This Canal Street sign might be older than SoHo

March 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person in New York in love with the Canal Rubber sign—a can’t-miss yellow, red, and black throwback to Canal Street’s days as an industrial and art supply center.

Canal Rubber has been in business here near Greene Street since 1954.

That year, Ellis Island closed its doors, On the Waterfront hit movie theaters, teen gangs were making news headlines, and the desolate neighborhood not yet known as Soho was called Hell’s Hundred Acres (for all the fires in the cast-iron buildings used for manufacturing).

Or it went by no name at all, because no one wanted to be there.

A glorious 1914 tower symbolizes the united city

March 27, 2017

Manhattan in the late 19th century was running out of space—government office space, to be precise.

City Hall, which had been home to New York’s officials and agencies since 1812, was bursting at the seams by the middle of the Gilded Age.

In the 1880s, it was clear that the expanding city of more than one million residents needed bigger quarters if New York’s government was going to grow and function properly.

After 30 years of planning—selecting the site at One Centre Street, holding design contests (McKim, Mead, and White won out), and then constructing the new office tower—the Manhattan Municipal Building opened for business.

Officially a skyscraper at 40 stories high, the building’s design was inspired by the 12th century Giralda Tower in Spain, with its central arch (once open to cars) borrowed from Rome’s Arch of Constantine.

There’s much to love about this triumphant work of architecture: the vaulted entrance with Guastavino ceiling tiles, the bas relief panels, and the gilded copper statue, “Civic Fame” (modeled by Audrey Munson), perched at the top of the central tower.

And amid these and other beautiful features are two hidden symbols of the recently united metropolis.

The united city theme certainly made sense. After all, in the time between the building’s conception and completion, Greater New York was born—an “Imperial City” of five boroughs that doubled Gotham’s population and increased its size sixfold on January 1, 1898.

The first is above the middle section (left), where “there are three tiered drums on top of another, flanked by four smaller pinnacle turrets, symbolizing the four boroughs joined to Manhattan,” states nyc-architecture.com.

The second is the crown Civic Fame is holding up with her left hand.

This is a “mural” crown—”a crown with five crenellations as of a city wall, representing the five boroughs of the city,” according to nyc.gov. “Also on the crown are dolphins, symbolizing New York’s maritime setting.”

Since 2015, the Manhattan Municipal Building has been renamed the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building.

No disrespect to the former mayor, but like the Queensboro Bridge becoming the Ed Koch Bridge, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

[Top photo: MCNY 1913: X2010.28.683; second photo: NYPL; third photo: MCNY 1910: X2010.11.1682; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY, 1913: 2001.37.1R

Spring flowers arrive on a rainy Village sidewalk

March 27, 2017

Few artists painted the moods, rhythms, and rituals of the seasons like John Sloan, who moved to New York from Philadelphia in 1904 and spent the early 20th century in Greenwich Village—living and working for almost a decade at 88 Washington Place.

His windows facing Lower Sixth Avenue “gave Sloan a view of street life from an elevated vantage point, which he frequently incorporated into his paintings,” states the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

A real-life wagon loaded with vibrant flowers was the inspiration for his 1924 painting “Flowers of Spring,” which belongs to the MFA.

As Sloan (at left in a self-portrait from 1890) himself recalled in his book Gist of Art:

“This picture has, in a very direct, simple way, handed on the thrill that comes to everyone on a wet spring morning from the first sight of the flower huckster’s wagon. The brilliant notes of the plants surrounded on all sides by wet, city grays.”

Sloan’s beloved wife, Dolly, is the woman on the left with the umbrella.

[Hat Tip: Kathy van Vorhees]

A Tribeca spaghetti sauce ad returns to view

March 20, 2017

Ragu has been mass producing its popular tomato sauces since the 1940s. But I’d guess this wonderfully preserved full-color ad for Ragu spaghetti sauce dates to the 1970s.

It’s on the side of a restaurant on Sixth Avenue just below Canal Street. What a visual treat, coincidentally near the once-thriving Little Italy in Soho and Greenwich Village, where store-bought sauce might be considered an insult!

A New York artist paints the 20th century city

March 20, 2017

She may not have reached the same level of success as fellow social realist painters Robert Henri (with whom she exhibited her works at art shows) and William Merritt Chase (her teacher at the Arts Student League in the 1910s).

[“New York Street,” 1912]

But painter Theresa Bernstein did overshadow her male Ashcan school contemporaries in one way. Born in 1890 in Poland, Bernstein lived just shy of her 112th birthday—and that enabled her to paint scenes of city life in almost every decade of the 20th century.

