Greenwich Village from John Sloan’s rear window

February 22, 2021

After John Sloan and his wife left Philadelphia and relocated to New York City in 1904, the couple lived first in Chelsea and then in various places in Greenwich Village, where Sloan also took a studio at Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street to create art that found “beauty in commonplace things and people,” as he once said, per the Whitney Museum.

From one of those Village apartments or out his studio window, Sloan had a view of the shared rear yards of his tenement neighbors on West Fourth Street. “Backyards, Greenwich Village,” from 1914, was born out of that view.

“Here, a private scene of two children building a snowman in a backyard, with a pair of cats and another child watching them from a window above, brings dignity and romance to lives that would otherwise go unnoticed,” states the Whitney.

It’s hardly the only Sloan painting that featured cats—this Ashcan School founder memorialized a few of the dozen cats living at McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in “McSorley’s Cats,” from 1928.

George Washington never slept in this Bowling Green mansion built for him

February 22, 2021

It was called Government House—and despite its stodgy name, it was elegant and beautiful.

The Georgian-style, two-story stunner sat at the foot of Broadway with New York Harbor behind it and Bowling Green in front. Begun in either 1789 or 1790 on the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the elevated mansion looked upon New York’s most elegant neighborhood, surrounded by the fine houses and churches of the rich.

But this premier residence with a portico and carvings of the arms of the state wasn’t designed for any old member of Gotham’s elite. New York in 1789 was the capital of the new United States. And city fathers intended Government House to be the official home of all US presidents.

The immediate hope was that George Washington, sworn in as the first commander in chief on April 30 of that year, would move into Government House. After his inauguration, Washington lived in a borrowed mansion at One Cherry Street. Then in February 1790, President Washington made the Macomb mansion at 39 Broadway opposite Bowling Green his residence.

Unfortunately for New York, the city’s stint as the capital of the US was about to be cut short. Later in 1790, temporary capital status went to Philadelphia while a new capital between Maryland and Virginia could be built. Washington spent the rest of his presidency in Philly, never relocating the Government House or the White House.

Government House didn’t stay empty though. New York City was still the capital of New York State, and the mansion became the official residence of state governors like DeWitt Clinton and John Jay. But in 1797, Albany became the state capital, and Government House became the Custom House from 1799 to 1815.

In 1815, Government House met its end—some sources say the city simply dismantled it, another attributes its demise to a fire. Private residences were built on the site, but as the city’s elite decamped to more fashionable neighborhoods, the Bowling Green area became a commercial zone.

In 1907, the site became the home of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House—and today, that building houses the National Museum of the American Indian. A plaque marking Government House was put up in 1890 by the Holland Society of New York, which I didn’t find, but Wikipedia has it.

[Images: Wikipedia; NYPL]

What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

February 22, 2021

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

The most beautiful police station in Manhattan

February 15, 2021

The old NYPD headquarters on Centre Street is pretty spectacular. And I’m a fan of the understated elegance of the Fifth Precinct on Elizabeth Street.

But when it comes to regular precinct houses, I have to go with the 19th precinct station at 153 East 67th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues) as the loveliest in New York City.

Completed in 1887, it’s a blended confection of different late 19th century styles. The AIA Guide describes it as a “Victorian palazzo: brownstone and red brick borrowing heavily from the Florentine Renaissance. The rusticated base supports a mannered Victorian body.”

It’s not the only piece of Gilded Age eye candy on the block. On its left is the former Mt. Sinai Dispensary; on the right is a firehouse designed by preeminent architect Napoleon Le Brun in 1886. On the other side of the firehouse is the Park East Synagogue, dating back to 1890. “A wild, vigorous extravaganza,” the AIA Guide calls it.

The police station has one extra wonderful touch: the green lanterns on either side of the entrance, a nod all city police stations have to acknowledge the early police force in New Amsterdam that kept watch on the streets with a green lantern on a pole guiding the way.

Brick and mortar phantoms of another Manhattan

February 15, 2021

Every year this site does a roundup of ghost buildings—the faded outlines of chimneys, flat or peaked roofs, windows, and staircases that were left behind after a demolition and look like apparitions of New York’s low-rise, walkup past.

They’re spooky reminders of a different city and often easy to see, like this one in Upper First Avenue, probably a four-story tenement, painted in orange. And could that be a second ghost building behind it, a little taller faded in white?

This one is another double ghost building on 44th Street toward Midtown. In red is a peaked roof building, and then one in white a story or two taller.

Here’s an unusual phantom building, looks like two chimneys and a rooftop stairwell exit. It’s on Madison Avenue at about 80th Street, soon to be shrouded forever behind a luxury apartment residence.

Some ghost buildings look like they were violently ripped from their neighbor, like this one on East 47th Street. Are we left behind with an impression of the structural elements that held the building up—or were they added after the building was demolished to help stabilize the one left behind?

Here you can see the stairways, where New Yorkers of days past walked up and down countless times.

Short and square, this one on the Upper East Side doesn’t look like much. But it was home to someone, or some business, and at one time and likely outshined its neighbors back when it was the new kid on the block a century or so ago.

A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine

February 15, 2021

When important people visited New York City in the middle of the 18th century, they often stopped at the spectacular home of Robert and Mary Lindley Murray.

In the colonial-era city, the Murrays were a powerful couple. Robert Murray had immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family from Ireland as a boy; he worked his way up from a mill operator to a wealthy wheat and flour merchant. Mary Lindley Murray was the daughter of Quaker immigrants from Philadelphia.

