The adults-only slide that thrilled Coney Island

July 28, 2016

How crazy was Helter-Skelter, a whiplash-fast snaking slide designed for adults that debuted at Coney Island’s Luna Park in 1906?

Helterskelterconeyislandmcny

“Participants rode an escalator to the top of a huge chute made of rattan, then slid down the winding slide before landing on a mattress in front of a crowd of onlookers,” wrote Laura J. Hoffman in Coney Island.

Wish I had a time machine to go back and give it a try!

[Postcard: MCNY, 1907]

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.

Stlukesplacerow

Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.

Stlukesplace11to131900mcny

Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.

Stlukes15to17

St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]

Pickets and protests at a New York Woolworth’s

July 28, 2016

It all started in 1960. On February 1, four black college students sat at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina, “where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone but whites,” explains history.com.

Woolworthsharlem

They weren’t served, of course. But their sit-in sparked a movement. Thanks to national TV coverage, segregation foes showed their support by picketing Woolworth stores around the country.

WoolworthsheadlinenytThat included stores in New York City. Segregation was not legal here, of course.

But that didn’t stop protesters from gathering at more than 100 Woolworths across the city to urge support for the North Carolina students and call for the end of the South’s Jim Crow laws.

The New York–based Congress of Racial Equality “mounted a 30-member picket line in front of the F.W. Woolworth & Co. store at 208 West 125th Street,” (above) reported the New York Times on February 14.

Picketers continued demonstrating through the spring. On April 3, while 100 people protested outside the store, 30 young adults held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter on 34th Street near Seventh Avenue.

Woolworthstimessquare“The sit-down demonstrators at the Herald Square store, Negro and white, included two clergymen,” continued the Times. “They ordered no food, but sat at the counter near the 33rd Street entrance, reading newspapers and doing crossword puzzles.”

“Neither the store’s personnel nor the police tried to oust them. They soon dispersed.” More protests, like this one at a Woolworth’s in Times Square, followed.

Officially, lunch counters in the South desegregated that summer.

[Top photo: Getty Images; second and third images: New York Times]

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.

Hudsonfultoncityhall

With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.

Hudsonfultontheplaza

More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.

Hudsonfultonbridge

“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.

Hudsonfultonnavalflotilla

“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

A desperate appeal to save the city’s sick babies

July 25, 2016

In 1911, a card went out to city residents asking for donations to help fund a precious commodity.

Over a thousand “little white hearses passed through the streets of New York City in two weeks last summer,” the card read. “One-eighth of the 123,433 little ones born during the year . . . died under 12 months.”

Milkcommitteeappealpage1

One of the causes of this appalling infant mortality rate? A lack of access to clean, fresh milk among New York’s poorest families.

Milk in the 19th century had a deservedly bad reputation, with much of New York’s supply coming from “‘swill’ milk stables attached to breweries and distilleries in the city,” explains this post.

Milkcommitteepage2

“The cows in these stables ate the leftover grains from the fermentation process in the brewery or distillery. Unfortunately, the milk produced from these stables was very low quality and often full of bacteria. Even milk brought to the city from the country was often adulterated with water and carrying bacteria.”

With the rise of pasteurization, officials began touting milk as a healthy part of a child’s diet. There were still a lot of bad, or “loose” milk for sale at corner groceries though.

Milkstationconsultationday

Sp safe milk stations went up around the city (above). Some were funded by individual philanthropists; the dairies in Central and Prospects Parks were built to offer clean milk.

Other milk depots were run by the New York Milk Committee—which also sent nurses into poor families’ homes to help spread the word about hygiene and good nutrition.

Were they successful? In the summer of 1911, the Committee sold an average of 3,800 quarts of milk a day through its depots at below cost, serving 5,000 babies and attracting twice as many mothers as expected.

[Many thanks to the New York Academy of Medicine Library, which has this card and more in its Milk Committee Ephemera Collection]

A weird, popular sport in 19th century New York

July 25, 2016

Lots of today’s sports built their fan base in the late 19th century, like baseball, tennis, and cycling. But none of these had the city cheering nearly as hard as a forgotten competitive activity called pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismnpr

A form of race walking, pedestrianism “spawned America’s first celebrity athletes, the forerunners—forewalkers, actually—of LeBron James and Tiger Woods,” wrote Matthew Algeo in his book, Pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismbrooklyneagle1867“The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals . . . their images appeared on some of the first cigarette trading cards, which children collected as avidly as later generations would collect baseball cards.”

Pedestrianism boomed after the industrial revolution and the standardization of the workweek gave millions of middle class New Yorkers leisure time, something once available only to the rich.

The idea that the masses needed rest and relaxation, specifically in nature, had also gained popularity, particularly after the Civil War.

Pedestrianismrollerrinknpr

Parks were built, the seashore became a place of enjoyment, and ordinary people flocked to watch competitive walking the way millions of Americans watch Sunday football today.

Pedestrianism was pretty rough. Long-distance events involved walking hundreds of miles between cities. Madison Square Garden hosted six-day races (competitors walked for 21 hours, then slept for three) that drew thousands of spectators, stated Kerry Segrave’s America on Foot.

PedestrianismNYT1874

One pedestrian star, Edward Payson Weston (above), would enter a roller rink and “attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours,” Algeo said via a 2014 interview with NPR. “And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.”

The sport’s heyday stretched through the 1870s and 1880s, then died down as the bicycle became safer and other sports stole away fans. But not before a pedestrianism revival was attempted.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“More than 20 years ago the craze for affairs of this sort was at its height, but the novelty of the thing soon wore off and the sport was relegated to the oblivion that its absurdity and uselessness so richly merited,” sneered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1902.

The rise in leisure time in New York after the Civil War spawned a sports craze in the metropolis, covered more extensively with terrific images in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: NPR; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1867; third photo: NPR; fourth image: New York Times, 1874]

The mystery of these Washington Place fire relics

July 18, 2016

On a quiet walk down Washington Place just east of Sheridan Square, some unusual symbols came into view.

Firemarkwashingtonplace

Three of the lovely Federal-style 1830s townhouses on the south side of the street had small plaques on their facades, each with a different image and letters.

FiremarkFAhoseOne featured an eagle and the words “Eagle Hose No. 2.” Another depicted what looked like a fire pump steam engine. A third had a hose attached to a barrel and the initials F.A.

What was all this fire imagery about? These Fire marks, as they’re officially called, were produced by fire insurance companies in the 19th century.

“Possibly the latter day reader never heard of a fire mark, but they could be found on the front of many buildings in the city before 1870,” explains a 1928 New York Times article.

Firemarkeaglehoseno2“Those were the days of the volunteer fire department, and the fire marks were posted by insurance companies to make known that a reward was ready for the firemen should they save the building from destruction by flames.”

“The fire mark might be a symbol cut in stone, a cabalistic iron letter or some other design of metal,” continued the Times.

Fire marks had other uses, like serving as advertising for insurance companies. They may also have “minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job.”

FiremarkenginepumpIf firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire,” states nycfiremuseum.org.

Plus, “a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.”

Fire marks began disappearing after 1865, when the city’s 124 volunteer engine companies, hose companies, and hook and ladder companies were replaced by the professional (and paid) Metropolitan Fire Department—which was supposed to fight fires without regard to whether the property was insured or not.

firemarkvolunteerfirefighterThey became collectors’ items in the 20th century. “There are still a few of these fire marks embedded in the walls of byways of the old city,” wrote the Times in 1928. “Yet the extent of rebuilding on Manhattan Island must soon sweep them away.”

Were these fire marks bought at antique shops and affixed to the facades by later homeowners to give their townhouses more authenticity?

One owner I spoke to on Washington Place, who offered some backstory on these relics, believes they were put up in the 19th century.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe NYC Fire Museum maintains a photo gallery of fire marks to browse and terrific images, like this Currier & Ives depiction of a volunteer fireman in the mid-1800s.

[Many thanks to Washington Place townhouse owner and enthusiast R.R. for filling me in on the history of these remnants of 19th century New York City.]

For more about the early days of Gotham’s professional firefighters, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available for preorder now and in bookstores September 27.]

Fencing team practice high over the Village

July 18, 2016

The New York University fencing team reveals a flair for the dramatic in this 1923 photo—especially the four guys on the edge of the roof beyond the railing.

NYUfencing1929

I’m not sure which building this is, but on the left is the Stanford White–designed Judson Church tower. In the foggy background is an apartment building on Washington Square West/Macdougal Street under construction.

[Photo: NYU archives]

A sign of a 1920s speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

July 18, 2016

When these walkup buildings on Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street went up in the 1830s, they may have looked more alike.

Speakeasysixthave

Over time, however, things change: facades are altered, paint goes up, and cornices are chopped (or crumble) down.

SpeakeasytalesofthejazzageBut the altered facade at number 359, the red building on the right, is drastic: the three second-story windows have been bricked in and painted over.

What did the proprietors of 359 Sixth Avenue have to hide? Booze.

This was the secret second floor (or half floor, according to one account) speakeasy called the Red Head, one of probably hundreds that popped up in Village basements and back rooms after Prohibition.

A second wooden door (below) past the front door led to the speakeasy, reported Westviewnews.org.

Launched in 1922 by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns as a way to pay their college tuition, the Red Head disguised itself as a tea house and served alcohol in teacups, according to Savoring Gotham: a Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Speakeasyredheaddoor“The Red Head became a favorite drinking spot for the ‘flaming youth’ made famous that year by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the club’s regulars, in his book of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age,” wrote Donald L. Miller in Supreme  City.

Kriendler and Berns kept their speak in business thanks to Tammany Hall protection money and a constant flow of college kids and celebrities like Dorothy Parker.

No party lasts forever. In 1925, Kriendler and Berns shut down the Red Head and opened a speakeasy called the Fronton at 88 Washington Place.

They then moved up to Midtown, settling in at 21 West 52nd Street. After Repeal it became the 21 Club, where drinks still flow to this day.

A beautiful day in Central Park one century ago

July 14, 2016

Here’s how your great-grandparents enjoyed Central Park almost 100 years ago (the postmark on the other side is stamped 1917).

The group of women seem to be relaxing and chatting, and the man on his own to the right appears to have some kind of camera or viewing device.

Centralpark1917nypl

I don’t know what is going on with what looks like a baby carriage on the left. A shadowy figure appears to be sitting on the bench tending to it.


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