Shopping for Thanksgiving dinner at Washington Market in the 1870s

November 22, 2021

“Washington Market, New York, Thanksgiving Time” is the straightforward name of this hand colored wood engraving. Drawn by French artist Jules Tavernier, the richly detailed image ran in Harper’s Weekly in 1872.

What does Tavernier’s image tell us? Basically, food shopping at Thanksgiving time was just as crowded and harried in the 1870s as it is today.

Instead of visiting Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, New Yorkers could head to the shoddy wood stalls and wagons at the massive old Washington Market, in today’s Tribeca—where produce sellers hawked their goods from 1812 until the 1960s, when it gave way to redevelopment.

[Image: Philographikon.com]

The modest 1924 beginning of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade

November 22, 2021

New Yorkers know what to expect from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: towering balloon characters, marching bands, elaborate floats, and Santa Claus waving from his sleigh as the procession inches from Central Park West and 77th Street to Macy’s iconic Herald Square store.

It’s a beloved holiday tradition, but it’s notably different than the much more humble inaugural parade Macy’s held in 1924.

For starters, though the first parade was held on November 27—which was Thanksgiving Day in 1924—Macy’s called it a Christmas Parade. Store employees apparently came up with the idea.

“Earlier that year, a group of Macy’s employees who were largely first-generation immigrants had asked the company to put on a parade to celebrate two things: The upcoming Christmas season, and the pride they felt in their new country,” according to Better Homes & Gardens.

Macy’s corporate leaders may have liked the idea for another reason. “Macy’s hoped its ‘Christmas Parade’ would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast,” wrote history.com.

The first parade took a much longer route, starting at Convent Avenue and 145th Street and making its way to the flagship Macy’s on 34th Street. Opened in 1902 after Macy’s long reign on the 14th Street end of Ladies Mile, the massive shopping mecca was a mere 22 years old at the time.

Macy’s took out newspaper ads to let New York know about the parade, promising a “marathon of mirth,” per history.com. That tagline was often used to advertise vaudeville shows, and indeed, the first parade had something of a vaudeville-like feel. (Below, the small ad the Brooklyn Eagle ran announcing the upcoming parade.)

“While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square,” the site continued. “The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.”

What about the entertainment? The parade had no balloon floats yet, but three floats pulled by horses were themed around Mother Goose characters, such as Little Miss Muffet (second photo). Macy’s employees also dressed up as clowns, cowboys, princesses, and knights, lending the parade a circus-like, stage show aura.

Animals were also featured, conveniently borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. “Live animals including camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys were part of the parade that inaugural year,” stated a 2011 New York Daily News piece.

While Santa Claus was at the rear of the parade, he didn’t disappear once the procession ended on 34th Street. “By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh,” wrote history.com.

Once he emerged from his sleigh, the site explained that Santa “scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue.”

Though the parade wasn’t widely covered the next day in the papers (above, a grainy photo from the Daily News of the parade on Broadway), it was a smashing success. Macy’s was so pleased, they vowed to do it again on Thanksgiving 1925.

In the 1920s it became an annual event, but not without big changes. The zoo animals were replaced by balloon floats (above, in 1926) and then actual balloon characters as we know them today. Felix the Cat was the first one, in 1927; unfortunately Felix collided with an electrical wire in New Jersey in 1931 and was no more.

The parade route was shortened, the crowds got huge, balloons were no longer released into the air after the parade ended, and the first TV broadcast in 1947 turned it into a national celebration marking the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

[Top photo: Macy’s via bhg.com; second and third photos: Macy’s; fourth image: newspapers.com; fourth and fifth images: newspapers.com; sixth and seventh images: Macy’s]

The Wild West-inspired apartment house designed for urban cliff dwellers

November 22, 2021

In Gilded Age New York, a new term popped up to mock a certain type of Manhattanite: cliff dweller.

“By about 1890 the growing number of residents in apartment houses were sardonically called cliff dwellers, after the image of the cliff-dwelling Native Americans in the Southwest,” wrote Irving Lewis Allen in his 1995 book, The City in Slang.

Inspired by the new slang term as well as Southwestern images and motifs, a new residential building opened its doors on Riverside Avenue and 96th Street in 1916: the aptly named Cliff Dwelling.

The 12-story Cliff Dwelling, situated on a flatiron-shaped plot only roughly eight feet deep on one side, opened as an apartment hotel high up over Riverside Park on posh Riverside Drive.

Unlike the restrained elegance that characterized similar new buildings on the Drive, the Cliff Dwelling had a playful, inventive facade unique in New York City.

