An Upper West Side Art Nouveau–like subway sign

June 19, 2017

You don’t have to be a typeface nerd to appreciate loveliness the letters and numerals affixed to plaques and signs in the city’s earliest subway stations.

My favorite is the “96” at the Broadway and 96th Street station. Opened in 1904 as part of the original IRT line, it looks like the numerals were created by hand, not a printing press.

Thanks to the rosettes, green coloring, and what look like two tulips framing the numerals, this plaque across from the platform also looks like a rare examples of the naturalistic Art Nouveau design style—which swept Europe in the early 20th century but didn’t make much of an impression in New York, save for some building facades.

How a “Ladies Pavilion” ended up in Central Park

June 19, 2017

With its ornate roof and gingerbread house motifs, the Ladies Pavilion is straight out of the Victorian era—a cast-iron, open-air structure for catching a breeze on the Lake in Central Park.

It’s also relatively hard to get to, accessible by rowboat to a rock formation called Hernshead or on foot via the woodsy footpaths along the Lake inside the Ramble.

Designed by Jacob Wray Mould, the architect behind many park structures, the pavilion fits in well with the Victorian style of nearby bridges and fountains. But it’s actually only been here since the early 20th century.

How did it end up in on the Lake? Built in 1871, the Ladies Pavilion was originally a trolley shelter at the park entrance at Eighth Avenue and 59th Street, wrote Ada Louise Huxtable in a 1973 New York Times piece.

This might be it in the 1895 illustration, above, from Munsey’s Magazine.

“This intersection, north of Manhattan’s developed residential and commercial areas, became a transportation hub for Central Park visitors, many of whom had to travel great distances from their homes to enjoy the park’s offerings,” according to the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program.

When the Maine monument was installed at this corner in 1912, the trolley shelter was moved to Hernshead.

Perhaps it went here because this was once the site of the Ladies’ Cottage (above right), where female ice skaters congregated between the Lake and the Ladies’ Skating Pond, which was drained in 1930. (Early Central Park had lots of sex-segregated areas, so a pond for women was not unusual.)

“The popularity of skating on the Lake well into the middle of the 20th century, and the care taken to move the Ladies Pavilion rather than demolish it, suggests that it was well-used and appreciated by park patrons,” states the UVM page.

These days, in a gender-neutral era the Victorians would have found horrifying, the Ladies Pavilion doesn’t seem to have any specifically female connotations.

But it is considered an especially romantic part of Central Park and has become a popular place for weddings.

For more about the building of Central Park and the park’s early years, read The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Second and third images: NYPL; fourth image: nyc-architecture.com]

So proud of the Lincoln Tunnel, it’s on a postcard

June 19, 2017

While New York’s bridges are often praised for their grace and beauty, the city’s tunnels get little love. And that’s especially true for the Lincoln Tunnel.

But in 1937, when the first of the Lincoln Tunnel’s three underwater tubes opened for car traffic, it was cause for celebration, with “gala festivities” like a military parade, aerial bombs, and an artillery salute,” reported the New York Times the day before opening day, December 21.

The last of the three tunnels was competed in 1957. How proud was the city about this conduit between New York and New Jersey? A photo of one bendy section made it onto a postcard.

The most beautiful old warehouse is in Tribeca

June 12, 2017

Gables, turrets, arched windows, weather vanes: what can you say about this spectacular former warehouse building but wow?

Built in 1891 on Watts and Washington Streets for the Fleming Smith company (see the monogrammed initials in the close-up below), it’s a jaw-dropping Romanesque Revival beauty with neo-Flemish touches—a style popular at the end of the 19th century, as the city looked back on its Dutch colonial roots.

Once a neighborhood of warehouses, the grocery trade, and food processors, Tribeca got its new name in the mid-1970s, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, when New Yorkers began moving into the area’s colossal lofts and warehouses.

The Fleming Smith warehouse was the first in Tribeca to be turned into a residence. Got $3 million? You might be able to score one of the building’s co-ops. Take a peek at recent listings.

Hunting ghosts of the West 91st Street subway

June 12, 2017

It closed in 1959, 55 years after it opened as part of the original West Side IRT line.

The subway platforms on Broadway at 86th and 96th Streets were extended, crosstown bus service had been established, and the local station at 91st Street Street was deemed unnecessary by transit officials.

Above ground, it appears to have vanished without a trace. On each corner of 91st and Broadway, no signs of it remain—no sidewalk irregularities or remnants of mysterious staircases.

But we do have old photos to show us what the little station looked like. Ninety-first street was barely a generation old when the subway opened, but it helped bring new residents and beautiful apartment houses—like the Apthorp and Astor Court at 90th Street—to the newly developed Upper West Side.

These new residents entered and exited the station through one of the original cast-iron and wire-glass kiosks that opened in 1904.

Their unique domes and slender design were modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, a city whose circa-1896 subway system was almost as new as the first section of the New York City system.

