Faces in the shadow of the Third Avenue El

April 16, 2018

New Yorkers no longer plow through the sky on hulking elevated trains. But the great crowds of commuters and the traffic below the steel rails feels very familiar.

John Sloan’s Six O’Clock, Winter gives us the scene under the Third Avenue El in 1912. (Not the Sixth Avenue El, the subject of some of his other paintings.)

“The shop girls, clerks, and working men and women who are massed in the lower part of the canvas seem absorbed in their own actions, rushing to their various destinations, generally unaware of the huge elevated railway looming high above them,” states the website of the Phillips Collection.

“The figures are illuminated by the glow of the train’s electric lights from above and from the shops at street level, with those in the lower left of the composition cast in strong light. Loosely brushed in, the faces have a masklike appearance, while those on the right are almost hidden in shadow, obscuring their features.”

A secret garden behind 12 East Side townhouses

April 16, 2018

New York has its very lovely public green spaces, playgrounds, and private parks.

But some lucky residents have their own secret interior garden—a lush sanctuary of trees, flowers, and fountains hidden from the street between rows of brownstones and accessible only through the back doors of adjacent neighbors.

One of these magnificent gardens, Jones Wood Garden, lies between Lexington and Third Avenues and 65th and 66th Streets (above) on the same block as St. Vincent Ferrer Church.

The original Jones Wood was a 150-acre tract of high forested land that roughly spanned today’s 65th to 76th Streets from Third Avenue to the East River.

Named for a 19th century tavern owner and owned by prominent families, Jones Wood became a popular picnic and amusement spot. It was even in the running in the early 1850s to be the city’s first major public park.

In the post–Civil War years after Central Park edged out Jones Wood, builders cut down the forests and put up blocks of brownstone residences in this Lenox Hill neighborhood, as thy did all over Manhattan.

Demand for these private homes soured by the turn of the century, then picked up again after World War I. That’s when Jones Wood Garden got its start.

With well-to-do tenants in mind, developers purchased 12 brownstones (six on the north side of 65th Street, and six on the south side of 66th), then remodeled them by getting rid of their tall stoops and updating the amenities. They also designed a 100 by 108 feet sunken interior garden.

“This will be paved with special paving brick and flagging, and will have a fountain with a pool,” explained a New York Times article from 1919.

“Back of each house there will be a small and more intimate garden about 20 feet deep, upon which the dining room will open.” Shutters and trellises would be added to the back of each of these homes as well.

Unless you live there or know someone who does, Jones Wood Garden is pretty much off-limits to most New Yorkers.

You can catch a glimpse of a few trees from the street, as I did below. But the garden sanctuary is very private, just as it was intended.

Occasionally recent photos appear, particularly when one of the homes is up for sale.

In 2015, the house at 160 East 66th Street hit the market for $12 million. Curbed has the photos, including one with the open dining room leading to the garden, as described in the 1919 Times piece.

But to get a sense of the beauty and lushness of Jones Wood Garden, we have to rely on old images, such as these black and white photos from The Garden Magazine in 1922.

There’s also a series of color slides from the Library of Congress, dated 1921. One shows a child playing by the fountain and a woman in white (his mom? a nurse?) enjoying the peace and serenity.

[Second, third, fifth, and sixth photos: LOC; fifth photo: The Garden Magazine. Hat tip to A for sending me the LOC photos!]

What remains of downtown’s “College Place”

April 16, 2018

On the side of a red brick walkup on West Broadway and Warren Streets is a gem of an old New York street sign: College Place.

It’s two stories up, visible from the street as well as the elevated train that ran up and down this stretch of West Broadway from 1878 to the 1930s.

What was College Place? This part of Lower Manhattan was the first home of King’s College, chartered in 1754 and renamed Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.

College Place became the name of the southern end of what was then known as Chapel Street in 1830; eventually Chapel Street merged with another road called Laurens Street to become today’s West Broadway in 1896.

Columbia relocated to the eventual site of Rockefeller Plaza in 1857; by the turn of the century, what was now called Columbia University occupied its present-day campus on Broadway in Morningside Heights.

