What one painter saw on Armistice Night, 1918

November 12, 2018

Almost exactly 100 years ago, social realist painter George Luks—who honed his artistic skills in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1896—captured this scene on the night World War I ended.

“In Armistice Night, as in his earlier illustrations, Luks does not deliberate over particulars: the painting is a blur of American and Allied flags, faces, and fireworks,” states the Whitney Museum of Art.

“Blue smoke obscures the buildings in the background, and few individuals stand out in the quickly-rendered crowd. Typically, Luks was more committed to capturing the spirit of the moment than to transcribing visual facts—in this case the action and human drama in a celebratory crowd.”

I only wish I could positively identify the location. Union Square?

The many lives of Riverside Drive’s River Mansion

November 12, 2018

Sometimes you come across a house in New York City that you just sense has a good backstory.

The red-brick house at 337 Riverside Drive is such a place—and its fortunes reflect more than a century of changes on a winding street that began as the West Side’s answer to Upper Fifth Avenue.

Built in 1902 along with its restrained neighbor to the east on 106th Street, it’s an “opulent Beaux-Arts brick and limestone mansarded mansion,” reported the AIA Guide to New York City.

The curves above the bay windows give it something of an Art Nouveau feel too.

The name inscribed above the front door, “River Mansion,” is perfectly fitting; the oversized home sits on a corner high point beside Riverside Park with enchanting Hudson River views.

Of course, the first occupant of such a spectacular place couldn’t be any old titan of industry.

It was purchased in 1903 by Julia Marlowe, a famous Shakespearean actress whose life at the time had all the trappings of modern day celebrity: divorce, talk of a nervous breakdown, and loneliness.

Marlowe—known for taking long walks in Central Park to practice her lines—probably didn’t spend much time here though, writes author Daniel J. Wakin in his book, The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block.

She was on the road a lot, and in 1906 she sold River Mansion to the wife of businessman Lothar Faber, whose Greenpoint pencil factory is now a residence.

The Fabers already lived on Riverside Drive, and in a few years they left River House, which took on a succession of short-term owners.

By the time the Depression hit, River House had been converted to a rooming house, wrote Wakin, one tinged by tragic stories.

A fourth-floor apartment was the home of a doctor who committed suicide by jumping out the window. An Italian-born painter also had a room here; he made a meager living and died poor and alone in Bellevue Hospital of a brain tumor.

“As the neighborhood continued to decline, River Mansion changed hands several more times in the 1940s,” wrote Wakin, adding that a woman named Mrs. Dickmann ran a boardinghouse here in the 1950s.

River House’s bounce back started in the 1970s. It was part of a newly created historic district, and the house went back to being a single-family residence; a music school operated here.

In 1978, Seagrum heir Edgar Bronfman, Jr., bought River Mansion and turned it into his family home. He’s since moved out, but the house remains a personal residence.

The Riverside Drive of the early 1900s (seen above at left) is no longer. But Riverside Drive once again thrives today—and River Mansion still stands.

The facade and structure don’t appear to have changed very much. And as a treat, the original cast-iron fence from Julia Marlowe’s time continues to encircle the place, according to the Riverside-West 105th Street Historic District Designation Report.

[Fifth photo: University of Cincinnati; sixth image: NYPL]

The artist and scholar gargoyles on 121st Street

November 12, 2018

Copper bay windows, grand arches, juliet balconies and a sloping roof: As university housing goes, the 8-story Bancroft Apartments are pretty fanciful.

Preeminent architect Emery Roth designed the building, which opened at 509 West 121st Street in 1910.

By 1920, it had been acquired by Columbia University’s Teachers College, just a block away in the city’s new Acropolis neighborhood, so named for the many schools in the area.

Considering that what’s now called Bancroft Hall ended up housing educators, it makes sense that the gargoyles decorating the facade are nods toward higher learning.

Behold the building’s wonderful painter and scholar (a writer perhaps, pointing to letters in a book?). I don’t think these characters represent any specific people but instead symbolize creativity, education, and imagination.

Walter Grutchfield has more on the Bancroft Apartments, including an amazing shot of an inscription on the upper wall. For more Morningside Heights gargoyles, check out these goofy gargoyle examples.

[Top photo: Columbia University]

The Oldsmobile sign that once lit up in Brooklyn

November 5, 2018

Oldsmobile has come and gone, but this vertical neon sign on Flatbush Avenue and Avenue D still stands. It seems a little out of place—was this an area of car dealerships in postwar Brooklyn?

That seems to be the case. This corner brick building at 1217-1219 Flatbush Avenue was the home of Gaines Motor Co., an Oldsmobile dealership, as this ad from the Daily News in October 1963 shows.

The dealership lasted at this location into the 1960s. But to my knowledge the sign hasn’t glowed gorgeous neon for years; I’m not even sure the clock works.

The sign is rusted and the green has faded, but it stands as another totem of New York’s past.

[Photo courtesy of D.S.]

A riverside cobblestone cul-de-sac no one knows

November 5, 2018

Imagine living on your own gated street on the far East Side of Manhattan—with a row of 19th century townhouses on one side and a tree-shaded lawn sloping down to the East River on the other.

Such a place exists east of Sutton Place at the end of 58th Street: a cobblestone cul-de-sac called Riverview Terrace.

