New York is a city of rooftop wooden water tanks

February 20, 2017

They seem like relics of another New York. But most buildings in the city higher than five or six stories have one of these wooden water tanks perched on stilt-like contraptions on the roof.

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Photographer Andreas Feininger captured their beauty under a dusting of snow in this image, from 1952. I don’t know where this was taken, but there’s a good chance the water towers look exactly the same today.

A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal

February 20, 2017

jameshazenhydeportraitNew York has always been home to young men like James Hazen Hyde.

Handsome, cultured, and—as the heir to the Equitable Life Assurance Society—incredibly rich, Hyde was one of the brash young men Gilded Age newspapers couldn’t wait to gush about, and then tear apart, at the turn of the 20th century.

A Harvard graduate who loved art and French culture, he lived in his own brownstone at Nine East 40th Street and had his clothes hand-made in Paris.

Hyde raced “four-in-hand” coaches (four-horse carriages) with his friend Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and he dated President Theodore Roosevelt’s equally social daughter Alice.

hazenballgreenjacketHyde wasn’t publicity shy; he even commissioned a French painter to do his portrait (above), which gave him a royal air and showing off his dark Lothario-like looks.

He also enjoyed a good party. In 1905, Hyde threw what could be described as the most spectacular ball of the century: “a French 18th century–themed costume party for which he would be known all of his life,” wrote Patricia Beard in After the Ball.

The ball was held at posh Fifth Avenue society haunt Sherry’s on January 31. At 10:30 p.m., 600 guests were received in a two-story ballroom transformed to look like the gardens of Versailles. Invitees “wore costumes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and jewels that had belonged to empresses,” stated Beard.

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Society writers heralded the event the next day in all the papers. “James H. Hyde Gives Splendid Costume Fete,” wrote the New York Times, printing the names of notable guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with a description of what costume they wore.

hydeballmcny93-1-19504But all the press attention from the ball led to his downfall. Though Hyde had a majority share in the Equitable company, he was to become president when he turned 30, which would happen in 1906.

Prominent board members who already wanted Hyde out of the company decided to use the publicity surrounding the ball to charge that he was “too frivolous to run a company,” explained New York History blog.

Rumors spread that he spent Equitable money to fund the ball, among other examples of sleazy business practices. Policy holders got angry, and New York State investigated.

hydeportraitsittingdownIn December 1905, with his reputation ruined (though he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing), Hyde took off for France.

He sold his Long Island estate, carriages, private rail car, and his majority share in the company his father founded and bequeathed to him.

He lived in France until 1941, when he returned to New York, “still attracting attention when he walked along Fifth Avenue in his cape and spats,” wrote Beard.

He died in 1959, dapper and wealthy but in obscurity, donating much of his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverHyde’s extravagant, excessive ball and the subsequent scandal make a fitting coda for the end of the Gilded Age . . . which is explored in depth and illustrated lavishly in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Third photo: MCNY; 93.1.1.20208; fourth photo: MCNY; 93.1.19504]

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

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Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

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Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

These city boys tried to rent out their snow fort

February 17, 2017

Sometime around 1940, after a storm blanketed city streets in the kind of snow that makes for good packing, a group of cheeky boys came up with a brilliant way to capitalize on New York’s always-tight housing market.

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How much do you think they could have made off that super cool snow fort? I guess it depends on the neighborhood, which isn’t noted in the photo caption, unfortunately, and if they put a loft inside.

[Photo by Wurts Brothers from the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York: x2010.7.1.16299]

A Village hotel, a suicide, and a haunting painting

February 17, 2017

Since opening in 1887, the Albert Hotel on University Place and 11th Street has been a magnet for creative souls.

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Author Robert Louis Stevenson booked a room in this lovely Victorian Gothic building, receiving Augustus St. Gaudens as a guest.

albertpinkhamryderWalt Whitman and Mark Twain spent time at the Albert, as did Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s. Jackson Pollack, Robert Lowell, and folk rock bands like the Mamas & the Papas all made the hotel their home base.

But one late 19th century painter who gained notoriety for his moody landscapes and eccentric habits was so taken aback by an experience he had in the hotel’s restaurant, it inspired one of his darkest, most haunting works.

The painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (left), was a near-recluse. Totally devoted to his art, he often walked from his downtown flat to the Battery late at night to observe the effect of clouds passing over the moon.

