Madison Square Garden, luminous by moonlight

November 11, 2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890.

At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the most recognizable buildings in New York City, a palace of inspiration and excitement that hosted everything from boxing matches to the circus to the annual Westminster Dog Show.

By 1907, the heyday of the Garden was coming to an end.

A year earlier, White was murdered on the very rooftop garden he designed. He was shot by the jealous (and mentally ill, a jury eventually concluded) husband of Evelyn Nesbit—the young showgirl White sexually assaulted after lacing her drink years earlier at his East 24th Street hideaway across Fifth Avenue.

This Madison Square Garden became the center of the city’s first trial of the century. The story of the building and the scandal surrounding it (including new information about this most notorious murder) is detailed in the new book The Grandest Madison Square Garden, by Suzanne Hinman.

[Postcard: MCNY Collections Portal, F2011.33.1324]

The lasting power of an East Village war memorial

November 11, 2019

The bronze plaque is at eye level, affixed to the facade of a handsome red-brick walkup built in 1833 at 33 East Seventh Street.

Still, it’s easy to miss. Dark and weathered with age, it’s a subtle, powerful memorial to the brothers, sons, and husbands who lived on this East Village block and died as soldiers in World War II.

East Seventh Street is the heart of the East Village’s Little Ukraine, populated by Ukrainians who immigrated before the war as well as thousands who came after, displaced from their homes and resettled around Cooper Square.

“The plaque on the wall was placed long ago by the Saint George Catholic War Veterans Post No. 401, a local Ukrainian-American veterans organization which then owned the building, later ceding it to the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church down the block,” stated Jonathan Kuhn, NYC Parks director of art and antiquities, in a 2014 New York Times story.

Ukrainian names are listed on the plaque, along with Italians, Irish, German, and Jewish names. In total, 180 men from the block are immortalized in metal. (At left, the building in 1940, before the war.)

It’s one of more than 270 war memorials all over the city. Some are grand while others, including this one, are quite understated, commemorating military men and women who served and died from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.

Considering the Ukrainian banner and flag under it, the memorial seems to be cared for and not forgotten. (East Village native and author Mick Dementiuk, care to translate?)

[Third photo: NYC Tax Photo 1940, Department of Records and Information Services]

The Gilded Age social season began in November

November 11, 2019

Go back in time to the Gilded Age city. Right about now, in mid-November, the elite members of the Astor 400 were putting the finishing touches on their evening gowns, mansion ballrooms, and calling cards.

That’s because the middle of November marked the beginning of the winter social season. Starting with opening night of the Academy of Music’s opera series on East 14th Street, the next few months would be a swirl of parties the rest of us could only read about. (Newspapers covered these events the way gossip sites cover Red Carpet awards shows today.)

The festivities included the annual horse show later in the the month, debutante and Patriarchs’ balls in December, and then various balls (often costume balls) and charity events—the high point of which was Mrs. Astor’s own ball held annually at the end of January.

The winter social season ended at Lent, when fancy clothes and memories of dancing quadrilles and consuming multi-course meals until early in the morning were packed away.

Not longer after, New York society started readying themselves for the summer social season in the “cottages” of Newport, which began in July.

For more about the Gilded Age and the rise and fall of the society bigwigs who ruled the city’s social world, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: “Old Vanderbilt House,” Everett Shinn; second image: James Hazen Hyde Ball, January 1905 via Find a Grave; third image: unknown]

A painter’s stormy view of the Flatiron Building

November 4, 2019

Born during the Civil War in Chicago, Frank Coburn made a name for himself after the turn of the century as an Impressionist landscape painter, known for his moody scenes of Los Angeles and the desert and mountains of Southern California.

But Coburn also painted New York as well. In 1921, he depicted the Flatiron Building, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and the edge of Madison Square Park during a rainstorm: slick streets, bare tree branches, a lone figure under an umbrella…and a sky glowing yellow.

“New York, a Landscape,” is at the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California.

7 mystery photos of downtown New York in 1968

November 4, 2019

For a couple of months in 1968, one New Yorker walked around the East and West Villages, aiming a camera loaded with black and white film at the people and buildings encountered on the street.

This New Yorker captured scenes that would be familiar to city residents today. Above is Sixth Avenue looking south toward Jefferson Market, a year after it became a library branch (but before six years before the fortress-like Women’s House of Detention behind it was demolished).

Here’s Gem Spa at Second Avenue (are those Belgian paving blocks on the street?) and St. Mark’s Place. Apparently in 1968 it was Gems Spa.

I’m not sure what block this is, taken from a roof or terrace across the street; I think it’s LaGuardia Place, without the community gardens on the east side of the street, which didn’t come until the 1970s.

Is that a volleyball net in Washington Square Park? It’s set up in the southern end of the park, with Judson Memorial Church and its iconic bell tower in the background.

Back in the East Village again looking down St. Mark’s Place, with the St. Mark’s Theater marquee advertising a Bette Davis film (it was a second-run house at the time).

