A winter twilight in the snow on 57th Street

February 12, 2018

This is 57th Street in 1902, painted by Robert Henri, whose Ashcan School work depicted a moody New York in all of its grit and glory.

Could the cross street with the elevated train be Sixth Avenue? It would have been close to the Art Students League, where Henri taught.

Decayed shells of two lovely Bronx train stations

February 12, 2018

It’s a strip mall that has seen better days—a long, two-story shell of a building housing a chicken joint, a pizza and gyro shop, and a couple of other businesses in the shadow of the Bronx’s Bruckner Expressway.

But a closer look reveals some curious details—like the pointed dormer windows set inside a barn-like sloping roof. This stretch of retail had to start out as something more majestic.

Turns out it did: It was the Hunts Point Avenue railroad station, built in 1909 by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—which anticipated a huge demand for train service in the once-bucolic Bronx, thanks to subway development and a population boom.

An even biggest surprise than seeing the remains of such a lovely station is the name of the architect behind it: Cass Gilbert, better known as the genius behind the Woolworth Building and the Custom House at the foot of Broadway, among other architectural beauties.

The station is one of several that Gilbert designed in the Bronx, and he  seemed to have a lot of fun with this one.

The Hunts Point station was French Renaissance in design,” states this Lehman College site. “It had a wide overhanging hipped roof with pointed lacy dormer windows, spires, tiling and crenellations.”

The station connected commuters to Grand Central until the 1930s, when a lack of passengers made it financially impossible to keep open. At some point, it was repurposed for retail, its ornaments stripped off or obscured beneath 1970s-style roll-down gates and a hulking freeway.

Another of Gilbert’s Bronx railroad stations also pretty much lies in ruin: the Westchester Avenue station.

This terra cotta jewel was built in 1908 by the same railroad and it too shut down in the 1930s. Today it remains under the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway and besides Concrete Plant Park, abandoned.

[Second photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1841; fourth photo: Architectural Record, 1908; fifth photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1842; sixth photo: Wikipedia]

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

In 1912, everyone was doing the Subway Glide

February 5, 2018

How long have New Yorkers been complaining about cramped subways and speeding, lurching trains? (And the violation of personal space that happens when too many people are crammed in car?)

At least since 1912, eight years after the subway opened—when lyricist Arthur Gillespie and musician Theodore Norman put together this zippy little song, the “Subway Glide.”

With lyrics like “rush in, crush in, reach for a handle strap, then turn right around and flop in a lady’s lap,” it may offend the sensibilities of modern subway riders.

Give it a listen here and consider adding it to your commute playlist.

[Image: NYPL]

The past lives of a modest 1809 house in Tribeca

February 5, 2018

Houses have stories. And the Dutch-style unassuming home at the corner of White Street and West Broadway can tell some fascinating tales.

The story of 2 White Street (or 234 West Broadway) begins in 1809, when a New Yorker named Gideon Tucker built this home, most likely the last in a row that stretched down White Street.

Tucker ran a successful plaster factory. He was also assistant alderman of the Fifth Ward and a school commissioner, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1966.

Tucker’s house certainly wasn’t showy. But a man of his stature would build a place with some flair.

“Number Two White Street is one of those very rare brick and wood houses in New York which still retain its gambrel roof and original dormer windows,” explains the LPC report.

“Although it was completed in 1809, this house is eighteenth century in its feeling and style,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835.

Two White Street can give us a good idea of where and how New Yorkers lived in the decades following the Revolutionary War.

How long Tucker and his family resided there is unclear, or if it remained a one-family home. But by 1842, there was a different occupant: Reverend Theodore S. Wright.

Wright was born a free African-American in 1797. He was educated at the city’s African Free School, a one-room schoolhouse for the children of free and enslaved black New Yorkers. (Slavery wouldn’t officially end in the state until 1827.)

Wright became the first black man to earn a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, then helped lead the rising abolitionist movement in the antebellum city.

As a minister at the First Colored Presbyterian Church on Frankfort Street, he spoke out against the evils of slavery and founded abolitionist organizations, including the New York Vigilance Committee—which aimed to prevent black residents from being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

“In the 1840s, the Reverend Wright may have written speeches denouncing white prejudice by the light from the gabled windows of this very house,” states the New-York Historical Society.

Wright did more than write speeches; he may have used 2 White Street as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The house wouldn’t have been far from the Lispenard Street home of abolitionist David Ruggles, an Underground Railroad stop that over two decades sheltered about 600 runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass.

Wright died in 1847. Photos from the early 20th century show that the ground-floor retail space hosted a cigar shop, a barber shop, and at some point a liquor store.

Today it’s a J. Crew selling menswear, but the windows are still etched with the words “cordials” and “cognacs.” No trace of Tucker or Wright remain.