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“But a roof, a crust of bread and an easel,” was all he needed in life, Ryder reportedly wrote.

alberthotel1907mcny93-1-1-5311Ryder’s brother was the manager of the Albert, so he often took his meals there. One evening, he talked up a waiter about an upcoming horse race, the Brooklyn Handicap, and a favored thoroughbred named Hanover.

“The day before the race I dropped into my brother’s hotel and had a little chat with this waiter, and he told me that he had saved up $500 and that he had placed every penny of it on Hanover winning the race,” Ryder recalled years later.

“The next day the race was run, and as racegoers will probably remember, Hanover came in third. I was immediately reminded that my friend the waiter had lost all his money.”

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“That dwelt on my mind, as for some reason it impressed me very much, so much that I went around to my brother’s hotel for breakfast the next morning and was shocked to find my waiter friend had shot himself the evening before.”

alberthotelfrom11thst“This fact formed a dark cloud over my mind that I could not throw off, and ‘The Race Track’ is the result.”

Subtitled “Death on a Pale Horse,” the painting was completed between 1896 and 1908.

It belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art—a work of art whose connection to a Bohemian hotel in Greenwich Village and a horse race in Brooklyn is not obvious yet runs deep.

[Fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.5311; fifth image: The Sun headline, two weeks after Ryder died in 1917]

A downtown restaurant with pillars from Pompeii

February 17, 2017

delmonicostheepochtimesYou could say that New York’s pricey restaurant culture all started with Delmonico’s.

Opened by two Swiss brothers in 1827 as a cafe serving “cakes, ices, and fine wines” and expanded in 1831 into a restaurant serving European-style cuisine, this luxury eatery pioneered a la carte ordering, wine lists, and multi-page menus.

By the turn of the century, several Delmonico’s operated in prime city neighborhoods: Union Square, Madison Square, and soon uptown on 44th Street.

delmonicosmenu1880sBut today, only one still stands—a circa-1890 beauty at the juncture of Beaver and South William Streets.

This Delmonico’s pays tribute to earlier incarnations by featuring dishes supposedly invented by the restaurant like Delmonico steak, eggs Benedict, and baked Alaska.

The building itself is also a homage to Delmonico’s history and the continent that inspired its cuisine.

How? Look at the two white pillars at the restaurant entrance. They were reportedly excavated from the ruins of Pompeii and brought to New York by one of the Delmonico brothers to flank the entrance of an earlier Delmonico’s on this site in the 1830s.

delmonicosstaff931-1-18421“On July 7, 1891, the new Delmonico’s Restaurant at South William Street opened to the public,” states one history of the restaurant.

“The new structure was eight stories tall and featured, for the first time, electric lights. It also kept several touches from the original structure, including the Pompeii pillars and cornice that framed the entrance.”

delmonicos1890sThe Sun noted the pillars as well when describing the new 1891 building. “Out of the wreck of the old building the two white marble pillars . . . which Lorenzo imported from Pompeii have been retained and form part of the entrance. . . . “

Perhaps it’s just legend. But if the pillars really are from Pompeii, it would make them one of the oldest artifacts in the city.

[Top photo: theepochtimes; second image: MCNY 97.41.293; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18421; fourth photo: King’s Handbook of New York, 1892]

A mystery valentine sent to a Brooklyn address

February 13, 2017

Faded and yellowed after more than a century, this Valentine’s Day card is hard to read. It appears to have been sent in 1906 to a Miss Tarehin on Glenmore Avenue in Brooklyn—between Brownsville and East New York.

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But who is it from? The sender is a mystery, and there doesn’t appear to be any message. The last name of the recipient is an unusual one as well.

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A quick Google search uncovers an Anna Tarehin, buried in 1945 in Queens’ Third Calvary Cemetery, which is not that far from Glenmore Avenue.

[Card: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory

February 13, 2017

Born in 1801, William Chappel was a Manhattan native who made a modest living as a tinsmith and resided with his wife and kids at 165 Bowery opposite the Bowery Theatre.

[“The Buttermilk Peddler,” location unknown]

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He was also an amateur painter (and the father of a more renowned artist, Alonzo Chappel). The elder Chappel’s depictions of day-to-day street life offer a fascinating peek at New Yorkers at work and at play in the city of approximately 1810.

At that time, Gotham’s population stood at less than 100,000, most residents lived in 2- or 3-story wooden houses, the urban core barely stretched past Canal Street, and conveniences such as clean water and mass transit were still pipe dreams.

