What it was like commuting by sleigh in snowy 1860s Manhattan

January 23, 2023

The idea of getting around the city by horse-drawn sleigh might sound like a lot of fun to contemporary, snow-starved New Yorkers.

But as this detailed illustration from 1865 shows, sitting in an open-air omnibus as three teams of horses round a tight side street covered in snow was probably rather miserable.

What a rich scene the illustration offers, though. While two drivers direct three teams of horses to pull the streetcar to its destination, groups of boys are having a jolly time on sleds. A dog joins in the excitement, chasing the horses.

Ads for a tailor and a seller of shirts appear on the storefronts in the background. And when was the last time you came across a shop selling only wine and tea?

This omnibus appears to carry commuters to and from the Fulton Ferry, which allowed people to cross the East River in an era before bridges. I’m not quite sure how the omnibus got from the ferry on the East River to Broadway, Greenwich Avenue, Amity Street (the former name for Third Street), and Seventh Avenue.

More sleighing and sled scenes from old New York can be accessed here.

What the figures on the doors of a Third Avenue Gap store tell us about the building

January 23, 2023

The front doors caught my eye first. Heavy and bronze, these two doors at the entrance of the Gap store at Third Avenue and 85th Street feature intricate carvings and curious allegorical figures reminiscent of ancient Greece.

On one door, a woman balances a locomotive engine in her left hand and grips a caduceus in the right. Behind her is a sailing ship, and beside her head are the words “commerce and industry.”

The man on the opposite door holds a staff with a beehive at the top. In his other hand is a key, and at his feet a cornucopia. “Finance and savings” is inscribed at his shoulder.

Classical figures like these are pretty much the last thing you’d expect to find as you walk into the Gap. But the same set of doors also exist on the 85th Street side of the building, and the allegorical images offer a solid clue about what this unusually dignified building in the heart of Yorkville was built for.

The building was once the home of Yorkville Bank—an Italian Renaissance Revival structure built to serve this growing middle- and working-class immigrant neighborhood in 1905, according to a 2012 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The cast-bronze doors, fabricated by John Polachek Bronze & Iron Company of Long Island City, arrived after a renovation in the 1920s.

Four stories of limestone, brick, terra cotta, and granite, the building has the imposing, fortress-like look of a typical bank building from turn of the century New York City—when savings bank failures weren’t uncommon and financial institutions wanted to instill a sense of trust and strength to entice potential customers.

The allegorical figures are part of this strength and trust. The train the woman holds is a symbol of industry; the caduceus suggests commerce, according to the LPC report. The key in the man’s hands represents prudence, and the cornucopia is a sign of plenty.

The beehive is a traditional symbol of thrift, one found on the remains of other former bank buildings across Gotham.

Yorkville Bank’s rise and fall (above, about 1940) seem to mimic the rise and fall of Yorkville. A solid neighborhood bank in the first part of the 20th century, it merged with Manufacturer’s Trust Company in the 1920s. Business slowed as Yorkville’s German, Hungarian, and Czech immigrant communities dispersed and the neighborhood began its slow absorption by the Upper East Side.

The bank closed in 1990, after which it underwent a renovation into a more up-to-date commercial space. A year later, the Gap moved in.

Thankfully the Gap kept the doors, as well as the charming “YB” (Yorkville Bank, of course!) inscription above them.

Bank buildings all over New York City have been repurposed for other businesses—here’s one on the Upper West Side that now serves as a CVS, and another on Lafayette Street that’s become a Duane Reade.

[Fourth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

The story behind the flowers in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 23, 2023

When you walk through the front doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you enter a Neoclassical lobby that’s an architectural treasure in its own right—with dramatic archways, a marble floor, and a ceiling that seems to soar to the heavens.

But amid the coolness of the stone and marble, there’s a feature of the museum’s “Great Hall” that adds an aura of warmth and life: the giant urns that contain beautiful oversize fresh flower arrangements.

These lovely blooms change weekly; they tend to reflect the seasons. And just like every work of art displayed at the Met, there’s a story behind them.

The flowers were the idea of philanthropist Lila Acheson Wallace. In the late 1960s, she funded an endowment that would allow Met administrators to purchase and display weekly “starburst” flower arrangements throughout the lobby.

“An ephemeral addition to an otherwise timeless space, the florals change every Tuesday thanks to the generosity of a single donor, Lila Acheson Wallace, whose endowment in 1967 funded fresh flowers in perpetuity,” reported the New York Times in 2016.

Wallace herself reportedly wanted the flowers to convey to visitors, “we’re expecting you—welcome.”