The park benches at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue are still popular—but you don’t see men in hats and overcoats like this anymore. These folks are old-school East Villagers, and their younger neighbors are hanging out by the church fence near the Biafra sign.

Below, a sidewalk artist displays his work, though it’s hard to know where we are. Soho barely existed at the time; perhaps it’s part of the Greenwich Village art show?

Since most of the images here are easily identifiable, what’s the mystery? That would be who it was who decided to shoot some film of random ordinary street scenes and hang onto the photos for the next 50 or so years. I don’t have an answer…but I know the photographer stashed them in a drawer and basically forgot about them.

[All photos © Ephemeral New York]

An elegy for New York’s 1990s Gen X rock clubs

November 4, 2019

What were you doing during the last week of March 1992?

If you were a music-loving Gen-Xer, you might have been going through the latest Village Voice (yes, the print version that you actually paid for), scanning the ads to see which bands were playing any of the dozens of rock clubs scattered around Manhattan.

Almost all of these venues are gone; the bands that played there also almost all defunct, too.

Roseland, which hosted the Sugarcubes (“the coolest band in the world” according to Rolling Stone in 1988) and a bunch of other 1990s alternative bands, bit the dust in 2014.

CBGB had Toshi Reagon and Smashing Orange on their lineup this early spring week. Mission, in the East Village between A and B, drew more of a hardcore crowd, and women got in free with the ad above.

McGovern’s, on Spring Street, “used to be a great old dive,” according to the late great Lost City blog. Today it’s still a music club, Paul’s Casablanca.

Finally, what would 1990s New York be without the Knitting Factory? This ad is from the original location on East Houston Street, before the music and spoken word venue decamped to Tribeca and then relocated to Williamsburg, where it is today.

Look, indie favorite Luna appeared on April 3!

What would the city be without street peddlers?

October 28, 2019

What kind of city would New York be if it didn’t have a long tradition as a place for pushcart peddlers and street vendors?

These sidewalk sellers have been setting up shop since the 19th century, particularly in immigrant neighborhoods—where a newcomer could get a toehold in the business world by hawking anything from oysters to pretzels to jewelry to Christmas trees from a cart, wagon, table, or truck.

This “push cart” license was issued in the 1960s by the now-nonexistent “department of markets.” Today, the license is called a general vendor license, not to be confused with the food cart vendor license or street fair vendor license.

More rules to abide by in 2019, but the same dream as 1969.

A Gilded Age oddball and his mansion menagerie

October 28, 2019

Imagine yourself at Broadway and 19th Street in the 1870s. All around you is the bustling city of streetcars and grand emporiums, including Arnold Constable & Company’s magnificent store on the southwest corner, part of the Ladies Mile shopping district.

On the northeast corner (above photo), however, is something of a throwback to a rural, undeveloped New York.

At the time, this was the site of a stately, restrained brownstone shielded by a cast iron fence and with a substantial backyard garden where peacocks, storks, guinea fowl, and even a cow roamed the premises.

This 1830 mansion, called a “curiosity shop” by one publication, was the longtime home of Peter Goelet, a wealthy heir and one of Gilded Age New York’s best known oddballs.

“An eccentric man gone,” read the headline of the New York Times on November 22, 1879, one day after the lifelong bachelor’s death at the age of 80.

Everyone in New York at the time knew of the Goelet family. Peter Goelet was a descendant of François Goellete, a Huguenot refugee who arrived in New York in 1686, according to a McClure’s magazine article in 1912.

His son Peter became a wealthy ironmonger and owner of a hardware concern on Hanover Square. Peter’s sons married into a landowning family that in the early 19th century held a swath of Manhattan from roughly Union Square to Grand Central Terminal.

This land was all beyond the city limits at the time, and neither Union Square nor Grand Central Terminal even existed. But as the 18th century went on and Manhattan moved northward, this land, much of it centered on Broadway, would make the Goelets extremely rich.

The Peter Goelet living on Broadway and 19th Street, aka “Peter the Hermit,” helped manage the family real estate holdings. While passersby were charmed by his livestock—in particular the one lone cow on the property, which Peter kept for fresh milk and even milked the cow himself—the man was very much a mystery.

On one hand, he was notoriously thrifty, “noted for his economy” as the Times put it. He saved scrap paper to use as rent receipts and stood by his rule of “never parting with a foot of land.”

He was not a people person. “His usual expression was of complete abstraction, bordering, at times, upon melancholy,” the Times continued. “It is said of him that he never smiled but once, and that was 20 years ago when a Mr. Naylor congratulated him upon the handsome pair of horses he had recently been driving at Rockaway.”

Nor did he have any interest in being a society swell. “Of Peter himself his fellow New Yorkers obtained only occasional glimpses,” stated McClure’s.

“A spare, bent, gray-haired figure, shabbily and scantily dressed, with hat drawn down and coat closely buttoned up, passed silently now and then through the streets, usually on some rent-collecting tour.”