[Second photo: MCNY/33.173.221; third and sixth photos: NYPL]

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

The “Fish House” is the Bronx’s Art Deco jewel

January 29, 2018

It looks like it belongs in Miami Beach, not the Bronx.

But what’s been dubbed the “Fish House” or the “Fish Building” for the colorful aquatic-themed mural on the facade is on the Grand Concourse, not far from Yankee Stadium.

It’s one of dozens of Art Deco and Art Moderne apartment residences built on the Bronx’s most famous thoroughfare in the 1930s.

Why a fish facade in the Bronx? It’s unclear why architects Horace Ginsburn and Marvin Fine had the glittering mural made when they designed the building in 1937—or if it wasn’t their doing, who did have it installed.

The Grand Concourse—originally the Grand Boulevard and Concourse—supposedly started out as New York’s answer to the Champs Elysees, a majestic road of wide sidewalks, rows of trees, and contemporary architecture.

By the 1930s, it may have been clear that the Champs Elysees comparison wasn’t panning out, so perhaps the designers decided to have a little fun.

In any case, the inspiration for the fish mural is just one of the many mysteries behind New York City’s most iconic buildings. It’s a delightful bit of tropical undersea life with iridescent angel fish, amoebas, and sea anemone in the middle of an often overcast, grimy city.

The interior lobby is an explosion of Art Deco magnificence as well.

[Top photo: New York Times; fourth photo: MCNY 2014.3.2.1006]

The Yorkville home of a children’s book heroine

January 29, 2018

Is this beautiful Queen Anne corner townhouse at 558 East 87th Street the fictional home of Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old heroine of the beloved 1964 children’s classic Harriet the Spy?

That’s the conclusion of real-estate writers and online sleuths. The actual address of Harriet’s house is never named in the story about a city girl who spies on her neighbors and earns the ire of her friends for writing about them in her notebook.

But this impressive residence, part of a group of contiguous homes built in 1881 for “persons of moderate means,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, fits the description of the house based on the book.

With its tower and turrets, it sure looks like a place that would nurture a curious kid.

The first chapter gives readers an early clue. Harriet and her best friend, Sport, are in the “courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-Seventh Street in Manhattan,” wrote author Louise Fitzhugh.

Perhaps the courtyard is Henderson Place, the charming alley off East 86th Street, which the back of the house would face.

Harriet’s bedroom is on the third floor, the story tells us. “It was small and cozy and the bathroom was a little one which looked out over the park across the street.” Carl Schurz Park is right across the street.

Harriet attends the Gregory School, we learn. “It was on East End Avenue, a few blocks from Harriet’s house and across the street from Charles Schurz Park.”

The Chapin School is on East End Avenue and 84th Street and may have been Harriet’s school.

If this isn’t Harriet’s exact house, East End Avenue in the 80s is certainly her world. The book takes readers through Harriet’s spy route, where she stands in an alley on York Avenue to observe the Dei Santis grocery store. She also watches a man named Harrison Withers, who lives in a boarding house on 82nd Street.

Also on her route is a “duplex” on East 88th Street, where a couple who never speak to each other live.

One morning on the way to school she walks through Carl Schurz Park. “She crossed East End at the corner of 86th and walked through the park, climbing the small hill up through the early morning onto the esplanade, and finally sat, plunk on a bench, right by the river’s edge,” wrote Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh would have known the neighborhood well; she lived on East 85th Street. Like East 87th, her block was in the Henderson Place Historic District.

Number 558 was up for sale in 2016 (interior photos are still on Streeteasy) for $5 million. At the time, the New York Post noted that the house had a dumbwaiter that serves the dining room from the kitchen.

As fans of the book know, Harriet uses a dumbwaiter to spy on her rich neighbor, Mrs. Plumber.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.5744]

Monday used to be laundry day in New York City

January 22, 2018

I’d seen this 1900 image of sheets, shirts, and undergarments hanging between rows of New York tenements before. But I never noticed the caption, “A Monday’s Washing.”

Was Monday the city’s official laundry day? Apparently it was a traditional day to do the hard work of washing clothes, as this excerpt from Tyler Anbinder’s book about the city’s notorious 19th century slum, Five Points, explains.

“Hard wash-days”—typically Mondays—provided some of the most unpleasant memories for tenement housewives such as those in Five Points,” wrote Anbinder.

“They first made numerous trips up and down the stairs to haul water up from the yard. Then they heated the water on the stove and set to work scrubbing.”

“Drying the wash was actually the most dreaded task. . . .The advantage of living on a low floor (with fewer flights of stairs to climb) became a disadvantage on wash day, because when hanging your laundry out to dry, ‘someone else might put out a red wash or a blue wash over it, and it drips down and makes you do your wash all over again.'”

[Top postcard: LOC; second image: Mott Street; third image: Minetta Lane, via MCNY x2010.11.2570]