Wallace, who with her husband founded Readers’ Digest in 1922, was a major benefactor of the Met. Museum-goers may recognize her name above the entrance to the Lila Acheson Wallace wing, which opened in 1987 to exhibit modern art.

Though she passed away in 1984, her endowment continues to grace the Great Hall and bring a sense of the present to a building famed for its antiquities.

[Top image: TomasEE/Wikipedia; third image: MetKids/Metmuseum.org]

The hard work of shoveling snow during a New York winter

January 16, 2023

You can almost feel the bitter cold in this rich, evocative scene of faceless men battling piles of snow after a winter storm buried a street somewhere in New York City.

Completed in 1905, painter Harry W. Newman would have been 32 years old when he captured the gray skies, white snow, black coats, and red brick that composed a typical city block of the era. We can’t see her face, but the little girl on the far right might be the only person looking at this as a snowy wonderland.

Where was this block, exactly? I wish I knew, but perhaps not knowing is the point. I see what look like streetcar rails sticking out from the snow, and the telephone wires and poles make me think it’s not Manhattan—where wires were buried underground following the Blizzard of 1888.

Could this be the aftermath of that deadly surprise blizzard, painted from memory?

[Source: Cavalier Galleries]

Discovering another vintage two-letter phone exchange on a West Side sign

January 16, 2023

Ephemeral New York readers know what a kick it is to come upon a faded ad, store sign, or building plaque that features an old New York City two-letter phone exchange—the kind that were officially replaced with numbers in the 1960s.

I’ve seen a few other Abramson Brothers plaques around Manhattan over the years. But this one, on West 52nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen, was new to me.

I concede these plaques look too spiffy to be made in the 1960s. Perhaps they come from the 1970s or 1980s, when generations of New Yorkers who grew up with the two-letter exchanges continued to be charmed by them.

Or maybe this real estate investment firm just likes the idea of a phone number acting as a geographical marker for where a household or business is located.

MU stood for Murray Hill—and 501 Fifth Avenue is on the edge of Murray Hill’s official borders.

What happened to the missing mansion built in 1906 on Upper Fifth Avenue

January 16, 2023

There’s a curious hole in the cityscape across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On a stretch of Fifth Avenue once known as Millionaire Mile, where handsome apartment houses and single-family mansions stand in alignment (with few exceptions) from 59th Street to the upper reaches of Central Park, the faded outline of a building can be seen on the side of 1026 Fifth, between 83rd and 84th Streets.

Number 1025 Fifth Avenue was evidently a smaller structure. Based on the ghostly outline left behind, it also lacked the Beaux-Arts flourishes of its neighbors, with their steep rooflines.

But even though it’s just a phantom building these days, its prominent address and strange disappearance from such an expensive swatch of real estate hint that the house has a backstory worth exploring. Here’s the mansion’s story, and the prominent early New Yorkers who called it home.

It all started in 1906, a few years after the three neighboring mansions to the north went up and filled out the block to 84th Street. Architect Ogden Codman was brought in to design a house for Genera Lloyd S. Bryce and his wife Edith, a granddaughter of Peter Cooper.

Bryce isn’t a household name anymore. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was a well-known writer, editor, and politician, serving positions in New York State government and as a rep in Congress in the 1880s.

The house Codman designed for Bryce (above, in 1939)) was a restrained, elegant beauty, described as a “white marble English basement” dwelling by the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide. The guide also noted Bryce’s well-heeled neighbors, which included Mrs. William M. Kingsland at Number 1026 next door.

Bryce spent five years in his Fifth Avenue mansion before being named the U.S. diplomat to the Netherlands in 1911. Newspaper accounts have it that Vincent Astor (son of John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic) leased the house from Bryce.

After Astor, a newlywed couple with an old New York pedigree became the new occupants in 1912 (above photo).

Peter Goelet Gerry (descendent of the landowning, Knickerbocker-era Goelet family) and his bride, railroad heiress Mathilde Townsend (“one of the noted beauties” of her hometown of Washington, D.C., per one newspaper), threw themselves what the New York Times described as a “small house warming” party in their ballroom to celebrate their move into Number 1025.

“There was a dinner of 28 covers, followed by dancing, for which additional guests came in, and a seated supper was served soon after 12 o’clock,” wrote the Times on February 1. “There were 150 guests in all. The guests were chiefly young married couples.”

Unfortunately, the party didn’t last. Mathilde and Peter, who would eventually become a senator from Rhode Island, divorced in 1925.

