This country clapboard house was a 19th century Harlem holdout

August 2, 2021

Back in May, Ephemeral New York published a post about Manhattan’s most charming holdout buildings—the small 19th century walkups that managed to evade the wrecking ball and remain part of the contemporary cityscape.

In the comments section, a reader sent in a link to a photo of another holdout I’d never seen before. It’s a little relic of mid-19th century New York, a clapboard two-story dwelling with a rustic porch, wood shutters, and picket fence with a gate at 109 West 124th Street in Harlem (above, in 1932).

It doesn’t exist anymore; the storybook-like house between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard disappeared in the mid-20th century (below, 1939-1941).

Exactly when it met its end is a mystery, as is how the house successfully hung on for so long. For the century or so that it existed, Harlem went from a bucolic village to a middle class suburb and by the 1920s was the center of Black New York—a magnet for people seeking better opportunities and an incubator of music, art, writing, and culture.

Luckily, some information about the people who lived there gives us something of a narrative. Though it’s unclear when it was built (I’m estimating the 1850s, as it resembles these East Side 1850s houses), by 1876 it was occupied by a Theodore van Houten, according to a New York City directory. “Agent” was listed after van Houten’s name, a clue to his occupation.

In 1887, the Real Estate Record and Building Guide wrote that an Eliza van Houten—likely Theodore’s widow by that time—sold number 109 to a Charles Rilling. The selling price? $10,000. (Above, in an undated photo.)

After the turn of the century, a man named Stanley Lewinsky Corwin resided at the home. Corwin is listed as a delegate to the Second New York City Conference of Charities and Correction in 1911. Perhaps he was a solidly middle class civil servant.

Interestingly, the house spent some time as an art school called the Lenox Art Academy. Several newspaper references in the early 1900s note the classes the school offered and gallery exhibitions.

The trail for number 109 gets cold after that. A tax photo of the house was taken by the city between 1939-1941—the last dated reference I found. It’s a shame this little piece of pre-Civil War Harlem, slipped away from the cityscape. What a story about Harlem’s evolution (above, Lenox Avenue and 124th Street) it could tell!

[Top photo: MCNY 33.173.458; second photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society]

Departing the ferry across the monolith of Lower Manhattan

August 2, 2021

Born in Michigan in 1865, William Samuel Horton was a prolific Impressionist painter of many landscapes and water scenes, especially in Europe and his adopted country of France, where he died in 1936.

But Horton did spend some time in New York City. He studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design, left for Europe, and returned to New York for an unknown period of time in 1924, according to Cincinnati Art Galleries, Inc.

It was during his return in the mid-1920s when he likely painted “Departing the Ferry, New York,” depicting the urban landscape of Lower Manhattan and the hordes of mostly men in straw hats with obscured faces as they empty out of a commuter from the gangplank.

By the 1920s, New York had built several steel bridges crossing the East River. But ferries were still plying the waters, especially to Staten Island and New Jersey. These massive vessels delivered people to and from an office tower city that looks like a monolith. It’s tough to know where we are along New York’s waterways…perhaps Horton didn’t think the exact location mattered.

The wooden phone booths inside a private Midtown clubhouse

August 1, 2021

This week has turned out to be themed around vintage phone booths on Ephemeral New York. First came four glass beauties still extant along West End Avenue, the last remaining outdoor booths in New York City.

Next up is another old-school telephone discovery: a row of wooden phone booths—with restored wood chairs, small tables, accordion doors, and amazingly, actual phones—along a wall inside the Harvard Club, at 27 West 44th Street.

Did these booths once have pay phones? I’m not sure; perhaps part of being a club member meant the house picked up the charges. Members today, of course, would only duck into one to hold a private cell phone conversation.

These old wood phone booths are a rare find in the contemporary city, but discovering and documenting them allows us to time travel back to a much different New York City.

Until the 1980s and 1990s, every hotel and public building, as well as most restaurants, bars, and drugstores, had at least one public telephone booth along with a bulky paper phone directory for customers, clients, and locals who didn’t have a phone of their own. (And many people didn’t, often by choice. Imagine!)

