The old city along the East River waterfront

February 8, 2016

Everett Longley Warner’s “Along the River Front” captures the city in 1912 on the cusp of change.

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The old New York waterfront, one of horse-drawn wagons loaded with packages heading to small commercial fish dealers and the office of a steamship line, have been dwarfed by the modern city’s enormous bridges and the traffic they carry.

Pier201900This photo, from 1900, gives an idea of what Warner was looking at. He changed the name of the steamship line from the New Haven Line to the Maine Line, for unknown reasons.

Warner was an impressionist painter who lived in New York in the early 1900s. Despite early notoriety, his lovely depictions of industry and commerce in the city haven’t made him a household name.

The most tragic day of Teddy Roosevelt’s life

February 8, 2016

TRdiaryfeb14At the beginning of 1884, everything seemed to be going Theodore Roosevelt’s way.

The 25-year-old Harvard graduate, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family with deep roots in New York City, had already written an acclaimed first book, The Naval War of 1812.

He’d also been elected to the state assembly and was making a name for himself as an energetic and outspoken Republican who wouldn’t tolerate financial corruption.

His personal life was going spectacularly as well. In 1880 he had married the tall, willowy girl of his dreams, Alice Hathaway Lee (below).

Roosevelt was crazy in love with Lee and ecstatic that after a year of courtship she agreed to marry him.

AlicehathawayleefullOn a sleigh ride near her family home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, after they had become engaged, “the horse plunging to his belly in the great drifts, and the wind cutting my face like a knife,” Roosevelt gushed about his love in his diary.

“My sweet wife was just as lovable and pretty as ever; it seems hardly possible that I can kiss her and hold her in my arms; she is so pure and so innocent, and so very, very pretty,” he wrote on February 3, 1880.

“I have never done anything to deserve such good fortune.”

Roosevelt’s political career would continue to soar. He became New York’s police commissioner, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, state governor, U.S. vice president, and then, thanks to an anarchist’s bullet, the nation’s president in 1901.

But before his political career would hit the national stage, fate would cut short this personal happiness.

TRportrait1881Three years after he wrote that diary entry, on February 12, 1884, Roosevelt’s wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in Roosevelt’s parents’ home at 6 West 57th Street, where they had been staying.

But the joy of a first child was short-lived. In another room, Roosevelt’s beloved mother, Mittie (below), was dying of typhus.

Lee’s health had also turned grave. One floor above Mittie, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was battling an undiagnosed kidney disorder. Roosevelt went from room to room, but there was little he could do.

Both women died on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

In his diary that day, Roosevelt (above, in 1881) drew a large X. “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote. The two Mrs. Roosevelts, one aged 22 and the other 48, were laid to rest at a double funeral at Green-Wood cemetery.

TRmittieroosevelt3“Her baby was born and on February 14 she died in my arms,” wrote Roosevelt on February 17.

“As my mother had died in the same house, on the same day, but a few hours previously. . . . For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.”

Two years later, Roosevelt would marry childhood playmate Edith Carow and have five more children, and by all accounts a very happy family life.

[Diary page: Library of Congress]

Evel Knievel jumps across Madison Square Garden

February 8, 2016

EvelknievelmsgAnyone who was a kid in the 1970s remembers Harley-riding daredevil Evel Knievel—and the avalanche of toys and action figures that hit TV and toy stores in the wake of his popularity.

His biggest stunts took place out West. But in July 1971, he brought his act to Madison Square Garden, which was hosting something called the Auto Thrill Show.

At the Garden, Evel revved his bike, sailed off a ramp, and cleared 10 cars. It wasn’t a record; only 10 cars could fit in the space he had in the arena (viewable here via YouTube).

The New Yorker covered the jump in the July 24 issue: “The ice-cream hawkers and the guards stand in the exits, watching. The audience moves to the edge of its seats,” reported The New Yorker.

