The reason Morningside Park became a park

May 18, 2015

Morningside Park became a park for one inconvenient reason: 19th century park administrators believed the craggy peaks of Manhattan schist were too steep and rugged for the city to pave over.

Morningsideparkpostcard

“In 1867 Andrew Haswell Green, Commissioner and Comptroller of Central Park, recommended that a park be located in Morningside Heights. He argued that it would be ‘very expensive’ and ‘very inconvenient’ to extend the Manhattan street grid over the area’s severe topography,” states nycgovparks.org.

Opened in the 1880s, Morningside still has a Victorian-era feel. Too bad St. Luke’s Hospital building no longer rises high over the park as it does in this circa-1900 postcard.

The claw hammer murder rocks 1930s New York

May 18, 2015

PhelanleavingcourtEarly on New Year’s Eve 1933, the battered body of a 68-year-old retired stockbroker was found in his five-room apartment at the Grinnell (below), a luxurious building at 800 Riverside Drive.

Douglas Sheridan’s corpse was slumped in the bathtub with scalding water from the shower pouring down over it.

His head had been bashed in, once in his face and once in the back of the skull.

The scene was grisly, but it offered detectives immediate clues.

“In the courtyard below they discovered a hammer which they believe to have been the murder weapon,” wrote the New York Times on January 1, 1934.

Detectives also noticed that Sheridan’s housekeeper, 52-year-old “gray haired” Catherine Phelan (left), had bloodstains on the lenses of her glasses.

Phelan, who had worked for Sheridan for 28 years, had called police to the apartment and led them to Sheridan’s body.

She told police she had the night off, and that she left the apartment to see a movie after two guests of Sheridan’s arrived.

Phelanmurdergrinnell“Later in the evening, she was quoted as saying, she became vaguely uneasy because Mr. Sheridan had been drinking, and she started back toward the apartment,” stated the Times.

Soon after, she discovered her employer’s body—his two guests gone, she claimed. Hours later, she called police.

Detectives cast doubt on her story, but they didn’t arrest her immediately. It took a day to check out her version of events and look into Sheridan’s personal and financial life.

PhelanmurderheadlineThey soon learned that Phelan stood to gain $8,000 from Sheridan’s will, and that Sheridan was about to fire her, according to apartment building employees.

In addition to that, Sheridan apparently had a “fondness for young women friends.” One of his guests the evening he died was a young female, and police believed Phelan killed Sheridan out of jealousy.

After her arrest on January 1, she insisted she was innocent. Charged with murder, she stood trial in November.

A month later, she was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “Thank you for the Christmas present, your honor,” she told the judge, before heading off to Auburn state prison.

The old-school store signs of Washington Heights

May 18, 2015

Fans of store signage dating back generations should take a stroll along upper Broadway between 168th and 181st Streets.

Washhtsstoresignreynolds

Here remain some vintage signs—like this classic Cafe/Bar sign for Reynold’s, an Irish workingman’s bar that opened 50 years ago and closed its doors for good in March.

DNAinfo has a terrific story about the backstory of Reynold’s and the bar’s closing.

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The colorful sign for Victor’s Bicycle makes the place look like a party store. If only it wasn’t partly obscured by scaffolding.

Washhtsstoresignsliquor

Discount Wines and Liquors says it all: cheap booze in a gritty New York shop with display windows that haven’t been cleaned off in years.

Check out more vintage store signs, this time in Brooklyn.

Miniature yachts set sail inside Central Park

May 11, 2015

Most New Yorkers know this body of water as a the sailboat pond, a peaceful spot near Central Park’s East 72nd Street entrance that often has toy sailing boats gliding along the surface.

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But Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park’s brilliant designers, conceived it as the “Conservatory Water,” a pond that was originally supposed to be part of a large glass conservatory, or greenhouse.

Financial problems made building the conservatory impossible. But the water remains, a lovely place to sit and enjoy the park’s gentle beauty.

When the Yankees were on top (of 168th Street)

May 11, 2015

Hilltoppark1912Broadway and 168th Street, with its rocky terrain, isn’t exactly the best place for a baseball stadium.

Which partially explains why in 1903, New York’s newest baseball team, the appropriately named Highlanders, only played in a ball park at the site for the next 10 years.

Called American League Park and nicknamed Hilltop Park, it was hastily built in six weeks, just in time for the start of the spring season.

