A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]

How New York’s horses handled heat waves

July 17, 2017

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, summer heat waves were deadly for people—as well as for the horses who powered the city by pulling street cars, delivery wagons, and fire engines, rain or shine.

To prevent these working animals from dropping in the streets on a sweltering day, the ASPCA and other organizations concerned with horse welfare came up with ideas.

First, they built and supported horse fountains and horse showers, and they brought buckets filled with water to sidewalks, so thirsty equines could get a cool drink.

Second, they advocated that horses be outfitted with sombreros! Really, this was an actual idea at the turn of the last century, designed to help shield horses eyes from the sun and prevent them from getting overheated. It was adopted from France; apparently working horses in Paris were sporting the sombreros during the summer.

The sombreros didn’t catch on in New York, but this horse in a 1911 photo seems to be wearing some kind of soft woven sun hat.

[Photo: George Bain Collection/Library of Congress]

Buffalo Bill’s wild west show thrills 1894 Brooklyn

July 17, 2017

Part circus, part vaudeville act, part patriotic celebration of a mythic American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a huge summer draw when this traveling extravaganza booked time in New York in the late 19th century.

The show first visited Erastina, a park on the north shore of Staten Island, in 1886. “The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26,” states the blog for the Museum of the City of New York.

“Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper.”

After a turn at Madison Square Garden, the show moved to Brooklyn for the summer of 1894, thrilling audiences at Ambrose Park, a 24-acre parcel of land on Third Avenue and 37th Street in today’s Sunset Park.

And while it might seem corny to New Yorkers today, this kind of spectacle was great family fun for the growing middle class of the Gilded Age, when ferries and elevated trains made day trips to Ambrose Park easier.

William Cody “truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman,” states the MCNY blog.

“His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish.”

Get a load of the map of Greater New York in the poster! Whoever drew it managed to get the Brooklyn Bridge in there, but the city seems to stop at Chambers Street. And what’s the rectangle land mass off Brooklyn?

[Second image Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1894; third photo: Green-Wood Cemetery]

All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

July 15, 2017

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]

Riding an elephant at Coney Island’s Luna Park

July 15, 2017

If rides like Helter Skelter, Shoot the Chutes, and the Witching Waves weren’t enough excitement for you, you could always take advantage of another thrill offered at Luna Park: elephant rides.

Opened in 1903, Luna Park was the Surf Avenue pleasure pavilion that entertained millions of Coney Island fun-seekers every summer with the kinds of rides and spectacles no amusement park could get away with today.

This postcard dates to 1906—those women don’t look like they’re enjoying Brooklyn on an elephant, do they?

What remains of a Gansevoort Street restaurant

July 15, 2017

In 1938, the short, unremarkable building at 69 Gansevoort Street was home to R & L Lunch—a luncheonette that I imagine primarily fed the men who worked in the Meatpacking District (but hey, ladies invited, per the sign!).

Forty-seven years later, Florent Morellet turned what became R & L Restaurant into Florent, the legendary 24-hour haunt of late nighters, club kids, sex workers, and New Yorkers who enjoyed eating brunch in a place that often felt like a party.

Below, Florent in the mid to late 1980s; note the pink neon Florent sign in the window.

Florent closed in 2008. The space housed a couple of short-lived restaurants, if I remember correctly, and now this time capsule of a storefront has recently transformed into a branch of a national fashion chain.

At least they kept that wonderful aluminum sign, which these days is one of the last authentic pieces of the days when the Meatpacking District actually was home to meatpacking plants.

[Top photo: Sol Libsohn via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York; second photo: New York City Department of Records Photo Gallery]

Manhattan’s new skyscrapers flicker in the night

July 10, 2017

While the men who built them remained in the shadows, New York’s new skyscrapers lit the nighttime sky like Roman candles in the 1930s, as seen in this 1935 photo.

The Empire State Building was completed in 1931; the Chrysler building opened in 1930. The buildings of Rockefeller Center—where I believe this intrepid worker is enjoying a smoke on a steel beam—opened in the 1930s.