[“In Central Park,” 1914]

A New Yorker since 1912, Bernstein spent much of her adult life living with her husband, painter William Meyerowitz, in a rent-stabilized West 74th Street studio near Central Park.

[“In the Elevated,” 1916]

Her early work reflects the people she saw going about their lives outside her window, as well as the events of the time, from European immigrants on the bow of a ship heading toward Ellis Island to Armistice Day celebrations to Suffrage meetings.

[“Brighton Beach” 1916]

Bernstein often depicted crowds too, particularly in rich, dark tones. Mothers and children were another popular theme, perhaps because Bernstein’s only child died at age 3 of pneumonia. (She reportedly doted on a niece, who grew up to be singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.)

Her Jewish identity figured into her art as well, with scenes inside New York’s synagogues in the 1910s and 1920s.

[“Baby Carriages Laundry Day,” 1923, Park Slope]

Navigating the art world as a woman proved to be challenging. “As a woman crossing the gender threshold at the beginning of the new century, Bernstein experienced the excitement of that moment but was not spared the indignity of discrimination,” states the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“Either paying a reluctant compliment or implying criticism, reviewers often described her work as having a “masculine” style.”

[“Waiting Room, Unemployment Office,” date unknown]

Her figurative style may have fallen out of favor as Abstract Expressionism took hold. But Bernstein never stopped painting, putting images of everything from postwar life to hippies in Central Park down on canvas.

Her work can be read as almost a list of milestones and movements in the 20th century—or how one woman experienced 112 years of history.

[“Saturday Morning Upper West Side,” 1940s]

Asked in a New York Times article from 1990 how she felt about being overlooked throughout her career, she replied:

“I never got frustrated, because I didn’t expect anything. I enjoyed painting the works I did. I didn’t do it for public acclaim.”

An extensive look at Bernstein’s life and work can be found here.

A Brooklyn Starbucks’ long movie theater past

March 13, 2017

Starbucks sells coffee out of 220 franchises throughout the five boroughs, and some of these locations have significant history behind them.

Baristas are serving up cafe lattes from the West 23rd Street brownstone where author Edith Wharton grew up.

There’s also a Starbucks inside the former barber shop on West 55th Street where Murder Inc. mobster Albert Anastasia was riddled with bullets while waiting for a haircut.

And on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint is this Starbucks, caffeinating New Yorkers from a former movie palace built in 1914 called the American Theatre (right, in the 1930s—and hey,trolley tracks!).

A century ago, Greenpoint residents hit this 565-seat neighborhood picture show with the proud eagle on top to see stars like Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish.

And if the American wasn’t playing anything worth seeing, they had other local theater options, like the Meserole Theater, which opened in 1922.

The American sold tickets throughout the golden age of Hollywood and in 1968 was renamed the Chopin (left, in 1980), possibly a nod to the increasingly Polish immigrant neighborhood.

After the Chopin closed its doors in 1987, the theater remained empty, then housed a succession of fast-food franchises, including a Burger King, into the 21st century.

Starbucks has occupied this space (and displayed their brand on the marquee once reserved for movie titles, actors, and actresses) for several years, amid a dwindling number of businesses bearing Polish names.

The building recently got a paint job, but the eagle on top of the facade still remains.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: NYC Department of Records; fourth photo: via Pinterest]

A March blizzard pummels New York by surprise

March 13, 2017

The day before it hit, the temperature (measured from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway) was a balmy 40 degrees—and the forecast at the tail end of what had been a warm winter called for light rain.

The next morning, Monday, March 12, 1888, the rain had turned to snow, ferocious winds created heavy drifts, and temperatures dropped to the low 20s.(Below, Park Street in Brooklyn)

For the next 24 hours, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” reported the New York Sun on March 13. (Below, 14th Street)

Take a look at these scenes of the city during and after the “White Hurricane” that pummeled the metropolis at the start of a workweek in mid-March 129 years ago.

About 200 people were killed during the storm itself and many more succumbed to storm-caused injuries later, felled by heavy snow or left in unheated flats after coal deliveries ceased. (Below, Fifth Avenue at 27th Street)

The downed power lines, stuck streetcars and trolleys, and deep mounds of snow are reminders of all the damage a late winter storm can do when city residents have been tricked by a mild winter season into feeling spring fever before winter is officially over.

Exiled Cuban journalist Jose Marti chronicled the storm from his New York home for an Argentinian newspaper.

