a German Catholic religious order called the Redemptorists, “for destitute children of German parentage, writes David Dunlap in a 2008 New York Times article.

Yorkville was the country at the time, an ideal place for an orphanage, of which there were many in the city at the time, typically run by a religious sect.

St. Joseph’s “occupied several buildings between 89th and 90th Streets and York and First Avenues,” states Daniel B. Schneider in a 1998 piece in the New York Times.

As Yorkville grew in the second half of the 19th century and eventually replaced the East Village as the city’s Little Germany neighborhood, a parish called St. Joseph’s was formed in 1873—borrowing the name of the orphan asylum and soon building its own church and school.

The orphan asylum remained, as this late 19th century images show. it was described in King’s Handbook of 1892 as “a large and cheerful edifice with accommodations for nearly 300 inmates.”

The asylum stood until about 1918, when land values rose and parts of the property was parceled out for sale.

Layers of New York development obscured it, and now the chapel facade is slated to be covered up entirely when the construction project—an athletic center for the Spence School—is finished.

[Third and fourth photos: NYPL] Thanks to Charlie J. and the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District for bringing this to my attention]

The striking doorway Medusa on Sutton Place

January 14, 2019

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster with snakes in her hair; looking at her could cause a viewer’s face to turn to stone.

On contemporary Sutton Place near 58th Street, there’s another Medusa.

Snakes live in her hair, but rather than turning viewers into stone, she herself is stone—a keystone that is. She frames the doorway of a beautiful five-story, French chateau–inspired townhouse below a lovely wrought-iron balcony.

The house has a long backstory. It was the first in a line of drab, out-of-style brownstones to be transformed by literary and decorating power couple Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe in 1920 into a luxury showpiece.

Soon after, the East Side street attracted New York’s most elite to the newly developed Sutton Place, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

Since then, it’s had a number of notable residents, and in 2017 was listed for sale at $8.5 million. (See the amazing interior photos.)

But who put Medusa there?

She wasn’t guarding the (much less ornate) doorway in the 1940 tax photo I found taken by the city, above.

But she appears to be in another tax photo taken sometime in the 1980s.

That photo also shows the townhouse looking much like it does today. Though the quality of the image is too poor to be sure (at left).

At some point between the 1940s and 1980s, an owner decided a scary Medusa head would be a nice addition to the facade.

[Third and fourth photos: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

What remains of 3 old-school corner drugstores

January 14, 2019

Neon signs, decorative mortar and pestles, brass chandeliers, wood shelves with sliding ladders…there’s a lot to love about New York’s longtime independent pharmacies.

Many of these corner stores have been in business for over a century, yet have somehow resisted getting steamrolled by Duane Reade.

I don’t know how long M&M Pharmacy has been on Avenue M and East 19th Street in Midwood. But the signage, at least, dates to the 1940s.

The corner neon sign with the Rx is a wonderful relic—and when was the last time you saw the word “toiletries” on a store sign?

The English lettering on M&M’s weathered neon sign looks very 1940s (the Cyrillic script, clearly, is not quite as old).

But inside the store, past the wood shelves, are Art Deco–inspired signs at the prescription counter that look like they’re from the 1920s or 1930s. (Thanks to D.S. for getting the inside and outside views.)

Another old-school corner drugstore that caught my eye is Health Wise, on York Avenue and 79th Street.

The website says this pharmacy has been run by the same family since 1992. But based on the gorgeous neon sign that casts a lovely glow at York Avenue and 79th Street, I wonder if the store has been there a lot longer.

Also in Yorkville on First Avenue and East 65th Street is Goldberger’s, in business since the Spanish American War. It’s the signage on the sides of the store, however, that make me feel like I’ve stepped into a noir.

Cosmetics, drugs, prescriptions…and then the fanciful Goldberger’s lettering, in script. New York drugstores had everything. Now if only this sign still lit up in neon!

[Top 3 photos: D.S.]

The bronze dancing bears just inside Central Park

January 7, 2019

Just off Fifth Avenue at 79th Street in Central Park is a small playground. Step inside, and try to resist the charm of these three enormous bronze bears.

“Group of Bears” has been at the Pat Hoffman Friedman playground since 1990. Cast 30 years earlier, this whimsical sculpture is the work of Paul Manship.

If the bears look familiar, its because Manship is the sculptor behind some of Central Park’s most beloved bronze animal statues. Those are his dancing goats and frolicking boy on top of the Lehman Gates (above) at the entrance to the Children’s Zoo.

Manship also designed the Osborn Gates (below), which feature bronze vignettes inspired by Aesop’s fables. Dedicated in 1953, these gates stood at the entrance of a playground on the northern side the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the 1970s, the playground was torn down to expand the museum, and Manship’s animal-themed gates sat in storage—until they were brought back to the park and installed at the Ancient Playground in 2009.

