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]]

The colossal failure of a 1905 Bleecker Street bar

March 6, 2017

subwaytaverngettyimagesNew York is a city rich with bars: corner bars, dive bars, gay bars, sports bars.

Bar culture is so ingrained here, a tavern functioned as the colony’s makeshift city hall through the end of the 1600s.

But imagine a bar that downplayed its beer and liquor menu and hoped to lure patrons by offering soda, hot chocolate, ice cream sodas—and a dose of religious sermonizing?

That was the idea behind the Subway Tavern, which opened in 1905 in a Federal-style row house on Bleecker and Mulberry Streets near the new subway system’s Bleecker Street stop.

subwaytavernmcny1905x2011-34-2181

Dubbed by a snickering Newspaper Row as a “moral bar,” the Subway Tavern was the brainchild of Bishop Henry Codman Potter (below), leader of New York’s Protestant archdiocese.

subwaytavernbishoppotterAt the turn of the century, saloons were under siege, with the temperance movement bearing down hard.

It didn’t help that in the 1890s, reform-minded police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt began enforcing the excise laws that forbid the sale of booze on Sundays.

Potter thought that outlawing alcohol was a terrible idea, because “the workingman,” needed a place to drink “without hypocrisy.”

“When the day is done,” remarked Potter in a magazine article of the era, “what is to become of those persons whose lives are given over to laborious toil?”

subwaytavernnytimes8311905“I belong to the Century and the Union League and other clubs, and can go to them. But where are these people going?”

“By inevitable necessity to the saloon, and if you place the saloon under the ban you make it one of the most tragic or comic failures in history,” he explained.

So Potter launched his family-friendly tavern. The business plan had it that the manager would make money off the sale of non-alcoholic drinks yet receive nothing for liquor sales. The thought was that he would push the sale of soda—and fewer men would stumble home drunk.

subwaytavernmcny“In the front men, women, boys, and girls are invited to buy soda, and the place has the appearance of an ordinary soda water store,” wrote the New-York Tribune.

“A curtain in the rear leads to a saloon, where liquors and free lunch abound.” There was also a restaurant on a lower level.

Even in a reform-minded city, the Subway Tavern was a flop. Temperance leaders and clergymen denounced Bishop Potter for supporting an establishment that served evil alcohol. Few patrons showed up.

subwaytavern2017

Thirteen months after the Subway Tavern earned national attention as a way to clean up tavern culture without shutting bars down totally, it was shuttered. (Here’s the site today, after the building was razed).

In a city that revels in the ritual of drinking as well as alcoholic debauchery, this saloon was doomed to fail.

[Top photo: Getty Images; second photo: MCNY, 1905, x1905.34.2181; third photo: Wiki; fourth image, 1905 New York Times headline; fifth photo: MCNY, x2011.34.2169]

The mystery man in a rowboat on the East River

February 27, 2017

The Hudson has its beauty. But New York owes its financial power to the East River—not really a river of course but a 16-mile tidal estuary that for most of the city’s history was one of the busiest ports in the world.

williammerritchaseeastriver

This late 19th century painting of a pale blue East River thick with ships on both sides and a lone man in a rowboat apparently struggling in the current is credited by one source to Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

I haven’t been able to confirm Chase as the artist. But as a Brooklyn resident in the 1880s, he often focused on the city’s physical beauty as well as scenes of day-to-day life that suggest a bit of mystery.

The wild history of Central Park’s Ramble Cave

February 27, 2017

It’s known as the Ramble Cave or Indian Cave, its remains viewed today from a footpath through the Ramble Arch in the woodsy, boulder-strewn Ramble section of Central Park, just below 79th Street.

caverambleeasternside

The cave was discovered by workers building the park in the 1850s. Designers Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted incorporated it into their plans for the Ramble (below, in 1900), which they envisioned to be “a wild garden.”

cavemcnyx2010-11-1419therambleincentralparkUnfortunately for urban explorers, both ends of the cave (one was accessible through the lake, the other beside the Ramble Arch) were sealed in 1934.

Yet in the years it existed, it earned an early reputation as a place of fun and adventure—then something more disturbing.

First, the fun part. Unsurprisingly, the cave was a thrill for kids, an “Eldorado of pleasures.”

“See that stone bridge half hid by flowering vines,” explains an 1877 children’s magazine article about the park. “And this place? What’s here? A cave! The boys go into the black hole in the rock and the girls timidly follow.”

cavenypl1863thecavefromtheramble

The cave was also tinged with romance, a “bold and romantic rock chamber” as an 1861 Harper’s Monthly article described it.

“It is a romantic rock fissure, which opens northward at the base of the western slope of the Ramble, and southward upon a little arm of the lake,” stated an 1866 guide.

caveramblerunawaynytheadline1897It might also be the same “wild but beautiful” cave where one 15-year-old runaway hid for a month in 1897, worrying her immigrant parents before being found by police, sitting on a rock and soon forced out.

But after the turn of the century, based on newspaper accounts, the cave gained a darker edge.

In 1904, an artist was found guilty of disorderly conduct after another man, a baker, claimed that the artist walked him to the “Indian Cave” with the intent of robbing him.

cavenypl1863rusticarch

Twenty-five years later, 335 men—some found hanging out in the cave—were charged with the crime of “annoying women.”

cavesuicideheadlinenytHarassment is one thing—suicide another. In 1904, a man killed himself with a shot to the heart on the steps of the cave. “My name is boy,” a note in his pocket said, reported the New York Times. “No relatives in this country.”

And in 1908, another man slit his throat with a razor there, telling a cop, “one of the sparrows told me to do it,” according to the Sun.

All of this unsavory activity led park officials to shut the cave off to the public.

cavecloseupeasternsideramblearchThe lakeside opening was bricked off and the Ramble entrance blocked by boulders and dirt.

Walk by the Ramble Arch today, and you wouldn’t know a cave used to be here—though the remains of a staircase that once led to it can be seen by eagle-eyed explorers.

[Second photo: The Ramble in 1900, MCNY, x2010.11.1419; third photo: The cave from the Ramble, NYPL 1863; fourth image: New York Times headline 1897; fifth photo: the Ramble arch near the cave, NYPL, 1863; sixth image: New York Times headline, 1904]