Archive for February, 2009

A few signs of an old Czech neighborhood

February 28, 2009

Most New Yorkers know that the East 80s and 90s were home to a large German community through most of the 20th century. But just below in the far East 70s, a Czech neighborhood thrived as well.

There’s not much left now; the tens and thousands of Czechs who once lived there have died or moved on. But a few signs of their old community still exist, such as Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd between First and Second Avenues.


Built in 1897, it featured a ballroom, bar, dance hall, and small bowling alley. It recently reopened after an extensive renovation.


The Czech Gymnastic Association built this 2-story building on East 71st Street in 1896.


In a 1900 article about the neighborhood, The New York Times wrote:

“The large hall is the pride of the gymnasts, for here, when the hall is not otherwise engaged, the trapeze, rings, and bars are used by the juvenile and adult classes of both sexes, who train under the direction of Ferdinand Martyny. the Bohemians are renowned all over the European continent as gymnasts.”

A portrait of a New York City lady

February 28, 2009

She’s somebody’s daughter, or mother or sister. And she sure is wearing a heavy-duty crucifix on a chain around her neck. I wonder who held on to her photo for over a hundred years.

someonesmotherportrait1 The portrait was taken at Rockwood Photography, in Union Square. George Rockwood opened his studio in 1857 and competed with Civil War and portrait photographer Mathew Brady, who worked a few blocks away down Broadway.

There’s a nice site devoted to George Rockwood that features some of his portraits, plus a few great old photographs of Union Square.

As for this woman, she remains a mystery.

Comics and zines for sale in SoHo

February 25, 2009

Remember zines? They had quite a heyday in the late 80s and 90s.

I’ve seen this place spelled Sohozat and SoHo Zat. Either way, it was a comics emporium in the late 70s and 80s on West Broadway and Grand.

The ad comes from the August 1984 issue of the East Village Eye. 


Saving the murals from the Hotel McAlpin

February 25, 2009

Quite a beauty on Broadway and 34th Street: When it opened in 1912, the Hotel McAlpin was the largest hotel in the world.

hotelmcalpinpostcard Besides its 1,500 rooms and a spot in then-fashionable Herald Square, the McAlpin had a basement restaurant called the Marine Grill—with multicolor terra cotta ornaments decorating columns and vaulted ceilings. 

The Marine Grill also featured some pretty amazing murals that told the story of New York City’s maritime history. Sadly, in 1990, when the restaurant space was taken over by a Gap franchise (and the hotel became a rental building and eventually a co-op), those murals were headed for the trash bin.

But preservation groups stepped in and saved them, installing them in the Broadway-Nassau station in 2000.

Next time you’re downtown on the A train, take a few minutes to check ’em out. Here’s one of the six salvaged murals.

marinegrillmural1The original iron entrance gate of the Marine Grill, also saved. Here, more photos and information on the murals.


Green-Wood Cemetery’s phallic tombstone

February 25, 2009

Rising out of a lovely hillside in Brooklyn’s most famous necropolis is this large, cylinder-like monument. The carved garland that circles the top is an especially realistic touch.

phallictombstone The gravestone marks the burial site of one A.G. Jennings. No other information  about who he was or when he died exists.

Huge ego? Performance issues? A job manufacturing bullets? A.G. Jennings took his reasons for such a phallic monument to the grave.

The quarantine island in New York Bay

February 23, 2009

Imagine traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City, ready to start a new life in a new country, only to be diagnosed with a deadly disease and then moved to a tiny spit of land off Staten Island where you might get well but will probably soon die?

That’s what happened to some unlucky immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Diagnosed with cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, or any of the other incurable, dreaded diseases of the day, they were sent to Swinburne Island at the lower end of New York Bay. Swinburne was specially created in the 1860s as a place to quarantine sick immigrants. 

A hospital, pictured below, and crematorium were pretty much the only buildings on the island. Over the years, many people were sent there, but not many left alive. 


Here’s Swinburne Island today. Changes in immigration law in the 1920s coupled with public health reform rendered the hospital obsolete.

The abandoned buildings and lack of any sign of human life give the island a spooky, desolate vibe. It’s now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and is a popular place for cormorants to nest. 


Going for a donkey ride in Central Park

February 23, 2009

Donkey rides were a big attraction in the park in its early decades. The cost of a ride in 1905, when this photograph was taken: a nickel. 

The park also offered goat carriage rides on the Mall. And elephants.


This is not just another McDonald’s

February 23, 2009

The McDonald’s franchise on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street appears to be a typical unremarkable fast-food building on the edge of Manhattan’s ever-shrinking Flower District.


But if you look closely at the building, you can see an unusual motif that wraps its way all around the structure: pairs of intertwined seahorses framing a trident. 


The sea-creature motif exists because the building originally housed a Child’s restaurant—part of a chain of eateries the dotted New York City in the first half of the 20th century, like Schrafft’s and Horn and Hardart’s Automat.

Not all Child’s restaurants had this logo; the famous one on the Coney Island Boardwalk, landmarked in 2003 and now Dreamland Roller Rink, features colorful terra cotta fish, seashells, ships, and King Neptune.

Huddling by the stove at the 72nd Street El

February 19, 2009

Berenice Abbott took this February 6, 1936 photograph of subway riders warming up in the El station at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. El tracks lined Columbus from 1879 to 1940.


The paneled windows, wooden turnstiles, and decorative border along the interior wall are some rather old-fashioned touches for a public train station. And when was the last time you saw a pot-bellied stove in the subway? Gives the photo quite a homey feel.

Manhattan’s obscure little streets

February 19, 2009

Much of Manhattan conforms to the grid laid out in the early 19th century, with streets and avenues following a mostly ordered number (and sometimes letter) system. 

But lots of tiny nooks and alleys with obscure names lurk among the numbers and letters—like Mount Carmel Place, two blocks spanning 26th and 28th Street between Second and First Avenues. The street name must come from a church that disappeared long ago.


Moylan Place isn’t much of a street; it’s just kind of a spot off 126th Street and Broadway. I’d guess it was a street at one time. According to a 1921 New York Times article, it was named after a soldier who died in World War I whose father, William Moylan, lived on the block for many years. 


Spanning 34th Street to 42nd Street, Dyer Avenue’s main purpose is to herd traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel. General George R. Dyer was the head of the Port Authority when the George Washington Bridge opened in 1931.