When rich New Yorkers and their horses took to Central Park’s new carriage drive

September 20, 2021

Central Park was a work in progress when Winslow Homer produced this richly detailed scene in 1860. But that didn’t stop New York’s fashionable set from coming out to the park in stylish carriages to see and be seen in a daily ritual known as the “carriage parade.”

Every afternoon between 4-5 p.m., the east side carriage drive from 59th Street to the Mall came alive, explained Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “In the continuous procession of equipages you saw everyone who counted: the aristocracy, the new smart set, the parvenus, the celebrities, the deplorably notorious.”

Perhaps Homer isn’t capturing just the carriage parade but the various ways Gotham’s wealthy and their horses used new park. Take the woman in the foreground, for example. Thanks to the carriage drive, riding was now socially acceptable for ladies, according to Morris.

“The fashionable hour for equestriennes was before breakfast,” he wrote. “You could see them elegantly togged out in silk hat draped with a flying veil, tight buttoned bodice and flowing skirts….A lady riding alone was invariably attended by a liveried groom or a riding master.”

Men in positions of power indulged in the trotting fad, riding expensive fast horses to Harlem Lane and back to the park. “When General Grant visited the city at the end of the Civil War, one of his first requests was to be taken out to Harlem Lane,” stated Morris. “He shared New York’s passion for trotters, and agreed that ‘the road’ of a late afternoon was one of the most thrilling sights in the country.”

[Lithograph: up for auction at Invaluable]

Everything you need to know about the Greenwich Village of 1961 in one map

September 20, 2021

“Geographically speaking, the Village is only a small part of New York City,” so states the copy on the side of this remarkable map of the Greenwich Village of 1961 (click the map to enlarge it), which details the restaurants, bars, cafes, apartment buildings, and other notable spots from Washington Street all the way to Cooper Square.

“Map of the Greenwich Village section of New York City,” by Lawrence Fahey, cartographer

This extraordinary illustrated map, drawn and published by cartographer Lawrence Fahey, seems to be aimed at visitors.

“What is it about the Village that provokes such widespread interest? It stems primarily from the fact that the Village has long been a focus of youthful rebellion and Bohemian life and as such has been the cradle of many innovations in American art, drama, literature, and poetry, the current example of which is ‘Beat’ or ‘Hip’ writing,” the copy reads.

The text on the map reflects its era, containing comments about the relaxed vibe of Village blocks and parks, the shopping options, and why certain adjacent streets were excluded.

“While making the field survey for this map, it was found that the Hudson River waterfront with its wharfs and warehouses lacks the charm of the ‘Old Village’ and the rest of Bohemia,” per the text. “The same is true of the area south of Prince Street where depressing loft buildings and dark streets would hardly appeal to any visitor.”

Ha! By 1971, the warehouses of the far West Village would undergo conversion to housing, the “depressing” streets south of Prince would be rebranded Soho, and the area east of Cooper Square would transform into the East Village.

It’s a fascinating visual trip back to the Village of the early 1960s. West 14th Street was once Little Spain (second image); today, none of these restaurants or shops remain.

The Village Nursing Home (third image) is still a nursing home, not a luxury residence. The Women’s House of Detention boxes in Jefferson Market Courthouse, which hasn’t been repurposed as an NYPL library branch yet.

St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street has a school. The Sixth Precinct is still at the end of Charles Street, not in the circa-1970s new precinct house between Perry and Charles Streets. There’s a fair number of gas stations and lots of antique shops. NYU isn’t everywhere.

A surprising number of spots from the Village of 60 years ago are still with us: Caffe Reggio, Julius, Seville, Gene’s, plus Rocco’s and Faicco’s on Bleecker Street. The Waverly still plays movies, but it’s the last Village movie theater left.

[Map: NYPL Digital Collections]

A West Side apartment house that transports you to Renaissance England

September 20, 2021

So many of the side streets of the Upper West Side are lovely architectural time capsules, with uniform groups of townhouses and majestic apartment buildings reflecting the fashionable styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But sometimes you come across a building that feels like a design unicorn. Case in point is Red House, on West 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

This delightful six-story confection of English and French-inspired Gothic details feels more like an Elizabethan manor house, with its white terra cotta, crown cartouche, and red brick—which gave the building its name, according to The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Why architects Herbert S. Harde and R. Thomas Short were inspired by Renaissance-era England and France isn’t clear. But Red House is the first upper-class residence the two collaborated on, and it serves as something of an advertisement for their work—which departed from the stately Beaux-Arts style and offered delight and whimsy. “A six-story romantic masterpiece,” the AIA Guide to New York City calls it.