Evelknievelmadisonsquaregardennydn

“Knievel’s Harley can be heard, and then suddenly he is tearing out of the wings—a flash of white suit and gleaming white helmet—and up the ramp, and he is free; he is in the air, standing over his motorcycle, flying in a graceful arc over the ten automobiles; and he lands smoothly, halfway down the far ramp, and is almost instantly out of sight again in the wings.

“The crowd roars, screams, cheers, applauds, and then Knievel rides back into the arena, one arm raised to receive the wild adulation of the crowd. The challenge has been met one more time.”

[Second photo: Dan Farrell/New York Daily News]

Inside a rathskeller in New York’s Little Germany

February 1, 2016

In 1936, a man named Joe King opened a restaurant serving “moderately priced German dishes and imported beers”  in a German Renaissance Revival building on Third Avenue and 17th Street.

Joekingspostcard

This was once the outskirts of New York’s enormous German immigrant enclave, Kleindeutschland. By the 1930s, Little Germany had mostly decamped to Yorkville (Luchow’s remained as well on 14th Street until the 1980s.)

But it would have been worth it to come down to this place in the old neighborhood. The beer steins, the lights, the tin ceiling, the piano installed for communal singalongs. . . . It closed in the 1960s, but I wish it were still around.

[Postcard: digitalcommonwealth.org]

Album covers from the 1970s shot in New York

February 1, 2016

Sometimes it’s obvious an album cover was shot in New York City—like Physical Graffiti, Billy Joel’s Turnstiles, or that wonderful New York Dolls cover of the band decked out in front of Gem Spa in the East Village.

NYCalbumcoverswho

Other times it’s not so easy to tell. Take the cover for the Who’s The Kids Are Alright, photographed in 1968 by Art Kane.

With the band wrapped in a Union Jack flag, you’d never know they were leaning against the base of the statue of German revolutionary and New York reformer Carl Schurz, located at Morningside Drive and 116th Street.

NYCalbumcoversneilyoung

Neil Young doesn’t come across as a New York kind of guy; he’s more California or Canada. But here he is walking past NYU’s law school building on Sullivan and West Third Streets on the cover of 1970’s After the Gold Rush, captured by Joel Bernstein.

The website popspotsnyc.com has some incredible photos and backstory on After the Gold Rush and other New York–centric albums.

NYCalbumcoversfoghat

Foghat—does anyone remember Foghat? In any case, the English band shot the front of their 1975 LP Fool for the City in the middle of 11th Street between Second and Third Avenues in the East Village.

The block hasn’t changed much, and the back of St. Mark’s Church is recognizable. Off the Grid, the blog for the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation, has a nice post covering the then and now.

Rock albums shot on New York streets must have been a thing in the 1960s and 1970s—like these here. Maybe it all started with The Freewheeling Bob Dylan on Jones Street?

Grand Central is filled with acorns and oak leaves

February 1, 2016

Even when you’re rush through Grand Central Terminal, it’s impossible not to glance up and notice its breathtaking treasures, like the beautiful light fixtures, clocks, and painted or tiled ceilings.

Acorntracks28272

But there’s a decorative theme running through the station that’s a little more subtle and easy to miss: acorns and oak leaves.

AcornswaterfountainAn acorn tops the iconic brass clock above the information booth.

Marble garlands of oak leaves and acorns decorate the original 1913 water fountains. They’re also on the ceiling, chandeliers, and staircases.

So what’s with all the harvest images?

It’s a Vanderbilt thing. The Vanderbilt heirs financed the construction of the terminal, and the family crest is all about acorns and oaks leaves.

Acornflourishcloseup

“From a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” was Grand Central builder Cornelius Vanderbilt’s motto, according to Christopher Winn’s I Never Knew That About New York.

AcornclockinterestingamericaI’m not sure if any of the Vanderbilt homes that lined Fifth Avenue in the Gilded Age also featured acorns and oaks. Those flourishes may not have gone with the decor in this chateau-style mansion, for example.

