Monday used to be laundry day in New York City

January 22, 2018

I’d seen this 1900 image of sheets, shirts, and undergarments hanging between rows of New York tenements before. But I never noticed the caption, “A Monday’s Washing.”

Was Monday the city’s official laundry day? Apparently it was a traditional day to do the hard work of washing clothes, as this excerpt from Tyler Anbinder’s book about the city’s notorious 19th century slum, Five Points, explains.

“Hard wash-days”—typically Mondays—provided some of the most unpleasant memories for tenement housewives such as those in Five Points,” wrote Anbinder.

“They first made numerous trips up and down the stairs to haul water up from the yard. Then they heated the water on the stove and set to work scrubbing.”

“Drying the wash was actually the most dreaded task. . . .The advantage of living on a low floor (with fewer flights of stairs to climb) became a disadvantage on wash day, because when hanging your laundry out to dry, ‘someone else might put out a red wash or a blue wash over it, and it drips down and makes you do your wash all over again.'”

[Top postcard: LOC; second image: Mott Street; third image: Minetta Lane, via MCNY x2010.11.2570]

The meaning behind two Gramercy lampposts

January 22, 2018

Four Gramercy Park West, with its ornamented white doors and iron lace terrace, is about as breathtaking as a New York City townhouse can get (number four is at left).

Built in 1846 soon after Gramercy Park was transformed from a swamp to an elite neighborhood, the Greek Revival home “features sun-filled rooms, high ceilings, and elaborate crown molding, and it comes with a coveted key to the park,” writes 6sqft.

It also features two cast-iron lampposts flanking the front entrance on the sidewalk. Oddly, the mirror image townhouse next door, Three Gramercy Park West, has no lampposts.

So what’s the significance?

The lampposts are remnants of a mayoral tradition leftover from Dutch colonial days.

In the 1840s, this was the home of New York mayor James Harper (founder in 1825 of Harper & Brothers, now Harper Collins). What were dubbed the “mayor’s lamps” were at some point installed.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Hmm, sounds like the tradition was in part a way to get a possibly drunk colonial leader back home safely.

“The lanterns were then left in front of the residence as a warning to any boisterous members of the town not to disturb the rest of the official ruler of the city.” Well, those early colonists did love their taverns.

“The Dutch custom of placing special lamps at the mayor’s door was an aid to finding his house at night, but by Harper’s day, it was merely ceremonial,” states nyc-architecture.com. “The custom ended with the 1942 establishment of Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s official residence.”

Harper lived there until his death in 1869; his descendants stayed on in the house until 1923. Since then, it’s become significant for two more reasons.

Number four is rumored to be the townhouse home of Stuart Little.

E.B. White never specified this in his classic tale of the adventurous mouse boy. But the book’s illustrations certainly look a lot like the former Harper residence, as the site Architecture Here and There reveals.

Four Gramercy Park is also immortalized on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Manager Albert Grossman lived there at the time. Doesn’t the white door behind Dylan look familiar? Here’s the story about the shoot, from Rolling Stone.

[Second Photo: Wikipedia; Fourth photo: MCNY/Berenice Abbott 89.2.3.44]

A lonely Bronx monument to a World War I battle

January 22, 2018

The Bronx Supreme Court Building is an enormous Art Deco totem of justice—a limestone and copper fortress with a magnificent terrace featuring marble figures representing law, victory, and sacrifice.

But off to a corner on the terrace near the Grand Concourse and in sight of Yankee Stadium is a humble monument commemorating a century-old battle.

It’s a keystone marking a crucial episode during the Great War—the July 1918 battle of Chateau Thierry. In this French village northeast of Paris, American forces helped the French beat back the German offensive.

The keystone “is from an arch of the old bridge at Chateau Thierry, gloriously and successfully defended by American troops,” the plaque on the granite base reads.

The monument looks like many other modest, mostly forgotten memorials around the city. But there’s a story behind how it ended up here, and it has more to do with the threat of World War II than honoring bravery in World War I.

“In 1938, the French government feared the intentions of Nazi Germany and gave the keystone as a gift to the United States in an attempt to gain American sympathy,” writes Lloyd Ultan and Shelley Olsen in The Bronx: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Beautiful Borough.

“Using the auspices of a New York City American Legion post, this was ultimately decided to be the site of the gift. It was installed with parade, pomp, and ceremony in 1940, but by that time, World War II had begun and the French Republic was in great jeopardy.”

But why the Bronx? Perhaps it had to do with the World War I hospital and Army training camp then located farther north in the borough, on the site of today’s Montefiore Medical Center.

The hospital and camp was called Chateau Thierry, after the famous battle, according to Northwest Bronx by Bill Twomey and Thomas X. Casey.

Interestingly, there’s also the Chateau Thierry apartments on Union Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—built in 1923.

The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline

January 15, 2018

Bowler hats, thin shoes, and shabby coats that need a good washing—what the men on this Bowery breadline in 1910 are wearing tells us everything we need to know about them.

The bars they’ve lined up next to are advertising Ehret’s and Schaefer beer, both once manufactured in Manhattan (Schaefer eventually relocated to Brooklyn.)

[George Bain Collection/LOC]

Park Avenue’s terra cotta tapestry of grotesques

January 15, 2018

Sometimes you come across an apartment building with a facade that takes your breath away.

That was my experience recently on a walk past 898 Park Avenue. This 14-story Romanesque beauty on the corner of East 79th Street finished in 1924 is a medley of terra cotta detailing, figures, and faces.

The design is described as “Tuscan-style terra cotta ornamentation” by Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan. It’s also been called “Lombardy Romanesque” or “Tuscan Tapestry,” Alpern says.

