The apartment rooftop that hosted Henri Matisse

August 13, 2018

French Modernist painter Henri Matisse has many of his still lifes, figures, and landscapes on display in New York’s most distinguished museums.

But there’s only one place in Manhattan where a little-known framed photo of Matisse is always on display, with the Depression-era city skyline behind him.

You can see it yourself if the doorman decides to give you a peek.

The black and white photo, from 1930, is in the small lobby of 10 Mitchell Place, a charming 13-story prewar apartment house built in 1928 that was originally called Stewart Hall.

Never heard of Mitchell Place? It’s a secret sliver of a street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place in a quiet neighborhood of old world charm—perfect for an artist more accustomed to Nice than New York.

In the photo, Matisse is sitting in a chair on the building’s brick roof terrace. With his left hand holding his bearded chin, the artist looks contemplative amid a backdrop of apartment buildings, water towers, and the Queensboro Bridge.

What brought Matisse to Mitchell Place? I wonder if he’s in New York visiting his son.

Pierre Matisse moved to New York in the 1920s to become an art dealer and opened a renowned art gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street.

Apparently Matisse came to Mitchell Place often, according to a 2014 New York Times article on one-block streets.

“The painter Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the charming roof deck at 10 Mitchell Place, a.k.a. Stewart Hall. There, a framed 1930 photograph in the 1928 co-op’s equally charming lobby, which has a large fireplace, shows him resting on a canvas deck chair, pondering the East River views.”

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

The four-faced street clock of East 79th Street

August 13, 2018

Few things are as charming in New York as an old-fashioned street clock, and this four-faced brass beauty with the beehive-like knobs on the top and bottom is a sight to behold.

It’s affixed to a four-story building on First Avenue and 79th Street, an unusual place for such a lovely street clock.

They’re typically found anchored to stately or elegant buildings—hotels, luxury stores, and insurance headquarters.

Clocks are emblems of stability and certainty, like the 1853 clock carried by Atlas at the entrance to Tiffany & Co on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. There’s also the 1909 cast-iron sidewalk clock on Fifth and 23rd Street, once at the front of the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel.

But the one on 79th Street is in a low-key neighborhood, and the little building it hangs off of looks like a former tenement. Who put it there?

A bank did, and it dates to at least the 1930s. This 1951 photo above reveals that the building was a branch of Manufacturers Trust Company, a bank that began in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

Manufacturers Trust Company still had the bank in 1982, per this ad from New York magazine that year. In the 2000s it was a short-lived restaurant spinoff of Agata & Valentina, the specialty food store across the street. At some point it was also a rug store.

Today, it’s a Vitamin Shoppe franchise. Amazingly, the clock has managed to remain a lovely jewel on this quiet corner that still tells the time.

This page of street clocks contains an image from 2011 of the clock that’s clearer than mine.

[Third photo: MCNY 1951, x2010.7.1.9746]

Surf Avenue lit up by electricity and moonlight

August 6, 2018

It’s a full moon on this summer night along Surf Avenue at Coney Island. It’s the late 1920s, electricity is illuminating restaurant and theater marquees; cars and trolleys cruise the road.

There’s a Nedick’s, the old hot dog chain, and a chop suey place, serving that invented Chinese dish. The moon shines bright over the Cyclone, which must have been just built; it dates to 1927.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.2119]

The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

August 6, 2018

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 90.13.3.63; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]

The story of a Gilded Age anti-noise crusade

August 6, 2018

It was the incessant blasting of tugboat horns that ultimately got to Julia Rice.

Rice (right), a doctor, mother of six, and wife of wealthy lawyer and investor Isaac Rice, inhabited a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street in the early 1900s.

This was the kind of palace that promised peace and quiet. Her husband even named the magnificent freestanding house with its lovely gardens “Villa Julia” (below left) after his spouse.

But the constant noise from ships just beyond her landscaped property was too much for Rice. So she did what any fed-up and influential New Yorker would do: formed an organization funded by her own money and rallied lawmakers.

That’s the genesis of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise.

Rice established the group in 1905 to fight the disturbing sounds of river traffic, especially “against tugboat pilots who would use whistles and sirens for personal messages at all hours,” reported the New York Times in 1997.

Admittedly, Rice sounds like a bit of a crank. But maybe not.

New York is loud today, but it was arguably louder at the end of the Gilded Age—with elevated trains screeching, horse hoofs incessantly clip-clopping, and factory whistles, fire engine sirens, and disorderly humans making earsplitting racket.

“Armed with research documenting the health problems caused by the sleep-shattering blasts, Rice launched a relentless lobbying campaign that took her to police stations, health departments, the offices of shipping regulators, and ultimately the halls of Congress,” stated a New Republic article from 2010.

“Initially ignored, her pleas finally reached sympathetic ears in Washington—and she won her battle. New York and other East Coast cities placed tough new restrictions on the blowing of horns and whistles by tugs.”

Emboldened, Rice extended her campaign “to every form of noise that jars the nerves and is not essential to the commerce of the city,” explained the New-York Tribune in 1907.

Rice lobbied for quieter street vendors, less traffic, and rubber tires on milk wagons. She opposed “factory whistles, firecrackers, and boys clacking sticks along iron fences,” according to the 1997 Times article.

It’s unclear how far she got waging those fights. But with the help of none other than Mark Twain, she did get schoolchildren to agree to be quieter when they walked or played near hospitals.

Rice and her anti-noise crusade quieted down after 1910. New Yorkers were still noisy, but cars replaced horse-drawn modes of transportation—and the din of the city died down.

[First image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Riverside Drive looking down from 93rd Street, MCNY, F2011.33.94; fourth image: Reade Street, 1898, MCNY, 93.1.1.17155]

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Labor and pleasure at the Old Slip banana docks

July 30, 2018

Bananas are so ubiquitous in New York, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t fish a few coins from your pocket and buy one at a corner bodega or sidewalk fruit vendor.

But this exotic food was a luxury item after the Civil War, selling for the equivalent of two bucks. Each banana came peeled and sliced, as the shape of the fruit violated Victorian codes of decency, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

With New York one of the busiest port cities in the world, it wasn’t long before fruit companies began shipping mass quantities of bananas on ships arriving at the “banana docks” at the Old Slip piers near Wall Street.

Unloading bananas looked like hard work, according to these turn of the century images. But for small boys in the neighborhood, the banana docks presented opportunities.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in his 1929 autobiography.

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

[Top photo: MCNY, 1906, X2011.34.4388; second photo: 1904 LOC]

A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers

July 30, 2018

When she was found by a police officer on the third floor of Beekman Tower on the morning of November 12, 1935, Vera Stretz didn’t deny that she had just fired four bullets into the married man she was having an affair with (below).

“I shot him,” the blond, 31-year-old NYU graduate confessed to the officer, who spotted her sitting on the floor by the elevator of the sleek Art Deco hotel at First Avenue and Mitchell Place (below left).

In her purse, Stretz was carrying a revolver, ammo, a bloody negligee, and her will—along with the passport and apartment key of Fritz Gebhardt, 43, her German businessman lover.

The Manhattan DA’s office probably assumed it was a slam-dunk case; a crime of passion with a quick confession and lots of evidence.

But this lurid murder would take an unusual turn, with Stretz ultimately claiming that Gebhardt asked her to do something so “unnatural,” she had to defend her honor.

The details emerged when her trial began in March 1936. Stretz met Gebhardt on a cruise to the West Indies and fell hard for the smooth-talking World War I pilot and intellectual. (He was a fan of Nietzsche, apparently.)

Back in New York, Gebhardt got Stretz a job in his office and an apartment for her below his in Beekman Tower.

When Gebhardt sailed to Germany in July, Stretz assumed it was to divorce the wife he’d left behind so he could come back and marry her.

But when her paramour returned to New York in November, he was still married. Worse, he said he had no intentions of marrying Stretz.

This is where the crime of passion theory veers into totally different territory, one with salacious details that captivated New Yorkers.

Stretz’s defense lawyer was Samuel Leibowitz (at the right of Stretz in the above photo), the celebrated attorney who represented Al Capone and the Scottsboro Boys.

Leibowitz put Stretz on the stand.

“Through tears, Stretz told the court how he dominated her, and of the horrible events on the night of the shooting,” wrote the New York Daily News in a 2010 recap of the story.

“She said Gebhardt had called for her to come to his apartment because he was feeling ill. Once there, he tried to force her to perform an ‘unnatural act.’

She shot, Leibowitz declared, in defense of her honor.”

The “unnatural act” was assumed to be oral sex—and the 12-man jury apparently agreed that no morally straight man would ask a woman to take part in this sexual activity. Leibowitz also capitalized on anti-Nazi sentiment by painting the dead man as a Nazi sympathizer.

Stretz was found not guilty on April 3. She never made headlines again.

[Top photo: via Daily News 1936; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: AP; fourth image: Daily News 1936; fifth photo: Daily News 1936]

Is this the oldest photograph taken in Brooklyn?

July 23, 2018

This Dutch-style farmhouse doesn’t look like it’s in great shape. But the man in the top hat is standing proudly in front of it on uneven ground beside an enormous tree.

That man and a second man to the left are posing beside what’s described as “the First Meserole House” in Wallabout, Brooklyn, states the Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861.

This daguerreotype dates to 1848, according to the Museum of the City of New York. That could make it one of the oldest photographic images of Brooklyn, if not the oldest.

1848 is almost two centuries after the first French Huguenot Meserole family member arrived in Kings County. One of the original five families of Greenpoint, the Meseroles were very influential in the development of Brooklyn. (Meserole Avenue is exhibit A.)

Based on the image, it’s impossible to know exactly where it is in today’s Wallabout. But the house might not actually be Wallabout (above, in an 1840 map) at all.

Greenpointers.com notes that the Meserole farmhouse once stood at 723 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint—which became the Meserole Theater in the 20th century, and now houses a Rite-Aid.

[Image: MCNY: 42.121; map of Brooklyn 1840: David Rumsey Map Collection]