Fifth Avenue’s most insane Gilded Age mansion

August 29, 2016

On the avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony” in the late 19th century thanks to its unbroken line of ornate mansions, one house stood out as the most insanely overdone: William A. Clark’s 7-story Beaux Arts monster at 77th Street.

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Finished in 1907 after eight years in the making, “Clark’s Folly,” as it was called, broke all records. It cost $7 million to build, featured 121 rooms, and had its own rail line for the delivery of coal.

WilliamclarkhousesideviewAmazingly, this monument to money was out of style by the time the final ornament was attached, and it only stood for 20 years.

William Clark (below, with his youngest two daughters) was a copper baron who made a fortune in mining and helped found Las Vegas.

He did a stint as senator from Montana in 1899. Forced to resign after a bribery scandal, the deep-pocketed titan who was highly disliked in Washington (even Mark Twain called him out for corruption, describing him as “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”) got himself elected again in 1901.

Meanwhile, he began building his mansion in New York. This captured the attention of city residents and the press, who estimated Clark’s worth at $150 million.

Williamclarkmansion19051906

After Clark left Washington in 1907 with his new wife (a much younger woman who used to be his ward!) and two young daughters, he took up residence in his finally finished marble palace.

WilliamclarkmansionmcnyThe amenities boggled the mind: repurposed pieces from a French chateau, oak panels from Sherwood Forest, Turkish baths, vaulted corridors lined with Gustavino tile, 11 elevators, a pipe organ, 20-plus servant rooms, and galleries for Clark’s extensive art collection.

By the time Clark and his family moved in, however, this Gilded Age “pile of granite,” as the New York Times called it, was out of fashion. Architectural critics loathed it.

How Clark felt about this is unclear, and in any case, in 1925, the 86-year-old died inside his citadel (at left, in 1927).

Williamclarkhuguette1917His art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery, and his wife and surviving daughter (her sister succumbed to meningitis in 1919) sold the mansion to an apartment house builder—then decamped for a full-floor apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue down the road.

There the two remained. Decades after his wife passed on in the 1960s, Clark’s daughter made headlines for an entirely different reason than her father did.

She is Huguette Clark (on the right side of the photo with her father and sister, about 1917), the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at the age of 104 after many years of living in Beth Israel Hospital.

Huguette Clark left a $300 million fortune, and many mysteries.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverGilded Age excess may have gone out of style by 1910. But every financial titan or old money heir staked their claim to the Millionaire’s Colony in the late 19th century, intent on building a marble castle.

See the amazing photos of this palaces in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), X2010.7.2.5452; second image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.21088; third image, via Shorpy; fourth image: MCNY/Phillip G. Bartlett, X2010.11.4911; Fifth image: Wikipedia]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

Conman1915illustration

One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

A Salvation Army Art Deco fortress on 14th Street

August 29, 2016

In 1880, eight missionaries sent to the U.S. by the British-based Salvation Army disembarked at Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan.

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Ridiculed at first, the group’s presence and influence grew, particularly in New York, where “officers” ran rescue homes, soup kitchens, and lodging houses and the evangelical mission turned into what founder William Booth later dubbed “social salvation.”

SalvationarmywikiAnd of course, they launched the tradition of setting up kettles on busy corners, asking for Christmas dinner donations for needy families.

So when it came time to build national headquarters in the 1920s, Gotham got the nod.

In 1930, a concrete and steel Art Deco complex consisting of offices, an auditorium, and Centennial Memorial Temple opened.

A women’s residence hall was also part of the complex, its entrance on 13th Street.

Though no longer the Salvation Army’s national HQ, the fortress-like structures of 14th Street stand as examples of streamlined Art Deco beauty and perfection.

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The complex was designed in part by Ralph Walker, the architect behind New York Art Deco masterpieces such as the Verizon building (now the pricey residential Walker Tower) in Chelsea.

Salvationarmymarkle

New York is resplendent with Art Deco: movie theaters, offices, apartment residences, and even subway entrances.

[Second photo: Salvation Army Headquarters from 14th Street, Wikipedia]

Bathing beauties of the 1896 Sunday Journal

August 26, 2016

Is this siren showing off at a high-end resort like Long Branch or enjoying the surf at lowbrow pleasure paradise Coney Island?