Whatever the style is called, it’s delightful, as Alpert also points out. The facade belies the reputation Park Avenue has as a stretch of New York with staid, fortress-like residences.

There’s a playfulness at 898 Park. The cerulean and tan arches on the second story contain bas relief images of men sleeping, eating, and what appears to be inventing. (Newyorkitecture.com has closeups.)

And the grotesques affixed to the ground floor arched entryway—they have disturbingly weary faces. But then again, they have been watching passersby for 94 years.

[Top photo: Streeteasy.com]

The loveliness of New York’s skinny brownstones

January 15, 2018

A single-family brownstone has been a New Yorker’s dream home since these “brown stone front” row houses (often made of brick with brown sandstone covering the facade) began appearing on city blocks by the middle of the 19th century.

Because building lots during the brownstone era typically measured 25 by 100 feet, the average home came in at about 20 feet across, which allowed for a spacious parlor floor with two or three wide windows with decorative touches spanning each floor.

But thanks to profit-driven developers who decided to squeeze two brownstones into one lot, the cityscape of today contains a fair number of slender, narrow, skinny brownstones.

The top photo shows one in Gramercy with the same iron balconies and cornice as its wider counterparts. The second photo shows two compressed-looking brownstones on West 30th Street.

Above are two more twin narrow brownstones, looking like slender sisters, in the East 70s. They come off as dollhouse versions of the standard-size brownstone next door.

Here’s another mini-me brownstone on the same East 70s block, old New York’s answer to the tiny house craze of contemporary times.

This one above in the East Village isn’t a brownstone, and it looks like it was built in the 1920s or 1930s. You can imagine a builder acquiring this thin lot and then deciding to put up this narrow rowhouse.

This skinny brownstone on Tenth Street, a street with spacious rowhouses collectively known as English Terrace Row, only has room for one third-floor window.

While the house in the last photo probably doesn’t qualify as an actual brownstone—I’m guessing it’s an entryway and staircase for the building to the left on East 39th Street—you have to admire the builder’s ingenuity, adding a cornice and matching window to it to pass it off as a lilliputian house on its own.

[All Photos: Ephemeral New York]

This is Lower Manhattan as it looked in 1642

January 8, 2018

“The Great Highway” is Broadway. The “Common Ditch” was a rather filthy canal that once filled in became Broad Street.

And before landfill reshaped the Lower Manhattan shoreline, the waters of the North River (the Hudson to you and me) lapped at Greenwich Street.

It’s hard to believe that today’s city sprang from this tiny settlement. The map was drawn in 1897, but it purports to show the New Amsterdam of 1642.

At the time, Manhattan was resplendent with brooks and hills and had a colonial population in the hundreds. Things were hardly rosy; the director of the profitable fur-trading colony launched a war against native Americans that almost doomed it.

While Broadway, Greenwich, and Broad Streets still exist, other locations on the map are long gone. The Fort was Fort Amsterdam; the Sheep’s Pasture was filled in. The West India Company’s Garden is the present site of Trinity Church.

The garden sat on a bank overlooking a stream and was something of a lovers’ lane, “the resort of lad and lass for sentimental walk,” according to an 1874 guide, The Old Streets of New York Under the Dutch.

“Here, they viewed together the glories of the bay, illuminated with beams of setting sun . . . and listened to music of the wave, breaking over what was then the pebbly shore.” Romance-minded New Yorkers still head downtown to enjoy gorgeous views.

Finally, look at the names attached to the land grants: Stuyvesant, Van Cortland, Gerritsen, Ten Eyck—all names you can find on a map of the city today.

[Map at top: NYPL Digital Collections. Enhanced map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

The Flatiron Building rises in the rain and fog

January 8, 2018

Jessie Tarbox Beals captured this image of a wet winter day in Madison Square, with cars stacked up on the side of the park on the left and the Worth monument and Flatiron building (a mere 18 years old!) on the right.

Tarbox Beals is best known as a pioneering female photographer who won fame for her intimate images of Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s—only to struggle to make a living after the Depression and dying penniless at Bellevue in 1942.

The mystery behind a Bedford Street stable sign

January 8, 2018

Bedford Street is a stunning historic block, but there is one building on this lovely Village lane that’s always piqued my interest.

It’s number 95, a circa-1894 brick beauty with a Victorian era cornice and ground floor brownstone stable.

There’s something else that gives number 95 such an old New York feel: the insignia above the stable doors, which bears the name “J. Goebel & Co. Est. 1865.”

So who was J. Goebel, and what did he do at 95 Bedford Street? The clue is in the three stacked cups in the fanciful sign.

No, he wasn’t a brewer, though the grapes under the cups seem to imply that. Julius Goebel was a German immigrant who either manufactured or imported crucibles made out of a rare kind of clay found in Germany.

Goebel operated his business on Maiden Lane in the late 19th century, according to Walter Grutchfield. His son, who took over for him after his death, moved the company to 95 Bedford Street in the 1920s.

That’s the decade when the building (originally a stable) was converted to office space and into apartments, per the 1969 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

The established-in-1865 thing is likely a nod to the year Goebel started his company—and it could very well be the year he landed in New York, a turbulent year indeed.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

Toasting the new year at a dimly lit New York bar

December 31, 2017

It’s probably the oldest New Year’s Eve tradition in New York: gathering with others at a saloon or tavern and raising a glass (or flute, cup, or growler) as the clock strikes midnight.

That’s what photographer George Bain captured these festive folks doing circa 1910, inside a dark room under glass chandeliers and decorative wall-mounted plates. If only we knew the bar or restaurant they where they celebrated!

[Photo: Bain Collection/LOC]