The strange story of the Village’s “Raisin Street”

January 27, 2020

Never heard of “Raisin Street” in Greenwich Village?

If you lived in the nascent city of New York in the early years of the 19th century, you might have traversed it. The rise and demise of this little street has a curious backstory.

“Raisin Street” was a corruption of “Reason Street,” the name given to the one-block stretch between today’s West 11th Street and Barrow Street. At the time, the Village was a country enclave dotted with farms and small homes a few miles from the city center.

“Reason Street” honored Thomas Paine (at right), the philosopher whose 1795 treatise, The Age of Reason, criticized organized religion.

Paine, who was born in England, had a heroic reputation in the early 1790s. Before and during the Revolutionary War, he was considered a patriot because he encouraged the American colonies to fight for independence.

After moving to France and getting thrown in prison for supporting the French Revolutionaries, Paine came back to the States and spent his final years living in boardinghouse on Herring Street, soon to be renamed Bleecker Street. (Paine’s boardinghouse is the home in the center in a 1920 photo.)

Reason Street made it on an 1807 map by surveyor William Bridges (above). In the next few years, however, the name would be gone, as this 1828 map below shows.

Why the change? The Age of Reason, “an uncompromising attack on the Bible, proved to be unpopular, and did much to sully the reputation Paine had built as a patriot,” wrote Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times in 1999.

When Reason Street “became city property in 1809, it was rechristened Barrow Street in honor of the artist Thomas Barrow. Barrow, a Trinity Church vestryman, was famous for his depiction of the church in ruins after the great fire that devastated the city in 1776.”

Despite his de-mapping, Paine’s presence in Greenwich Village wasn’t completely obliterated.

Though the boardinghouse he lived in on today’s Bleecker Street was demolished in 1930, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, another house he resided in on the current Grove Street still stands.

“As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived,” according to the GVSHP blog, Off the Grid.

“Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville, took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.”

The plaque at left is affixed to the 1839 Federal-style house that replaced the home where Paine died.

The current building is the home of Marie’s Crisis—named for Paine’s The American Crisis, which urged the states to fight for freedom.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.11.220; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: TimeOutNY]

How old is this Manhattan laundry room sign?

January 27, 2020

If you’re lucky enough to have a basement laundry room in New York City, then you probably find yourself down there poking around as you wait for the final minutes of the spin cycle to finish up.

That’s how this old-school sign was discovered, hiding on the back of a basement utility door.

The building it was found in is a 12-story residence built in the 1920s. But how old is this sign? Considering the typeface and that “tenants” were replaced by “shareholders” at least 30 years ago), I’m guessing at least half a century.

The green lanterns of a Chinatown police station

January 27, 2020

New York City has 77 police precincts, which means 77 precinct houses. One of the oldest is the Fifth Precinct station house at 19 Elizabeth Street, just below Canal Street—so understated it practically blends right into the tenements beside it.

These days, things are relatively sedate in the neighborhood, which encompasses Chinatown, what’s left of Little Italy, and a bit of Soho as well (since the late 1990s more or less collectively known as Nolita).

But imagine Elizabeth and Canal Streets in 1881, when the precinct house opened. This was the Sixth Ward, a rough and tumble immigrant enclave on the border of Five Points, Manhattan’s notorious 19th century slum district.

The neighborhood may have changed. But one thing remains: the green lanterns flanking the front door. (Above, in 2020, and below, a different set of lanterns in 1900)

It’s one feature every precinct house has in common. The tradition of the green lanterns harkens back to the city of the 17th century, before a professional police department was formed in 1845.

What constituted a police force in the mid-1600s was a group of watchmen formed a “rattle watch” that would patrol the streets at night, rattling keys and carrying a green lantern on a pole, wrote Bruce Chadwick in Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD.

(Some sources say the rattle watch carried actual wood rattles, but whatever they carried, the point was to scare off troublemakers by making noise.)

“When they returned to their watch house, they put the lantern outside it; this is why all old precinct houses in the city today have green lanterns beside their front entrances.”

[Third photo: NYPL]

All the ways to get to 23rd Street in 1910

January 20, 2020

By foot, streetcar, horse-driven carriage, automobile, or elevated train, New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century came to do its shopping on 23rd Street—the northern border of the Ladies Mile shopping district, which boasted eminent stores such as Stern Brothers and Best & Co.

23rd Street was such a busy shopping corridor, postcards showing the commercial hustle and bustle were printed for sale. This one, dated 1910, looks to capture the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

See the “toys” sign hanging off a building on the left? That might be the original FAO Schwarz, which operated at 39 and 41 West 23rd Street from 1897 to 1935, when the store moved uptown.

[Postcard: MCNY X2011.34.504]

The stunning old doors of a Turtle Bay townhouse

January 20, 2020

New York’s quiet residential streets draw their beauty from the rows of brownstones and townhouses that still have their original architectural detail.

But you don’t see too many original front doors on many of these otherwise well-preserved 19th century homes.

Which is why I often stop and tip my hat to the spectacular old front doors welcoming visitors to 335 East 50th Street, a townhouse in a row of slender stone-fronted houses that each have a single window on the top floor.

The two greenish doors that open at the top of the stoop at number 335 are elaborately carved and studded, decorated with floral motifs and matching lion-like heads that inspire awe rather than fear.

Are these really the original doors? I’m not 100 percent certain, as the date the house was built is still in question.

But a 1940 photo of the house—a tax photo from the New York City Department of Records and Information Services—reveals enough of the doors to make me think these are the same ones…meaning they are at least 80 years old, if not decades older.

And however old they are, they’re magnificent!

[Bottom photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A grocery sign comes back into view in Brooklyn

January 20, 2020

Every summer for more than 40 years, 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst has hosted a festival honoring the patron saint of Palermo, Italy. It’s the kind of event that features all the good stuff you’d expect at an Italian-themed street fair, like carnival rides and zeppole stands.

Did the I & C Food Market get to be a part of it?

The sign for this little corner store recently reemerged on the corner of 18th Avenue and 70th Street, but it’s hard to date the signage and get a sense of how old it is.

“Groceries” it says on one side—such an old-fashioned word for the kind of establishment we call a deli or bodega today.

[Thanks to Eric V. for the pics!]

A Manhattan train station had a potbelly stove

January 13, 2020

Imagine how much better your winter workday commute would be if your station had a potbelly stove—which you could wait beside in toasty comfort?

Train riders at this West Side station had that luxury, as seen in one of the wonderful photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her legendary book, Berenice Abbott’s New York.

The potbelly stove photo was captured on February 6, 1936. We know the exact date—but which train station is this?

Over the years, it’s been misidentified as a subway station. But it’s actually an above ground El station, per Abbott’s photo caption: “”El station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.”

The lavish porte cocheres of Gilded Age New York

January 13, 2020

When New York’s first luxury apartment residences were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developers added all kinds of fabulous amenities to entice the city’s wealthy.

After all, the idea of apartment living—”living on a shelf,” as Mrs. Astor reportedly called it—was a hard sell in a city where the elite preferred the status symbol of their own freestanding mansion.

Electric lights, wall safes, private restaurants, billiards rooms, servant quarters, a chauffeurs’ lounge, even a rooftop farm were among the offerings developers used to lure potential buyers.

And there was one other convenience well-heeled New Yorker desired: a porte cochere.

What’s a porte cochere? It’s a recessed entrance—sometimes covered, sometimes not—that allows a vehicle to enter into a building’s private courtyard, so a resident alighting from a car or carriage wouldn’t have to step out on the street.

The porte cochere (it’s in French, so of course it connotes luxury) brings the vehicle to an interior door instead, which was the ultimate in comfort and privacy.

So in the early days of opulent apartment houses, the best buildings all featured porte cocheres. Many of these buildings are still with us, and so are their delightfully old-world porte cocheres, though not all are in use.

Two of the loveliest are—where else?—Sutton Place. The top two photos show the exterior porte cochere and the interior driveway at 2 Sutton Place, at 57th Street. The third photo is the three-entrance porte cochere at 1 Sutton Place across the street.

The fourth image is the beautiful porte cochere of the St. Urban, a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Prague but was actually constructed in 1906 on Central Park West and 89th Street.

Beneath it is the porte cochere at 1185 Park Avenue and 94th Street, completed in 1929 and so luxurious, this residence doesn’t even have a name.

Finally, here’s a throwback photo showing off the wide, high-ceiling port cochere at the Paterno, the magnificent building at 440 Riverside Drive and 116th Street, built in 1909.

Supposedly porte cocheres are all the rage once again, in what some people call New York’s second Gilded Age. The New York Times ran an article last month about how these are the new must-have feature potential buyers want in a co-op or condo.

The demands of the uber rich apparently have not changed very much since the first Gilded Age.

[Last photo: MCNY, 1910]

The skyscraper tree grates at Rockefeller Center

January 13, 2020

Look up to the sky at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see the iconic skyscraper 30 Rock—the sleek, 66-story beauty at the center of the Art Deco complex of towers developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s.

Now look down at the sidewalk you’re standing on. Embedded into the concrete are metal tree grates with a similar Art Deco skyscraper design.

A lovely touch, right? The interesting thing is that the skyscrapers in the grates don’t exactly look like the gleaming buildings at Rockefeller Plaza.

With their stacked shape and tall antennas, these mini-scrapers actually resemble the Empire State Building, standing proud since 1931 just 16 blocks south.

Perhaps the skyscraper grates are less of an homage to Rockefeller Plaza as a mini-city of silver towers and more of a nod to the skyscraper era itself—when the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, the Chrysler Building, and others defined the New York City skyline and became emblems of optimism during the bleak years of the Depression-era city.

[Rockefeller Center, 1930: MCNY]

An East Side apartment house’s Medieval touches

January 6, 2020

If the Cloisters is your kind of art museum, then the eight-story building at 40 East 62nd Street is probably your kind of apartment house.

Built in 1911—right about when this block between Park and Madison Avenues was transitioning from a stretch of single-family homes and horse stables—it takes its cues from a Medieval castle.

“Designed by Albert J. Bodker, it is a startling work, a Medieval-style tapestry of brick and glazed terra cotta, with an ebulliently ornamental parapet and vertical bays of windows to light the parlors,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times piece.

Fierce griffins, foliage, a pointed-arch entrance, battlements, and shields make the building seem like it belongs in Middle Ages, according to the Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report from 1981.

The interior of the building I can’t speak to. But the apartments were meant for the wealthy, as this 1915 ad shows.

Seven rooms, three bathrooms, extra servants rooms, lots of light—nice, right?

Amenities like these on an elegant block would appeal to New York’s elite—like Henry Hardenburgh, architect behind the Dakota and the Plaza, who made his home here, according to the AIA Guide to New York City.

[Ad: New York Times, September 1915]