[“The Baker’s Wagon,” Hester Street]

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Even without the amenities New Yorkers are long used to, life in the 1810 city isn’t so far off from the metropolis of today.

Peddlers sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn from a dock at the end of Catherine Street.

[“City Watchman,” Elizabeth Street]

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Well-dressed women head to a tea party. Bathers wade into the cool water at Dandy Point, at today’s 13th Street. Shoppers buy meat and fish at a marketplace called the Fly (from the Dutch “Vly”) Market. Volunteer firemen attract admirers as they wash their engines on the Bowery.

[“Firemen’s Washing Day,” The Bowery]

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Chappel’s work in currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which notes that the 27 small oil paintings on display were all done in the 1870s, decades after the time period they depict.

[“Tea Party,” Forsyth and Canal Streets]

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“Chappel’s images defy easy categorization because his practice and motivation remain elusive,” states a summary of the exhibit mounted beside the paintings.”

“Did Chappel produce these works, in all their minute detail, from older sketches or from youthful memories?”

[Bathing Party, 13th Street at East River]

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“One thing is certain: Chappel’s scenes offer a rare glimpse of early nineteenth-century New York and its diverse working-class communities as it began its tumultuous ascent to the United States’ financial capital.”

A lurid best-seller shocks 1850s New York

February 13, 2017

hotcornkatyIt was deemed “filthy” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn preacher and moral crusader Henry Ward Beecher praised it, then quickly retracted his recommendation once he actually took a look at it.

Henry James, a young boy when it was published, was forbidden to read this “tabooed book” by his father—and of course became obsessed with getting a copy, he recalled years later.

What kind of book could stir such outrage—and become a runaway best-seller—in the New York City of 1853?

hotcorncover1853Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated, was a collection of short stories that had originally run in the New-York Tribune.

The stories chronicled the interconnected lives of several poor kids and adults living in the wretched Five Points slum in the antebellum city.

The main character was young Katy (top), a Five Points resident and “hot corn” girl—one of hundreds of vendors who stood on New York corners hawking this favorite street food of the early 19th century.

(“Hot corn, hot corn, here’s your lily-white hot corn/hot corn, all hot, just came out of the boiling pot” was a hot corn girl’s signature refrain.)

hotcornpolicebeatingThere was also “Wild Maggie,” her drunk father, a ragpicker’s daughter named Madelina, and Katy’s alcoholic mother, who lives off the pennies Katy makes selling corn.

Interspersed in the drama are lurid descriptions of the real streets of Five Points as well as the efforts on the part of the missions that had recently set up there, hoping to ease the lives of residents with charity, offers of work, and religious moralizing.

Hot Corn was such a hit that it immediately spawned three plays. P.T. Barnum staged a rendition, and another version ran at the Bowery Theatre—becoming the second most popular play in the 1850s after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another novel-turned-drama.

hotcornmancookingcornNo one was reading Hot Corn for its literary merits, of course. The tawdry yet sentimental tales of poverty, broken families, and alcoholism gave respectable book-buyers a scandalous look into slum life.

The stories milk every emotion. Omnibuses run people over, characters end up in jail or in Green-Wood Cemetery, rats run wild, and there’s at least one marriage and deathbed scene.

The message about the evils of alcohol found an audience as well. The temperance movement was gaining steam at this point in the 19th century, even in a city that centered around saloons and taverns.

hotcorndeathbedsceneDespite its massive popularity, Hot Corn disappeared from booksellers’ shelves by the end of the decade.

Consider it one in a long line of lurid dramas exposing the underbelly of New York life or the hidden world of a not-well-known subculture, from the Horatio Alger stories of the late 19th century to Rent on Broadway.

[All illustrations all come from the text, which you can download for free via Google]

Old men, a folded chessboard, and Central Park

February 6, 2017

Time stands still in this May 1946 photo, which captures two “old timers,” as the caption states, immersed in a game of chess while surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of Central Park.

Perhaps they were among the former residents of Central Park’s Depression-era Hooverville, a pop-up city of shacks and forgotten men?

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It’s part of the digitized American Cities collection at the National Archives, which deserves a long thumbing through.

Chess wasn’t the only game older men played in New York City parks. Bocce courts ruled parks in Italian-American neighborhoods, with groups of often Italian Americans crowding green spaces in Lower Manhattan.