The Gilded Age elite strolling old Fifth Avenue

February 23, 2015

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a sea of elite New Yorkers dressed in their Sunday best, drivers of carriages delicately navigating the crowds, and look at those lovely lampposts with the quaint street sign!

Sundaymorningfifthavenue

This gorgeous Gilded Age postcard of New York’s most famous avenue needs no explanation.

Where New Yorkers met for coffee in the 1790s

February 23, 2015

Tontine Coffee House, meeting-place of New York brokers who formed the NY Stock ExchangeIn late 18th century New York, with a revolt against tea in place and plain water mostly undrinkable, coffee’s popularity surged.

And the city’s love affair with coffee beans began.

Coffee houses soon sprang up. Unlike the cafes of today, these were more like taverns, where the city’s political and merchant elite met to exchange ideas and do business while nursing a cup of joe (and probably stronger drinks as well).

One coffee house on the bustling corner of Wall and Water Streets, the Tontine (the second building on the left, above), bore witness to some of the events and the development of the booming city.

Tontinefrancisguy

First, the Tontine (above on the left, in 1797) doubled as the original site of the New York Stock Exchange, with trading going on in a second-floor room from the early 1790s until 1817.

On a more gruesome note, the Tontine was where a notice was posted in 1804 informing New Yorkers about the death of Alexander Hamilton, after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

Tontine4“When a handwritten notice of Hamilton’s death went up at the Tontine Coffee House, the city was transfixed with horror,” wrote Ron Chernow, by way of the Aaron Burr Association.

Also, it was a place where deals were made on all kinds of goods . . . and that included human beings.

“As soon as a ship’s captain reached the harbor, this is where he came to register his cargo,” explains Mapping the African American Past.

“The goods coming into New York in the 1790s included coffee, tea, sugar and molasses, fine furniture, cloth, cotton, and enslaved men, women, and children.”

Slavery gradually ended in the city between 1799 and 1827.

Coffeehouseslip

An Englishman who visited Tontine (up the street from Coffee House Slip, above) recalled it this way:

“[Y]ou ascend six or eight steps under a portico, into a large public room, which is the Stock Exchange of New York, where all bargains are made. . . . You can lodge and board there at a common table, and you pay ten shillings currency a day, whether you dine out or not.”

Sounds not unlike the 18th century equivalent of hanging out at a cafe today, ordering the minimum amount of coffee you can to partake in the free WiFi and comfy communal table.

Neglected subway signage from another New York

February 23, 2015

OldsubwaysignagechamberscloseupIt’s been decades since the MTA introduced the spiffy white-on-black subway station signs on platforms that clearly spell out the name of each station.

But they didn’t get rid of all the scruffy signage from decades past. Some 1970s-era examples can be found in some of the grungier corners of subterranean New York City.

Exhibit A: these long-neglected old-school signs at the Chambers Street 1, 2, and 3 train station.

Oldsubwaysignagechamberstreet

I guess someone made a half-hearted attempt to cover up the old “Chmb’rs” sign, then gave up after coating half of it in the blue paint used for the rest of the wall.

Oldsubwaysignstorplace

At Astor Place, it looks like someone souvenir-hunting tore off the newer Astor Place or Cooper Union signs, revealing this unglamorous one-word sign below.

Holdout buildings that survived the bulldozer

February 16, 2015

They’re the survivors of New York City real estate—the walkups and low-rise buildings now dwarfed by shiny office towers and more contemporary residences.

Holdoutbuildinggreenwichvillage

Each building probably has a different backstory that explains how the wrecking ball was avoided.

Maybe an owner refused to sell for sentimental reasons. This lovely Greenwich Village brownstone, sandwiched between two tall apartment houses above, looks like it could have been one person’s longtime romantic hideaway.

 Holdoutbuildingchelsea

Or perhaps an owner tried to hold out for a bigger offer, until a developer realized it wasn’t worth the payout anyway. That might have been in the case of this one-story space wedged between a 19th century tenement and 21st century box on Tenth Avenue.

 Holdoutbuilding19thstreet

And thanks to real estate rules governing landmark structures and historic districts, some of these buildings probably couldn’t be torn down, like the gorgeous carriage house on a Gramercy side street.

Holdoutbuilding60thstreet2

It’s hard not to root for these underdogs. This ivy-covered walkup on East 60th Street gives bustling 59th Street near Bloomingdale’s the feel of a smaller-scale city.

Holdoutbuildnigsantander

Doesn’t this stately red townhouse do a good job breaking up the monotony of a block of Murray Hill terraced high-rise apartment buildings?

Holdoutbuildinguws

I can’t be the only New Yorker happy to see a Gilded Age limestone mansion holding its own in the middle of a stately Upper West Side block.

Churchill’s all-night restaurant in Times Square

February 16, 2015

When Times Square became the city’s premier entertainment district at the turn of the century, palatial “lobster palaces” like Churchill’s was a big part of the fun.