The Harvard Club itself has its own historical cred. Designed by Charles McKim and opened in 1894, the clubhouse featured a “grill room,” offices, a library, and a couple of card and billiard rooms. McKim, a Harvard man and club member who took no fee for his work, modeled the Georgian-style brick and limestone exterior to resemble those in Harvard Yard, according to the Harvard Club website.

The club was expanded and renovated over the years, sometimes to create more space but also to keep up with social changes.

In 1973, the ladies’ entrance to the club was removed and women were admitted as full members. Though some Harvard graduate programs admitted women, Harvard and its sister school, Radcliffe College, didn’t merge their admissions until 1975.

[Top and second photos: Susan Schwartz; third photo: Wikipedia]

What a hot night looked like on an East Side tenement block in 1899

July 29, 2021

First of all, almost everyone is outside—on the street, the sidewalk, fire escapes. If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment without an air conditioner, you know how stifling those rooms can get, and they force you to seek relief outdoors.

The other thing is, people don’t look as miserable as you’d expect for a street scene in the summer heat. Kids are playing; groups of adults are talking. Lone men and women sit on the sidewalk or stoops and watch. Tempers don’t seem to be flaring; no one appears to be looking for a fight.

The moon is bright. What looks like an arc light in the background illuminates the street. People gather at tables by torchlight. As the caption says, it’s one of hundreds of similar scenes enacted at the same time all over the city.

[NYPL]

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

The last sidewalk phone booths in New York City

July 29, 2021

Once upon a time, public phone booths were ubiquitous on the sidewalks of New York City. “Outdoor phone booths made their first entrance in the early 1900s, and became commonplace in the 1950s when glass and aluminum replaced difficult-to-maintain wood as the building material of choice,” explained Time magazine in 2016.

But the invention of the cell phone sealed the fate of the phone booth, with its folding door and often a small seat as well, where you could drop your shopping bags while you fished around your pocket or purse for coins to make a call. (Or used a calling card, or called collect.)

Now, New York City has only four outside public phone booths. Interestingly, they’re all on the Upper West Side on quiet stretches of West End Avenue.

The first one is at 66th Street (top photo), then 91st Street (second photo), 100th Street, and 101st Street (bottom).

If these icons of another New York appear to be in surprisingly good shape, that’s because they aren’t the original phone booths that existed on each corner. Each is a relatively recent replacement of an older booth that was battered or marked by graffiti, according to a 2016 New York Times article.

Though these phone booths lack doors, they’re reminiscent of the iconic phone booths that were utilitarian and functional but also had an air of romance, mystery, even danger.

New York phone booths often played pivotal roles in movies—remember in Rosemary’s Baby, when a very pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse goes into the privacy of a phone booth to dial Dr. Hill so he could deliver her baby instead of her doctor and neighbors, all of them witches?

Residents of West End Avenue are charmed by their phone booths, so charmed that in 2010 one author even published a children’s book about one specific booth.

The book’s title is still fitting: The Lonely Phone Booth.

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The 1916 stunt that made Nathan’s Famous a Coney Island hot dog icon

July 26, 2021

No summer visit to Coney Island is complete without a stop at Nathan’s Famous, the iconic boardwalk restaurant that offers everything from burgers to frog legs (really) but made its name back in 1916 selling delicious, cheap hot dogs.

Nathan’s Famous in the 1910s or 1920s

Yet the five cent frankfurters Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker began hawking from a stand on the then-unfinished boardwalk wouldn’t have caught on—if not for a clever stunt he came up with to convince the crowds on Surf Avenue to give his hot dogs a try.

Nathan’s in 1936, with a little competition by Nedick’s on the corner

The story starts in the 1910s, when the reigning hot dog king at Coney Island was Charles Feltman, who ran a successful restaurant and beer garden and supposedly invented the hot dog (or hot dog bun, more precisely).

Handwerker worked for Feltman as a roll cutter and then a hot dog seller before deciding to go into business for himself with a friend, according to Nathan’s Famous: An Unauthorized View of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company, co-authored by William Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson.

Nathan’s expanded its menu by 1939

Feltman’s and other hot dog establishments sold their franks for 10 cents each. Handwerker priced his at the same rate, but he realized he wasn’t selling enough to make a profit. So he cut the price to a nickel.

Selling hot dogs for the cost of a subway ride sounds like a smart business move. But there was a lot of concern at the time that a hot dog so cheap couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but something a lot less appetizing, like horses, explained Larry McShane in a New York Daily News article marking Nathan’s centennial in 2016.

A Nathan’s customer in 1939

Anticipating this concern on the part of the public, Handwerker came up with a genius idea: He’d hire men to wear white doctor coats and sit around his stand enjoying the cheap franks.

Handwerker “borrowed some doctor’s coats and stethoscopes from Coney Island Hospital personnel and put them on some men and had them eat franks in front of his stand,” wrote William Handwerker. “Potential customers said, ‘If it’s good enough for doctors, it has to be good enough for us.'”

Juicy hot dogs…and an amazing neon boardwalk sign!

Sales increased, and Handwerker began attracting a devoted following. His little frankfurter stand (which didn’t even have a name for its first two years, according to William Handwerker) was on its way to becoming a Coney Island classic.

[Top photo: via New York Daily News; second photo: MCNY 43.131.5.13; third photo: MCNY 43.131.5.91; fourth photo: NYPL]

The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street

July 25, 2021

When Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan trains.”

But some of Brace’s ideas would seem like common sense to contemporary New Yorkers. Later in the Gilded Age, Brace decided to build lodging houses and “industrial schools” in New York’s impoverished neighborhoods, places where children could learn a trade and prepare for adult life.

In an era when options for street kids often meant the almshouse or an orphan asylum, homes and schools like these could be real lifelines.

Sullivan Street Industrial School in 1893

One of these industrial schools still stands on Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets. Opened in 1892, it’s a red brick beauty with Gothic and Flemish touches (that stepped gable roof!) on a South Village block where Italian immigrants dominated in the late 19th century.

Brace ministered to street kids, but he also had famous friends. One was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park as well as the creative genius behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just an elevated train stop away on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Sullivan Street, 1893, on the same block as the school

“Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then,” wrote Brian J. Pape in WestView News.

Vaux designed the Sullivan Street school, as well as the Society’s Lodging House on Avenue B and Eighth Street, the Elizabeth Home for Girls on East 12th Street, and the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, all of which are still part of the cityscape and share the same architectural flourishes.

Sullivan Street, 1895

To fund the school, two benefactors stepped forward with the $90,000 needed: Mrs. Joseph M. White and Miss M.W. Bruce, according to an 1892 New York Times article. Supporting the Society was popular with wealthy Gilded Age families, and both women had long been involved in the Society’s efforts.

Opening day in December was captured in print. “The children, to the number of 420, girls and boys, between the ages of five and thirteen, were marshaled into the audience room under the charge of Mrs. C. Forman, principal of the school, and her nine assistant teachers,” wrote the New York Times. “They were dressed in their new suits of clothing, given to them on Monday last by Miss Bruce.”

The school and a next-door playground in 1939-1941

For decades, the Sullivan Street Industrial School served a community that became one of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhoods. Classes in woodworking, metalworking, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills were offered.

The Society didn’t beat around the bush about the rough and tumble neighborhood, however. “This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities in the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible,” the Society wrote in a 1892 report.

The school was more than just a place of learning. An 1899 report by Principal Forman explains that funds were raised from “generous friends” to distribute food and fuel, as well as hot dinners. An organization called the Odds and Ends Society “furnished many warm and comfortable garments” for the children, and mothers who were considered “deserving poor” with husbands out of work were given money to help with rent.

Today, it looks like this former lifeline is a rental building on a much more affluent Sullivan Street. At least one apartment offers up-close views of that stepped gable roofline.

[Second image: History of Child Saving in the United States; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A tenement sign high up at the corner of First Street and First Avenue

July 19, 2021

The corner of First Street and First Avenue is roughly the borderline of the East Village. And what better than an old-school address sign like this one affixed to a handsome brick building to welcome you to the neighborhood as you leave the Lower East Side behind?

These early 20th century address markers can be found on many tenement corners throughout New York City. In some cases, they may have served to let elevated train riders know exactly where they were passing.

Or perhaps these signs—sometimes raised and embossed, other times carved into the building—simply let pedestrians know where they stood in an era when reliable street signs had not yet arrived to ever corner in poor neighborhoods.