The charming wooden houses time forgot in Carnegie Hill

June 20, 2022

You won’t notice anything unusual at first as you walk along quiet, unassuming 92nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.

122 East 92nd Street

But in the middle of the block, amid the quaint brownstones and apartment houses on the south side, stand two startling architectural anachronisms: side by side wood-frame houses with clapboard shutters, low iron fences, and deep front porches more countryside than Carnegie Hill.

120 East 92nd Street

Of course, these houses went up when this neck of the Upper East Side was mostly countryside. Number 122 is the older of the two. The charming Italianate-style home was built in 1859 by Adam C. Flanagan, a custom house officer, according to Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks.

120 and 122 East 92nd Street in the 1930s

A little more than a decade later, Flanagan had next-door neighbors. “In 1871, Flanagan sold adjacent land to John C. and Catherine E. Rennert,” wrote Dolkart. “John Rennert, a wine merchant, commissioned No. 120.”

Getting down to the city center involved something of a commute. By the 1850s, horsecar lines ran up and down Second and Third Avenues. By the end of the 1870s, elevated train service on Third Avenue made the trip shorter.

The 92nd Street wood houses in 1976

Both houses were constructed before the city banned wood frame houses below 155th Street in 1882, deeming them a fire hazard. (Wood houses were first prohibited below Canal Street in 1816, and as the city expanded northward, the ban was extended, explained Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog.)

By the turn of the century, once-sleepy Carnegie Hill and neighboring Yorkville had transformed into an urban part of the cityscape. Strangely, the two wood houses barely changed. Photos from the 1930s and 1970s, above, show them to be well preserved, almost untouched by time.

A handful of other wood houses similar to these survive on the Upper East Side, remnants of a semi-rural city. Number 120 was available for rent for $18,500 back in the 2010s, per 6sqft.com; here’s a peek at the gorgeous historic interior.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.782; fifth image: Google]

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.

The long tradition of New York City’s ice cream man

June 16, 2022

Today we have Mister Softee parked all day at playgrounds. In the 1970s, a man with an Italian Ice cart waited beside school bus stops offering small white cups of cherry, raspberry, or lemon for 10 cents. In the midcentury city, the Good Humor truck made the rounds of New York neighborhoods.

And in 1885, the ice cream man was a peddler with a wagon that looked as rundown as the streets he visited. “A summer scene in the streets of New York” the caption reads.

Almost 140 years have passed since the image was published, and the enthusiastic response from city kids after spotting an ice cream vendor hasn’t changed one bit.

[Image: NYPL Digital Collection]

This Riverside Drive traffic signal looks like a relic from another era

June 16, 2022

The plastic covering is cracked, electrical wires are loose, and the sad pole this traffic signal is affixed to is crudely cemented to the pavement.

Clearly this two-red-light signal isn’t in good shape. But the more curious thing is how old-fashioned it looks. Could this seemingly forgotten piece of DOT infrastructure at the end of 93rd Street at Riverside Drive be the oldest traffic signal left in Manhattan?

Dating this light has been difficult. New York City didn’t get its first traffic signal until 1920—powered by a police officer sitting in a tall tower at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. (See the stylish postcard below.)

Later that decade, many major avenues had traffic lights as we know them today, but they only flashed red or green, according to Christopher Gray in a 2014 New York Times article.

Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in the 1920s, via Transpress NZ

I’ve seen a similar red light at dead ends; see the image of Sutton Square at 57th Street below. But that one has the lights arranged vertically, not horizontally. It’s also in much better shape—or at least it was when the photo was taken in 2019.

If the Riverside Drive traffic signal proves to be a relic of another New York, perhaps the DOT could call out its historical significance by spiffing it up—it should look as proud as the circa-1915 bronze Joan of Arc statue behind it.

A two-light traffic signal at the end of Sutton Square

See more relics on Riverside Drive, plus Gilded Age mansions and monuments, on Ephemeral New York’s Riverside Drive walking tour this Sunday, June 19 at 1 pm!