The next occupants of 1025 Fifth Avenue arrived in 1918, purchasing the mansion from the estate of Bryce, who passed away in 1917. Their last name was the one that likely opened the most doors.

Frederick W.Vanderbilt, grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, and his wife, Louise (below, in the 1880s), had original architect Ogden Codman renovate the house (above photo) before they took up occupancy.

Though the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with fancy dress balls and nights at the Metropolitan Opera, Frederick and Louise lived a relatively quiet life. Louise opened the home to recitals and luncheons; she was known for her devotion to charity and philanthropy.

After Louise’s death in 1926, this genealogy source states that Frederick spent the rest of his life in his Hyde Park mansion, becoming “a virtual recluse, living alone except for his servants.”

Frederick died in 1938, and Number 1025 was sold after his death. By 1954, the house was knocked down, replaced not by another mansion but by the long courtyard and corridor-like lobby of a towering apartment building erected in 1955, according to the Metropolitan Museum Historic District report.

The new apartment building took the mansion’s address, though only the 100-foot-long canopy and lobby extend to Fifth. It’s been called a gimmick and “clever ploy” by developers to obtain a Fifth Avenue address even though the building itself is actually on a side street.

The lobby gimmick has an upside, though: It keeps the original mansion’s faded outline visible, never fully erased from the cityscape like so many other houses with equally rich histories.

[Second photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; third photo: Library of Congress; fourth photo: unknown; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: Google]

Williamsburg used to be Williamsburgh—when did it lose the h and why?

January 9, 2023

The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has taken some strange and convoluted turns during its journey from farm village to urban neighborhood.

In the 17th century it was part of the Dutch town of Boswijck, which became the anglicized Bushwick when the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664.

But it wasn’t until 1802 when real-estate developer Richard M. Woodhull purchased 13 acres in Bushwick near the East River, intending to develop what had been farmland into an urban enclave. Woodhull hired an engineer, Jonathan Williams, to survey the land—then named the new development after Williams.

He called it Williamsburgh, with an h.

Williamsburgh grew rapidly. It became its own village in the town of Bushwick in 1827 and an affluent suburb of New York, according to Victor Lederer’s book Williamsburg. Riverfront industry such as shipbuilding and sugar refining attracted even more residents, and Williamsburgh incorporated itself into a town in 1840.

In 1852, the booming town—now home to 35,000 people—declared itself a separate city in Kings County. In the process, city officials dropped the h and called it the city of Williamsburg.

Williamsburg’s time as a city didn’t last long. By 1855, Williamsburg was annexed by the city of Brooklyn. And in 1898, the city of Brooklyn bit the dust, becoming the borough of Brooklyn of Greater New York City.

So it’s been 171 years since Williamsburgh became Williamsburg. What I’d like to know is why government officials decided to do away with the h in the first place.

Newspaper archives and other records aren’t giving me an answer. But my guess involves the ethnic background of Williamsburg’s newest residents in the mid-1850s. During the first half of the 19th century, thousands of Irish and German immigrants came to New York City, and a sizable number ended up in Williamsburg, laboring in the refineries and shipyards.

Perhaps “Williamsburgh” sounded a little too English. By ditching the h, Williamsburg may have been more appealing to new arrivals from nations that didn’t always have good relations with Britain.

This freewheeling French cafe and artist hangout had a colonial-era past

January 9, 2023

Sometimes you come across an image that compels you to do some research. That’s what happened when I found myself viewing this fleeting moment of intimacy below.

“At Mouquin’s” is a portrait by William Glackens, a founder of the Ashcan School known for his tender urban realist landscapes of New York City at the turn of the century.

In this painting, Glackens shows us two patrons at a cafe called Mouquin’s—a bustling, covivial spot on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in early 20th century Manhattan’s red-light Tenderloin district. It should be a lighthearted, jubilant scene befitting this decadent era before financial panic, the Great War, and Prohibition.

Yet the painting captures a disconnect. While a man of wealth and status tries to engage the interest of a woman sitting with him at a small table, she’s a million miles away—sipping a different drink, turned in another direction, alone in the crowd in 1905 New York City.

Who is this woman, and where is Mouquin’s? The Art Institute of Chicago, which has the painting in its collection, sheds some interesting light.

“In this vivid painting, William Glackens portrayed the members of his circle at their favorite meeting place, the New York restaurant Mouquin’s. Jeanne Mouquin, the proprietor’s wife, shares a drink with James B. Moore, a wealthy playboy and restaurateur, while the artist’s wife, Edith, and art critic Charles Fitzgerald are reflected in the mirror behind them.”