It’s hard to believe that not 50 years earlier, Trinity Church, with its spire reaching 284 feet toward the heavens, was the tallest structure in Manhattan.

[Photo: Library of Congress]

Going back in time at the Village’s Corner Bistro

July 10, 2017

The wooden table tops with generations of names scratched into them have been replaced, and signs posted on the back brick wall remind patrons that smoking is forbidden.

But the two little rooms of the Corner Bistro maintain that time-traveling Village taverny feel.

Maybe it’s the pressed tin ceiling that could date back to 1875, when the tiny space on the first floor of 331 West Fourth Street was a saloon run by a man named John Ebers (the site of an interesting crime, below).

Or perhaps it’s the old-timey clock in the corner or the long carved mahogany bar, which could have been installed in the early 20th century, when the Corner Bistro says they began serving customers (above, in 1933).

But the Corner Bistro resounds with what I imagine as the feel of the Village of the 1950s and 1960s, when locals and poets and artists and the men who worked the Hudson River docks went there for alcohol and camaraderie in a neighborhood that hosted lots of corner bars with the same mix, like the Lion’s Head and the White Horse.

To get a sense of what the place must have been like back then, read what the former longtime owner, Bill O’Donnell, had to say about the heyday of the Bistro, as regulars called it.

O’Donnell gave this interview to WestView News in 2012. After college and time spent at sea on board a ship, O’Donnell became a bartender at a place on Greenwich Avenue called Jack Barry’s.

“A few years later, one of the two owners of the Corner Bistro—his name was Curtis—wanted to sell his interest,” he told WestView.

“I scrambled together some money from my brothers and me and that’s how I began at the Corner Bistro. I took over 50 percent interest in February 1967 and ten years later bought the other 50 percent.”

The Bistro back then was “a mixed clientele and an eclectic crowd. You had neighborhood people, beatniks, some longshoremen, and tourists. You also had aspiring actors, writers, poets and the intellectual types. So it was a collision of cultures and sometimes it didn’t mix so well!”

“There seemed to be a lot more drinking then. Today you can’t do anything in a bar because, as soon as someone belches too loudly, people are on their cell phones!”

O’Donnell created the iconic Bistro burger, which Mimi Sheraton gave a rave review in the New York Times in 1978.

“The Bistro still represents something of the past and people like that,” he said. “It’s reminiscent of old New York and it’s maintained its integrity.”

[Second photo: 1933, NYPL; third image: 1875, New York Times]

A Little Italy sign reveals an old phone exchange

July 10, 2017

They’re hiding in plain sight all over New York: faded ads and signs with the old-school two-letter phone prefixes phased out in the 1960s in favor of 7-digit phone numbers.

Usually they stand for something in the neighborhood, if not the neighborhood itself, such as MU for Murray Hill; RA for Ravenswood, once a separate Village in Queens but now absorbed by Astoria.

But what to make of this sign high above a restaurant on Mott Street in Little Italy, noting a BA prefix? The guide I usually consult to find out where BA is and what it means is no longer online. The elevator company could have been located anywhere in the city.

ENY has many posts on old-school prefix sightings, but no BA, unfortunately.

Do you recognize this 1920s corner speakeasy?

July 7, 2017

Few artists depict New York’s lights and shadows like Martin Lewis. In the 1920s and 1930s, he created haunting, enchanting drypoint prints showcasing day-to-day street life—from factory workers to gangs of young boys to lone men and women exiting subways and hanging around bars.

This drypoint above, from 1929, is titled “Relics (Speakeasy Corner).” Considering that New York during Prohibition hosted an estimate 20,000 to 100,ooo speakeasies, it’s hard to know where this is.

The Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue (which has priced this drypoint at $70,000!) solves the mystery.

“The location is Charles Street and West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village which was near Lewis’ house at the time on Bedford Street,” a page on their website tells us.

Google street view shows that this corner is almost exactly the same as it was 89 years ago, except the speakeasy has been replaced by Sevilla, one of the Village’s old-school Spanish restaurants.

More Martin Lewis prints can be found here. [Print: Metropolitan Museum of Art]