Goelet’s devotion was to his widowed sister, Hannah Gerry (who lived with him); Hannah’s son, a favored nephew; and his animals.

“He was a lifelong collector of blooded poultry and rare birds,” wrote McClure’s. “He filled his Broadway garden with storks, peacocks, birds of paradise, cranes, and Indian pheasants—his backyard, indeed, would have served as a modern stage-setting for Chantecler.”

The Times‘ obituary pointed out that though he was eccentric, he wasn’t mean; he took care of the families of soldiers from a New York regiment who died in the Civil War. Goelet was also a blacksmith who spent hours in his basement forge.

After Peter’s death and his burial in the family vault at St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street, Hannah Gerry continued to live in the house. Gradually, the birds and the cow disappeared.

Gerry died in 1895, and the house was torn down in 1897. It was replaced by a tall commercial building that blended right into this corridor of commerce—Goelet and his mansion menagerie mostly forgotten.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893, second photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893; third and fourth images: date and source unknown; fifth photo: MCNY, 1885, X2010.11.820; sixth photo: NYPL 1900; seventh photo: New York Times headline 1879]

A 1930s artist’s claustrophobic New York Harbor

October 21, 2019

George Grosz made a name for himself drawing and painting caricatures of life in his native Germany during the postwar Weimar era.

But this Expressionist painter who helped lead the Dada movement left Germany in 1932 and relocated to New York City, turning his cynical eye on his adopted home city.

“New York Harbor,” from 1936, is his take on Depression-era Gotham. The colors are cool and the brush strokes thick, giving New York a tough, chaotic feel.

Grosz is like the gulls flying over the harbor. He’s observing this modern city of industry and power, a place that’s so consumed by progress it doesn’t have room for humanity…notice the total absence of people.

Fifth Avenue’s elegant 1890 carriage showroom

October 21, 2019

You might not notice it amid the grit and hustle of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, but there’s a Gilded Age time capsule of a building on the northeast corner.

In the shadow of the Empire State Building and dwarfed by commercial loft buildings is this elegant dowager—made of light brick with terra cotta decorations and enormous arched windows that would look more at home in a cathedral than a busy Murray Hill intersection.

This jewel box is what remains of the Demarest Building.

Completed in 1890 (at left), the Demarest was designed by James Renwick’s architectural firm, which explains the cathedral-like windows. (Renwick is the genius behind Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Those incredible windows served a purpose. The building was commissioned by Aaron Demarest, the head of his eponymous horse carriage company that manufactured luxury carriages and used the space as a showroom for buyers.

Who would be buying the gleaming carriages on display here? (Below, on the right in a 1910s photo)

Wealthy millionaires, including the rich heads of households whose brownstone mansions stood on or near this posh corner at the height of the Gilded Age.

Those old-money millionaires include William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (husband of society doyenne Caroline Astor), William Waldorf Astor, and John Jacob Astor III (next door to his brother William).

(Department store magnate A.T. Stewart had a marble palace of a home on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but by the time Demarest built his showroom, Stewart and his wife were deceased.)

Early on, the Demarest Building fit right in with the wealthy set of Fifth Avenue. It even had the city’s first two electric elevators, in use for 30 years.

But the early 1890s weren’t kind to the building. The Astor households moved on; William Waldorf Astor razed his mansion and built the Hotel Waldorf on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

John Jacob Astor IV, meanwhile, built the Hotel Astoria where his home once stood. (The two neighboring hotels would become the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897)

Then in 1893, the showroom caught fire. A New York Times article described what Hotel Waldorf guests saw from their rooms as the fire illuminated Fifth Avenue:

“The Demarest building is a five-story brick structure, across the avenue from the Waldorf, at the northeast corner of Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.  It is used chiefly as a storage house for carriages.”

“There were over 200 vehicles of all kinds, valued at $150,000, in the building. In the repair shop were twenty fine carriages. Most of these were entirely destroyed and the fire extended to the fourth floor.”

Demarest himself suffered a stroke in 1902; he died in 1908 after eating poisonous clams at a Yale University dinner.

A year later, the company, now building automobiles instead of carriages, relocated to West 57th Street.

The Demarest Building had a colorful new tenant in 1913—a physician who claimed to be able to cure tuberculosis, a leading killer of New Yorkers, especially in poor neighborhoods.

A thousand people showed up for treatment, wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008, but the leasing agent wouldn’t allow the physician to treat anyone.

By the 1920s, this boxy beauty was subdivided into office space. These and other alterations are reportedly the reason the Demarest Building has not been landmarked by the city, as AM New York reported last month.

Currently it is prey for developers and a candidate for the wrecking ball, according to the AM New York article. (Thanks to Robin Kanter for bringing the article to my attention.)

[Second photo: American Architecture and Building News/Office for Metropolitan History via The New York Times; third image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth image: The Portal to Texas History; eighth image: New York Times, 1893]