The members of Glackens’ circle also included fellow Ashcan School painters Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The group began gathering for nightly rendezvous at Mouquin’s after Glackens, Henri, and Sloan all found themselves renting studio space in the Sherwood Building on Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, according to Bennard B. Perlman, author of Painters of the Ashcan School.

While Glackens captured the dynamic between men and women inside the cafe, Shinn painted the exterior of this unusual, colonial-looking structure in wet winter weather (second image, above).

That these painters chose Mouquin’s as their hangout isn’t surprising. Founded by Swiss immigrant Henri Mouquin, the cafe first opened its doors on Nassau Street, then moved to Fulton Street. In the early 20th century, Mouquin’s relocated to the Tenderloin. There, politicians, newspaper writers, artists, and authors enjoyed alcohol-fueled conversations until the 2 a.m. closing time.

This was no stuffy Gilded Age dinner spot. Mouquin’s “always was distinctly New York and like the city, thoroughly cosmopolitan,” wrote the New York Herald in 1919. “Because of this character it has the breadth and freedom of cosmopolitanism. It never troubles itself about the rules.”

What gave Mouquin’s even more atmosphere was the building’s pedigree as a surviving piece of colonial New York City. Originally an 18th century estate house owned by the Varian family, it served as headquarters for Hessian generals during the Revolutionary War.

In 1825, the house was converted into a roadside inn called Knickerbocker Cottage (above, in the 1850s). In the first half of the 19th century, Sixth Avenue at 28th Street was almost the country, far from the din and activity of the main city. By the time Mouquin and his wife moved the cafe here around 1900, the area was in the middle of theaters, gambling houses, and other nightlife venues, accessible via the elevated train roaring overhead.

Mouquin’s entertained an eclectic mix of New Yorkers until the 1920s, when it was done in by Prohibition. The vine-covered, Parisian-like facade disappeared when the structure was knocked down soon after. But what a convivial atmosphere this colonial cottage had in its late Gilded Age heyday!

[Top image: Art Institute of Chicago; second image: Fine Art America; third image: Columbia University; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Library of Congress]

Join Ephemeral New York for a Gilded Age talk and tea at the Salmagundi Club!

January 5, 2023

If you were a wealthy and well-connected New Yorker during the Gilded Age, your winter calendar would be packed with balls: assembly balls, charity balls, and of course, Caroline Astor’s annual ball, the highlight of the social season.

And if you weren’t one of the Astor 400? Well, you could read all the details about these swanky events in the newspapers, imagining yourself as a guest or shaking your head at the expense and decadence.

Join Ephemeral New York on January 19 for an intimate look back at Gotham’s winter soiree season during the late 19th century. “Having a Ball: The Gilded Age’s Most Outrageous Parties” is part of the Salmagundi Club’s monthly Afternoon Tea Talks series.

In the parlor at the Salmagundi Club’s beautiful lower Fifth Avenue brownstone (below), I’ll be discussing the social season with Carl Raymond, Tea Talks moderator and host of The Gilded Gentleman podcast.

Carl and I will explore what the season of balls was like and how a ball was organized. We’ll also cover the Gilded Age’s most outrageous and expensive balls, such as Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883costume ball and the 1897 Bradley-Martin ball at the Waldorf—which marked the beginning of the end of ostentatious, over-the-top balls.

The event will be held from 3:30 to 4:30 pm at 47 Fifth Avenue (between 11th and 12th Streets). Tickets are $40 and include a tea reception with sandwiches and cookies following the talk. Click here to purchase tickets!

[Top image: Everett Shinn; second image: Hyde Ball via Find a Gravel third image: Salmagundi.org]

Winter beauty and misery at the arch at Washington Square

January 2, 2023

Dominating Washington Square Park and the imagination of painter Everett Shinn is the majestic marble Washington Arch, standing guard at the end of Fifth Avenue since 1892.

Here’s the spare beauty of a winter’s night at the arch: the gray-blue sky, and silvery, almost spooky tree branches. The low-rise buildings around the perimeter give the park the look of a town surrounding a village green—which makes sense, because Washington Square Park is the village green for the Village.

But then there’s the human misery of navigating cold, wet, windy weather. Shinn gives us a cab driver trying to control his vehicle, a pedestrian using her umbrella like a weapon, and various people with their heads down for protection against the fierce elements of a New York winter.

The one curious thing is the date of the painting: 1929, according to Christie’s, which auctioned it in 2016 for $47,500. The humans in the painting look like people from 1929. The horse-drawn streetcar and cab, however, must have been painted from memory.

[Source: Christie’s]