The little street sign hiding in plain sight above a dry cleaners isn’t the only remnant of Columbia’s colonial-era downtown days.

A 1918 subway tile in the nearby Chambers Street Station, hard to see thanks to grime and soot, depicts the school’s first building.

[Third image: 1835 David Burr Map of New York City]

A ship captain built this 1830 Allen Street house

April 9, 2018

In the early 19th century, the city of New York was booming and expanding.

Eyeing undeveloped land on the east side of the Bowery, city officials issued a proclamation in 1803 that ordered “all the streets on the ground commonly known by the name of ‘De Lancey’s ground’ be opened as soon as possible.”

‘De Lancey’s ground’ was a 300-acre estate on today’s Lower East Side (and the namesake of Delancey Street, of course.)

The land was once owned by James De Lancey, a prominent New Yorker of French Huguenot descent who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and subsequently had his land seized by the city.

Within a few decades of the city order, roads, building lots, and then houses went up on the former De Lancey estate. By the 1820s, the area was filling up with tidy 2- and 3-story homes.

One of these homes was the Federal-style house at 143 Allen Street, built in 1830 and a rare survivor of this early 1800s building boom.

Number 143 and five others just like it were developed by George Sutton, a ship captain who sailed between New York and Charleston along what was called the “Cotton Triangle.”

Like so many other New Yorkers, Sutton made his money off Southern cotton.

His ships would bring cotton picked by slaves on plantations to Manhattan, where it would be transferred to ships heading to England, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“The six houses at Allen and Rivington Streets were maintained as investment properties, although Sutton seems to have preferred renting the buildings to friends and business associates—many of whom also participated in the Cotton Triangle trade,” states the LPC report.

Perhaps realizing that middle and upper class New Yorkers were now moving into fashionable neighborhoods north of Houston Street, Sutton sold the Allen Street houses by 1838.

As early as the 1840s, Number 143 was chopped into a multi-family dwelling. Over the decades the occupants reflected waves of immigration, from a Prussian family of eight in the 19th century to 15 tenants, mostly salesmen, in the early 20th century.

Number 143’s stoop was removed at some point in the 1900s—but so were the elevated train tracks that since 1879 had cast Allen Street in darkness (in the above left photo, you can just see the house’s dormers peeking out above the tracks).

A group of artists bought 143 and its surviving sister house, 141, in 1980 (the above photo shows the two homes in 1985.) Number 141 was eventually sold and demolished.

But 143 Allen Street is still with us and mostly intact—built with money made off Southern cotton and today surrounded by luxury dwellings in the new-money Lower East Side.

[Second image: Wikipedia; Third image: NYPL; Fifth Image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report]

The daises hidden on a Stanford White building

April 9, 2018

The weather is still chilly and skies are wintry gray. But on the facade of a building on East 30th Street, pretty white daisies have been popping up for at least a century.

You can see them on the underside of The Nottingham, a handsome apartment residence designed by Stanford White that has kind of a Byzantine or Tuscan look to it.

Bright white daisies with yellow centers surrounded by blue tiles appear under a second-floor juliet balcony.

When The Nottingham was built is a bit of a mystery. Real estate website say the late 19th century; an article on reinforced concrete from 1907 implies the early 1900s.

Did Stanford White have a hand in adding the daisies? It could be the kind of ornamental whimsy he enjoyed.

An artist on the Carpathia paints Titanic survivors

April 9, 2018

By 1912, Colin Campbell Cooper had made a name for himself as an Impressionist painter—one who found inspiration in the skyscrapers and modern cityscape of New York, where he lived since 1904.

But two paintings he was moved to create after one of the most famous disasters of the 20th century might be his most personal.

On April 11, Cooper and his wife boarded the steamship Carpathia in New York, bound for Croatia.

The voyage was unremarkable, until midnight on April 15. That’s when a wireless operator reported getting a distress call from the Titanic, which had hit an iceberg 70 miles away.

