A midcentury artist captures the anonymity of the subway in 5 paintings

March 27, 2023

Bernard Gussow was born in Russia in 1881. But by 1900 he’d made it to the Lower East Side, where he was described as an “East Side artist” in a New York Times article about paintings he displayed at an art show at the Educational Alliance settlement house on East Broadway.

[“Subway Steps”]

Gussow would get his name in newspapers many times, mostly in the teens, 20s, and 30s. Usually grouped with other artists (like John Sloan) of his era, this Art Students League attendee would be described as “interpreting the spirit of East Side life.”

[“Crowded Subway Car”]

After the 1930s, his mentions in the papers drop precipitously. His life ended in 1957; additional biographical information on this midcentury painter is scant.

But his relative anonymity as a New York City artist seems strangely appropriate considering the anonymity of the people he captured in a series of subway images, all of which look to be from the 1930s and 1940s.

[“Seventh Avenue Local”]

Remember the subway? If you’re one of the millions of New Yorkers who haven’t returned underground since the pandemic, Gussow’s images will remind you of what riding the subway has always felt like—a solitary experience amid dozens of other people trudging up and down staircases and carving out breathing room on a packed train car.

[“Grand Central Station”]

I found one reference to a collection of subway images by Gussow in a 1934 newspaper piece. I don’t know if they include any of the ones here, which I find to be haunting in their anonymity and human isolation.

There appears to be only a few moments of fleeting interaction between people: a man seems to give the side-eye to a woman pressed against his coat in the second image; in the third, a woman seated on the train stares up at the man standing over her.

[“The Stairwell”]

“‘Subway Passages’ by Bernard Gussow is an extraordinarily vivid impression of being in a subway. The hurrying hordes of people, impersonal, detached, more like animals than human beings, have been adequately transcribed by the artist with the depiction of only 32 figures,” the article, from the Elmira Star Gazette, states.

The giant rock that helped end a bitter colonial-era dispute between Brooklyn and Queens

March 27, 2023

In some locations, the boundary line between Brooklyn and Queens is simple.

To the north, Newtown Creek separates Brooklyn’s Greenpoint from Queens’ Long Island City. At the southern end, Jamaica Bay serves as a divider. But the border between the two boroughs can get a little murky through the neighborhoods in between.

Colonial-era settlers found the boundary line confusing as well—so much so that a bitter battle to define the borders in the 17th and 18th centuries finally ended in 1769 thanks in part to a massive boulder appropriately named Arbitration Rock.

The boundary dispute began soon after the founding of two towns of farms and small houses in the 17th century, one settled by the Dutch and the other by English Puritans.

The Dutch town of Bushwick (above) formed in what would soon be called Kings County. Next to Bushwick was Newtown, the English town, soon to be part of the newly named Queens County.

For the next century, the residents of Bushwick and Newtown maintained a beef about the two towns’ border. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled in 1916 that “sometimes the boundary line swung far into the depths of Newtown, sometimes it oscillated into the very midst of Bushwick.”

This was no gentlemanly dispute. In 1880, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote that the “boundary dispute between Bushwick and Newtown rose to a white heat, and resulted in the destruction of a great deal of property by fire and ax, on either side.”

The fight went to the highest levels of government, with comical results. Lord Cornbury, the corrupt governor of New York in the early 18th century, decided that the 1,200 acres between the disputed borders belonged to neither town but to himself, the 1916 Eagle article reported. (Cornbury was recalled back to England in 1709.)

Finally, seven years before the start of the Revolutionary War, the battle ended when a commission appointed by British leaders drew a border based on local creeks, ponds, hills, and a rock called Arbitration Rock (above), wrote Marc Ferris in a 2002 Newsday article.

With the dispute settled, Arbitration Rock became less important in the ensuing decades, especially after Brooklyn and Queens became part of the City of New York in 1898. In 1930, it was buried below Onderdonk Avenue during road reconstruction near the once-disputed border, according to a 2015 article in the Ridgewood Times, via qns.com.

“Toward the end of the 20th century, historians’ interest in the rock’s locations were piqued, and after a seven-year hunt, the boulder was located and unearthed from Onderdonk Avenue,” per the Ridgewood Times article.

Where is Arbitration Rock now? This historic boulder can be found surrounded by a white picket fence (below) on the grounds of The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, a circa-1710 fieldstone treasure (above) that’s one of New York City’s oldest dwellings. The house is an excellent example of the kind of farmhouse one would encounter in rural Brooklyn and Queens in the 18th century.

The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House sits just inside the Queens border in Ridgewood—the neighborhood formerly known as Newtown. Considering how fraught the border fight was, I’m surprised the rock wasn’t split in half, with each borough getting a piece!

[Top image: 1750 map, NYPL Digital Collections; second image: Brooklyn Museum; third image: Eventbrite/Vander Ende-Onderdonk House]

Taking a leisurely drive in the peaceful, pastoral Central Park of 1900

March 20, 2023

By taking a drive, we’re not talking about automobiles. In 1900, the year this postcard dates back to, “driving” still meant driving a horse-pulled carriage…as these well-dressed and probably upper-crust New Yorkers demonstrate.

At the turn of the last century, Central Park still more closely resembled the pastoral retreat Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned when they completed the park in the early 1860s. Instead of ballfields and playgrounds, the park was a place of rolling hills, recreated nature, and drives.

Is that the Museum of Natural History in the background? It looks lonely out there on Central Park West, which had yet to become the beautiful avenue of elegant apartment houses as we know it today.

[Museum of the City of New York: X2011.34.1513]

Two mystery gargoyles on a West 29th Street building

March 20, 2023

One of the small pleasures of walking around New York City is noticing all the stone and terra cotta figures looking down at you from Gothic-style loft buildings.

Sometimes scary, often cheeky, these grotesques and gargoyles pose a mystery: who decided to add them to the building, and what’s their significance?

I’m asking this question specifically about the two figures carved into Two West 29th Street, a 16-story building opened in 1928 just west of Fifth Avenue.

Under a banner of carved grape vines, each gargoyle is telling us something. On the right, I see an older woman crouched on her feet clutching something precious—perhaps a bag of money. No wonder she has a greedy, self-satisfied expression.

The man on the left, however, puzzles me. In his right hand, he might be holding some kind of tool, and it looks like his left-hand fingers are keeping something steady. Or he might be pointing to what’s in his hand with his index finger, directing our eyes to letters or numbers.

One way to solve the mystery of these two is to do a little research on the building and find out if it was the headquarters of a specific type of business. But the backstory of this early 20th century loft structure across the street from the Little Church Around the Corner isn’t clear.

Meanwhile, on the other end of West 29th Street, two stone characters outside the entrance of a former fur manufacturer aren’t shy about what they’re doing: one is feeding a squirrel, the other examining a pelt.

Why a modest 1827 home is missing from its row in Greenwich Village

March 20, 2023

For almost 200 years, the two little row houses clung together on Gay Street—one of those slender hideaway lanes in Greenwich Village that buck the city street grid.

(14 Gay Street, white building in center; 16 Gay Street is to its right, 2016)

Number 14 was built first, in 1827. Its original owner was a plow manufacturer named Curtis Hitchcock, according to the Greenwich Village Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report from 1969.

A year later, Number 16 went up next door, along with the rest of a row of three-story modest houses on the west side of the street. These tidy, low-stooped homes were occupied by the families of New York’s merchant class: small manufacturers like Hitchcock, as well as shop owners and artisans.

For the next two centuries, the two houses stood witness to Gay Street’s transformation from a one-block lane of middle-class houses to a shabbier African-American and immigrant enclave (third image, 1894) to a slice of the Bohemian Village, home to speakeasies, artists, and authors. (Above, photographed in 1937 by Berenice Abbott)

One of those authors was Ruth McKenney, whose writings about living with her sister, Eileen, in a basement apartment at Number 14 in the 1930s were the basis of the 1953 movie musical Wonderful Town.

But the story of Number 14 came to an end three months ago, when the city ordered its demolition after deeming the house “at risk of imminent collapse.” In January, its bricks and other early 19th century building materials were carted away in a dumpster.

How this landmarked piece of New York City history met the wrecking ball is under dispute. According to a December 2022 New York Times article, preservationists blame the owner of the property, a developer, for allowing the house to deteriorate; they also point the finger at the lack of coordination among city agencies that allowed the deterioration to happen.

The developer who owned the house—also the owner of Number 16—told the Times that it was never his intention to let the house fall apart.

Either way, the result is a glaring hole on one of the Village’s oldest and most charming streets—and the exposure of the wood-shingled exterior wall once apparently shared by Numbers 14 and 16, in view for the first time in almost 200 years.

On the other side of the hole in the streetscape is 12 Gay Street, looking like it was ripped at the seams.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Berenice Abbott/Brooklyn Museum; third image: NYPL Digital Collection]

A couple, a brownstone stoop, and an “unspoken question” in a 1956 Hopper painting

March 13, 2023

When I think of Edward Hopper, his etchings, prints, and paintings from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s come to mind—mostly images of the modern metropolis and the isolation fostered by the urban network of bridges, elevated trains, and concrete office buildings.

But Hopper continued to paint through the postwar decades, up until his death at age 84 in 1967 inside his longtime studio on Washington Square North.

“Sunlight on Brownstones” is one of these later works. Completed in 1956, it shows a young couple at the entrance of a brownstone, likely their own. The sterile brownstone row looks very detached from a dark green Central Park, presumably, across the street. The couple also seems disconnected and disengaged, like they were dropped accidentally into a landscape painting.

What are they looking at? The painting is part of the collection at the Wichita Art Museum, and I’ll let the caption on the website offer an explanation.

“The couple on the stoop appear to gaze upon something beyond the painting’s right edge, beg­ging the question of their interest,” the museum website states. “The answer appears to lie outside the paintings frame, both lit­eral and temporal. Like a movie still, Sunlight on Brownstones seems to have been removed from a larger narrative.”

The caption ends by suggesting that this couple, in their stillness and solitude, “seem to look expectantly toward the sun, as if searching for an answer to an unspoken question.”

Two early Bronx subway signs that still point the way “up town”

March 13, 2023

The blue and white tiles are obscured by decades of grime, edged out of the way by brighter yet featureless subway signage at a Bronx IRT station.

I tried my best to brighten them up digitally and make them look as delightful as they probably did in 1919, when this station, at Hunts Point, opened. No camera filter did them justice. So try to overlook the filth and feel the magic of seeing “Up Town” spelled out as two separate words.

Unfortunately there were no corresponding “Down Town” signs in this station; they were probably damaged years ago, then carted away by the MTA.

But you can still come across similar olds-school tiled signs in other early stations—like the Chambers Street IRT on the West Side, which features bright, clean “Up Town” and “Down Town” directionals.

Tea porches were once popular in city houses—this 1830 Greenwich Village home still has one

March 13, 2023

There are many reasons to swoon over 18 Commerce Street, a three-story Federal-style dwelling built in 1830 just inside this cowpath-like Greenwich Village side street.

The tidy red brick and white trim, the slender columns flanking the front entrance, the black shutters with crescent moon cut-outs, and the twin dormer windows matching those of the house next door—its a vision of Village tranquility and loveliness.

It’s also a house similar to many others in this part of Greenwich Village, built at a time when the city center was crowded with residents and easily transmissible diseases. The suburb of Greenwich, along the Hudson River, became a popular escape for families who could afford to move north and build (or rent) one of the new fashionable row houses.

But Number 18 has more to it than its graceful street-facing facade. Go around the corner to Seventh Avenue, where the back of the house can be seen.

On the second floor above a first-floor patio is a “tea porch”—an architectural feature that typically overlooked secluded backyard gardens and greenery. Here, in the refined Greenwich Village of antebellum Manhattan, homeowners would sit and take their afternoon tea.

Tea porches, or tearooms, were once common in New York City houses in the mid-19th century. This second-floor tea porch was likely added in the decades after Number 18 was built, according to Off the Grid, Village Preservation’s historical blog.

“Though a rare surviving architectural element today, the tearoom (also known as a back porch or tea porch) was an original feature of Greek Revival row houses throughout New York City in the 1840s and 1850s,” states Off the Grid.

The tea porch at Number 18, once visible only from the interior of the block, probably felt very private in the 19th century. That privacy ended when Seventh Avenue was extended through the Village in the late 1910s, slicing through the block and putting the tearoom on view from the street.

Later homeowners seem to have tried to restore some privacy, building the brick fence and installing a barn doors–like gate, though I’m not sure when those features first appeared. (The fence and gate can be seen in this photo from 1939-1941, below.)

If an authentic 19th century tea porch isn’t enough to make Number 18 one of the most charming homes in Greenwich Village, consider the house’s other amenities: four bedrooms, five wood-burning fireplaces, wood-beamed ceilings, and a private parking spot just inside the gate in front of a patio, according to a Curbed article from 2017.

Oh, and there’s a secret basement room accessed only by a tunnel, states Curbed; a resident of the house who happened to be outside when I strolled by said that the room was used to keep food items cold in an era before refrigeration.

A private tea porch and other examples of Antebellum enchantment come at a cost these days. The Curbed article includes gorgeous real estate listing photos and a price: monthly rent ran $25,000.

[Fifth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block

March 6, 2023

Eighth Avenue and 56th Street today looks nothing like it did when painter Lucille Blanch captured this otherwise ordinary block south of Columbus Circle 93 years ago.

Today, modern office buildings and apartment towers obscure the view of the Argonaut Building—the castle-like white structure that still stands down the block on Broadway and 57th Street. The enormous billboards are long gone, too.

The church below it, the flamboyant Broadway Tabernacle, met the wrecking ball in the 1970s. The tenement with the empty storefront next to the tire shop has also disappeared, replaced by a McDonald’s.

This stretch of West Midtown in the 1920s was known as the automobile showroom district, which explains the tire store and what look like car dealerships on the left-hand corner and in the middle of the block.

Lucile Blanch made a living as a painter, departing her Minnesota hometown to study at the Art Students League on West 57th Street on scholarship. She then became involved with the Fourteenth Street School, a group of artists with a social realist bent.

In 1930, she would have been 35 years old. Why she chose this corner to paint remains a mystery. But her depiction of the bright, colorful cityscape dwarfing the small, low-key residents might be saying something about the power of the urban environment over its residents caught in the toll of the Depression.

(Hat tip to Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog, which included this painting recently in a post about unheralded female artists living and/or working South of Union Square.)

[Second image: Peter A. Juley/Wikipedia]

This stunning Lafayette Street theater was the city’s first free public library in the 1850s

March 6, 2023

In the first half of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor was the richest man in New York City—and also the richest man in America.

Arriving in postwar Gotham in the 1780s, Astor made his fortune in fur before he turned his attention to real estate. He began buying parcel after parcel of cheap, eventually quite profitable land across the city (earning the nickname “New York’s landlord” for his shrewd deals and strict leasing policies).

Astor House, Astor Place, The Astor Theater—all were named for this German immigrant and Astor family patriarch. In the 1830s, he also developed today’s Lafayette Street as an exclusive enclave known as Lafayette Place. Many of the city’s richest families resided inside the columned row houses of LaGrange Terrace in the decades before the Civil War.

Toward the end of his life, however, Astor was thinking of a way to give something back to New York. “He had vague notions as to how best to spend the money, but in the [1830s] some friends first gave him the idea of establishing a library,” explained the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a 1911 article.

A library would have been a novel idea at the time. Though rich New Yorkers had their own private libraries, public libraries didn’t exist in Gotham yet. True, the New York Society Library, established in the late 18th century, was open to anyone…but only if they could afford the subscription, that is.

So Astor set aside an estimated $400,000 in his will (with sums of money already allocated for books, construction, and other costs). The idea was that once he passed away, a free public library would be built on Astor-owned land on Lafayette Place.

Astor’s wishes were carried out after he died in 1848. A board of trustees including Washington Irving, Joseph Green Cogswell (a teacher who became the library’s first librarian), and Astor’s son William B. Astor (father-in-law of Gilded Age society swan Caroline Astor) hired an architect and began purchasing books, temporarily renting space on Bond Street to await the completion of the new building, according to the New York Public Library.

In January 1854, the original Astor Library opened its doors (above drawing). “The trustees of the Astor Library have erected a noble monument to the rich old gentleman whose name it bears,” the New York Times wrote in April of that year. “They have built a handsome house in a handsome place, and so contributed to adorn the city.”

The Times went on to note that this “free” library really isn’t free—in the sense that the books can’t be taken out of the building (it was intended to be a reference library) and no one under age 16 is permitted inside. Another newspaper compared it favorably to the great libraries of Europe, then likened it to “a kind of literary museum” because the books have to stay in the building.

Despite the reviews, the library found many fans. “The Astor Library was open to the public during the day on weekdays and Saturdays,” wrote the NYPL. “Most readers reported to a main desk to request books which were then paged from the shelves. Some readers, usually scholars, were granted the privilege of being alcove readers, and they had full access to alcoves of books devoted to specific topics.”

A few years after opening, the library expanded (fourth photo, above), and it grew again in 1881 (fifth illustration, above), with space to hold more than 400,000 volumes. But even with the Astor name and fortune behind it, the library ran into financial troubles.

In the 1890s, it combined with the Lenox Library, endowed in 1870 by James Lenox, and the Tilden Trust (not a library yet, but a fund intended to establish one). The combination became the basis for the New York Public Library, consisting of the main library beside Bryant Park followed by neighborhood branches.

“The Astor building finally closed to readers on April 15, 1911, shortly before the opening of the new Central Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street,” the NYPL noted.

The Brooklyn Eagle was wistful about the closing (below photo, books being taken out of the shuttered library). “Nearly all the great men of Europe who have visited America during the past half century have paid a visit to the Astor Library. Washington Irving was almost a daily visitor…Longfellow and Hawthorne spent many hours there pouring over the reference volumes….”

“The building stood almost in the country when it was opened, but of late years the old colonial houses by which it was surrounded have disappeared and it has become shut in by huge skyscrapers,” the Eagle wrote.

The Astor Library may have shut its doors—but the building that housed those handsome volumes and reading alcoves began a second life. It was purchased in 1920 by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to house Jewish refugees, then faced demolition in the 1960s.

Since 1967, it’s been the home of the Public Theater, a nonprofit performance space led by theatrical producer Joseph Papp. “When I came into that building, it was in ruins, it was falling apart,” he said in a PBS interview. Today, it’s arguably the most magnificent structure on Lafayette Street.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third, fourth, fifth, and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle]