An 1843 orphanage behind a Manhattan cathedral

August 24, 2015

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—begun in 1892 and still unfinished—is one of the city’s most magnificent houses of worship, occupying 13 acres on a plateau on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street.

Leakeandwattsorphanage

But there’s a building on the cathedral grounds that predates St. John’s by 49 years and stands as a reminder of how 19th century New York handled parentless or unwanted children.

LeakeandwattspamphletThe lovely building is the former home of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843 when this part of Manhattan was wide open countryside.

Leake and Watts cared for “full orphans, between the ages of three and twelve years,” according to the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City.

The orphanage was founded by wealthy lawyer John Leake, who died in 1827 with no heirs. He left his fortune to a good friend’s son, Robert Watts, on the condition that he either adopt the surname Leake, or forfeit the money so it could be used to open an orphan asylum.

Watts died before he could inherit the fortune, however, so the orphanage got the go-ahead.

Leakeandwatts19thcentury

At its opening, the orphanage housed 60 boys, and soon girls were cared for there as well.

Leakeandwattscathedral1900“Here the institution cares for homeless and friendless orphans, educating them and, at the age of 14, finding Christian homes for them,” states King’s Handbook.

After four decades in the open country of Morningside Heights, Leake and Watts sold their land to the trustees who planned to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Leake and Watts moved their orphanage to Yonkers, abandoning the Greek Revival-style building with its impressive Ionic columns.

LeakeandwattscathedralOne wing was sheared off in the 1950s, but the Ithiel Town Building—named after its architect, who also designed Federal Hall downtown and St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street—still remains.

It’s a link to the city’s institutional past, when orphanages abounded and were considered a humane alternative to turning unwanted and homeless kids out into the street. [Fourth image: MCNY Collections Portal, 1900]

The go-go bar of The Odd Couple’s closing credits

August 24, 2015

Remember the opening and closing credits of The Odd Couple? Those scenes serve as a tour of gritty 1970s New York.

Oddcoupleclosingcredits

Felix, just kicked out of the house by his wife, rests his bags on the sidewalk in front of a blue city bus. Oscar walks into wet cement after watching a girl in a miniskirt cross the street.

And at one point, Oscar looks in the window of topless go-go bar, only to be shooed away by a cop.

Oddcoupleclosingcredits2015

Could that topless bar in 1970 be this Toasties sandwich shop on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues today?

It sure looks like it. In fact, there still is an Indian restaurant on the second floor, one that bills itself as the oldest Indian restaurant in New York City. Here’s a look at those entire closing credits.

[Hat tip to Dean at the History Author Show, which should definitely do an Odd Couple tour of New York City in an upcoming podcast.]

A Central Park bison is on the buffalo nickel

August 24, 2015

BlackdiamondElephants, monkeys, sea lions, camels, bison—in the early 1900s, the Central Park Menagerie, as it was known, was home to all.

One of the most famous of these creatures was a bull bison given up by Barnum & Bailey Circus named Black Diamond.

Black Diamond, born in 1893, was known for being very calm.

That may be why artist James Earle Fraser used Black Diamond supposedly used him as his model when he was given the plum assignment of designing the buffalo nickel.

There’s some confusion about it, but Fraser himself said Black Diamond, at six feet tall and about 2,000 pounds, was the one.

[Above: not Black Diamond, but another bull bison at the Central Park Menagerie in a similar pose]

Centralparkmenagerie

“Black Diamond was less conscious of the honor being conferred on him than of the annoyance which he suffered from insistent gazing upon him,” Fraser reportedly said, via antiquetrader.com.
Blackdiamondbuffalonickel“He refused point blank to permit me to get side views of him, and stubbornly showed his front face most of the time.”

And what did Black Diamond get for this honor?

In 1915, when he was an old bull whose days were numbered, the menagerie decided to sell him to a slaughterhouse and turn him into buffalo steak.

The loveliest Victorian bridge in Central Park

August 17, 2015

Named for its graceful shape reminiscent of a violin bow, Central Park’s Bow Bridge has always been a park favorite and a lovely remnant of the Victorian city (seen here in a turn of the century postcard).

Bowbridgecentralparkpostcard

See the urns at the entrance to the bridge on the right? These and six other urns decorating the bridge when it was built around 1860 disappeared mysteriously in the 1920s.

Craftsmen working from original photos made replicas of the urns, and they went back in 2008, restoring Bow Bridge to its original romantic glory.

A bomb goes off at a Union Square rally in 1908

August 17, 2015

Labor Day parades, rallies in favor of birth control and suffrage—Union Square in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ground zero for demonstrations that advocated progressive causes and reform.

Unionsquarebomb20seconds

But only one rally turned deadly, thanks to a police-hating anarchist who brought a crude homemade bomb to the park in March 1908.

UnionsquarebombcrowdSelig Silverstein (also known as Selig Cohen), a Russian-born cloak maker and anarchist living on Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn, was attending the Socialist Conference of the Unemployed.

The gathering attracted 7,000 participants to Union Square. But the city had refused the group’s permit to hold a public demonstration.

So hundreds of policemen were called in to help disperse the crowds, reported the New York Times on March 29.

At about 3 p.m., just as the crowds had mostly been cleared out of the park, Silverstein, standing by the fountain, raised his arm to toss the bomb at a policeman—but instead it exploded in his hands, blowing his face and fingers off and mortally wounding him.