Underground, however, the 91st Street station remains. If you look closely out the window of the 1, 2, or 3 train passes 91st Street, you can make out the abandoned station, with its ghostly platform and walls covered in graffiti.

I’m not aware of any tours of the station open to the public. But back in the late 1990s, the New York Transit Museum (based in a decommissioned ghost station of its own at Court Street in Brooklyn) did operate a tour of the 91st Street Station.

Writer Andre Acimen visited it and gave this report in a 1999 New York Times article:

“The conductor opened the front doors only, and to the baffled gaze of other passengers, we finally stepped out,” wrote Acimen.

“Wandering though this modern underworld, I tried to think of the great poets and the caves of Lascaux and ”Planet of the Apes,’ but all I could focus on as I negotiated my way through a thick mantle of soot was dirt, rats and a faint queasiness.”

“The platform was filled with trash: broken beams, old cardboard and a litter of foam cups. This wasn’t just the detritus of a subway station, but the leftovers of mole people,” stated Acimen.

[nycsubway.org has some incredible contemporary photos of the abandoned station, and Joseph Brennan’s Abandoned Stations site has excellent detailed info on 91st Street and other shuttered subway stops.]

[Second photo: MCNY, 1955; x2010.26.103; third photo: NY Transit Museum, 1957; fourth photo: MCNY, 1955, x2010.26.100; fifth photo: MCNY, 1955, x2010.26.99; sixth photo, Christopher Cook/Wikipedia]

A West Side statue for firemen—and their horses

June 12, 2017

New York is a city of monuments and memorials—to veterans, victims of tragedies, heroic citizens, and countless individual residents.

But the 1913 Firemen’s Monument at Riverside Drive and 100th Street might be the only memorial that honors human heroes as well as their equine counterparts.

It sits on a stunning hillside overlooking Riverside Park. “This monument is said to have had its origins in the remarks of the Right Reverend Henry C. Potter at the funeral of Deputy Fire Chief Charles A. Kruger in 1908,” states the NYC Parks website.

Kruger was killed when he plunged into a burning basement while fighting a fire on Canal Street.

“Bishop Potter said that while there were many memorials to public and private citizens there were none ‘to our brave citizens who have lost or will sacrifice their lives in a war that never ends.'”

The firefighter part of the monument has a solemn sadness to it. “Made of Knoxville marble, the monument is a sarcophagus-like structure with a massive bas-relief of horses drawing an engine to a fire,” states NYC Parks. (The original bas-relief was replaced by a bronze replica in the 1950s.)

“To the south and north are allegorical sculpture groups representing ‘duty’ and ‘Sacrifice.'”

Sharp-eyed monument lovers will recognize the model for the sculptures; she is Audrey Munson, who modeled for countless city memorials.

The memorial to horses came later. “In 1927, the ASPCA added a second tablet to the sarcophagus in memory of fallen fire-horses,” states the Riverside Park Conservatory.

By the 1920s, horses no longer did the city’s hard work—pulling streetcars, ambulances, and wagons; hauling away garbage and snow; and galloping to the aid of New Yorkers in need of the police and firefighters.

But this monument—and some of the remaining horse drinking fountains, one of which still exists in Riverside Park at 76th Street—is a lovely reminder of how the city owes its fortunes to the hard labor of horses.

How did horses handle hot summer days? With horse showers and special hats, thanks to efforts of the ASPCA.

A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy

June 5, 2017

The faded marble fountain dedicated to the 1,021 victims of the General Slocum disaster is not easy to find in Tompkins Square Park.

It’s beyond the brick comfort station that blocks off much of the park from the northernmost end, near the pool and across from the lovely brownstones on 10th Street.

This lonely statue marks the city’s second-biggest tragedy after 9/11 in terms of the number of people killed—and almost all of the dead came from the heavily German “Kleindeutschland” neighborhood of today’s East Village.

The disaster is remembered every June 15, the anniversary of the day St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sixth Street chartered the steamship General Slocum for a day excursion up the East River.

The ship, packed with women and children expecting to have a picnic, caught fire as it steamed past 97th Street at about 10 a.m.

As the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were forced to either stay on the ship and die by fire or jump into the river and risk drowning.

The huge death toll rocked the German neighborhood, and two years later, the fountain was dedicated—paid for by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies.

The inscription, “They were earth’s purest children young and fair” (from a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem) has cracks and chips in it, and a powerful sadness.

What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island

June 5, 2017

Based on her biographical information and many paintings of carefree beach scenes and small children, Impressionist Martha Walter appears to have been an artist with a charmed life who stuck to safe subjects.

[“Just Off the Ship”]

Born in Philadelphia in 1875, she honed her natural talents at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with sometime-Brooklynite William Merritt Chase. She traveled and painted in Europe and North Africa, set up studios in Gloucester, Massachusetts and then outside of Philly, and lived to be 100 years old.

[“Listening to the Call of Names to Be Released”]

But in 1922, her work took a more somber turn. That year, she spent time visiting Ellis Island and composed at least two dozen paintings based on the women and children she saw in the detention areas—the rooms on Ellis Island reserved for immigrants who were at risk for one reason or another of being sent back to their native countries.