Harde himself lived at Red House with his wife through the 1910s. The building can boast of another notable tenant: a young Dorothy Rothschild—the future Dorothy Parker, states Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York.

“An early example of Harde & Short’s elaborate and luxurious apartment buildings, Red House established many of the recognizable elements which were to become the firm’s calling card,” stated the 1982 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, designating the building a historic landmark.

“The building indicates the acceptance of the apartment building as a desirable housing form, and reflects the impact of this change in the physical development of the Upper West Side.”

After completing Red House in 1904 (above), Harde & Short went on to design the Gothic renaissance-inspired 44 West 77th Street. They’re also the creative geniuses behind 45 East 66th Street as well as Alwyn Court, at Seventh Avenue and 55th Street. All three buildings still grace the cityscape with lots of visual eye candy, such as cathedral-like flourishes and flamboyant detailing.

There’s one unusual design feature that both Alwyn Court and Red House share, courtesy of Harde & Short: both buildings have terra cotta salamanders on the facade. The Red House salamander wears a crown.

Why a salamander? It’s the emblem of Francois I, the king of France from 1515 to 1547—another Renaissance-inspired touch.

[Third image: MCNY; X2010.7.1.395]

What happened to the big whale at the Central Park Children’s Zoo?

September 16, 2021

If you were young in New York City in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, then you probably remember the thrill of visiting Jonah’s Whale at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, with that smiling open mouth you could practically walk into.

Jonah’s Whale had been part of the Children’s Zoo since its 1961 opening, according to The New York Times. But this star zoo attraction got the boot in the mid-1990s, after the zoo fell into disrepair and the whale was “derided as kitsch,” as the Times put it.

“A new generation of sober-minded zookeepers, trained to re-create natural habitats, questioned its educational value,” the Times wrote. “And critics wondered whether a sculpture depicting the biblical tale of Jonah, who spent three nights in the belly of a whale, was appropriate in a public park.”

In the mid-1990s, Jonah’s Whale was carted away to the Rockaways, where it was supposed to live in a happy retirement. But apparently the whale was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, per a 2014 article in Rockawave, which covered an attempt to raise money to rebuild it.

The fate of Whalemina, as the whale was renamed in the Rockaways, isn’t clear. But Baby Boomer and Gen X New Yorkers surely are hoping that this zoo icon is safe and in one piece again somewhere.

[Top image: eBay; second image: NYC Parks]

A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children

September 16, 2021

When Isaac Rice and his wife, Julia, decided to build a mansion at Riverside Drive and 89th Street for themselves and their young family in 1901, they turned to builders who gave them a house with lots of architectural elegance.

The four-story dwelling, completed in 1903, was a mix of Georgian and Beaux-Arts styles, with an arched second-floor entrance, Spanish roof tiles, doric columns, and a porte chochere—likely for Mr. Rice’s new electric vehicles, according to a 1979 Historic Preservation Commission report.

But the couple also commissioned something especially unique on the facade: a bas relief sculpture that portrays six children as unique individuals playing, reading, and otherwise looking happy and engaged.

Though the identities of the children aren’t known for sure, it’s almost certain that they are the six kids of Isaac and Julia Rice. This marble ode to their offspring on such a visible part of the facade reflects the pride and joy they took in their large family.

The bas relief, carved into the first floor beside the porte cochere, is thought to be the work of Louis St. Lanne, a French-born sculptor who also designed a statue of a boy outside Isaac L. Rice Memorial Stadium in Pelham Bay Park, states the HPC report. The stadium was a gift to the city from Julia Rice after Isaac died in 1915.

Isaac and Julia Rice made many headlines in their day. Mr. Rice was a financier, inventor, and diehard chess enthusiast (he had a chess room in his mansion and is the genius behind a move called the “Rice gambit”).

Mrs. Rice, a non-practicing medical doctor, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and campaigned in the early 1900s to put a stop to tugboat horns, factory whistles, and other sources of noise pollution in the Gilded Age city.

