A faded Greenwich Village sign goes back in time

April 24, 2017

Has this metal sign advertising a land auction really been posted on a building at Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street since 1963?

Considering the faded lettering and typeface, it certainly seems to have been.

It’s easier to read in person, but the sign appears to notify the public about some real estate being auctioned off at the Statler Hilton — aka, the Hotel Pennsylvania — on February 7, 1963.

Apparently real-estate auctions there were regular events held by the city. A New York Times notice of one on March 8, 1862, explains that 182 city-owned properties found new owners during a two-day auction.

If only we could go back in time and buy New York property on the cheap, wait out the next few decades, and enjoy what today would likely be a real estate goldmine.

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

What remains of the other end of the High Line

April 24, 2017

High Line Park stretches along the West Side from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, following the original tracks of the 1934 elevated railway — which trucked raw materials and finished goods in and out of Manhattan’s once-bustling factories.

Then at Gansevoort Street, right beside the gleaming new Whitney Museum, the park suddenly ends in a steep drop.

But the High Line itself never ended here. It continued south to Spring Street, zipping in and out of factories along Washington Street until it reached St. John’s Terminal at Pier 40.

What happened to this southern end of the High Line — which could have extended the park another mile or so?

As Manhattan’s manufacturing base shrank and rail shipping declined, the steel trestle was demolished starting in the 1960s bit by bit. Most of the factories that relied on the line were bulldozed to make way for the West Village Houses.

(A shame, sure, but it would have been inconceivable to New Yorkers back then that anyone would want to keep the rundown elevated railway and turn it into a beautiful park overlooking Tenth Avenue).

More than three decades since the entire line ceased in 1980, almost nothing of the southern end of the High Line survives.

But take a walk down Washington Street, where a few of the surviving factories have been turned into housing. You can easily see where the rail cars went in and out of 812 Washington Street, once part of the Manhattan Refrigerating Company (top two photos).

Same with the enormous, block-long building a few blocks down the street at Bethune Street (above).

Before it was transformed into the artists’ housing complex known as Westbeth in 1971, this handsome building was part of Bell Laboratories.

Bell Labs was established here in the late 19th century; the company refitted their second floor to accommodate the High Line in the 1930s.

[Second photo: GVSHP; fourth photo: Friends of the High Line]

Gowanus Bay like you’ve never seen it before

April 21, 2017

Could these two paintings really be of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay — namesake of the canal that was once a notoriously polluted mob dumping ground snaking through Red Hook and Carroll Gardens?

Hard to believe, but the waterfront — and the creek that became the canal — was once this bucolic and beautiful. The first painting, “Sunset at Gowanus Bay,” dates to 1851. It’s by an Australian painter named Henry Gritten, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

At the time Gritten painted this, Gowanus Creek was being widened and deepened, according to nyc.gov. The new Gowanus Canal, as it would be named, was supposed to attract industry and compete with New York.

In 1887, long after the canal had been built out, William Merritt Chase did his own take on Gowanus Bay.

I wish I knew where his vantage point was when he painted this beachy scene with a pier, small boats, gentle waves, and not much industry along the waterfront. The Bay looks absolutely swim-able.

Two forgotten Broadways nobody knows about

April 21, 2017

Broadway, the 13-mile road that began as an Indian trail and grew to define the city, is synonymous with greatness.

To put “Broadway” in the name of a new street is to aspire to something big — which was the idea behind East Broadway and West Broadway.

City fathers in the 19th century gave these names to existing streets in Lower Manhattan to divert traffic from the real Broadway and create what they hoped would be successful thoroughfares, states The Street Book.

So how do you explain Old Broadway and Broadway Alley, two narrow byways all but forgotten by the early 20th century?

Old Broadway is actually a leftover piece of another street. This lane runs from 125th Street to 129th Street (at left in 1932) just east of the real Broadway, then picks up again between 131st and 133th Streets (below, also 1932).

It’s a vestige of the old Bloomingdale Road, a colonial-era road that started around Madison Square and crossed to today’s Upper West Side.

In the late 19th century, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of the real Broadway.

The remaining seven blocks of Bloomingdale Road didn’t fit anywhere, so it was given the moniker Old Broadway and allowed to remain on the map.

“Why the few blocks of Old Broadway were left no one knows exactly, but probably because the wiping out of the thoroughfare, with many of its old houses, would have entailed unnecessary hardship upon the residents,” explains a 1912 New York Times article.

Vestiges of rural Manhattan remained through the 1930s. “For nearly a block, on the west, huge signs hide a bit of raised, rocky ground — pasture, no doubt, for goats in days gone by,” states another Times piece from 1930.

Today, the only reminder of a bygone city is the Old Broadway Synagogue (on the left side of the above photo), built in 1922 for Harlem’s Jewish population.

Broadway Alley has a more colorful past. It’s a one-lane drive between 26th and 27th Streets and Lexington and Third Avenue with a street sign on the 27th Street side.

Laid out around 1830, according to a 2005 Times article, the street was given its name at some point by owners who hoped to associate it with the glamour of Broadway theater.

For much of the 19th century, it was actually associated with crime and poverty; the alley was home to narrow tenements where residents had a fondness for gambling and drinking.

Rumor has it that Ringling Brothers once kept their circus elephants here — hopefully when it was a dirt drive not littered with debris behind wire and iron fencing, as it is today (at left), from the 26th Street end).

Broadway Alley is mostly covered in asphalt now, but it was once considered one of the last unpaved roads in the city.

Though maybe it doesn’t technically count, since Broadway Alley is privately owned and only one occupied building uses the street address, according to the Times.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.174; third photo: MCNY: 33.173.175]

What happened to the sheep of Central Park?

April 21, 2017

The idea to bring sheep into Central Park originated with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux back in the early 1860s.

The two brilliant co-designers of the city’s first major green space wanted part of the landscape to feel pastoral and serene. Having a flock of sheep roaming around, they reasoned, would give the area a romantic, English countryside-like feel, according to NYC Parks.

And of course, the sheep would cut the grass — a nice side benefit in an era before motorized lawn mowers.

So in 1864, about 200 pedigreed English sheep were moved into the newly opened park, their grazing ground appropriately renamed Sheep Meadow.

Jacob Wray Mould, who designed many of Central Park’s loveliest structures as well as the carvings along Bethesda Terrace, built a Victorian-style sheepfold near West 64th Street (at right, in 1884) that housed the flock at night as well as a human shepherd and his family.

For decades, the sheep shared the park with people.

They left their fold at 5:30 a.m. and returning at half past six in the evening, with the help of a sheepdog assistant named (of course!) Shep, reported the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1884.

“Twice a day, the shepherd would disrupt traffic (first carriage, then car) while herding the sheep over a crossing, towards the meadow,” wrote Modern Farmer in 2014.

“With the exception of those who were delayed, most considered the sheep a pleasant spectacle to behold.”

The beginning of the end of the sheep came with the appointment of Robert Moses as Parks Commissioner.

He altered Central Park by building playgrounds and ball fields — and in 1934 decided the sheep had to go.

For one, Moses wanted to make the Victorian-style sheepfold a restaurant (it later became Tavern on the Green, at right).

But his decision also had to do with the Great Depression and the very real fear that desperate New Yorkers (some of whom moved into the park in a row of shacks nicknamed Hooverville) might turn the sheep into lamb stew.

So the 49 remaining sheep were dispatched to join another flock (above, around 1900) in Prospect Park.

There, they grazed in the Long Meadow before being moved again, permanently — this time to the Catskills.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: Wikipedia; third and fourth images: St. Nicholas Magazine; sixth photo: MCNY; 93.91.391]

How New York kids played baseball in the 1940s

April 17, 2017

Adult-organized Little League? Uniforms? Post-game snacks supplied by parents?

Not in New York neighborhoods like this one, where baseball-crazy (or stickball?) boys turned empty lots between tenements into playing fields and made rocks, cardboard, and patches of dirt their bases.

This photo goes back to 1940, and judging by the long pants and shirts they’re wearing, I’m guessing it’s early in the season, as it is right now.

[Photo: MCNY by Roy Perry: 80.102.107]

A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

April 17, 2017

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

What if this actually happened to Trinity Church?

April 17, 2017

Early 20th century New York was a lot like the city of today.

The skyscraper era was dawning, business was booming, and development was rampant. Many of the city’s low-rise buildings were being bulldozed in favor of steel-frame office towers topping 20 stories.

On Lower Broadway, new office buildings were going up up up. This real-estate madness is the likely inspiration for this Puck illustration from 1907, by Albert Levering.

Levering gives us a Trinity Church — until 1890 the tallest structure along the city’s skyline, which welcomed ships coming into New York Harbor — almost entombed in glass and steel, its graveyard chopped away.

I wonder how many developers took this cartoon seriously?

[Image: Library of Congress]

All the ladies on the Central Park Mall in 1901

April 14, 2017

Completed in 1863, Bethesda Terrace was one of the first structures to go up in Central Park—and it’s also one of the most breathtaking, with its grand, intricately carved staircases connecting park visitors to the expanse of the Mall.

Of course, his may have been of no interest to post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast.

He simply may have been struck by the sight of so many women (and some kids, plus a few men) gathered at the Terrace steps, almost all in brightly colored dresses shielding themselves from the sun under parasols.

(Hat tip to Audrey for singling out this lovely mosaic-like painting.)