What did the FA phone exchange stand for?

December 11, 2017

While enjoying the views along Edgecombe Avenue in Upper Manhattan, I spotted this rusted sign containing an old two-letter phone exchange, once ubiquitous in New York until they were phased out in the 1960s.

The FA exchange is a mystery. Gun Hill is a road in the Bronx, and the Gun Hill Fence Company, founded in 1959, still operates in the Bronx, now in a site on Boston Road.

Fordham is my best (but probably not accurate) guess. These old two-letter telephone exchanges are fun to find in hidden pockets of New York City.

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

Cabins and cottages on top of Manhattan roofs

December 11, 2017

Who says you can’t have your own secret little cabin perched high in the sky in the middle of Manhattan?

It looks like one tenement owner made a cabin-like home complete with a shingled roof on top of this otherwise ordinary tenement on East 57th Street at about First Avenue.

It’s nothing fancy, but there’s a little fence around the edge of the roof, creating something of a front yard six flights up in the air. And the door even has an awning.

The people who made the 57th Street cabin have nothing on the cottage dwellers who occupy this beachy home perched on the roof of Third Avenue and 13th Street. (See the for sale ad and interior photos from 2015 courtesy EV Grieve.)

And then there’s the lucky inhabitants on top of 719 Greenwich Street in the West Village, who opened their porch (look, a porch swing!) and gave the New York Times a peek into their hidden tenement-top cottage in 2006.

[Third photo: New York Times]

The owls that adorn New York school buildings

December 4, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a progressive-minded New York embarked on a great mission to construct school buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of school buildings C.B.J. Snyder, hundreds of schools went up in neighborhoods all across the newly consolidated city.

Snyder thought of schools as civic monuments, and he designed them so they maximized sunlight and ventilation and inspired kids to learn.

I don’t know if these were part of Snyder’s plans, but so many of the schools built around this time feature owls on the facade—classical symbols of knowledge and wisdom, like this owl outside an elementary school in the East Village, the former PS 61.

Owls can be found adorning all kinds of city buildings, not just schools. Some owls even reside in city parks.

This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all

December 4, 2017

The elegant Brevoort mansion (left, in 1912), which stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for an astounding 91 years, doesn’t look like the kind of place that hosted serious partying.

But inside these walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century.

The story of the ball begins with the story of the mansion, commissioned in 1834 by Henry Brevoort. He was a descendant of the Brevoort family—wealthy landowners who trace their Manhattan lineage to the 17th century.

Fifth Avenue at the time was little more than a dirt road. But fashionable New Yorkers were moving to Washington Square, and Henry Brevoort decided to build a Greek Revival house (below, 1915) and surrounding gardens nearby.

It must have been a bucolic home in those early years, a place Brevoort could entertain literary friends like Washington Irving (below left).

After hosting several smaller parties, the Brevoorts had a bigger plan. In winter 1840, they sent out invitations for a costume ball like the ones taking Europe by storm at the time. (This image below, from Demorest’s magazine, gives an idea of these balls).

It wasn’t the first costume ball in New York, but it was the one that dazzled Gotham and pushed the city into ball fever.

“The fashionable set are remarkably well off just now in the possession of an inexhaustible topic of conversation in Mrs. Brevoort’s bal costume, costume a la rigueur, which is to come off next Thursday evening,” wrote former mayor Philip Hone (below right) in his diary days before the affair.

“Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders; the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce; and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy-turvy by the ‘note of preparation’ which is heard.”

The lucky invitees showed up at the mansion on February 24. Hone, dressed as Cardinal Wolsey, and his family arrived at 10 p.m.

“Soon after our party arrived the five rooms on the first floor (including the library) were completely filled,” wrote Hone.

“I should think there were about 500 ladies and gentlemen . . . many who went there hoping each to be the star of the evening found themselves eclipsed by some superior luminary, or at best forming a unit in the milky way.”

Such great interest in the ball didn’t go unnoticed by James Gordon Bennett, the canny publisher of the New York Herald. With Brevoort’s consent, he sent a reporter in costume dressed as a knight to report all the details of the ball—perhaps the city’s first celebrity gossip coverage.

Among the costumes were a fox hunter, a peasant, a German miner, an “Arab boy,” a “Dutch girl,” “Spanish muleteer,” and Greek gods and goddesses like Diana.

The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most notorious ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala at the other end of Fifth Avenue in 1883—so important that it changed New York society.

The Brevoort mansion remained until 1925—a lone reminder of wealth and society in the antebellum city (above in 1903).

[First and second photos: MCNY; third image: NYPL; fourth and fifth photos: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY]

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]

The best vintage candy store sign in New York

November 27, 2017

It all started with William and Anna Loft, English immigrants who came to New York in the 1850s and opened a small candy store on Canal Street a decade later that sold homemade chocolates.

By the 1920s, Loft’s was the biggest candy retailer in the nation, with 75 stores (including this one below on Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope, circa 1959), according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Loft’s opened a candy factory in Long Island City in the 20th century—see the ad in the “female wanted” section of the Brooklyn Eagle in the wartime year of 1944.

Not a lot of men were around to do the wrapping, dipping, and stroking. I wonder what the pay was like.

After a series of missteps and mergers, the last Loft’s store closed up shop in 1990.

But the store sign at 88 Nassau Street downtown lives on—it’s a cut above Manhattan’s next best candy store sign at Economy Candy.

[Second Photo: the Park Slopian; Third Image: Brooklyn Eagle 1944]

The glorious mansions on a lovely Harlem block

November 27, 2017

Nineteenth century New York had lots of freestanding, single-family mansions.