It seems that their children stayed out of the limelight. But a 2012 article about the Rice mansion by Marjorie Cohen in West Side Rag prompted a comment from a reader who said the Rices were her great-grandparents.

“Their six children were comprised of two boys and four girls,” the reader wrote. “The girls were nicknamed Dolly, Polly, Molly, and Lolly. My grandmother was Lolly, the youngest of the daughters. The six children were quite interesting in their own right!”

The Rices moved out of their mansion and into an apartment in the nearby Ansonia, on Broadway and 73rd Street, after the panic of 1907 forced Isaac to sell his house, according to Cohen.

Amazingly, the family only lived in their Riverside Drive mansion for about four years. More than a century later, it’s one of only two surviving freestanding mansions on a curvy former carriage drive that once featured dozens of them. Through all the changes over the years, their marble memorial to their children remains.

[Fourth image: Rice Mansion, about 1905; MCNY X2010.7.2.25109]

Two mystery initials on a 125th Street building reveal a former department store

September 16, 2021

Sometimes the ghosts of New York City put clues about Gotham’s past right under your nose.

That’s what happened on a recent walk down busy 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. On an empty building partially hidden behind scaffolding and a blue tarp are two letters, entwined like a logo: KC.

The initials can be seen from the sidewalk, and they pose the question: What’s KC?

Turns out these initials stand for Koch & Co., a once-heralded department store with its roots in the city’s Gilded Age, when mass consumerism was born and the idea of shopping for leisure took hold.

Henry C.F. Koch, an immigrant from Germany, founded his eponymous emporium with his father-in-law in 1860, according to Walter Grutchfield. Their first store opened at Carmine and Bleecker Streets, then made the jump the Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in 1875.

At the time, the Sixth Avenue location put Koch & Co. squarely in New York’s burgeoning Ladies Mile Shopping District, which roughly spanned Broadway to Sixth Avenue and 10th Street to 23rd Street.

Koch & Co.’s competition on Ladies Mile would have been B. Altman’s on Sixth and 19th Street, Hugh O’Neill & Co. on Sixth and 21st, and Macy’s at Sixth and 14th Street. These and other department stores sold everything from fashion to furniture to food to women who were free to browse and buy without being accompanied by male escort, as was the usual custom at the time.

In 1892, perhaps taking note of population shifts and the elevated railroads that opened uptown Manhattan to residential development, Koch relocated his store to a new building at 125th Street.

“At that time the street was residential in nature, and H. C. F. Koch & Co. were pioneers in leading the changes that converted 125th St. into a shopping street,” Grutchfield wrote.

Koch & Co. certainly got good press. In a New York Times article from 1893, a reporter wrote: “The great store of H.C.F. Koch Co. in One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, is, par excellence, the emporium of the far uptown district, and consequently the announcement of its Fall opening is attracting thousands of buyers and seekers after the styles of the season.”

Still, it may have been hard at first to lure shoppers so far uptown, as this ad in The New York Times (above) from 1893 hints. Koch himself had moved to Lenox Avenue, and in 1900 he died, passing the business to his sons.

The department store continued until 1930, when it was bought out and closed. The stately building remains, with those CK initials and the name “Koch and Co” carved in stone high above the cornice.

[Third image: NYPL, 1936; fourth image: King’s Views of New York City, 1903; fifth image: New York Times, 1893]

Catching up with Studio 54, the magazine

September 13, 2021

Remember Studio 54? Remember magazines? The nightclub that defined disco debauchery in Manhattan in the late 1970s had a legendary three-year run under the founders, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell.

Reopened under new ownership in 1981, the club kept going—with the help of a 1982 specialty publication called “Studio 54: The Magazine.”

The first issue, from 1982, is a time capsule of early 1980s celebrity culture. Interviews with Peter Allen, Valerie Simpson, and a host of other stars fill the pages, along with lots of black and white shots of A-listers partying.

Studio 54 apparently stayed open as a nightclub until 1986, but the cache was gone. And the magazine? That’s a mystery. But based on the ad above, they had big plans to keep publishing!

The abolitionist history of a little wood house on Riverside Drive

September 13, 2021

When Berenice Abbott photographed 857 Riverside Drive near 160th Street in 1937, the small, wood-frame house in today’s Washington Heights was a charming relic from New York’s antebellum era.

Berenice Abbott’s photo of 857 Riverside, from 1937

Built in 1851 in the Italianate style, it boasted clapboard siding, wood shutters, a wraparound porch with decorative trim, and a roof topped with an octagon-shaped cupola. The cupola must have allowed for gorgeous views of the Hudson River in the unspoiled countryside of uptown Manhattan.

Today, number 857 retains little of its original beauty. At some point in the 20th century, the cupola was lopped off, the porch ripped away, and much of the clapboard siding removed, replaced by faux stone. The boxy shape of the house still exists, wedged between rowhouses.

But the renovation to the house’s facade couldn’t erase its noteworthy history: number 857 was owned by two New York abolitionists and may have been part of the Underground Railroad.

Dennis Harris, an English-born sugar refinery owner and ardent anti-slavery proponent, lived here between 1852 and 1854, according to a report by the Upper Riverside Residents Alliance, via a New York Times article from January by John Freeman Gill.

Harris originally owned a sugar refinery in today’s Tribeca, and one New York paper contains an 1885 story recalling how Harris helped hide a fugitive slave there and assisted in getting the man to Canada.

The house in 1939-1941, from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services

When that refinery burned down, Harris rebuilt it steps from number 857, at the foot of 160th Street and the Hudson River. He also began running a steamboat from Lower Manhattan to 160th Street and on to Poughkeepsie, which historians in the New York Times article suggest could have been a way to ferry enslaved people up the Hudson and closer to Canada.

Harris, who “gave impassioned antislavery sermons and held abolitionist gatherings” at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on King Street, per the New York Times piece, then sold the house to his friend and fellow abolitionist, Judge John Newhouse.

The Riverside Drive house certainly wouldn’t be the first in New York to have ties to the abolitionist movement. While the city itself was pro-slavery (largely because so many businesses depended on trade with the South), an impassioned abolitionist community thrived before the Civil War. Underground railroad stops are thought to have existed at 36 Lispenard Street, 339 West 29th Street, and 227 Duffield Street in Brooklyn.

An 1865 map of Upper Manhattan stops at 155th Street, revealing how remote 857 Riverside must have been.

The abolitionist backstory of 857 Riverside Drive matters right now, as the developers who own it are planning to tear it down and put up an apartment building. The Alliance is hoping to stop that by getting the house landmarked.

The little house that captured Berenice Abbott’s fancy may be stripped of its historical trappings, but the ghosts of its 19th century history remain.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 3 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Berenice Abbott/NYPL; second photo: WABC; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fourth image: LOC]

The mystery location of a hillside landscape in Harlem

September 12, 2021

In the 1920s and 1930s, Aaron Douglas was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, developing his signature style of painting two-dimensional graphic images of Black men and women that revealed “self-determination and defiance,” as The Art Story described them.

At an unknown date, he also painted this moody landscape of Harlem. In a departure from his better-known work, Douglas depicts a row of dramatic buildings high on a hillside, the riverfront dotted with modest dwellings below.

But where exactly is this scene?

Douglas and his wife lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, a 13-story apartment house in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem with a commanding view of the Harlem River Valley, according to a 1994 article by Christopher Gray in the New York Times. Other elite tenants included Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter White.

Though none of the hillside buildings in the painting resemble number 409, I wonder if this scene isn’t farther north on Edgecombe (officially in Washington Heights), where the avenue overlooks Coogan’s Bluff and the Polo Ground Towers, former home of the Polo Grounds.

The topography there is steep and thick with trees. Then again, this could be West Harlem overlooking an entirely different river, the Hudson. The derrick in the water is another mystery, perhaps it’s for drilling a subway tunnel.

Gazing at the Twin Towers from the Staten Island Ferry in the 1970s

September 6, 2021

It’s easy to understand why these ferry riders were so captivated by the Twin Towers, which were almost completely built at the edge of Lower Manhattan when they took this trip crossing New York Harbor. (No antenna yet on the roof of the North Tower; that would come in 1978.)

This photo, by Morris Huberland and part of the Morris Huberland Collection in the NYPL Digital Collection, must have been taken in the early 1970s.

It’s quiet and contemplative, reflecting the tone many New Yorkers will take on this week as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.