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Both destinations are probably covered in the William Randolph Hearst-owned Sunday Journal. Hmm, could the whole summer resort focus be an excuse to run images of women in bathing costumes?

Look at the writers: Stephen Crane!

[Image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

Before a playground came to Bleecker Street

August 26, 2016

Our local parks and playgrounds become such neighborhood fixtures, it’s difficult to imagine that they weren’t always part of the cityscape.

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That’s why it’s so jarring to see this 1959 photo of the junction of Bank, Bleecker, and Hudson Streets—but no Bleecker Playground, the cheery place of swings and sand always crowded with happy kids and captive parents.

Anchoring that corner in the early 20th century was the formidable Henry I. Stetler brick warehouse. (Beside it is a bandstand-turned-comfort station.) It fits right into the far West Village of the time, an area of warehouses and light industry.

Bleeckerstreetplayground2910jonathankuhn

In 1927, a spectacular fire raged through the Stetler warehouse, injuring dozens of firefighters and causing the city to condemn the building. A changing West Village came up with a reason to raze it in the 1950s.

Bleeckerplaygroundsignwallygobetzflickr“In 1959, demand for a safe play space for neighborhood children prodded the city to acquire the Stetler Warehouse south of historic Abingdon Square to make way for a playground, the first in the area,” states nycgovparks.org.

Seven years later, Bleecker Playground opened (above, in 2010, and at right). It feels like it’s been in the neighborhood far longer.

[Top photo: New York City Parks Photo Archive; second photo: Jonathan Kuhn via New York City Parks Photo Archive; third photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr]

The cat rescued from a Hell’s Kitchen mailbox

August 26, 2016

Cat antics and exploits make for irresistible clickbait—come on, who doesn’t love keyboard cat? But felines were huge media stars in the pre-Internet era too.

Case in point: Blackie, a sleek inky furball who ended up inside a mailbox in Hell’s Kitchen just before World War II. Here she is, posing for renowned crime and police photographer Weegee.

Blackiegettyimages

The story of her misfortune and rescue is a bit of a tearjerker. “A garage worker called the cops when he heard meows issuing from a box in Hell’s Kitchen, but they couldn’t do anything about it, April 29, 1941,” the original photo caption states, per Getty Images.

“They had to call the Post Office. A mechanic opened the box and found Blackie. Whoever threw her in also tossed in a couple of clams and some pretzels.”

No word on what happened to Blackie after her rescue and turn as a media darling—or who tried to mail her.

[Hat tip: researcher extraordinaire History Author. Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images]

A curious detective agency sign on Ninth Street

August 22, 2016

Appearing on the facade of Randall House, an apartment building at 63 East Ninth Street, is this very noir-ish and mysterious sign.

Burnsdetectiveagencysign

It’s for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. Who was William J. Burns? Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Burns started out as a Secret Service Agent and then became head of the FBI in the 1920s before founding his own detective agency.

“His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published ‘true’ crime stories based on his exploits,” states the FBI website.

It’s still a mystery why this sign is on Randall House—an otherwise ordinary residential building in Greenwich Village. As far as I know, it’s the only sign of its kind in New York City.

A painter renders Union Square’s sea of humanity

August 22, 2016

Shop girls, down and out men, lone pedestrians on the way to the elevated train—from the 1930s to the 1980s, Isabel Bishop observed these men and women from her Union Square artist’s studio, painting them in soft tones that reveal their humanity and fragility.

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Born in 1902 in Cincinnati, Bishop moved to Manhattan at age 16 to attend the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She then took classes at the Art Students League, developing her talents as a printmaker and painter.

Influenced by early Modernists like Robert Henri and old masters such as Rubens, she became associated with the 14th Street School, a group of realist artists that included Reginald Marsh and Raphael Soyer.

Bishopforgottenmen

Bishop married in 1934 and moved to Riverdale. But she kept her studio first at Nine West 14th Street and then another at 857 Broadway. The Union Square area in those pre- and postwar decades was home to lower-end department stores, offices, and cheap entertainment venues.