Few survive today, but one Harlem block is host to four. These bells-and-whistles monuments to wealth and status do a pretty good job blending in with the walkups that surround them.

You’ll find these mansions at St. Nicholas Place and 150th Street, in the middle of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

Sugar Hill is roomy and lovely, but I don’t think the name was in use when James Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) decided to build this magnificent castle of a home in 1888 (below, in 1895).

It’s a Medieval limestone mansion with 64 windows of mosaic glass and 30 rooms at 10 St. Nicholas Place—an offshoot of St. Nicholas Avenue, a high and wide road popular among the Gilded Age rich who went coaching there.

“Bailey thought that St. Nicholas Place would be lined with other mansions and would develop into a Harlem version of lower Riverside Drive,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2001 New York Times piece.

“But Bailey was disappointed by apartment construction in the area in the 1890s,” Gray stated, and he sold the home in 1904. In 2014 after years of use as a funeral home, the Bailey house underwent a renovation.

Next door to the Bailey Mansion and visible in the above photo is another castle of a home, one whose backstory isn’t quite clear.

The AIA Guide to New York City noted it but didn’t provide any detail; a family named Alexander occupied the wood and stone Queen Anne beauty, with its unusual porch and gumdrop turret, early in the 20th century.

Across 150th Street is 6-8 St. Nicholas Place. Once it was two separate mansions: Number 6 is the Romanesque-inspired rowhouse built in 1895 by Jacob Baiter, a yeast manufacturer.

Number 8 (below) is the John W. Fink House, a Queen Anne from 1886.

“Now used as a hotel, these two buildings were connected in a conversion to a psychiatric sanitarium in 1912,” states Carolyn D. Johnson in Harlem Travel Guide.

At the end of short 150th Street on Edgecomb Avenue and with commanding views of upper Manhattan is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House.

This fortress of loveliness went up in 1890—when Harlem “still resembled a country village,” the Landmarks Preservation plaque on the front of the home says.

Nicholas Benziger was a successful publisher of religious texts. “The mansion features a flared mansard roof pierced by numerous gabled dormers and a richly colored iron-spot brick facade,” the plaque informs us.

In the 1920s, it became part of a sanitarium, and then in 1989 became permanent housing for formerly homeless adults (above).

[Third photo: MCNY x2012.61.22.37; seventh photo: New York Times; ninth photo: mrmhadams.typepad.com]

What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley

November 27, 2017

Theatre Alley doesn’t look like much today.

Construction gear blocks the narrow roadway, and the street sign marking this one-block stretch between Ann and Beekman Streets besides Park Row has disappeared.

But imagine it in the early 19th century, with actors and theater professionals hanging around before a show and carriages lining up to pick up theatergoers after the curtain call.

That’s when Theatre Alley was the center of the city’s small but popular—and very rowdy—Theater District.

The most celebrated playhouse was the Park Theatre, built in 1798. Theatre Alley ran along the Park’s back entrance—or “stage entrance” as The New York Times called it in a 1947 article.

The Park was “designed by several of the French architects who flocked to America after the French Revolution, suggesting that the theater, always popular, had also become prestigious,” wrote Howard Kissel in New York Theater Walks.

It wasn’t the city’s first theater. The New Theatre on Nassau Street and the John Street Theatre opened in the mid-18th century near the site of the Park.

They catered to rowdy audiences who cheered the dramas, farces, and musical comedies—when they weren’t calling out to the actors and consorting with prostitutes in the back rows.

But the Park aimed for a more genteel crowd. Styled like a London playhouse, it featured seating for 2,000 “and contained curved benches in the pit and three tiers of boxes and galleries,” stated The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre.

The Park hosted the top actors of the era, from Edmund Kean to Junius Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Fanny Kemble, a popular actress who made her stage debut there in 1832.

Of course, the Park’s stab at respectability didn’t exactly work out; New York working-class audiences were particularly unruly theater patrons. Audience members routinely talked through performances and tossed apples and nuts at those seated below them.

Then there was the spitting. British writer Frances Trollope visited and recalled in her published 1832 travel diary the “yet unrazored lips” she saw were “polluted with the grim tinge of the hateful tobacco, and heard, without ceasing, the incessant spitting, which of course is its consequence.”

Theatre Alley long outlived its namesake. The Park burned down in 1820, then was rebuilt in 1821. It went up in flames again in 1848. By then, the Theater District had long departed Park Row.

New York’s theater scene followed the growth of the city northward, centering around Astor Place in the 1840s before relocating to 14th Street and inching up Broadway to Longacre Square by the turn of the century.

There’s another theatre alley now: Shubert Alley, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 44th Street. The original Theatre Alley is now a small footnote in New York’s glorious theater history.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the enormous popularity of the city’s theaters.

[Map: 1913 City of New York Independence Day Celebration Guide; third image: MCNY x2011.38.15; fourth and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections]

Greetings from Thanksgivings past in New York

November 20, 2017

Do you send greeting cards wishing friends and family a happy Thanksgiving? Probably not—especially when a text or Facebook post will do.

But New Yorkers a century ago sent out these penny postcards emblazoned with turkeys, Pilgrims, pumpkins, corn, American flags, cherubic children, and other Thanksgiving images.

The New York Public Library has a large collection of these early 1900s cards in their digital gallery. All were sent to New Yorkers (Brooklyn and Manhattan primarily).

And none have ZIP codes—those didn’t come until 1963!

[NYPL Digital Collection from 1907-1909]