Not all of Manship’s work has a child-friendly, fairy-tale kind of feel. He’s the sculptor whose Prometheus marks the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.

[Third photo: Centralparknyc.org; Fourth photo: Wikipedia]

A Gilded Age painter’s rainy, wintry New York

January 7, 2019

Cold rain and wet snow make it hard to get around New York on foot and take in its beauty. But damp weather like this was ideal for the Impressionist painters who lived and worked in the city at the turn of the last century.

With dark streets marked by puddles and tree branches heavy with water, the Gilded Age city glistened. The blurred faces of New Yorkers in black coats and hats came across as elusive and mysterious.

Carriages and street cars made their way through wet streets with passengers hidden and snug inside. Tall buildings higher than treetops and small walkup tenements alternate in the background.

Few painters revel in this rainy enchantment quite like Paul Cornoyer. Born in St. Louis in 1864, he came to New York at the tail end of the Gilded Age in 1899.

Cornoyer focused on Madison Square Park, at the time still a lovely spot in Manhattan but no longer than exclusive park of the city’s elite. The Flatiron building and Madison Square Park can be seen in the background of many of his paintings.

But he also visited other locations, like Columbus Circle, Central Park West (the site of the fourth painting above), Washington Square. His depictions of these and other streets and parks present us an atmospheric Gotham with soft, dreamlike contours.

The Beaux-Arts arch deep beneath 168th Street

January 7, 2019

New York has many subway stations with artistic touches meant to enchant and inspire. But I’m not aware of any station with a beaux-arts arch like the one on the 1 train platform at 168th Street.

The white tiles, as well as a decorative wreath at the arch’s highest point, give an ordinary subway ride an air of celebration and glory. (If you look past the grime, of course.)

So why is there an arch at 168th Street? Perhaps it’s structural rather than purely decorative.

The uptown IRT stations at 168th Street, 181st Street, and 191st Street run along what’s called the Washington Heights Mine Tunnel.

At the turn of the century, workers cut through bedrock to build these stations, and the platforms are several stories below ground.

They’re the deepest three stations in the entire subway system, according to the ever-informative nycsubway.org.

Perhaps engineers decided that an arch was needed to keep the station from caving in. And in an era when city buildings were designed to be inspiring, architects chose to make the arch something artistic and uplifting.

The third photo shows the arch as well as one of the terra cotta light fixtures still in the station, another wonderful original touch!

A swanky New Year’s menu from 1935 New York

December 31, 2018

When Essex House opened on Central Park South in 1931, it was an instant hit with well-to-do, fashionable New Yorkers who didn’t let things like the Great Depression or Prohibition stop their partying.

This menu card, from the Museum of the City of New York, is dated 1935; it shows New Year’s Eve revelers in the hotel’s Colonnades ballroom.

On the back of the card are some of the food offerings for the night: Swedish relish, olives, and salted nuts as appetizers; mignon beef Bearnaise, braised celery au jus, and potatoes royale for the main course. Dessert: petits fours and glace vanilla nesselrode.

[MCNY: 2003.50.2]

The mysterious furrier of West 46th Street

December 31, 2018

West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is shadowy and gritty; it’s a low-slung block of restaurants and small shops occupying converted brownstones and renovated office buildings.

Because it’s one of those unusually frozen in time blocks, it’s a stretch with many mysteries. One I’ve always wondered about has to do with the box-like structure with big windows at number 34-36.

Built in 1914 as a loft, the building’s entrance has what looks like a frieze with scenes of a charioteer and crowds of women and children, something right out of ancient Greece.

It’s a strange and mysterious scene. But even more mysterious to me is the sign in a small second floor window: furs.

West 46th Street is a little north of the city’s former fur district, where furriers and fur manufacturers reigned through much of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to locate the furrier who occupied this storefront and find out that he worked here as far back as 1916. William C. Emerick advertised his “furs of the quality sort” in Harper’s Bazaar (above right) back then, 103 years ago.

In 1920, he also appeared in a fur trade journal (above center).

I don’t know when Emerick left the premises, but amazingly, his furs sign remains, slightly faded but perfectly legible.

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.

A Christmas card from a defunct Ladies Mile store

December 24, 2018

Hugh O’Neill was an Irish-born retailer who eventually ran one of the biggest dry goods emporiums on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.

His was the impressive domed building in the district once known as Ladies Mile, a late 19th century enclave of fancy emporiums and more middle class department stores roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets.

Like any smart store owner, O’Neill happily celebrated the consumerism that took hold in late 19th century New York, and this card gets his sentiments across in a cheeky way.

The O’Neill store is now a high-end condo called The O’Neill Building—apparently some lucky owners get to live in those corner domes!