The Carpathia turned around and raced toward the Titanic in hopes of rescuing passengers. Finally at 4 a.m., two boatloads of women and children were picked up from the Atlantic, Cooper’s wife later detailed in a letter.

Like others on the Carpathia, “[Cooper] and his wife gave up their cabin to the exhausted, emotionally numb passengers,” wrote Stephanie Sammartino McPherson in her book, Iceberg, Right Ahead! The Tragedy of the Titanic.

“But Cooper wanted to do something more. The beauty and tragedy of the rescue scene haunted him.”

After the Carpathia delivered weary Titanic survivors to Chelsea Piers and the ship continued to the Mediterranean, “Cooper completed two paintings,” McPherson wrote.

“One shows the Carpathia cruising past icebergs against an early morning sky. The other shows five small lifeboats approaching the ship, perfectly poised in the middle of the picture between choppy blue water and a pale pink sky.”

The second painting is one of the few first-hand accounts of what it was like to be greeted by the survivors who rowed into the frigid night and watched their unsinkable ocean liner descend into the Atlantic.

Cooper also apparently painted the icebergs he saw in the ocean—cold white and dark blue against a pinkish twilight.

[Last photo: Encyclopedia Titanica]

Spring rain and black umbrellas in Union Square

April 2, 2018

Few painters capture the enchantment of New York in the rain like Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist who had studios at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Rainy Late Afternoon, Union Square” captures the southern end of the park looking very much as it does today, with rain showers turning the pathways into seas of black umbrellas set against gray skies and a hint of green lawn.

Hassam painted the city in all seasons, but his images of New York in rain and snow are especially magical.

The end of a one-screen East Side movie theater

April 2, 2018

On a walk along East 59th Street between Second and Third Avenues, something caught my eye—a former movie marquee fronting a row of tenements.

Was this little space, now a high-end workout studio, once a theater?

A quick investigation showed that it was the site of the former D.W. Griffith Theatre, a single-screen movie house that appears to have opened in the 1960s. At some point underwent a name change and became the 59th Street East Cinema.

“The 59th Street East Cinema, originally called the D.W. Griffith Theatre, was an art house theater located in midtown Manhattan,” explains Cinema Treasures.

“It belonged to a cluster of single, twin, and triplex movie theaters; all of which were within two blocks of each other.”

“One of many subterranean venues around the city, this single screen theater was reached through a small entrance that originates on E. 59th Street,” continued Cinema Treasures.

“The entrance continued past a modest concession area and then ended at a staircase, descending to theatre level.”

The 59th Street East Cinema looked like a wonderful place to hide away for a few hours in a pre-multiplex era.

It seems like the kind of theater that felt like a secret, transporting you to a cinematic world of thoughtfulness and reflection, and perhaps exposed you to new artists.

Alas, the art-house thing didn’t last. By the 2000s this little jewel box was renamed ImaginAsian (at right), showing Asian films, according to Cinema Treasures.

In 2010 it became Big Cinemas Manhattan, playing Bollywood flicks. Today, the theater is an exercise studio run by workout star Tracey Anderson with motivational wisdom rather than movie titles on the marquee.

It’s a transformation similar to what’s happened to other small city theaters, like this one in Greenpoint that now has Starbucks on the marquee!

[Third image: Cinema Treasures; fourth image: Yelp]

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]

Girls’ High School is a Gothic dream in Bed-Stuy

March 26, 2018

“It is the ambition of every Brooklyn girl after graduating from the public schools to enter the Girls’ High School, where she may enjoy the advantages of advanced education, and be prepared for college or for more immediate concerns of life.”

That was the lead in a New York Times story about Girls’ High in 1895, when Brooklyn was a separate city known for its strong support of public schools.

The postcard at the top of the page gives us Girls’ High as a Victorian Gothic dream building, opened in 1886 at Nostrand Avenue and Halsey Street.

So proud of the school was the newly unified city that they put it on a postcard.

Today the combined Boys and Girls High School is on Fulton Street, and the old Girls’ building is an adult learning center.

[First image: NYPL; second image: 6tocelebrate.org]