Churchillsrestaurantpostcard

This incarnation of Churchill’s, launched by a former police captain, opened in 1910 at the corner of Broadway and 49th Street.

On opening night, “fully 2,500 guests dined either in the main dining room or the balcony,” noted the New York Times. These guests were the “leading lights of the city’s political and theatrical circles.”

By 1921 it had shut down, a victim of the Volstead Act. This might be a piece of a menu from Churchill’s in 1917, with quite a meat list!

When New York winters were spent on the ice

February 16, 2015

One of the few activities open to both men and women in the 19th century city, ice skating was hugely popular.

“Skating in a moral and social point, is particularly suited to our republican ideas as a people,” stated the handbook published by the Brooklyn Skating Rink Association for the 1868-1869 season.

MNY87955

Above, skating at Brooklyn’s Union Pond in 1863, once in the town of Williamsburgh on Marcy Avenue.

“The millionaire and the mechanic, the lady of fashion and those of humbler rank, all meet together to enjoy this fascinating and beautiful exercise.”

Winslowhomerskatingcentralpark

How democratic ice skating was is not exactly clear. Ice was plentiful, but you needed the money to buy or rent skates.

And the fashionable attire worn by ladies on the ice, as seen in this Winslow Homer painting from 1861, was not cheap.

Currierandivescentralparkwinter

These sleighs and the handsome teams that pulled them were costly as well, afforded by only the richest New Yorkers.

This Currier & Ives lithograph shows the skaters and the sleighs, sharing a snowy Central Park in what looks like the 1860s.

A winter view of the Depression-era East River

February 9, 2015

“New York City goes about its varied daily businesses in [John] Cunning’s painting, despite the Depression,” explains the description of this evocative view of a wintry river and city, on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Johncunningmanhattanskyline1934

“Whether or not their offices were full of workers, the Farmer’s Trust Building, 120 Wall Street, the Bank of Manhattan, 60 Wall Tower, and the Singer Building towered proudly against the gray sky,” states the site.

“Commuters who still had jobs had come from the outer boroughs in the ferry boats shown tied up at the Manhattan docks.”

“On the Brooklyn shore, cargo ships are tied up for loading or unloading. The men in the foreground are removing snow from the roofs of a coffee warehouse on Water Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Cunning, a WPA artist, completed “Manhattan Skyline” in 1934.

A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

Chesterarthurhome2

And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

The Manhattan Bridge’s two lost lovely ladies

February 9, 2015

Look closely: in this 1920s postcard depicting the grand Manhattan Bridge approach from Brooklyn, you can make out two statues inside the granite pylons flanking the roadway.

Manhattanbridgeapproach1925mcny

These heroic sculptures—created during the City Beautiful era, when art was meant to inspire and uplift—were known as “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.”

Installed seven years after the bridge opened in 1909 and designed by Daniel Chester French, these 12-foot lovely ladies represented the attributes of each borough.

Manhattanbridgestatues

Impressive, right? But by the 1960s, they were gone—victims of bridge reconstruction in the age of Robert Moses and the automobile.

Luckily, Manhattan and Brooklyn didn’t end up in pieces in a Meadowlands dump, the sad fate of parts of the original Penn Station.

ManhattanstatueInstead, they were brought to the Brooklyn Museum, where they’ve guarded the entrance since 1963.

Interestingly, the attributes of each statue represent the way we view the boroughs today.

For Manhattan, that means hubris. “The pose of the figure of Manhattan typifies splendor and pride, of which the peacock at her side is the emblem,” says a 1915 article.

Brooklynstatue“The right foot of the statue rests upon a treasure-box and a winged ball in the statue’s hand suggests the City’s domination in world affairs.”

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a softer, more artistic and educational vibe.

“Beside the figure of Brooklyn stands a church and the arm of the statue rests upon a lyre, symbolizing music.”

“A Roman tablet which the figure holds on its knee indicates study, and a child at its feet reading from a book typifies the Borough’s well-filled schools.”

[Statue photos: Brooklyn Museum]

New York’s 1849 skyline seen from Union Square

February 2, 2015

The square itself looks different—it’s oval, first of all, and that’s some water spray from the new Croton fountain.

Bachmannlithographunionsquare

But amazingly, the streets are instantly recognizable in this 1849 bird’s eye lithograph by Swiss immigrant printmaker John Bachmann.

There’s Broadway, with that slight bend at Grace Church (built just one year earlier), and Fourth Avenue, which still curves east at about 12th Street.

Steeples and ship masts dominate Lower Manhattan. The George Washington statue has yet to arrive in at the southeast corner of Union Square (that comes in 1856), and the theaters and music halls that made 14th Street the city’s entertainment district are a decade or so away.

The level of detail is amazing and inspiring. And look at how built up New York is compared to this same view in 1828.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,622 other followers