Buffalo or cattle skulls, two-headed snakes, and mountain lions in terra cotta decorate the front of the building, along with images of corn, spears, and masks. Raised bricks form geometrical patterns and zigzags that mimic Aztec and Mayan design motifs.

Credit for the wildly original design goes to architect Herman Lee Meader, according to a 2002 New York Times article by Christopher Gray. “[Meader] was intensely interested in Mayan and Aztec architecture and made regular expeditions to Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán and other sites,” wrote Gray.

The Cliff Dwelling continued the Southwestern theme on the inside as well, stated Gray: “The lobby was furnished with Navajo rugs; tiles of tan, green, black and blood red; and zigzag designs on the lamps and elevator cages reminiscent of American Indian designs.”

By 1932, the Cliff Dwelling was converted to apartments, according to Carter Horsely at cityrealty.com, with kitchens added to the already small rooms. Since 1979, the building—which lost its marquee at some point, visible in the above 1939 photo—has been a co-op.

I’ve never been inside the Cliff Dwelling, but I imagine there’s still a sense of living high above an urban canyon, with a view to the Hudson and perhaps the New Jersey Palisades.

One recent change, however, may make the Cliff Dwelling feel more like a typical squeezed-in city structure: In the early 2000s, a new residential building was built inches away from the Cliff Dwelling’s eastern facade.

At least the western facade still has those wonderful tongue-out faces at eye level.

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

A portrait painter’s shadowy figure on a nighttime city street

November 15, 2021

History has given John Bentz a low profile.

Born in 1853 in Ohio, Bentz may be best known as a portraitist and art restorer. He painted the rich and socially connected, and four years before his death at age 97, he was hired to clean paintings in City Hall, per a 1946 New York Daily News article.

But Bentz also painted landscapes, and one, titled “Journey to the End of the Night,” is this WPA-era nocturne of the cityscape—showing us a bedraggled, whiskered man, his hands in his front pockets looking straight ahead. The rough forms of pedestrians can be seen in the light in the background, around the corner but worlds away from the man.

Could this be a self-portrait of the artist, who would have been well into old age when the painting was completed in the 1930s or 1940s? With a dark sliver of a Gothic church on the left across from the well-lit figure stopped in his tracks under a modern red awning, is it a comment of sorts on death and immortality?

Or perhaps it’s an allegory on the passing of time: the revelers in the background on the sidewalk and on top of a double decker bus oblivious to the fact that one day, they will be the old whiskered man shuffling alone along a New York street.

[Invaluable]

What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

November 15, 2021

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]

The lovely Art Nouveau window grille on a Riverside Drive row house

November 15, 2021

There’s a lot of enchantment on Riverside Drive, the rare Manhattan avenue that deviates from the 1811 Commissioners Plan that laid out the mostly undeveloped city based on a pretty rigid street grid.

Rather than running straight up and down, Riverside winds along its namesake park, breaking off into slender carriage roads high above the Hudson River. (We have Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who also conceptualized Riverside Park and what was originally called Riverside Avenue, to thank for this.)

But the surviving row house at number 294 deserves a closer look. More precisely, it’s the beautiful wrought iron grille protecting the wide front parlor window that invites our attention.

Number 294 was originally a four-story, single-family home completed in 1901. It’s a wonderful, mostly untouched example of the Beaux-Arts style that was all the rage among the city’s elite at the turn of the last century.

“The most striking features of the facade of 294 Riverside Drive—the orderly, asymmetrical arrangement, the finely carved limestone detailing, the graceful Ionic portico, the slate mansard roof, the elaborate dormers, and the ornate ironwork—eloquently express the richness embodied in the Beaux-Arts style,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1991 document, which designated the house, built in 1901, as a city landmark.

That unusual front window grille, however, seems to be the one part of the house that aligns more with the Art Nouveau style, which emerged in Europe in the early 1900s and wasn’t widely adopted in New York City.

Take a look at the the graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimic flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature. This grille is original to the house, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which called it “intricate and naturalistic.” The AIA guide to New York City pays homage to its Art Nouveau beauty, calling it “remarkable.”

Why such a fanciful window grille (below on the house in 1939-1941) became part of the house likely has to do with the man who commissioned number 294 and was its first owner.

William Baumgarten, born in Germany and the son of a master cabinetmaker, was one of the most prominent interior designers in Gilded Age New York City. Baumgarten designed the inside of William Henry Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansion; along with his firm, Herter Brothers, he was responsible for the interiors of other mansions and luxury hotels.

He and his wife, Clara, occupied the Riverside Drive row house until first William and then his wife passed away. In 1914, their survivors family sold it off. It was soon carved up into apartments, as it remains today. (The photo above has a “for rent” sign on the facade, but I just can’t make out a price.)

Baumgarten was known for his creative genius and talent. He would certainly want to live in a row house mansion (now known as the William and Clara Baumgarten House) of his own that reflected the beautiful design touches of his era.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The understated war memorials inside a private Central Park South club

November 8, 2021

The New York Athletic Cub on Central Park South might sound like a strange place to honor Veterans Day. But if the doormen let you take a look around this “Italian Renaissance Palazzo style” club founded in 1868, wander through the cavernous lobby.

On the right amid the club chairs and lounge areas is an entire wall with a plaque dedicated to the New York Athletic Club members who served in World War II. Within the plaque is a list of men who make up their “honored dead.”

World War II isn’t the only war worthy of a memorial. Besides the WWII wall are smaller plaques honoring those who died in Korea and Vietnam.

To my knowledge, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t have their own monuments inside the building—which opened in 1930 at Seventh Avenue on the former site of the magnificent circa-1880s Navarro Flats, one of the city’s most spectacular apartment complexes.

But there is a plaque commemorating the event that started those wars, listing the names of club members who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

A woman found bludgeoned in a Tenderloin hotel sparks a trial that riveted New York

November 8, 2021

It happened on Broadway and 31st Street in room 84 of the Grand Hotel, in the middle of the Tenderloin—Gilded Age New York’s vast vice playground of brothels, dance halls, theaters, and gambling dens.

After knocking on the door several times on the morning of August 16, 1898, a chambermaid entered the room and found the corpse of a pretty young woman, her head in a pool of blood and her clothed body spread out on the floor.

The stylishly dressed woman “had been bludgeoned with a lead pipe to the skull, her neck was broken, and one of her earlobes was torn by the violent removal of an earring,” wrote John Oller in Rogues’ Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York.

“Her clothing was undisturbed, the bed linens fresh and unmussed,” wrote Oller. “On a table in the center of the room stood an empty champagne bottle and two glasses.”

Police in the Tenderloin were used to gruesome crime scenes, and they were summoned to the hotel to piece together evidence.

The details were intriguing. Though the woman had signed into the hotel as “E. Maxwell and wife, Brooklyn” and was then seen by hotel staff meeting a man in a straw hat, her real identity was Emeline “Dolly” Reynolds, a petite 21-year-old who two years earlier left her well-off parents in Mount Vernon to try to make it as an actress in Manhattan.

Reynolds wasn’t getting anywhere as an actress however. For a time she sold books, then met a married man named Maurice Mendham (above). This wealthy stockbroker helped set her up in an apartment on West 58th Street, bought her jewelry, and lived with her “as man and wife,” as a prosecutor later put it.

Just as interesting to detectives was the check that fell out of her corset during her on-scene autopsy. “It was made payable to ‘Emma Reynolds’ in the amount of $13,000,” wrote Oller. “Dated August 15, 1898, the previous day, it was drawn on the Garfield National Bank, signed by a ‘Dudley Gideon,’ and endorsed on the back by ‘S.J. Kennedy.'”

Investigators soon learned that Mendham had an alibi; he was in Long Branch at the time. They also discovered that ‘Dudley Gideon’ didn’t exist. But S.J. Kennedy did, and they began taking a closer look at this 32-year-old Staten Island dentist who practiced on West 22nd Street and was introduced to Reynolds by Mendham.

“Reynolds’ mother told police that about a week before the murder, Dolly told her that Dr. Kennedy (above) volunteered to put $500 on a horse race for her,” according to Strange Company. “She had drawn the money from her bank, and would meet him on the evening of August 15 to deliver what he promised would be a highly profitable investment.”

Police arrested Kennedy five hours after Reynolds’ body was discovered.

After denying he knew Reynolds, Kennedy then admitted to being her regular dentist, according to Oller, and that he saw her in his office the previous week. He insisted their relationship was professional and that he did not place any bets for her, had never been to the Grand Hotel, and his signature on the $13,000 check was forged.

Still, hotel employees ID’d him as the man in the straw hat they saw with Reynolds the day before her body was found. Kennedy also could not explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder, estimated to be at 1 a.m. He thought he’d been to Proctor’s Theatre on West 23rd Street (above), but he couldn’t recall the name of the play he’d seen, wrote Oller.

Police and prosecutors came up with a theory to connect Kennedy to Reynolds. “According to the theory, Dolly was just one of the ‘lambs’ that Kennedy, a feeder for a group of confidence men, was tasked with separating from their money,” explained Oller. But there were some holes, such as why the check was for $13,000, and why the dentist murdered her so viciously.

The March 1899 trial riveted New York City, and newspapers printed lurid front-page headlines with illustrations of the courtroom. Hotel staff and guests (like Mrs. Logue, above) took the stand; Kennedy did not. The jury quickly convicted Kennedy and sentenced him to die in Sing Sing in the electric chair.

But then, the convicted dentist got a lucky break, when in 1900 the Court of Appeals granted him a new trial due to “hearsay” that was used as evidence in the first trial.

The second time, the jury deadlocked, with 11 voting to acquit. At a third trial, Mendham testified, and “his evasiveness about the extent of his relationship with Dolly Reynolds fed the defense’s insinuation that he was somehow behind the murder,” wrote Oller.

While crowds sympathetic to Kennedy rallied outside the courtroom, the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict once again. The city declined to try the case a fourth time. Kennedy was released from the Tombs and returned to Staten Island to a hero’s welcome.

“He resumed his dental practice and lived quietly in New Dorp, dying at age 81 in August 1948, almost 50 years to the day after the murder of his patient Dolly Reynolds,” wrote Oller.

[Top image: San Jose Mercury News; second image: MCNY X2011.34.35; third image: New York World; fourth image: The Scrapbook; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15639; sixth image: New York World; seventh image: New York Journal]

From brownstones to business: 3 centuries on a West 57th Street block

November 7, 2021

New York City developers went on a brownstone-building frenzy from the 1860s and 1880s. Block upon uptown block began teeming with these iconic row houses that first symbolized luxury but eventually were derided for their mud-brown monotony.

West 57th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenue was one such brownstone block. Here it is around 1890, about the time when this fashionable stretch south of Central Park was home to wealthy residents with names like Roosevelt, Auchincloss, and Sloane, according to Edward B. Watson in New York Then and Now.

Interrupting the low-rise block are church spires. “The church with the tall spire between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is the Calvary Baptist Church, built in 1883,” wrote Watson. Beyond the Sixth Avenue El is the 11-story Osborn apartment building, constructed in 1885, and the faint spire of the wonderfully named Church of the Strangers.

What’s not in the photo on the right at the corner of Fifth Avenue extending all the way to 58th Street is the Alice Vanderbilt mansion—where the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II lived until the 137-room Gilded Age relic was torn down in 1927 (above, in 1894, with brownstones looming on the left).

Fast forward 85 years to the 1970s. In the 1975 photo of the same block (below), West 57th’s days as a stylish residential enclave were mostly over.

Brownstones were bulldozed in favor of tall commercial buildings, including the curved reflective glass tower at Number 9 (completed in 1973, per Watson). The Sixth Avenue El is just a memory.

And though luxury residences like the Osborn survived (visible at the way far left, I believe, if you really squint), few brownstones made it. One in the photo to the right of the reflective glass tower is 7 West 57th Street. This is the former home of financier and philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn, according to Watson, though the facade has undergone a redesign.

Lewisohn might best be remembered as the man who funded CUNY’s Lewisohn Stadium between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues from 136th to 138th Streets, which met the bulldozer in 1973.

Here’s the same stretch of West 57th Street today, with traffic, glassy towers, and many empty spaces where brownstones and other lower-rise buildings used to be.

Bergorf-Goodman has long since taken the place of the Vanderbilt mansion at the corner of Fifth, Lewisohn’s home is either swathed in black glass or gone altogether, and supertall luxury condos stretch higher than the ambitious builders of the Osborn could have imagined.

[Top photo: New York Then and Now; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: Edmund V. Gillon, Jr/New York Then and Now]

A moment in time somewhere on the Bowery

November 1, 2021

An abandoned street cleaning cart. Men in hats walking alone. A streetcar traveling on dusty Belgian block pavement, an elevated train overhead, a succession of store signs and advertisements.

It’s just a glimpse in time around the turn of the century on the Bowery. But where, exactly? One of the buildings has 57 on it, suggesting 57 Bowery. That address no longer exists; it would have been near the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge.

There’s another sign that might give us a clue: the ad propped against a pole at the edge of the sidewalk. It looks like the first word is “London.” A theater with that name existed at 235 Bowery, where the New Museum is today between Stanton and Rivington Streets.

Whatever the exact address is, you can practically feel the energy and vitality—the pulse of a street now synonymous with a lowbrow kind New York life.