Unionsquarebombtheater

“In a moment all was pandemonium,” wrote the Times, adding that windows a block away rattled and shook, and pedestrians were “thrown to their knees.”

An innocent bystander lay dead, and parkgoers were driven to the surrounding streets by mounted officers.

Unionsquarecrowdirvingplace

Cops used their bully clubs on the crowd, and “the fleeing throng started in to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ and jeer at the police.”

UnionSquarebomberCar traffic was stopped, visitors to the theaters that still existed on Union Square stumbled out the exits to find out what had happened. Rumors circulated that dozens of cops had been killed.

Silverstein, a member of the Anarchist Federation of America, ultimately died of his injuries at Bellevue Hospital two weeks later.

Before he did, however, he supposedly proclaimed, “I came to the park to kill the police . . . I hate them,” states New York at War, by Steven H. Jaffe.

[Photos: LOC; Find a Grave]

Studio 54 invites you to a party in the 1980s

August 17, 2015

Opened in 1977, Studio 54 continues to hold up as an emblem of late 1970s exclusivity and disco decadence.

Studio54thetrammps

After Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager sold the club in 1981, it still attracted crowds—though not quite the way it did during its heyday.

Studio54Tshirts

Instead of velvet ropes keeping people out, the club seemed to do everything they could to pack patrons in, apparently by hosting very mainstream events and giveaways.

It looks like anyone and their guest who could pay the $8-$12 gained entry.

Studio54spock

A party for the premiere of The Search for Spock? It doesn’t sound like the movie is even part of the itinerary.

Studio54prince

The club closed for good in 1991, long after its cache was over.

These party invites are part of the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

A Spanish dancer captivates 1890s New York

August 10, 2015

Her nickname was the “Pearl of Seville,” but she was known to audiences in Europe and America by the one-name moniker Carmencita.

This “Spanish Gypsy Dancer” first blew away audiences at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. A theatrical agent arranged for her to come to New York, making her debut at Niblo’s Garden on Prince Street later that year.

LacarmencitasingersargentThe New York Times wasn’t impressed with the musical Carmencita had been cast in. But they called out the “novelty and witchery” of her dance moves.

She developed a following, and by 1890 was appearing at Koster and Bial Music Hall on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street.

Koster and Bial’s, in the middle of the lowlife Tenderloin district, was a leading vaudeville house that often showcased the kind of bawdy performers New Yorkers loved.

Carmencita was a sensation. “Some of her admirers feel that their enjoyment of her piquant dancing is increased by the sense that they are doing something naughty by going to a concert-hall,” stated The Illustrated American in 1890.

“This is true particularly of the female sex and of church-members.”

KosterbialsnyplIt was also true of painter John Singer Sargent, who met Carmencita in Paris and called her a “bewildering superb creature.”

He painted a portrait of her (above) and titled in “La Carmencita.” William Merritt Chase and John Beckwith painted her as well.

Carmencita made a name for herself in another art form: she is considered the first female star to be filmed by Thomas Edison.

A clip of her in motion survives, giving us a glimpse at the dance moves that thrilled her fans and gave her such a following in the 1890s city.

[Second image: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Third image; NYPL Digital Collection]

Madison Square’s sensuous “throbbing fountain”

August 10, 2015

When painter John Sloan arrived in New York City in 1904, he first settled in Chelsea, not far from Madison Square Park.

Throbbingfountain

The park soon became one of his favorite haunts, partly because of the diverse mix of people he could observe there, but also due to a 30-foot fountain at the south end of the park.

In his diary he called it the Throbbing Fountain. “Sat in Madison Square,” he wrote on September 9, 1906. “Watched the Throbbing Fountain.”

Throbbingfountainnight

“Think I’ll soon tackle a plate on this subject,” he continued. “The sensuous attraction of the spurts of water is strong subconsciously on everyone.”

Sloan painted two views of the fountain, one in 1907 and one at night in 1908 (painted from memory, as it was apparently dismantled by then), and both show a fountain with its own hypnotic pull.

A 1930s daredevil dives off the Brooklyn Bridge

August 10, 2015

Since it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been catnip for stuntmen and attention-seekers.

The first jumper was swimming instructor Robert Oldum in 1885, and last year, two German guys climbed to the top of the bridge tower and stuck a white flag on the top.

Daredeviljacklatkowski1938

In the 1930s, a slender man in a one-piece bathing suit calling himself “Dare Devil Jack” does a quasi-jackknife off the bridge, up to seven times, reported the New York Daily News.

Lucky for us, on May 24, 1930, a news crew caught Jack Latkowski diving 155 feet into the East River on film.

From the moment he emerges from a car that’s pulled over to the side of the bridge to his careful climb down to a beam to his plunge into choppy waters, the “New Steve Brodie,” as he’s called, makes it look easy.

Notice how he crosses himself before his feet leave the bridge.

The appeal of a West Side parking garage sign

August 3, 2015

I couldn’t find any information on when this sign went up outside the parking garage on 43rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Parkinggaragesign

But the colors and the stylistic “garage,” not to mention its wear and tear, give it a vintage old New York feel.

It’s a strangely uplifting sight in an area once bookended by the super low-rent Hotel Carter and divey Smith’s Bar and is now home to sushi restaurants, a Westin Hotel, and the sleek offices of Yahoo.


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