Married in 1744, they moved to New York City in 1753, according to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on the Ratzer map from 1766.

“The two-story great house was located at what is today Park Avenue and 36th Street,” states womeninhistoryblog.com. “Grand Central Station stands on what was one of the estate’s cornfields.”

Eventually this neck of the woods would be renamed Murray Hill, after the couple and their 11 children; a 1926 plaque on an apartment building at that corner on Park Avenue memorializes Inclenberg (above).

But back to the 18th century city, which in 1776 became a battleground when the War for Independence broke out. Some residents were Loyalists to the British; others considered themselves Patriots and supported the Continental Army.

While Robert Murray reportedly was a Loyalist, Mary’s sympathies went with the Patriots, according to The Murrays of Murray Hill, by Charles Monaghan. And legend has it that she proved her allegiance in September 1776, when British General William Howe came ashore at Kip’s Bay to take on George Washington’s Patriot army.

While Howe and his officers was making his way through Manhattan and Patriot militiamen were retreating to Harlem Heights, Mary invited Howe and his men to her home. With her husband conveniently away, Mary and her daughters entertained their British guests for two hours with lunch and wine to stall them so the Patriots had time to get away. (Above and below images)

“After the catastrophe on Long Island, August 28, 1776, and the affair at Kip’s Bay, the Americans withdrew up the island, time for which retreat being gained, so it is claimed, through the instrumentality of Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained General Howe and his officers at luncheon on September 15, 1776, at her house at present Park Avenue and 36th Street,” wrote Hopper Striker Mott in The New York of Yesterday.

There’s another account of this story that has a slightly different take.

According to the military journal of James Thatcher, an army surgeon, the British army marching up Manhattan to catch up to the Patriots realized “there was no prospect of engaging our troops” and decided to “repair to the home of Mr. Robert Murray, a Quaker and friend of our cause; Mrs. Murray treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more….It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army.”

Whatever really happened, General Howe and his men apparently did stop off at the Murray mansion—and the Patriots made their way to Harlem Heights and beyond. The legend was solidified in 1903 when the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque affixed to a boulder in honor of Mary at Park Avenue and 37th Street (above).

[Top image: by the Duskhopper via Cool Chicks From History; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Ratzer Map, 1766; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: Alamy; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL]

Understanding New York subway routes in 1966

February 8, 2021

The New York City subway of today has much in common with the subway of the mid-1960s: most of the train numbers and letters are the same, and they generally follow the same routes they did more than 50 years ago.

But some things have changed, as this guide to the various subway routes (included with a 1966 folded subway map) shows. For one thing, I don’t think anyone born after the 1960s knows the different lines as the IND, IRT, or BRT, though these initials remain on some old station signage.

The double letters indicating a local train are also long gone. And what happened to trains like the HH, or the T? The MTA seemed to offer more shuttles back then, like for 145th Street. And I’m guessing the Myrtle Local is today’s M train?

A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

An ode to construction workers on a 57th Street Art Deco tower

February 8, 2021

There’s a lot to love about the Fuller Building, the Art Deco-Art Nouveau beauty built in 1929 that rises 40 stories over Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

A few favorites: the black granite facade on the lower floors, geometric designs at the top of the tower, and the medallions on the lobby floor showing various buildings constructed by the Fuller Company, an early developer of steel-skeleton skyscrapers. (These included the Flatiron Building, which was called the Fuller Building when it opened in 1902—but “flatiron” stuck because of the shape of the lot it was built on.)

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this iconic tower sits above the entrance: two idealized and shirtless construction workers flanking a clock while standing in front of a cityscape of skyscrapers.

The sculptures, by Elie Nadelman, seem to be an ode to the men who literally constructed the Fuller Building and other mighty towers that raised New York’s skyline higher toward the heavens in the early 20th century.

It makes sense. The Fuller Company was a construction company that depended on the strength and skill of men in the building trades. Without these workers and advancements in engineering, Manhattan would have remained a low-rise metropolis topping out at six or so stories.

A snowstorm on Broadway in the Theater District

February 1, 2021

Painter John Sloan, born in Philadelphia, moved to New York City in 1904. Throughout his life he depicted scenes of city residents doing everything from dreaming on rooftops to commuting on the elevated to hanging laundry to partying on Election night.

But “The White Way,” from 1927, is the first Sloan painting I’m aware of that shows the action and activity of Broadway’s Theater District, specifically at 53rd Street. It belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states this about Sloan’s New York subjects and this work in particular:

“The bustling city streets and crowded tenements supplied the artist with stimulating new subject matter, as seen in this work, which depicts bundled-up pedestrians on a snowy evening at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-Third Street. Recalling the chilly evening in which he sketched this scene, Sloan later commented, “The realization of my surroundings had been frozen in my memory, but I feel that my suffering has been compensated for.”

A site called The Art Story has this comment: “The inspiration for this work was made from a sketch he actually drew in the freezing cold, capturing the atmosphere and energy of a spontaneous moment. While the subject of city life had been a recurring theme for Sloan, this later work celebrated the city as bright and dynamic, with less attention on the individual experience than his earlier Ashcan School paintings. The work is more observational in nature, rendered in a lighter palette and looser brushstrokes that gives it a more impressionistic feel. This represented a general shift in Sloan’s work; soon after this painting was finished, he would shift much of his attention to landscape paintings, portraits, and nudes.”