[Third image: Transpress NZ]

A touch of Art Nouveau on a former Fifth Avenue Gilded Age mansion

June 16, 2022

When Andrew Carnegie decided to build a mansion for himself and his family on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, he told his architects to construct “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York,” according to a 1971 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The mansion, completed in 1903, did not disappoint the industrialist-turned-philanthropist. At four stories and with 64 rooms surrounded on two sides by gardens, it was certainly roomy.

And while modest and plain are in the eye of the beholder, Carnegie’s Georgian-style house displayed more modesty and restraint than many of the pompous marble and stone castles going up on Fifth Avenue at the time.

But even an elegant mansion built in the style of an English country manor is likely to be influenced by the new design trends coming out of Europe at the turn of the century. The glass and iron canopy over the front entrance, with its curvy shape and floral motifs, seems to be a nod to Art Nouveau.

Though it never made a huge splash in New York City, Art Nouveau design prevailed in many European cities in the early 1900s. Buildings, clothing, and objects were designed with graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimicked flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature.

The canopy is described as “Tiffany-style” by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition. Based on early images and the 1910 postcard, above, it appears to be part of the original house Carnegie occupied until his death in 1919. (His wife resided in the home until she passed away in 1946.)

Whether the craftsman who created it was inspired by Art Nouveau or approached it with a different influence, the canopy adds a delightful touch to a Gilded Age mansion that since 1976 has been the home of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, according to The Landmarks of New York.

Very fitting that a world-class design museum occupies a mansion that inside and outside reflects such design and style.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.2869]

What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island

June 13, 2022

Her name was Agnes. As a teenager in Germany at the turn of the century she sought more money and opportunity. So she decided to buy a ticket for $55 with her wages as a milliner’s apprentice and sailed from Antwerp to New York City, where three of her siblings had already settled.

After a week of living in a flat on West 34th Street with her sister, she found a job again with a milliner. Her pay came to $4 per week, which she was satisfied with, but she wanted something different. “I wanted more pleasure,” she said in the 1906 book, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, which includes her story.

So she went “into the service,” as she put it: she became one of thousands of young women, often new immigrants, who worked as live-in servant girls for the upper middle class and rich in the Gilded Age.

Agnes became a nurse governess, taking care of the children of various employers. While the life of a servant girl could be harsh and lonely, Agnes reported that she was generally treated well; usually she would be one of several servants in the household. “The duties are light; I have two afternoons a week to myself and practically all the clothing I need to wear,” she said of her latest situation in a family of three young kids. “My salary is $25 a month.”

Her wealthy employers brought her along on summer trips to Newport and Long Island. But Agnes preferred Coney Island: the rides, the freedom, and most of all the dancing. Coney Island in the early 1900s was packed with dance halls that attracted poor and working-class women like herself. These shop girls, factory girls, and servant girls could get to Coney by train or boat for a day excursion and a break from the tedium of working for a living.

“I like New York,” she said. “I have a great many friends in New York and I enjoy my outings with them. We go to South Beach or North Beach or Glen Island or Rockaway or Coney Island. If we go on a boat we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.”

“I like Coney Island best of all. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I took a German friend, a girl who had just come out, down there last week, and when we had been on the razzle-dazzle, the chute and the loop-de-loop, and down in the coal mine and all over the Bowery, and up in the tower and everywhere else, I asked her how she liked it.

Stauch’s dance hall on the Bowery at Coney Island

“She said: ‘Ach, it is just like what I see when I dream of heaven.'”

Agnes generally liked her employers. But she wished she could teach them a thing or two about having fun. “Yet I have heard some of the high people with whom I have been living say that Coney Island is not tony. The trouble is that these high people don’t know how to dance. I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.”

[Top image: MCNY x2011.34.2113; second image: MCNY x2011.34.2033; third image: Bain Collection/LOC; fourth image: eBay]

An awe-inspiring arch in Central Park’s North Woods

June 13, 2022

Most of Central Park is a pleasure ground of playgrounds, pathways, gentle hills, and rolling meadows. As you head north at about 102nd Street, however, much of the terrain transforms into a woodland wildlife landscape with thick woods, waterfalls, and a ravine.

Amid this more rustic, secluded environment—intentionally designed by co-creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to feel like the deep woods of the Catskills or Adirondacks—is Central Park’s most incredible bridge.

Huddlestone Arch isn’t the biggest of the park’s 36 bridges, and it’s not necessarily the prettiest. But it’s the one that takes its stones straight from the park itself and earns top prize as an engineering feat.

The enormous boulders that make up the arch, placed together by hand, stay in place not because of mortar or other supporting material but gravity.

The boulders are arranged so they “huddle” together and keep their place, making the bridge strong enough to support the East Drive above it and act as a gateway to the Loch, the stream that winds its way through the ravine.

Huddlestone Arch in 1895

“Only gravity and pressure keep the massive boulders in place,” explains the Central Park Conservatory.

Huddlestone Arch was completed in 1866, and it’s parallel to roughly 107th Street closer to Fifth Avenue. On the other side of the arch is the Lasker Rink and Harlem Meer. The Rink is currently under construction, and right now the arch is fenced off. The footpaths to the arch are accessible.

Much of Central Park may be an illusion; Olmsted and Vaux brilliantly recreate unspoiled nature across the park’s 843 often rocky acres. But if you’re feeling adventurous and can’t get to New Paltz, this awe-inspiring engineering marvel is waiting for you.

[Third image: MCNY X2010.11.1274]

The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

June 10, 2022

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

What makes Central Park’s “whisper bench” so unusual and enchanting

June 10, 2022

Some parts of Central Park encourage loud noise—the ballfields, the playgrounds, and the areas under Bethesda Terrace and certain bridges, where buskers play to enthusiastic crowds.

Other sections call for quiet and softness, and park visitors know to lower their voices. That’s where the whisper bench, inside the lush and lovely Shakespeare Garden, comes in.

Officially known as the Charles B. Stover bench, this smooth granite half-circle earned its nickname “because a whisper spoken into one end of the bench can be heard on the other side,” explains the Central Park Conservatory.

The 20-foot bench that curls inward at the ends is unlike any of the 10,000 mostly wood benches spread out across Central Park. It’s also one of the park’s most enchanting places to sit, surrounded by four shady acres of flowers, herbs, and trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

The Shakespeare Garden was a favorite of Charles Stover, who served as city parks commissioner in the 1910s. Stover was a longtime advocate for New York’s parks and playgrounds, according to the Conservatory.

The bench bearing his name was dedicated in 1936, two decades after the Garden was established. Since then, it’s been popular with curious park-goers who test out the acoustics, as well as those seeking peace and contemplation. It’s also a romantic setting, so expect couples to stop and sit close.

There’s another place in Manhattan also famous for whispers: the “whispering gallery” of Grand Central Terminal. It’s on the lower level of the station. Supposedly if you stand against the wall and whisper, your words can be heard across the space thanks to the vaulted ceilings.

The stone and iron turtles decorating New York City

June 10, 2022

Colonial New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their heads up while feasting in city waterways.

Considering the role they’ve played in Gotham’s history and their presence in the modern city, it’s no wonder that images of turtles can be found on building facades, fence posts, and the sculptures in Manhattan parks.

You would expect a neighborhood called Turtle Bay to have its fair share of ornamental turtles. The turtle above is one of several on the iron fences surrounding Turtle Bay Gardens, a posh collection of restored brownstones flanking a private garden between Second and Third Avenues and 48th to 49th Streets.

The Turtle Bay Gardens iron fence turtles are a lot more stylized than this stegosaurus-like critter, one of three lifelike bronze turtles in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on East 49th Street off Second Avenue.

Outside of Turtle Bay, turtle sculptures abound. One of my favorites is the circa-1916 turtle at the base (one of four) of the Pulitzer Fountain beside the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Its mouth serves as one of the fountain’s spouts—a nice bit of whimsy.

Farther uptown at 973 Fifth Avenue is a sculpture with a base resting on the backs of two rather round turtles. The sculpture is in the rotunda of a former Gilded Age mansion now occupied by a French-English bookstore called Albertine (operated by the French Consulate, which has long owned the mansion).

Full-size view of The Young Archer, resting on turtles

The turtles supporting the sculpture are impressive. But the sculpture itself might have more of a pedigree. Acquired by Stanford White and called The Young Archer, it’s been in the rotunda for decades and has recently been identified as a possible early work of Michelangelo, according to the Albertine website.