[“Babies’ Health Station Number 4”]

The paintings present, “the sad spectacle of heterogeneous crowds made up of Irish, Russians, Chinese, Dalmatians, women and children, miserable pariahs who have abandoned their native land in the hope of finding another and more charitable fatherland,” states the program for an exhibit of these canvases from 1923.

[“Inpouring of the Unqualified”]

The harsh words of the program collide with the sympathetic portrayals of these unfortunate women and children, herded into crowded rooms, feeding their children at a milk station, and waiting, mostly waiting, for word as to what will happen to them.

[“Italian, Jewish, and Yugoslav Mothers and Children, Waiting”

“This is a different colorful parterre of flower, poor and rude, anxious or frightened, some of them old and faded, others exhibiting the colors of healthy country youths” states the program.

[“The Telegram, Detention Room”]

“All of them are holding little children of a peculiarly strange type, with big eyes wide apart, clad in rags of vivid colors. All these crowds more in their strange and savage harmony between the yellow and brown pillars of this large hall, which reminds one of a hospital.”

What happened to the women and children we’ll never know. But assuming they made it to New York City, they would be among the last great wave of European immigrants to arrive in the U.S. before strict quotas were put in place in 1924.

The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York

June 5, 2017

You could say that Gilded Age New York perfected the idea of the department store—a multi-floor, massive commercial space designed to dazzle consumers with sumptuous windows and fashionable displays and put the latest must-have goods within reach of the growing middle-class.

But even New Yorkers who shopped (or at least window-shopped) emporiums like Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, and Macy’s along Ladies Mile were blown away by the city’s first Siegel-Cooper store, which opened in September 1896.

Nicknamed “The Big Store” for, well, obvious reasons, Siegel-Cooper boasted 15 and a half acres of selling space inside a Beaux-Arts building on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets.

More than 120 departments run by 3,000 employees offered everything from ladies’ fashions to a grocery store, dentist’s office, a pets department, several restaurants, and a bicycles department (this was the 1890s, after all, and wheelmen and wheelwomen had taken over the city).

The fountain in the center of the store gave rise to the phrase “meet me at the fountain”—which New York ladies did, in droves.

Women were the buyers for their families, after all, and the stores and restaurants of Ladies Mile were acceptable places for them to go when they were not in the company of men.

“The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.

Steel-framed Siegel-Cooper was quite technologically advanced for its day. The tower over the marble-columned entrance bathed Sixth Avenue in electric light, and the basement had its own power station.

Siegel-Cooper even had its own exit on the 18th Street stop of the Sixth Avenue El. Shoppers could get off the train and walk into a second-floor entrance, without having to descend to the gritty street shadowed by train tracks.

New York in 1896 was just three years out of the Panic of 1893, which crippled the economy. But this was the Gilded Age, and ostentatious displays still appealed to consumers. Opening day, as you can imagine, was a madhouse.

“The crowds around the store half an hour before the opening time, 7:30 o’clock, numbered probably 5,000 men, women, boys, and girls, and they were for a little while interested in the unveiling of the show windows,” wrote the New York Times a day later, on September 13, 1896.

“When they had satisfied their curiosity, they found that 20,000 persons had joined them, and that they were hemmed in. . . . So great was the jam inside the store that few of the visitors saw anything, except the general details of the vast floors, beautiful floral trophies sent by friends and mercantile houses to the heads of departments, [and] the word ‘Welcome’ blazing in electric lights over the main aisle of the ground floor.”

The amazing thing about The Big Store is that it only dazzled New York a short time.

Less than 20 years later, Siegel-Cooper declared bankruptcy, and the building was converted into a military hospital during World War I.

After decades of use as a warehouse, among other functions, the Siegel-Cooper store was resurrected in the 1990s as a mini-mall anchored by Bed Bath & Beyond—one of the central businesses in a modernized Sixth Avenue shopping district.

Pieces of the old Siegel-Cooper legacy remain, however. The original imposing marble columns and lanterns flank the entrance.

And on the facade of what is now a Room & Board furniture store on 18th Street, you can see C-S insignias, as this building once served as the Siegel-Cooper’s wagon delivery storage space.

[Second photo: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: unknown; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon; 2013.3.2.1799; seventh photo: Wiki]

The Art Deco WWII memorial on an 1830s church

May 29, 2017

Though it’s been renovated extensively during its 183 years at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street, St. Joseph’s Church still has Georgian features and Greek Revival touches—two architectural styles that were popular when it was built.

And there’s a third design style on the Sixth Avenue facade of the church: Art Deco.

That’s in the form of a gilded World War II memorial listing the names of hundreds of men and women from the parish who served in the war.

It’s astoundingly beautiful and unusual in this low-rise neck of the Village, and worth a look next time you find yourself in the neighborhood. St. Joseph’s remains the oldest Catholic church edifice in the city.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia]