Don’t forget New York’s other November holiday

November 23, 2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War.

“Washington’s Grand Entry into New York, November 25, 1783,” Alphonse Bigot

Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when the British evacuated New York for good after occupying the city during the War.

“Evacuation Day and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City,” Edmund P. Restein

Just hours after the Red Coats left, a Union Jack flag was taken down from a flagpole at Battery Park and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington returned to Manhattan, leading the Continental Army through the city and down Broadway flanked by cheering crowds.

[Images: Wikipedia]

A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace

November 23, 2020

In 1905, Fifth Avenue gained a new mansion. Businessman and baseball team owner Morton F. Plant, the son of a railroad, steamship, and hotel baron, commissioned a marble and limestone showstopper at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.

When Plant moved in to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion facing 52nd Street (above and below left) with his first wife, Nellie, he should have felt satisfied with his decision to build it here.

After all, his neighbors were among the wealthiest New Yorkers, including several Vanderbilts, who occupied their own mansions across the street. (Plant bought the land from William K. Vanderbilt; previously it was the site of an orphan asylum, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article by Jack Forster.)

Within a few years, though, Plant apparently realized he’d made a mistake.

An increasing number of businesses were creeping up to his stretch of Fifth Avenue (like the St. Regis Hotel and Gotham Hotels at 55th Street), ruining the exclusive, residential vibe.

One of those new Fifth Avenue businesses was the American outpost for Cartier, the French jewelers. In 1909, Pierre Cartier launched his first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, near 56th Street, wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2001.

Business was good for Cartier, which organized workshops in the city to meet the demand for their jewelry, states Forster. (Selling the Hope diamond in 1910 also helped from a PR standpoint, raising the jeweler’s Manhattan profile.)

But back to Plant (at right) and his mansion, which was increasingly out of character on a more commercialized Fifth Avenue. In 1914 he’d remarried a much younger woman, Maisie (above center). The two found themselves left behind as neighbors moved away and businesses replaced them. 

“By 1917, life on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (at left, in 1900) had long since become untenable for Plant,” wrote Forster. “The ongoing encroachment of businesses, combined with the removal of virtually all the families who’d once colonized the Avenue below Central Park to new addresses north of 59th Street, had left the Plants isolated both physically and socially. Plant had already begun work, the year before, on a new and even bigger residence, on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue (below right).”  

Paying for two Fifth Avenue mansions, however, was quite costly, even for a scion of wealth. But then, Maisie caught a look at a Cartier pearl necklace. “It’s really two necklaces: a double strand of enormous, natural South Sea pearls; the smaller is a strand of 55 pearls and the larger, of 73,” wrote Forster. The necklace’s value: $1 million.

“When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity,” states a 2016 article by Business Insider. “Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls —and $100—for the Plants’ New York City home.” (The house was assessed at $925,000.)

In July 1917, an article appeared in the Real Estate Record and Guide announcing the sale of the Plant mansion on 52nd Street to Cartier for “$100 and other valuable considerations,” according to Forster. (At left, in 1975)

It’s an unusual deal, but definitely a win-win. Plant unloaded his first mansion by trading it in to Cartier for a necklace his wife desired, then moved uptown in a more luxurious house on the city’s new Millionaires’ Mile. (Cartier also absorbed the elegant residence next door at 4 East 52nd Street, the Holbrook House.)

Cartier has occupied Plant’s mansion on 52nd Street ever since. The exterior looks very much the same as it did in Plank’s day, though the interior has been altered somewhat.

I tried to get in to take a look around but the line to enter was too long; I’d forgotten it’s jewelry-buying season—when Cartier wraps the building up in a big red bow to celebrate the holidays.

But I did spot this modest plaque marking the mansion’s past as a short-lived residence built on a street destined to become a commercial corridor. 

Morton Plant died in 1918, shortly after moving into his 86th Street mansion. When Maisie passed away in 1957, the mansion was bulldozed and her pearls went to auction, where they were sold for $181,000.

Where are they today? No one knows. But a portrait of Maisie wearing them (above portrait) hangs in the Cartier store today, wrote Forster.

[Top photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.221; second photo: NYPL; third image: by Claudia Munro Kerr based on portrait by Alphonse Junger; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.4753; sixth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.366]

 

The Pilgrim statue standing alone in Central Park

November 23, 2020

Central Park has 29 statues, some popular (like Balto, the hero sled dog) and others more obscure (Fitz-Greene Halleck, anyone?)

But standing high and alone on eponymously named Pilgrim Hill is a statue of a Pilgrim, one of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 from England seeking religious freedom in the New World.

