Archive for April, 2009

Henry James’ quiet, genteel Washington Square

April 29, 2009

Author Henry James was born around the corner from Washington Square, on Washington Place, in 1843. 


That’s about when Washington Square was in its prime: a wealthy enclave of Federal-style townhouses inhabited by upper-class families. The townhouses surrounded a new park that had served as a marshland, public gallows, and potter’s field.

The refined Square of the mid-1800s is the setting of one of James’ best novels, Washington Square. In this story of a domineering doctor, his witless daughter, and the young man who may or may not be marrying her for her money, the narrator describes the Square as “the ideal of quiet and genteel retirement.”

“The ideal of quiet and genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of white marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble.”


This sketch depicts Washington Square Park in the 1880s, decades after James’ novel is set there. On the right is the original Gothic-style building put up by New York University in 1837. In the center, partially obscured by trees, are the Federal-style townhouses described by James, many of which still stand.

Store signs that point the way

April 29, 2009

An arrow directing passersby to exactly where to enter a store or business is always a nice touch on a sign, especially if it’s got colorful light bulbs illuminating the way.

The C.O. Bigelow sign, on Sixth Avenue in the Village, is a perfect example:


Hot sandwich. Cold beer. Enter here. This one is on First Avenue in the 100s:


Would the patrons of this Harlem bathhouse not know where to go without the arrow pointing the way? And is a men-only bathhouse legal?


29 years of art and activism on Rivington Street

April 29, 2009

ABC No Rio—art gallery, performance space, and “collection of collectives” since 1980—made its home on Rivington Street during the bad old days of the Lower East Side, before it was colonized by tea parlors, hipster hotels, and sneaker boutiques. 


The organization grew out of the 1980 Real Estate Show, during which 30 or so artists occupied an abandoned building on Delancey Street and staged an exhibit. The show lasted a day before the city shut it down. 

Harlem’s beautiful old courthouse

April 27, 2009

Any chance this could be part of next year’s Open House New York? Built in 1891 on East 121st Street and Sylvan Place (between Third and Lexington), “Harlem Court House,” as an inscription on the facade calls it, served as a municipal court covering East Harlem until 1961.


It’s a Romanesque Revival gem with Victorian touches, like the pinnacles and gabled roof. Inside are holding cells, a gorgeous marble and iron spiral staircase, and WPA murals, among other treasures, according to the Department of Citywide Services.

The courthouse is now the Harlem Community Justice Center. A virtual tour is offered by the New York Correction History Society.

What fashionable ladies wore in the 1860s

April 27, 2009

If you think being a woman is tough now, imagine how arduous it was a hundred and thirty years ago, when fashion dictated a frighteningly elaborate clothing and makeup routine. 

fashion1870s“Once arrayed for a fete, especially if she had lost the bloom of youth, the butterfly of the eighteen sixties and early eighteen seventies staggered forth under the burden of an infinite variety of beautifying apparatus constructed of steel, iron, wire, cotton, wood, horsehair, and wool, all attached to her person by straps, tape, and mucilage,” wrote Herbert Asbury in 1929’s All Around the Town.

The look a woman of the time wanted involved a tiny waist and big breasts (attainable thanks to a steel corset), plump arms, small feet, and a “Grecian bend,” basically a butt supersized with the help of bustles and pads under her dress.

 fashion1870s2Hair was puffed up with the help of human-hair wigs or horsehair extensions. The face, neck, shoulders, and arms were painted with “vegetable rouge” as well as chalks and pastes. A coat of India ink darkened eyebrows.

Some fashionable chicks had their bodies coated in enamel—kind of  like a more time-consuming version of today’s spray-on tan.

“Many society women made regular tri-weekly trips to the enameling studio, while a few had coats put on to last anywhere from a week to two or three months,” Asbury wrote.

A hot babe of the 1870s, from All Around the Town

An old clock hanging in there on Duane Street

April 27, 2009

Affixed to a cast-iron building at 145 Duane Street is this faded beauty. The building used to house the Nathaniel Fisher Company, wholesale shoe dealers described in an 1894 New York Times article as one of “the oldest shoe firms in America.”


A fire that year gutted the building and caused $40,000 worth of damage. The clock looks like it was damaged then too.

“Battery Park at Night”

April 24, 2009

Here is lower Manhattan circa 1939, lit by passing ships, park street lamps, and moonlight reflecting off the water. The building in the center is Castle Garden, home of the New York Aquarium (now at Coney Island) from 1896 to 1941. 


Castle Garden was a popular spot in the 1800s. “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind performed there in 1850. It was also New York City’s first immigration depot (before Ellis Island was built), and the place where Samuel Morse demonstrated his wireless telegraph in 1842.

A shootout on St. Mark’s Place, 1914

April 24, 2009

Born in 1889 on the Lower East Side, Benjamin “Dopey Benny” Fein was an East Side labor racketeer and extortist. Fein was a powerful guy at the time, but he had a rival: mobster and fellow racketeer Jack Sirocco.


The Lower East Side/East Village area was Jewish gangster territory then. So it was a brazen move when Sirocco rented out 19-25 St. Mark’s Place—a community center called Arlington Hall—for a ball on January 9, 1914. 

Before the ball began, Fein assembled his boys behind doorways near Arlington Hall, planning to rub out Sirocco. Shots were fired, but the only person hit was a bystander and city clerk named Frederick Strauss. Strauss was killed, and Fein was questioned by police (but not charged).


After the Arlington Hall shootout, Sirocco’s power intensified while Fein’s grip slipped. He was arrested and sent to prison several times over the years and died in 1962.

That’s about the time when Arlington Hall (pictured above today, in its current incarnation as kind of a minimall) had its resurgence. In the mid-60s, it housed a couple of counterculture clubs: the lower level was The Dom, while the upper floors became the Electric Circus, a popular rock venue that lasted until 1971.

The story behind a little-known West Side street

April 24, 2009

Freedom Place runs just four blocks—from 66th to 70th Streets between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

freedomplacesign1It’s quiet and mostly residential, sided by various fortress-like post-war apartment houses.

Yet it didn’t exist until 1967, when it was carved out of a piece of what was then dubbed the “Lincoln Center urban renewal area” to honor three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

Two of them, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were New Yorkers.


This unassuming plaque is on the corner of Freedom and 70th Street. In the early 1990s there was talk of building a monument to the murdered men, but it never happened.

Meet the Boys High School braniacs

April 22, 2009

It must not have been easy graduating high school in the middle of the Great Depression, even if you were one of the brainiest kids in your graduating class, as each of these 12 boys must have been. They’re part of Bed-Stuy’s Boys High School class of 1934.


Captions under the photo list the usual smart-kid school activities: tennis, orchestra, captain of the handball team, and something called “study patrol.”

In 1934 they would have been around 18 years old. If any are still alive, they’re in their 90s now. I hope they had good lives.