Marti captured the mood of the city paralyzed by snow in poetic, descriptive prose, more of which you can read in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

13 stories of Art Nouveau beauty in Manhattan

March 13, 2017

The magnificent boulevards of Prague and Vienna are resplendent with Art Nouveau building facades, lobbies, and public transit entrances.

But the sinuous lines and naturalistic curves characteristic of this artistic style never caught on in turn-of-the-century New York, where architects seemed to prefer the stately Beaux Arts or more romantic Gothic Revival fashion.

It’s this rarity of Art Nouveau in Gotham that makes the 13-story edifice at 20 Vesey Street so spectacular.

Completed in 1907, this is the former headquarters for the New York Evening Post—the precursor to today’s New York Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton.

The building is across the street from the graveyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel off Broadway, a wonderful place to look up and linger.

Architect Robert D. Kohn designed the limestone structure with three rows of wavy windows and crowned it with a copper roof.

At the 10th floor, Kohn added a playful touch for a media company: four figures meant to represent the “Four Periods of Publicity“: the spoken word, the written word, the printed word, and the newspaper.

Note the “EP” insignia decorating the iron railings that link the four figures.

The Evening Post moved out in 1930, and today 20 Vesey is known as the Garrison Building, which houses a fairly typical mix of businesses behind its European-like facade.

Art Nouveau–inspired buildings are scattered in different pockets of New York, such as this former department store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

Plans for an Art Nouveau hotel around the corner on Church Street drawn up in 1908 by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, unfortunately, never panned out.

[Third photo, 1910, MCNY x2010.7.1.887]

Elizabeth Street’s old-school meat market signs

March 6, 2017

On trendy Elizabeth Street in the Little Italy rechristened Nolita, two vintage meat store signs harken back to the days when Sicilian-owned businesses lined the streets and butchers did a good trade in live chickens and rabbits.

albanesemeatsign

Albanese Meats & Poultry looks abandoned, while Moe’s Meat Market across the street has been transformed into gallery space.

moesmeatmarket

The 1960s and 1970s-esque signs remain, just like this ghostly Italian bakery sign (over an antiques store) farther down the block.

Creative ways to use a tenement fire escape

March 6, 2017

fireescapecoupleIn February 1860, a swift-moving evening blaze raged through a tenement on Elm Street—today’s Lafayette Street.

Ten women and children died, largely because firefighters’ ladders didn’t reach past the fourth floor.

The Elm Street fire certainly wasn’t the first to kill tenement dwellers. But thanks to newspaper coverage and the high death toll, it prompted an enormous outcry from city residents for building reform.

So a law was passed two months later mandating that city buildings be made of “fireproof” materials or feature “fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs.”

fireescapenypljunkThis regulation, and then the many amendments that came after it, was the genesis of the iconic New York fire escape—a sometimes lovely and ornate, often utilitarian and rusted iron passageway that helped cut down the number of casualties in tenement fires.

But as anyone who has ever lived in a tenement knows, fire escapes have lots of other uses aside from their original purpose—and you can imagine how handy they were in an older, poorer, non-air conditioned city.

First, storage. For large families sharing two or three rooms in a typical old-law tenement flat, fire escapes functioned as kind of a suburban garage or mud room, even though by 1905, clutter was outlawed.

It was an especially good place to keep an ice box in the winter, where food that had to be kept cold could be stored until it was time to eat.

fireescapesleepbettmancorbisThe railings off of a fire escape also made for a handy spot to air out bedding and mattresses and hang laundry to dry after it was washed by hand.

Playgrounds arrived in the city at the turn of the century. But fire escapes doubled as jungle gyms and play areas, where kids could burn off energy close to home yet away from the eyes of parents.

During what was called the “heated term,” fire escapes became outdoor bedrooms, the summer porches of the poor.

Families dragged out mattresses and tried to catch a faint breeze on steamy summer nights, when airless tenements felt like ovens. Sadly, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to fall off while sleeping and be killed.

fireescapepuckbuilding

But on the upside, there’s the most romantic use for a fire escape: as a private space for couples, where darkness and moonlight turn even the most depressing tenement district into a wonderland under the stars.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFire escapes didn’t have to be as beautiful as the one on the Puck Building, above, to have some magic and enchantment.

Fire escapes and the tenements they’re associated with are icons of late 19th century metropolis, and The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 offers a first-person feel for what it was like to live in one.

[Top photo: Stanley Kubrick; second photo: MCNY; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: Bettman/Corbis]]