“An early American settler stands confidently with one hand leaning on the muzzle of a flintlock musket,” writes Centralparknyc.org, describing the statue. “On the pedestal beneath him are four bas reliefs referencing the era—including the Mayflower—as well as an inscription: “To commemorate the Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers on Plymouth Rock: December 21, 1620.”

The bronze statue, by John Quincy Adams Ward, was commissioned and dedicated here in July 1885 by the New England Society to mark the group’s 75th anniversary, according to NYC Parks. (A procession heading to the site passed President Grant’s house on East 66th Street, and an ill Grant saluted from his window, newspaper accounts noted.)

Whatever one thinks about early settlers to America these days, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

With Thanksgiving days away, consider heading over the Pilgrim Hill and seeing this mostly forgotten figure. The bas reliefs of the Mayflower and other symbols tell more of the Pilgrims’ story.

[Top photo: centralpark.com]

Free tickets to celebrate the history of suffrage—and the NYC women who fought for the vote

November 17, 2020

2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. This hard-fought battle began with the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848 and ended when women went the polls in 1920.

Between these years, history was made—thanks to the early “strong-minded” activists who popularized the suffrage movement, as well as the wealthy women who helped fund parades, pageants, and protests…and even paid the bail for women who were arrested while fighting for the vote.

Historian Nina E. Harkrader, in conjunction with the Upper West Side historic group Landmark West, is offering Ephemeral New York readers free tickets to “Upper West Side Women and the Long Fight for Women’s Suffrage.” It’s a virtual event that focuses on the New York City women who helped make voting rights happen.

Not surprisingly considering the neighborhood’s activist roots, many of these New York women (and some men too) hailed from the Upper West Side. Harkrader’s presentation uses photos and headlines to tell their stories.

The event is on Thursday, November 19, from 6:30-7:30 pm. If you’re interested in attending, just follow the link here. Sign up starts now, and Landmark West has set aside 10 free tickets. The event will happen via Zoom.

[Top image: MCNY 47.225.8; second image: MCNY x2010.11.8826; third image: MCNY x2010.11.10841]

The neon glow is gone from a Murray Hill deli sign

November 16, 2020

After 72 years in Murray Hill, including 63 of them at Second Avenue and 34th Street, the Clover Delicatessen has shut its doors for good.

The Clover Deli, RIP

The shutdown was partly due to of Covid, but also because the third generation family members who ran the deli wanted to move on, according to the New York Post.

No more black and white cookies and rugelach from this old-school deli. But what will become of the gorgeous neon sign, which glowed at this corner since 1957?

The sign in better days, exploding with color

It’s off now, but the Post reports that the owners intend to bequeath it to the new tenant. They’re also considering donating it to a sign museum—good news for fans of New York’s disappearing vintage neon store signs.

[Top Photo: Duane Sherwood]

This brownstone is an anachronism in Tudor City

November 16, 2020

Tudor City belongs firmly in the 20th century. This quiet “city within the city” built on a bluff west of First Avenue between 41st and 43rd Streets consists of 13 residential buildings, almost all reflecting the Tudor Revival style popular in the 1920s.

In 1925, Tudor City’s developer, Fred French, bought up five acres of land and former middle class brownstones in the neighborhood—brownstones which by that time had been turned into tenements or carved into apartments, according to a 1926 New York Times story.

He bulldozed them to revitalize an area that in the early 1900s had become a slum, putting up modern new “efficiency” units that appealed to young professionals working in Midtown.

But there was one old brownstone French’s company didn’t get their hands on, at 337 East 41st Street.

Today, the house borders one Tudor City building and is surrounded by the beautiful Tudor City Gardens on the other side. It’s a ghost of the Gilded Age, because eerily, it looks almost as it did almost 150 years ago.

Number 337 was built in 1871, part of a wave of “uniform rows of houses for middle-class residents” on East Side blocks north of the city center, according to the Tudor City Historic District Report. (Illustration above shows Second Avenue at 42nd Street amid a building boom in the 1860s)

Brownstones were the fashionable style for upwardly mobile Gilded Age families, and they replaced the modest shanties that had been occupied in part by the very poor as well as Irish gang members in the 1850s and 1860s. (Below, East 42nd Street in 1868)

Number 337 was one of 19 identical houses built for one owner, S.S. Stevens. “Four of these buildings faced south: each was a single-family residence composed of a basement and three stories, faced in Ohio stone and capped with a tin roof and galvanized iron cornice,” states the report.

The value of each brownstone in the early 1870s: $10,000. “It’s Italianate details are remarkably well preserved, especially the triangular stone pediment over the entrance,” notes the report. “Still extant are the original stone lintels, sills, and panels below the first floor windows.”

