The man behind a manhole cover on 78th Street

September 16, 2019

Just when you think you’ve seen every old-school manhole cover that still remains in New York, you discover another you’ve never noticed before—with a new name embossed on it and a different design.

This lid, made by M. Dattner, is a new one for me—spotted on East 78th Street between First and Second Avenues.

That’s less than five blocks from where Dattner had his hardware store at 1585 First Avenue, which for a time was also his home, according to Walter Grutchfield’s wonderful website.

Who was Dattner? According to Grutchfield, Moritz “Morris” Dattner immigrated from Austria in 1903. He went into business with a brother who had a hardware company at 1210-1212 First Avenue, then began his own concern.

He registered for the World War I and World War II drafts, and by the 1940s he had moved to Brooklyn. He died in 1963, and I like to think that this manhole cover is something of a memorial.

More manhole covers from across the city can be found here.

This luxury building had a private dock for yachts

September 16, 2019

River House, the majestic Art Deco apartment building at the end of East 52nd Street, offers lots of amenities.

Residents of this tony co-op built in 1931 on the site of a former cigar factory enter and exit through a cobblestone courtyard with a private driveway behind a wrought-iron fence.

Multi-room apartments have panoramic views of the East River, and the 26-story building features the River Club, a members-only club with a gym, pool, and dining room.

Too bad one of the original selling points River House dangled in front of its earliest prospective tenants is no longer there: a private dock on the East River where residents could park their yachts.

It’s hard to believe, but this really did exist. Even though the building opened during the Great Depression, that didn’t stop residents from using the dock to sail back and forth to their Long Island mansions, as one Daily News article from 1940 shows.

The yacht dock’s demise began when the city decided to build the East River Drive (later the FDR Drive) along the river in the 1930s, cutting into the dock. City officials apparently tried to work out a compromise.

“At River House, the highway is all at one level, the same level as the original dockside landing,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2005 New York Times column.

“The city built a high wall separating the landing from the highway—leaving plenty of light, if no view—and erected an elevated walkway to a new riverside landing just beyond the highway itself.”

Apparently it just wasn’t the same without the original dock, and residents either gave up their yachts or parked them elsewhere.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1931: 88.1.1.2083; second photo: MCNY 1931: 88.1.1.2058; third photo: MCNY, 1938; fourth photo: MCNY 1931: 88.1.1.2121; fifth photo: City Realty]

A last remnant of the Duane Street shoe district

September 16, 2019

New York is a necropolis of defunct businesses. But every so often an old sign from one of these dead and gone businesses reappears like a ghost, reminding us that at another time in another New York, they were part of the cityscape.

One of these long-gone stores recently revealed itself at 114 Chambers Street in Tribeca. “Craig’s Shoes” it reads, looking strangely British and very old-fashioned.

Tribeca Citizen also noticed the back-in-view sign earlier this summer.

Reader comments explain that Craig’s had been in business since 1949, ending its run in 2006 at a second store site on 132 Chambers Street, which was to be demolished and replaced by the AKA Tribeca Hotel.

Interestingly, Craig’s wasn’t just a one-off shoe store in a neighborhood once known for its light industry and food provisions businesses.

This pocket in Tribeca centered around Duane Street was once the center of the “shoe-jobbing district,” as the area is nicknamed in the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City via Tribeca Citizen.

A New York Times article from 1920 calls it the “Duane Street shoe district,” while other articles go with the “downtown shoe district.”

(At left, 114 Chambers Street in 1940; a shoe icon hangs off the side of the building next door.)

The shoe district appears to have taken off in the late 19th century, and by the 1920s several shoe manufacturers had factories here.

Tribeca wouldn’t be coined until the 1970s, of course, and by that time, the shoe manufacturers and side businesses catering to it were all but gone.

Another curious remnant of the shoe district does still exist, at least it did a decade ago.