And of course, there was the park itself, a gathering place for everyone from soap-box agitators to workers on their lunch hour to derelict men with no where else to go.

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The subject matter right outside her studio suited Bishop perfectly.

“It was in New York’s pulsating environment that Bishop combined her admiration for the old masters with a contemporary taste for urban realism,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Bishopunionsquarecrowd

“With her discerning eye, she portrayed ordinary people in an extraordinary manner, often monumentalizing her figures within spaces that barely created context or indicated a location.”

“She chose average models from the streets of Manhattan and often rendered them in a state of physical activity—a sharp departure from the idealized, passive nudes of previous traditions.”

[“Fifteenth Street and Sixth Avenue,” 1930]

Bishop15thstreet

Bishop focused many of her paintings on women—the otherwise ordinary women who passed through Union Square, coming in and out of offices or catching a train. Neither mothers nor sex symbols, they “exist for themselves,” as one critic put it.

“On the street corner, in the automat, in the subway and on park benches in fine weather, Miss Bishop proved herself a perceptive observer,” wrote the New York Times in her obituary. “For young women in the big city who were as yet unmarked by life, she had a particular feeling.”

[“Fourteenth Street,” 1932]

Bishopunionsquare2women

As time went on, Bishop’s style seemed to become more muted, with figures of women in what looks like perpetual motion—perhaps a comment on the rise of women in American society.

Bishopselfportrait1927Bishop kept her Union Square studio until 1984; she died in 1988. This self-portrait was done in 1927, when she was just 25.

She isn’t as well-known as she should be, but her amber-hued men and women caught in ordinary, fleeting moments speak to the anonymity and motion of urban life in the 20th century.

[Images 1-4; 6: onlinebrowsing.com; Image 5 and 7, dcmooregallery.com]

Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen

August 22, 2016

In the 1890s, huge numbers of New Yorkers donned new riding suits, bought or rented a bike, and took part in the cycling craze—peddling along park paths or roads newly paved with smooth asphalt.

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Leisurely rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the century ride.

CenturyrideticketA century ride clocked in at 100 miles. It wasn’t a race but a feat of personal endurance. Each rider had 14 hours to get from start to finish and prove their cycling prowess.

“Bicycling clubs were formed all over the city,” reminisced future governor Al Smith in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now.

Centuryrideticketnj1895“You acquired full membership when you belonged to what was called the Century Club. That meant you had ridden 100 miles in a single day.”

Every neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top photo, in 1896).

Century rides were popular with young, athletic men. “With a number of young men from my neighborhood, I left Oliver and Madison Streets at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and wheeled to Far Rockaway,” wrote Smith.

Centuryridewhanderson1897“We went in swimming, had our dinner, and wheeled back.”

Century rides often went round trip from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island, as the ticket at the top right shows.

Another ticket from of an 1895 century ride lists each stop on the route from New York City to New Brunswick and back.

Century rides still take place today, and they sound like a lot of (very exerting) fun.

But their heyday remains the turn of the 20th century, when safer, more accessible bikes hit the market just as leisure time began to rise and a trend toward physical fitness gained popularity.

Centuryclubriversidewheelmen

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd street pavements improved—thanks to the invention of asphalt, which was put down on an increasing number of city roads that were once paved with blocks, stones, even wood.

The cycling craze wasn’t the only sports trend to hit New York in the 1890s. Baseball, tennis, boxing—find out more in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY, unknown photographer, 1896, accession number 49.300.7; second image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.14; third image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.16; fourth photo: W.H. Anderson, New York State Century Club winner; fifth photo: MCNY, Riverside Wheelmen Bicycle Club, 1888, X2010.11.13347]

A solitary statue before the Williamsburg Bridge

August 18, 2016

Welcome to Williamsburg Plaza, on the Brooklyn side of the 7-year-old Williamsburg Bridge, in 1910. No bus turn-arounds, no skateboarders or cyclists, and no graffiti.

Williamsburghplaza

And no people either. Now called Continental Army Plaza after the equestrian statue of George Washington at Valley Forge in the center, it’s still an often empty plaza and transit hub.

Washington and his horse rise high above it all before the entrance to the bridge.

[Postcard: MCNY]


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