Hilltoppark1912entranceA New York Times piece summed up the challenge of turning a hilly nine-acre trapezoid of land into a worthy stadium:

“From Broadway looking west, the ground starts in a low swamp. It rises into a ridge of rocks perhaps twelve to fifteen feet above the level of Broadway. From the top of the ridge the land slopes off gradually to Fort Washington Road.”

“As the property is today it will be necessary to blast all along the ridge, cutting off a slice eight feet or more. … There are about 100 trees to be pulled up by the roots.”

Hilltopparkhudsonriver

With the help of Tammany insider Thomas McAvoy, construction on the park began. Five hundred men (paid $2 a day) set to work digging, blasting and carting away 12,000 cubic yards of bedrock.

“In a remarkable six weeks, the McAvoy construction crew had converted a picturesque but forbidding mesa into a serviceable, if unfinished, venue for major-league baseball,” states the Society for American Baseball Research.

HIlltopparkcolor

“Fans would be accommodated in three grandstand sections ringing the home-plate area and extending along the baselines. Single-deck bleacher areas extended from the grandstands to the outfield fences while an adequately sized scoreboard was erected near the left-field foul line.”

Over the decade, the Highlanders didn’t win many games. But they attracted big crowds to the 16,000 person venue, especially with the help of the new subway system.

DSCN5324-copyThe 1912 season was their last at Hilltop Park, which was constantly beset by flooding and other problems.

The team now known as the Yankees shared the nearby Polo Grounds with the Giants, then moved into their own stadium in the Bronx in 1923.

Nothing appears to remain of Hilltop Park, bulldozed to make way for a tabernacle and then Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in 1925, which occupies the hilltop today.

hilltopplaqueBut there are a few interesting remnants. First, the lone tenement apartment building that stood out so prominently in early photos of the park still exists on 168th Street, long surrounded by other apartment houses.

And a small base-shaped plaque in a hospital courtyard marks the site of home plate.

[Top photos: Library of Congress; fifth photo: copyright David B. Stinson; bottom photo: Uptown Collective]

A Tribeca eyesore built to withstand nuclear war

May 11, 2015

LonglinesbuildingTribeca is a wonderland of 19th century buildings, from brick warehouses to Federal-style homes.

But one 550-foot Brutalist building that looms over Thomas Street, a hulk of pink windowless granite that looks like a giant Lego block, harkens back to the height of the Cold War.

This is the AT&T Long Lines Building, built in 1974 to house crucial telecommunications equipment.

LonglinesbuildingDesigned with disaster in mind, the structure was built like a fortress to withstand a nuclear blast and be self-sufficient for two weeks, in the event of a nuclear attack on New York City.

“The interiors were designed with high ceilings and large floor plates, spaces where telephone-switching equipment is housed and can be easily maintained,” wrote the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

“Aesthetic choices were, in part, also shaped by security concerns.”

“Not only is the Thomas Street entrance raised far above the sidewalk (similar to the plan of One World Trade Center), but this critical communications facility was also reportedly planned to withstand a nuclear blast.”

Longlinesbuildingsky

Unlike other former telecommunications buildings, the Long Lines building, quite imposing and with no windows, is probably never destined to be turned into co-ops.

[Second photo: Andrew St. Clair/Flickr; third photo: nyc-architecture.com]

An apartment house evokes “memories of Paris”

May 4, 2015

Dorilton1902architecturalreviewWhen the Dorilton opened in 1902, the 12-story Beaux-Arts building at Broadway and 71st Street was one of many grand apartment houses designed to take advantage of all the new Upper West Side residents the coming subway system would bring.

With its curvy mansard roof and enormous arched entryway, it caught the eye of architectural critics, who generally loathed its florid, ostentatious details.

“[The Dorilton] was criticized as an ‘architectural aberration’ because of its grandiose scale and overly lavish ornament,” states Gwendolyn Wright’s Building the Dream.

Doriltonfemalefigures

But that didn’t stop people from moving in. Consider the amenities: filtered water, free electricity, separate servant and passenger elevators, soundproof walls and windows, and long-distance telephone service and refrigerators in every apartment.

DoriltonfloorplansnyplThere was even a charger for the electric automobiles hitting the streets at the time.

If flamboyant ornamentation is your thing, then the Dorilton is a dream. The iron gates at the limestone entryway look like they belong in a European palace.

And don’t forget the sculptures on the Broadway side, “two greater than life size female figures whose handsome draped clothing enhances the motion expressed in their bodies,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The Dorilton wasn’t one of the few luxury buildings on Upper Broadway for much longer. But as the neighborhood declined after World War II, so did the Dorilton, with pieces of the cornices and other details falling off.

