Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?

July 22, 2019

This is the story of an 1889 painting, a mysterious stone wall, and a religious institution that occupied part of today’s Central Park in the mid-19th century—before the park was even in the planning stages.

It starts with Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. He was dubbed the “artistic interpreter” of Central Park and Prospect Park in an 1891 Harper’s Weekly article, owing to his many evocative landscapes of these and other city green spaces.

One Chase painting that stands out as darker and more mysterious than most of his park landscapes is this one (above) from 1889, “In the Park (a By-Path).”

A child under a watchful nanny wanders away from a park bench and follows a stone wall, “one of those sections of rough rock-work which give character to the many nooks and corners of the Park at the same time that they serve a useful end,” wrote Charles De Key in Harper’s Weekly.

Where was—or currently is—this “rough rock-work,” and what was its useful end?

According to various sources, this impressive stone wall is what remained of a convent and school called the Academy of Mount St. Vincent (above in 1861), the first institute of higher learning for women in New York.

Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent had the misfortune of setting up shop East of Fifth Avenue at about today’s 105th Street, in what would become Central Park a decade later.

The school relocated in the 1850s to Riverdale, where it continues its educational mission today. The college buildings left behind in the park burned down in 1881.

That rough rock wall, apparently a retaining wall from one of the original buildings, still stands behind the Conservatory Garden not far from a stone that marks the former site of the college (above left).

I went looking for the wall in this hilly, rocky section of Central Park. The mosquitos and thick brush kept me from finding it.

Luckily some other intrepid New Yorkers did locate it, like Michael Minn, whose 2007 photograph of the retaining wall is above. It doesn’t look exactly like the wall in Chase’s painting—artistic license, or the effects of time?

The folks from Untapped Cities also have a photo of the wall from 2017.

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: Copyright © Michael Minn]

The gods of good health on a Fifth Avenue facade

July 22, 2019

You could spend hours taking in the visual feast that is the New York Academy of Medicine building on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

Completed in 1926, it’s a blend of Romanesque and Byzantine styles with an exterior complete with Latin quotes, figures of gods and goddesses, and some impressive gargoyles and bas reliefs—all apparently relating to health and medicine.

“The exterior features a panoply of medical symbolism, including figures of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health standing watch together over the front door,” states one online source.

Asclepius and Hygeia (top image) are carved into the grand entrance on 103rd Street. They’re united by a medical caduceus with a single snake wrapped around it, a symbol of healing.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with some of the other reliefs—or the cheeky gargoyles. They animals could symbolize medicinal treatments; the figures may be other gods and goddesses.

But all of these symbols, figures, and grotesques were certainly added to the facade with intent.

The New York Academy of Medicine got its start in 1847, founded by a group of prominent city physicians in an era of rampant disease outbreaks, poor nutrition, and a 50 percent mortality rate for babies under age one.

The Academy pioneered the idea of public health—and today they continue to advocate for public health education and reform, particularly with their impressive library.

A sweet remnant of a Lenox Hill ice cream shop

July 22, 2019

The northwest corner of First Avenue and 66th Street looks like an ordinary Manhattan intersection, with a Dunkin’ Donuts inside an old tenement building.

But what a treat to see that the entrance to the shop continues to say “Peppermint Park” in tile!

It’s all that remains of the Peppermint Park Cafe, once a kid-friendly restaurant serving crepes, ice cream, and other goodies and then in the 1980s just an ice cream parlor churning out its own additive-free flavors.

I couldn’t find any information about when Peppermint Park started or what year it closed up shop. I bet Upper East Side old timers know.

Of course, you can still get ice cream at the Baskin Robbins part of Dunkin’ Donuts…but I’m guessing it’s not quite the same.

These tile sidewalk signs at store entrances are fast disappearing in New York City; here are some others still marking their territory.

Other ice cream store ghosts remain around New York, too.

The delightful Gothic mash-up building in Tribeca

July 15, 2019

Gothic architecture usually brings to mind shadowy vaulted ceilings and cathedral spires, and there are plenty of examples of this all over New York City.

But there’s a mashup of a building on a tiny Tribeca block that’s such a fascinating kaleidoscope of Gothic details, it suggests something light and frothy, not dark and Medieval.

The 5-story slender building is at 8 Thomas Street, between Broadway and Church Street. This architectural confection was completed in 1876 by a young designer named J. Morgan Slade.

“It was built as a store for David S. Brown Company, a soap manufacturing firm, and as such is a reminder of the first large-scale commercial development in the area following the Civil War,” explained the Historic Districts Council.

Brick, stone, cast iron, ionic columns, arched windows, a gabled roof, and one single fanciful oculus on the top floor, it has all the bells and whistles that makes coming across the building such a treat.

The Historic Districts Council calls it Venetian Gothic.

“This building is a rare New York example of Venetian Gothic, a Victorian style popularized by the British architecture critic John Ruskin,” the group wrote.

Other sources describe it as Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, and Ruskinian Gothic.

To me, it feels similar to Jefferson Market Courthouse, an architectural leap of faith but on a smaller scale.

After the soap company departed in the late 19th century, other manufacturing concerns moved in, including a wool company. A French restaurant was tried in the early 20th century.

By 1990, it was described in a New York Times article on Tribeca as “a giddy mix of Romanesque, Venetian Gothic, brick, sandstone, granite and cast-iron elements that stands alone, a little forlornly, beneath a giant construction project.”

Originally, 8 Thomas Street was flanked by two larger late 19th century cast-iron buildings, as the 1940 Tax Photo from the NYC Department of Records shows.

Sadly, both were lost—leaving number 8 to stand out on its own between a 2-story restaurant on one side and a modern residential tower on the other.

It’s now a 4-unit condo, a luxury building like so many of its Tribeca neighbors. What would the folks at the David S. Brown soap company think of this stylish pad which sold for $2.9 million in 2018?

[Fourth image: 1940 Tax Photos/Department of Records and Information Services]

The earlier name for Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway

July 15, 2019

While browsing old postcards of Brooklyn recently, I came across this lovely image from 1905, which features a bicyclist on the then-new cycling path on Ocean Parkway.

Then I looked closer at the postcard. Ocean Boulevard? This was apparently the name for the street in the late 19th century.

Newspaper articles in 1869 announced that the “Grand Ocean Boulevard” from Prospect Park to Coney Island was in the works. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was to be modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe, with a pedestrian path on the grassy median.

Thanks to the popularity of cycling in the late 19th century, the bicycle path came into the picture in 1894.

Ocean Boulevard? The term seemed to fall out of favor, and by the 1890s, most news stories called it Ocean Parkway.

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.

What a tourist saw on a trip to New York in 1970

July 8, 2019

In March 1970, a traveler now living in Rotterdam paid a visit to New York City.

Jaap Breedveld was in his 40s at the time. Like many tourists, he took photos that reflect the typical itinerary of a sightseer from overseas, like Times Square (above, with the old Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street on the left).

But Breedveld also captured images of New Yorkers at work, like this pretzel vendor on an unknown street, above. (Were pretzel carts really so low-key in 1970?)

During a foray into Chinatown, Breedveld immortalized these two men slicing fish on a barrel.

His photos also reflect a changed cityscape. In this image above, the Chrysler Building dominates the skyline, as it does today.

But Roosevelt Island—in 1970, still officially Welfare Island—has yet to be developed into a residential enclave, and the tramway wouldn’t start operating until 1976.

Midnight Cowboy fans will recognize the lovely Beaux-Arts building on the left in this image of Times Square.

It’s the Hotel Claridge, where Joe Buck gets a room after he arrives in New York. Opened in 1911 as luxury accommodations, the old hotel was torn down in 1972 to make way for an office building.

This photo appears to be taken from Battery Park and looks toward State Street; that must be the Elizabeth Ann Seton shrine and James Watson House in the center.

Today, the shrine and 18th century house are surrounded by boxy towers, one of which is going up in the photo.

This breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan contains no Twin Towers, and no Battery Park City. Both would be on maps by the end of the decade.

[Breedveld shared these previously unpublished images with Ephemeral New York. Special thanks to Peter van Wijk. ©Jaap Breedveld]

When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars

July 8, 2019

New York summers were as stifling, sultry, and sweat-soaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they are today.

In that pre-AC city, the last place you wanted to be on a July afternoon was in a horse-drawn streetcar. (At right, traveling on First Avenue and 67th Street in 1904).

Sure you might be able to open the windows, but you were basically crammed into a group of perspiring passengers inside a metal box under the broiling sun.

“In summer the packing-box system makes comfort impossible,” complained the New York Herald of streetcars in 1876.

So with summertime comfort in mind, streetcar companies—especially the John Stephenson Streetcar Company, a leading manufacturer on East 27th Street near Fourth Avenue—began making “summer cars,” which showed up on city streets in the 1870s and 1880s.

These open-air streetcars had rows of seats but no side panels, so taking a ride in one offered fresh air and something of a breeze, depending how fast the horses were traveling.

While they were most certainly a relief from the heat, these summer cars seemed to be a lot less safe than the regular streetcars.

New York and Brooklyn newspaper archives contain many stories of people falling off them and getting injured or killed. Seat belts, needless to say, were nonexistent.

Of course, taking a streetcar in the winter wasn’t danger-free either, as this firsthand account from a boy in the 1860s demonstrates.)

[First image: unknown; second image: MCNY, 44.295.142; third image, MCNY, 44.295.119; fourth image: MCNY, 44.295.155]

A glorious faded foundry sign in Long Island City

July 1, 2019

Before the Albra Metal Foundry began manufacturing aluminum and brass castings here in 1942, this red brick dowager of a building was home to a varnish factory in the 19th century.

The faded sign survives on 43rd Avenue in Long Island City, but Albra has been gone since 1978, according to faded sign aficionado Walter Grutchfield.

Today, it’s the event space known as The Foundry—a name that pays homage to Queens’ rapidly vanishing (or vanished entirely?) industrial past.

The most spectacular mansion on Sutton Place

July 1, 2019

When developers created Sutton Place in the 1870s, they started with a one-block strip of 24 brownstones between 58th and 59th Streets and the East River and Avenue A (which ran uptown at the time).

But it wasn’t until the 1920s when Sutton Place, now stretching from 57th Street to 60th Street, became synonymous with extreme wealth and privilege.

This couldn’t have happened if a group of New York’s richest and most notable women—such as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, and society decorator Elsie De Wolfe— didn’t decide to turn this out of the way street into the city’s new corridor of exclusivity.

Among these influential women was Anne Harriman Vanderbilt (left).

Anne Vanderbilt was the widow of William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and ex-husband of Gilded Age society doyenne turned suffrage supporter Alva Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt’s announcement that she was relocating from her Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street mansion to a part of Manhattan known for its proximity to slaughterhouses and factories was quite shocking.

It marked such a shift among the society set that the news made the gossip columns and bold type headlines.

“Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt to Live in Avenue A,” proclaimed the New York Times in 1921, in an article that chronicled the movement of “society leaders” to this “new colony” of Sutton Place that sought to blend the three “classifications of life—social, artistic, and professional.”

Vanderbilt was a philanthropist who helped finance a development of open air tenements for tuberculosis sufferers not far away on Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) and 77th Street.

Though devoted to her charitable endeavors, Vanderbilt apparently pulled out all the stops when it came to her  new digs.

Instead of building a luxury townhouse or moving to a ritzy apartment residence, she commissioned architects to create an expansive Georgian-style mansion on the corner of Sutton Place and 57th Street.

Christened “One Sutton Place North” and completed in 1921, the mansion was a 13-room (plus 17 servant rooms) ivy-covered home with a bright blue front door.

Stately shutters flanked enormous windows, and shady trees swayed gently across the front facade.

Perhaps the mansion’s most impressive features were the terraces, gardens, and the lawn sloping down to the East River.

Vanderbilt only lived on Sutton Place until 1927, after which she relocated to a triplex on Park Avenue.

Her magnificent house still stands on this lovely corner today, one of the last single-family mansions in Manhattan on a street that isn’t trendy but still has its air of exclusivity.

Want a sneak peek? It was up for sale in 2018 for $21 million bucks.

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY 1921, X2010.11.14511; fifth image: New York Times headline 1920; sixth image: New York Daily News 1920; seventh image: Berenice Abbott, 1926]