Old New York and the contemporary city collide

February 19, 2018

Looming skyscrapers and small buildings come together in this painting of a snowy city under pink-gray skies and thick chimney smoke by Everett Longley Warner.

The painting is undated, but Longley lived in New York between 1903 and 1924, according to one biography.

An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

February 19, 2018

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

The Bronx is the land of faded old movie houses

February 19, 2018

New York City has many grand old theaters and movie houses. These hearty survivors have been typically rebranded as a drugstore, Starbucks, or some other store that has none of that show biz grandeur or charm.

But it seems like the Bronx has more than its share of old theaters than other boroughs. Two recycled movie houses are on Southern Boulevard, a busy shopping stretch in the South Bronx.

Behold the Spooner Theatre, above and at right, which opened in 1910. Seating 1800, the Spooner would soon be purchased by Loews and renamed the Loews Spooner Theatre, according to Cinematic Treasures.

Cecil Spooner (below) was an actress and director who built the theater so her stock company could have a place to perform.

Spooner and her players give “performances twice a day to audiences which fill the house,” wrote the New York Times in 1913.

Interestingly, later that year Spooner was arrested for staging what was called a “vice” play—a dramatization of a novel called “The House of Bondage.”

The audience rose in protest when the cops came in. (The novel was about the then-hot topic of white slavery.)

At some point the Loews Spooner got a marquee . . . and then became a furniture store, per this photo below from Cinema Treasures.

Today the theater is weathered but still holding up. It’s occupied by a couple of cell phone stores, a Burger King, and a Children’s Place.

Not far from the majestic Spooner is the shell of the Boulevard Theatre, which opened in 1913, reports Cinematic Treasures. This Beaux-Arts beauty started out as a vaudeville house seating 2,200 people.

“When [the Boulevard] is finished this block . . . will be an amusement and business center second to none in the Bronx,” wrote the New York Times.

It soon opened as the Loews Boulevard and featured “‘small time’ vaudeville and moving pictures,” according to another Times article.

Like the Spooner, the Boulevard has since been repurposed into a shopping strip with a cell phone store and gym. Its Beaux-Arts touches are still faring well after more than a century fronting a busy Bronx street.

[Third photo: Cinema Treasures]

A winter twilight in the snow on 57th Street

February 12, 2018

This is 57th Street in 1902, painted by Robert Henri, whose Ashcan School work depicted a moody New York in all of its grit and glory.

Could the cross street with the elevated train be Sixth Avenue? It would have been close to the Art Students League, where Henri taught.

Decayed shells of two lovely Bronx train stations

February 12, 2018

It’s a strip mall that has seen better days—a long, two-story shell of a building housing a chicken joint, a pizza and gyro shop, and a couple of other businesses in the shadow of the Bronx’s Bruckner Expressway.

But a closer look reveals some curious details—like the pointed dormer windows set inside a barn-like sloping roof. This stretch of retail had to start out as something more majestic.

Turns out it did: It was the Hunts Point Avenue railroad station, built in 1909 by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—which anticipated a huge demand for train service in the once-bucolic Bronx, thanks to subway development and a population boom.

An even biggest surprise than seeing the remains of such a lovely station is the name of the architect behind it: Cass Gilbert, better known as the genius behind the Woolworth Building and the Custom House at the foot of Broadway, among other architectural beauties.

The station is one of several that Gilbert designed in the Bronx, and he  seemed to have a lot of fun with this one.

The Hunts Point station was French Renaissance in design,” states this Lehman College site. “It had a wide overhanging hipped roof with pointed lacy dormer windows, spires, tiling and crenellations.”

The station connected commuters to Grand Central until the 1930s, when a lack of passengers made it financially impossible to keep open. At some point, it was repurposed for retail, its ornaments stripped off or obscured beneath 1970s-style roll-down gates and a hulking freeway.

Another of Gilbert’s Bronx railroad stations also pretty much lies in ruin: the Westchester Avenue station.

This terra cotta jewel was built in 1908 by the same railroad and it too shut down in the 1930s. Today it remains under the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway and besides Concrete Plant Park, abandoned.

[Second photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1841; fourth photo: Architectural Record, 1908; fifth photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1842; sixth photo: Wikipedia]

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

In 1912, everyone was doing the Subway Glide

February 5, 2018

How long have New Yorkers been complaining about cramped subways and speeding, lurching trains? (And the violation of personal space that happens when too many people are crammed in car?)

At least since 1912, eight years after the subway opened—when lyricist Arthur Gillespie and musician Theodore Norman put together this zippy little song, the “Subway Glide.”

With lyrics like “rush in, crush in, reach for a handle strap, then turn right around and flop in a lady’s lap,” it may offend the sensibilities of modern subway riders.

Give it a listen here and consider adding it to your commute playlist.

[Image: NYPL]

The past lives of a modest 1809 house in Tribeca

February 5, 2018

Houses have stories. And the Dutch-style unassuming home at the corner of White Street and West Broadway can tell some fascinating tales.

The story of 2 White Street (or 234 West Broadway) begins in 1809, when a New Yorker named Gideon Tucker built this home, most likely the last in a row that stretched down White Street.

Tucker ran a successful plaster factory. He was also assistant alderman of the Fifth Ward and a school commissioner, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1966.

Tucker’s house certainly wasn’t showy. But a man of his stature would build a place with some flair.

“Number Two White Street is one of those very rare brick and wood houses in New York which still retain its gambrel roof and original dormer windows,” explains the LPC report.

“Although it was completed in 1809, this house is eighteenth century in its feeling and style,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835.

Two White Street can give us a good idea of where and how New Yorkers lived in the decades following the Revolutionary War.

How long Tucker and his family resided there is unclear, or if it remained a one-family home. But by 1842, there was a different occupant: Reverend Theodore S. Wright.

Wright was born a free African-American in 1797. He was educated at the city’s African Free School, a one-room schoolhouse for the children of free and enslaved black New Yorkers. (Slavery wouldn’t officially end in the state until 1827.)

Wright became the first black man to earn a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, then helped lead the rising abolitionist movement in the antebellum city.

As a minister at the First Colored Presbyterian Church on Frankfort Street, he spoke out against the evils of slavery and founded abolitionist organizations, including the New York Vigilance Committee—which aimed to prevent black residents from being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

“In the 1840s, the Reverend Wright may have written speeches denouncing white prejudice by the light from the gabled windows of this very house,” states the New-York Historical Society.

Wright did more than write speeches; he may have used 2 White Street as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The house wouldn’t have been far from the Lispenard Street home of abolitionist David Ruggles, an Underground Railroad stop that over two decades sheltered about 600 runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass.

Wright died in 1847. Photos from the early 20th century show that the ground-floor retail space hosted a cigar shop, a barber shop, and at some point a liquor store.

Today it’s a J. Crew selling menswear, but the windows are still etched with the words “cordials” and “cognacs.” No trace of Tucker or Wright remain.

[Second photo: MCNY/33.173.221; third and sixth photos: NYPL]

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.