DoriltonupperfloorscloseupAfter it was landmarked in 1974—with the Landmarks Preservation Committee report describing it as evoking “memories of Paris”—the Dorilton rebounded, undergoing a renovation to return it to its glory.

Today, this “aberration,” as it was called, has some of the most sought-after co-op apartments in the city. And its pull-out-all-the-stops ornamental beauty stops pedestrians in their tracks.

Doriltonfacadebroadway

[Top photo: Architectural Review; third, NYPL; fourth: Wikipedia]

The girls leading New York’s maypole dances

May 4, 2015

Depending on your age and social class, May Day in the New York of a century ago meant either labor demonstrations or maypoles.

For kids, especially little girls, maypoles were the thing. These tall wood poles, symbolic of trees, were decorated with strips of ribbon, which each girl would hold while moving in a circle around the pole.

Maypoledancecentralpark1905

This rejoicing of the return of spring has its roots in Northern European cultures. Since so many New Yorkers came from this part of the world at the time, the tradition carried over.

Maypolecentralpark1912bain

Central Park was a popular site for Maypole dances. But the neighborhood parks springing up at the time also hosted them, usually for poorer kids with much less decorative poles.

Their pole isn’t as fancy and instead of ribbon they’re using string, but these girls in Seward Park in 1890 refused to be left out of the tradition.

Maypolesewardpark1890

Maypole processions were a common sight in city neighborhoods, and they were led by girls, as this New York Times article from 1886 explains:

“On the morning of the eventful day the May Queen, decked out in her summer best and her hair garlanded with flowers, leads a procession of her associates to the park,” wrote the Times.

Maypoleeastside1898The May Queen was picked by popular vote in the neighborhood.

“Her especial favorite among the small boys, graciously permitted to accompany the party, carries the May pole.”

“The parents of some of the children accompany the party ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality because they enjoy themselves fully as much as the children do.”

“Throughout the month of May, these little parties are a familiar sight on the streets.”

[Top image: NYPL; second, Bain Collection, LOC; third and fourth, NYPL]

The beloved city poet you’ve never heard of

May 4, 2015

FitzgreenhalleckheadshotAt the time of his death in 1867, he was one of the most popular writers in the city: a critically acclaimed poet, satirist, and social commentator whose work was published in leading periodicals and recited by schoolkids.

But chances are you’ve never heard of Fitz-Green Halleck (right), a forgotten man of New York letters.

Born in Connecticut in 1790, Halleck, like so many aspiring writers before and after him, moved to New York at age 21.

He made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

FitzgreenhalleckcentralparkHe also met Joseph Rodman Drake, the scion of a wealthy New York family (below).

Drake was a medical student who collaborated with Halleck on a series of satirical verses published in the New York Evening Post.

It’s widely presumed that Halleck was in love with Drake. Upon Drake’s marriage, Halleck wrote his sister:

“[Drake] is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice.”

FitzgreenhalleckjosephrodmandrakeDrake died shortly after of tuberculosis. Halleck continued writing, earning the nickname “The American Byron” in the 1830s.

He also secured a job as John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary, which allowed Halleck access to the city’s social scene—and also an annuity upon Astor’s death that gave him an income independent of his art.

His poems tended to be overwrought and fanciful, but they were popular in his day, especially “Fanny,” from 1819 (below).

Halleck kicked around the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s, the bar at Bleecker Street and Broadway.

FitzgreenhalleckfannyexcerptHe moved back and forth between New York and Connecticut, living with his sister but never marrying.

By the 1860s, he’d earned a place in the city’s established literary scene.

In 1877, ten years after his death, he was still so popular that his statue commemorating him went up along Central Park’s Literary Walk.

Fitzgreenhalleckstatueunveiled

“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states poetryfoundation.org (right).

He’s the only American writer there, part of an esteemed club featuring William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott.

Fame was fleeting. Today, no one remembers his name or his work.

[Fourth image: gayatlcp.com; fifth image, NYPL]

Behind the Starbucks sign on Lexington Avenue

May 2, 2015

When the Starbucks at 655 Lexington Avenue shut its doors for a renovation recently, the windows were papered up and the store sign came down . . . revealing this wonderful relic of another Manhattan.

Therecordcentresign

Remember record stores? The Record Centre seems to have been a mini-chain with four Manhattan locations, including two in the West Village.

Thanks to Ephemeral Reader James R. for spotting the sign and taking the photo.


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