Most New Yorkers don’t know it’s there, and that’s probably the way the residents prefer it.

“Just beyond Sutton Square is one of the neighborhood’s finest, and least‐known, residential enclaves, Riverview Terrace, a group of five ivy-covered brownstones fronting directly on the river,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1976 in the New York Times.

“A private street, tiny Riverview Terrace runs north from Sutton Square just on the river; a place geographically closer to city tensions yet more removed from them would be hard to imagine.”

Riverview Terrace was originally a less showy street, settled in the 1870s “by ‘nice people’ in modest circumstances, who were erratic enough to prefer a view of the river to a convenient horse car,” wrote the Times in 1921.

By the 1920s, with Sutton Place (formerly known by the more pedestrian Avenue A) becoming a bastion of wealth, the houses on Riverview Terrace underwent an upgrade.

The photo on the left was taken in 1935, with the street looking similar to the way it appears today.

The next photo on the right is from the 1930s, looking at Riverview from the East River.

Since then, these houses have been remodeled and renovated according to the imaginations of their wealthy owners.

Occasionally they come up for sale. Take a peek inside one on the market for $8 million right now.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3160; Fifth photo: NYPL]

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Join Ephemeral NY for a night of Edgar Allan Poe!

November 2, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe only spent a short time living in New York City in the 1830s and 1840s. But this author and poet was clearly inspired by Gotham.

Like many city residents today, he had a hard time making a living; he eased his mind with long walks near the Hudson River and over the High Bridge, and he bemoaned the “spirit of improvement” that was turning Manhattan into a modern metropolis.

On Thursday, November 8, Ephemeral New York will be taking a look at Poe’s life in New York.

 

In a presentation at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College at 35 West 67th Street, we’ll discover Poe’s start in Manhattan, his journey from Greenwich Village to the fields of the Upper West Side to Fordham in the Bronx.

We’ll explore how this “shy, solitary, taciturn sort of man” would walk down through the woods to the not-yet-created Riverside Park and his observations on Manhattan’s development and the end of its rural, spacious charm.

This presentation, from 6:30 to 7:45 pm, is a partnership with Landmark West! There’s a special discount price for Ephemeral New York readers, who can sign up via the link below.

Edgar Allan Poe is a favorite of mine, and this site has many posts covering how New York inspired him and the imprint he left on the city. Hope to see many Ephemeral readers there!

A 1970s yellow store sign hangs on in Midtown

October 29, 2018

How long has Phil’s Stationery been at 9 East 47th Street, a low-rise gritty stretch between the gleaming towers and hotels north of Grand Central Terminal?

I’m not sure, but that mac and cheese yellow sign with the partly cursive lettering feels like it’s from the early 1970s.

Something’s missing from it, though. The sign used to say “Zerox Copies.”

In the last decade, as 47th Street went from the edge of the Diamond District to a side street adjacent to Little Brazil, that charming misspelling was removed.

A hidden city park named for a murdered activist

October 29, 2018

Walk to the far end of East 51st Street, past the bishop’s crook lamppost of lovely Beekman Place, and you’ll find yourself at a dead end blocked off by a cast iron fence.

The high, spectacular views of the East River are enchanting. But there’s more to this spot than immediately meets the eye.

To your left beside the Gothic-style entrance of a prewar apartment building, you’ll see the beginning of a stairway—then steep steps surrounded by brownstone. They’re like a portal to a mysterious part of Turtle Bay few know about or visit.

The steps take you to Peter Detmold Park, a quiet strip of gazebos, park benches, and a dog run beside the river, with trees partly shielding the FDR Drive.

The serenity of this hidden park stands in contrast to the tragedy that inspired its name.

Peter Detmold (below) was a World War II veteran who made his home in Turtle Bay Gardens, the beautifully restored brownstones spanning East 48th and East 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues.

As president of the Turtle Bay Association, he led the fight in the 1960s and early 1970s to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“When landowners began to rent out office space in residentially zoned areas, Detmold defended the rights of tenants and homeowners, protecting the quiet, neighborly spirit of the area, now a designated historic district,” states the NYC Parks website.

But Detmold’s time as a community activist was cut short.

On the night of January 6, 1972, after walking home from a Turtle Bay Association meeting with two colleagues, Detmold was murdered in the stairwell of his apartment building.

“According to police reports, the 48-year-old Detmold was stabbed as he entered his five-story walk-up building,” explained Pamela Hanlon in her book, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: The Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“He struggled to reach his top-floor apartment, but collapsed on the stairwell, where a neighbor found him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.”

The park was named for Detmold later that year. Almost half a century later, his murder remains unsolved.

[Third photo: Getty]

The Spring Street station and a superhero logo

October 29, 2018

The Spring Street subway station is one of the original 28 IRT stations to open in October 1904. And like the rest, the platform is decorated with mosaic name tablets, rosettes and wreaths, and cartouches.

Every time I ride through this little station on the 6 train, I can’t help but notice that the S in the cartouche looks a lot like the S in the shield emblazoned on Superman’s chest.

Coincidence? Probably.

But just for the record, Superman first appeared with a similar-looking S shield in the 1930s, a good 30 years after the Spring Street station opened.

It wouldn’t be the first time New York City inspired a superhero’s creators. Batman’s Gotham City sure appears to bear a big resemblance to our Gotham.