Like its former neighbors, number 337 was likely occupied by respectable middle-class New Yorkers through the next few decades, though an ad in the New York Daily Herald shows that the second and part of the third floor were already being rented out. (Ad above)

With the Second Avenue El soon rumbling nearby, however, the area gradually slid from respectability, becoming an industrial enclave with slaughterhouses and factories polluting the blocks between Second Avenue and the East River.

In 1887, an ad in The Sun offered three furnished rooms on the third floor of number 337. The fee: $16, though it’s not clear if that was per week or per month. (Ad above)

“Furnished hall rooms” were renting for $1-$1.25, which seems to be a clue that what was described in the ad as a “private house” had actually become a boardinghouse.

By the 20th century, the brownstone was converted back to a single-family residence, notes Daytonian in Manhattan, which has a nice writeup on 337’s backstory.  Residents lived, worked, and died there, with the house attracting little attention. (Fourth and seventh photos, above, in 1946)

Today, 337 appears to still be a single-family brownstone. Like other brownstones in Manhattan, it has a tall front stoop and a side door opening onto a small front yard surrounded by a cast-iron fence and gate. (It also has an unusual lamppost, adding to its charm.)

It might not be quite as noteworthy if it still had its original neighbors beside it, forming an entire brownstone row as seen on so many other city blocks.

Instead, this former middle-class dwelling of the 1870s stands out amid a large 1920s development of middle-class housing, a modest Gilded Age brownstone holding its own amid all that Tudor Revival.

[Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9004; Fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: New York Daily Herald; seventh image: MCNY X2010.7.1.9014; eighth image: New York Sun]

A thermometer and clock on a Broadway building

November 16, 2020

Sometime after the New York Sun moved into 280 Broadway between Reade and Chambers Street in 1919, it made its presence known by adding two things to the facade of this circa-1845 building: a fantastically gorgeous four-face clock and two-sided thermometer.

The Sun’s bronze clock: “It shines for all”

It makes sense for a storied publication in New York’s competitive newspaper world of the era to install these on the new headquarters’ Italianate facade.

The Sun thermometer: It was not 120 degrees outside when this photo was taken

Both the clock and the thermometer carried the Sun’s name, so it was good advertising on this busy corner north of City Hall Park. Also, as a newspaper, the Sun existed to inform—and that includes informing passersby about the time and temperature.

Long after the Sun closed up shop in 1952 and departed what became known as the Sun Building (though before that, it was A.T. Stewart’s first department store, his “Marble Palace”), the beautiful clock is still with us on the southwest corner.

The Sun building, 1917

The thermometer, on the northwest corner at Reade Street, was in its usual spot a few years ago. It was broken then, but that’s okay, I just hope it still exists.

[Third photo: New-York Historical Society]

A lovely view of Trinity Church from Wall Street

November 9, 2020

In the shadowy canyons of the Financial District are two New York City icons. Most recognizable is Trinity Church, whose 281-foot spire was the tallest structure in the city until 1890.

There’s also Federal Hall, built in 1842 on Wall Street, which has had this George Washington statue out front since 1882.

View of Trinity Church From Wall Street, undated

This view was painted by Elizabeth Weber-Fulop. Born in Budapest in 1886, she lived in Europe before moving to Charleston, South Carolina and then Tennessee.

To my knowledge, she never lived in New York. But it’s hard not to see why she was struck by what she saw one sunny, early 20th century day in Lower Manhattan.

A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

November 9, 2020

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

Who is the man on this York Avenue building?

November 9, 2020

1221 York Avenue is a handsome, brown-brick apartment house built in 1923. Shaded by trees, this six-story building between 65th and 66th Streets blends nicely into the streetscape.

But on a recent walk past it, I could see through the tree leaves two bas reliefs of male figures, each on the facade right above the building’s wide main entrance.

The facade also features another bas relief of a sailing ship positioned high along the second floor.

The ship, plus the colonial-era clothes worn by the men (or man, since it appears to be different profiles of the same person)—seems to hint that this person was an explorer.

Nothing I could tell about the building offers any clue. Henry Hudson would be an obvious guess, though neither image looks like ol’ Hendrick to me.

Whoever they are—or he is—was noteworthy enough to make it onto this building, giving it a little artistic flair on a quiet stretch of York Avenue neighboring hospitals and medical research institutions.

I’m terrible at recognizing faces, but that collar looks very much like something a 17th century explorer would wear. Sir Francis Drake?

When this apartment house was built, explorers were still held in high esteem. Anyone want to take a shot at it?