But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Newport, Rhode Island summer “cottage,” the 70-room palazzo-inspired Breakers, is also decorated with acorns—a symbol of strength and long life.

[Third photo: via newyork.com; fourth photo: via interestingamerica.com]

Magical color lights of a New York City night

January 25, 2016

Vienna-born photographer Ernst Haas turned his camera to New York City’s skyscrapers and suspension bridges, creating a kaleidoscope of blurry color in this painterly 1970 image, Lights of New York.

Lightsofnewyork

Haas started his career as a photojournalist for Life, Vogue, and other magazines. In 1962, he was celebrated with a retrospective show of his color photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Over the years he captured a postwar, midcentury New York in all its poetic, weird, magical glory.

Why Midtown has a tiny Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue

January 25, 2016

Sixandahalfavenuesignwiki“Meet me on Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

But Six-and-a-Half Avenue is a real street (inspired by Harry Potter?) tucked among the silver and gray office towers of Midtown between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

It was the Department of Transportation’s idea, apparently. In 2012, DOT officials wanted to encourage pedestrians to use the string of existing public plazas and covered passageways running almost in a straight line from 51st to 57th Streets.

So Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue, ruled by stop signs rather than traffic lights, was born—the first fractional street in the city’s grid system.

Half avenues, though, aren’t a new idea.

Sixthandahalfavegaynornyt1910

In 1910, Mayor William Gaynor floated the possibility of building a half avenue between Fifth and Sixth Avenues from Eighth Street to 59th Street, bisecting Bryant Park.

The unnamed half-avenue would help reduce traffic, said Gaynor. But like so many other ideas and proposals, it never went past the concept stage.

[Image: New York Times]

Unemployed men shoveling New York’s snow

January 25, 2016

Heavy snowfall, while lovely as it is to look at, creates a headache for most New Yorkers. But all that white stuff presents an opportunity for workers looking for extra cash.

Snowworkers1898heraldsquare

“12,000 Find Work in the Streets,” announced the headline for a New York Times story on February 15, 1914.

After 10 inches of snow had fallen, thousands of men lined up at “unemployment stations” established “in the lodging house districts” by the “cleaning department,” which sounds like it may have been part of the Department of Sanitation.

Snowshovelerslineupbain1908

In Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, “116 gangs of men were put to work in the streets in those boroughs,” wrote the Times, using old-fashioned shovels, horse carts, and 19 “automobile trucks.”

The pay? In 1902, it was 25 cents per cubic yard of snow. By the 1930s, workers racked up an easier-to-calculate 50 cents an hour.

While thousands of men were getting paid to haul the snow, a side industry popped up outside the lodging houses: men with pushcarts selling “strips of burlap and bagging,” so the pickers and shovelers could keep their feet warm.

Snowdaylaborers1898

“Practically every ’emergency man’ at work in the street cleaning gangs last night had his feet incased [sic] in overshoes and leggings made of burlap bound with rope and twine,” reported the Times.

[Top and bottom photos: New York Times; middle: LOC/Bain Collection]

1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume

January 18, 2016

When Kate Feering Strong (below) received her invitation to Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s “fancy dress” ball, scheduled for March 26, 1883, she decided not to settle for a more traditional costume—like a Medieval princess or fairy tale character.

Katefeeringstrongcatcostume

Nope, Miss Strong went as a cat—complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties.

“The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background,” commented the New York Times.

Mrsvanderbilt'schateauThe ball was arguably the most incredible social event of the year, and it also served as kind of a housewarming for the new Fifth Avenue Vanderbilt mansion.

“The bodice is formed of rows of white cats’ heads and the head-dress was a stiffened white cat’s skin, the head over the forehead of the wearer and the tail pendant behind. A blue ribbon with ‘Puss’ inscribed upon it, which hung a bell, worn around the neck completed the dress.”

Here are some of the other outrageous and ostentatious costumes, including the battery-powered “electric light,” worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law.


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