It’s this beautiful street clock affixed to 145 Duane Street, former home of the Nathaniel Fisher Company—wholesale shoe sellers described as one of “the oldest shoe firms in America,” according to an 1894 New York Times article.

[Third image: Boot and Shoe Recorder, 1921; fourth image: New York City Department of Records]

How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

September 9, 2019

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

The 9/11 memorial soaring over Third Avenue

September 9, 2019

“The Braves of 9/11” appeared on Third Avenue off East 49th Street last year, joining these and other memorial murals on New York City streets.

But artist Eduardo Kobra said this last year after his seven-story mural was unveiled, via Time Out New York: “The image contains details that allude to the historical episode. On the helmet, I wrote the numbers 343. This is a reference to the number of firefighters killed that day.”

“There is also a representation of the Twin Towers, and the flag of the United States. The stars represent all the lives that were lost in the tragedy—which left nearly 3,000 dead. Lastly, the colors have one goal: To pass on a message of life, of a restart, of reconstruction.”

A Village painter’s dynamic 1930s street scene

September 2, 2019

You can practically feel the energy and vitality in painter Alfred S. Mira’s depiction of the daily rhythms of a New York street.

Shops are open, trucks make deliveries, a couple crosses the street, a mother pushes a baby carriage, a father walks with his daughter while a woman walks her dog, and presumably the next day and every day after that, this corner hummed with the same life and dynamism.

But what colorful tenement corner are we on in the the New York of the 1930s or 1940s? (The date of the painting isn’t clear.)

Born in Italy, Mira called Greenwich Village home and tended to paint gritty to enchanting street scenes from his neighborhood.

Though this painting is titled “Greenwich Village New York” by Questroyal Fine Art LLC, a 1943 Los Angeles Times article covering an exhibit of Mira’s in LA printed the painting and called it “Greenwich Ave. and 11th Street.”

The 57th Street mansion built as a wedding gift

September 2, 2019

The happy couple were the children of two of New York’s wealthiest Gilded Age families.

Maria Louise Vanderbilt Shepard (right), the 21-year-old great-granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, married William Jay Shieffelin, 25 (below), in February 1891.

Louise, as she seems to have been known, came from a family that made its riches in the shipping industry and by investing in railroads.

William’s family operated a wholesale drug company founded in 1793, and he was also a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice.

The joining of two prominent families through marriage called for an extravagant wedding, and the couple enjoyed quite a celebration at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on February 5 of that year.

The next day, a “wedding breakfast” for 600 guests was held in the “grand picture gallery” of Louise’s grandfather W.K. Vanderbilt’s magnificent triple-wide, three-family mansion at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, wrote author Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions.

The breakfast netted the newlyweds incredible gifts; an article covering the wedding in the New York Times noted the “many articles of silver and jewels.”

But perhaps the most amazing gift was the one Louise’s mother gave the couple: A fully furnished house (above and at right).

That house is the building still standing at 35 West 57th Street. Images of it from the 1890s weren’t available, but these photos from 1940 show it off nicely: a brownstone beauty with Beaux Arts touches, like the two-story bow window, ornamental carvings, and the petite balcony on the fifth floor.

When the couple moved in, the East 50s off Fifth Avenue was a residential enclave crawling with rich Vanderbilt family members, including Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose spectacular mansion was just down the block at One West 57th Street.

Amazingly, the couple only lived in their extravagant wedding gift until 1898.

“William and Louise lived in the West 57th Street house throughout the 1890s, until the hustle and bustle of that area made the residence undesirable,” wrote Craven.

Louise’s mother purchased their next home as well, a Richard Morris Hunt–designed mansion on East 66th Street. At some point, the two left that house too and took up apartment living, which was now in vogue.

The Shepard-Shieffelins had eight kids and remained married for 57 years, until Louise’s death at age 78 in 1948.

And what about their wedding present on West 57th Street?

The 20th century wasn’t kind to it. At some point, the first two floors were turned into commercial spaces, and the decorative touches left to the elements. Now that the neighboring townhouses to the east are gone, the house clings to the building on its right, looking unloved and alone.

The fate of 35 West 57th Street remains to be seen. But what a joyous start it had 128 years ago!

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second image: Find a Grave; third and fourth images: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photos; eighth image: NYPL, 1928]

When modern buildings come to old-school blocks

September 2, 2019

Brownstones and tenements are New York’s iconic residences, and an unbroken line of either type of housing stretching from block to block is a classic feature of the city.

But sometimes those perfect lines of windows, stoops, fire escapes, and cornices are broken—interrupted by a modern upgrade one could see as fresh and dynamic or as an ugly interloper disturbing the 19th and early 20th century architecture.

Case in point: 277 Mott Street near Prince Street, flanked by tenements in what used to be Little Italy and now is Nolita.

The building was designed by Toshiko Mori, who “conceived a twisting street facade composed of torqued glass and CNC milled stone,” according to City  Realty.

Another reinterpretation of a brownstone or townhouse is this one on an Upper East Side street. I’m not sure what’s going on here or what the inspiration was, but the slightly cylinder-like facade could be a fun feature.

The cross streets carved into tenement corners

August 26, 2019

It’s fun spotting these: the names of cross streets embossed or engraved on the corners of tenement buildings. From the Lower East Side to Harlem, many still exist.

But what’s their purpose, actually?

Perhaps city officials didn’t care enough about poor neighborhoods to post official street signs on each corner, so having the cross streets on a building helped strangers know where they were.

Or maybe these addresses were intended to be seen by elevated train riders, who had a window-seat view of the second story of every building on the avenue.

They could also exist just to give drab, cookie-cutter tenements a little pizzaz. In any event, more of these street addresses in Manhattan and Brooklyn can be found here.

2 pre-Civil War homes laying low on the East Side

August 26, 2019

In 1856, a mason named Hiram G. Disbrow decided to build himself a modest home off Second Avenue and today’s East 58th Street.

At the time, Second Avenue above 42nd Street (below illustration, from 1861) was a sparsely populated, slightly shabby area marked by detached, humble houses—similar to the two-story dwelling Disbrow was planning to construct.

Today, 163 years after it was completed, Disbrow’s house—as well as a companion house next door—are still standing.

Hemmed in by towering apartment residences and the traffic-choked approach to the 59th Street Bridge, these antebellum anachronisms serve as humble reminders of pre-Civil War Manhattan.

The houses, at 311 and 313 East 58th Street, are slightly different.

But each reflects design styles popular in the 1840s and 1850s: huge windows, French doors, pilasters, shutters, small front lawns, and a (charmingly crooked) front porch.

Think of them as examples of the “modest, semi-suburban houses which dotted the uptown side streets of mid–19th century New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report.

Two hundred years earlier, in the 17th century, the land beneath these homes was basically countryside, interrupted by Eastern Post Road and the occasional tavern. One tavern-hotel nearby was the Union Flag, located where the bridge approach is today.

Later, in the 1850s, Disbrow and another man decided to make their homes here, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. (Above, a map of the area circa 1854, before the houses were built.)

Number 313 was Disbrow’s house. Now landmarked, it’s described in the LPC report as “a perfectly scaled, classically conceived small townhouse…a little gem of human proportion.”

Number 311 is also a city landmark. The LPC called it a “historically anonymous” two-story plus basement dwelling with “painted brick walls and stone trim” that’s “refreshing to behold,” via a 1999 New York Times article.

Throughout the next century and a half, the original owners departed. Industry took over the neighborhood. In the 20th century, factories were gradually replaced by wealthy enclaves like Sutton Place and postwar luxury apartment blocks.

Today, number 311 is occupied by an English antique furniture business (the business bought the house for $1.1 million in 1999).

After stints as the headquarters of the Humane Society, and then as a restaurant and celebrity nightclub called Le Club in the 1970s and 1980s, number 313 is once again a private dwelling.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth image: NYPL map collection]