Archive for May, 2009

An enchanted city’s nighttime skyline

May 30, 2009

The East River, South Street Seaport, and lower Manhattan skyscrapers aglow in shades of firecracker-red, yellow, blue, and pink.


The back of this postcard describes the skyline as “a most awe-inspiring sight.” Pretty tough to disagree.

Shopping along Ladies’ Mile: then and now

May 30, 2009

The Bed Bath & Beyond store on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street isn’t an ordinary big-box retail structure. Take a look at the massive bronze columns and huge lanterns flanking the entrance; they tip you off to the building’s elegant retail past. 


It originally housed the Siegel-Cooper Department Store, opened in 1896. Until World War I, it was one of the city’s premier shopping destinations.

Carrying the latest fashions, gourmet foods, and furnishings, Siegel-Cooper was a star along Ladies’ Mile, the department-store district between 14th and 23rd Streets on Sixth Avenue that also featured retail giants such as B. Altman’s, McCreery’s, the Simpson Crawford Company, and the Hugh O’Neill Store.

All of these retailers are out of business now, though B. Altman’s moved to midtown as the city—and its main shopping district—inched northward. 


This turn of the last century photo shows the same view of the building’s entrance as the first photo. The bronze columns and lanterns greeted customers then just as they do now.

Oh the places you’ll go!

May 30, 2009

If you sign up for a package tour to one of the following exotic destinations by sea or by air. Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, South America—all put together by a travel company whose name is so faint on the right edge of this building ad, I can’t quite make it out.


This ad is holding up rather well on Eighth Avenue and 39th Street, tempting passersby for decades.

The magic of a New York city roof garden

May 27, 2009

This 1904 painting, “Roof Garden,” is more than 100 years old, but it captures a magical part of a New York City summer in the 21st century: enjoying the nighttime breeze at a rooftop bar or restaurant. 


It’s part of the Museum of the City of New York’s “Painting the Town” collection and is the work of French-born painter Charles Constantin Joseph Hoffbauer.

Zip the Pinhead at Coney Island

May 27, 2009

If the year was 1925 instead of 2009 and you were planning a trip to Coney Island, you would be able to see Zip the Pinhead, a P.T. Barnum freak show find who by the 1920s displayed himself at one of the boardwalk sideshows.

Zip_the_pinheadLike other freaks of the time, he was very popular; supposedly Charles Dickens and the Prince of Wales visited him, and he had his portrait done by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He was also heralded for saving a little girl from drowning off Coney Island.

Despite his appearance, Zip wasn’t microcephalic (the medical term for having a pinhead). Nor was he mentally disabled, according to some accounts. He just happened to be born into a poor New Jersey family and then “discovered” by Barnum, who billed him as a “wild man” from Africa.

Apparently Zip laughed all the way to the bank. On his deathbed in 1926, the 80-something’s last words reportedly were “We fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

Check out more sideshow freaks and curiosities here.

The faces on 23rd Street and “Fourth Avenue”

May 27, 2009

A couple of buildings at this completely ordinary East Side intersection have some extraordinarily lovely figures carved into their facades.

Dollonbuilding1The sixth floor of the structure at the southeast corner features reliefs that look like dolls or babies, like this one at right. It appears to be an old factory building, so I wonder why it’s decorated with little ones in wreaths?

The twin goddesses below guard the entrance to a building a few doors up from 23rd Street on Park Avenue South.

Interestingly, the address above that doorway reads “303 Fourth Avenue,” a reminder that this stretch of Park Avenue South between 32nd Street and Union Square was called Fourth Avenue until 1959.


How city kids used to cool off in the summer

May 25, 2009

This Life magazine photo captures a long-lost summer moment in Lower Manhattan in 1953. The street looks like Houston, judging from the median and the ad referencing the Bowery.


Do kids in any part of New York open up fire hydrants and cool off in the spray? It’s hard to imagine city kids even being allowed to play on their own, much less mess with hydrants.

New York war hero: Margaret Corbin

May 24, 2009

It’s Memorial Day weekend—an appropriate time to remember Margaret Corbin, considered by some to be the first female American soldier and someone whose name shows up all over Northern Manhattan.

MargaretcorbinCorbin was the wife of a Virginia farmer who had enlisted in the Pennsylvania state artillery to fight for the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Rather than stay at home alone, she joined his company as a “camp follower,” as other wives were called, cooking and nursing wounded soldiers.

On November 16, 1776, their company was stationed at Fort Washington—where Fort Tryon Park is today—to help stave off a sneak attack launched by British and Hessian forces. After her husband was killed instantly while operating a canon, Margaret stepped into his place and began firing. Fortryonplaque

Though the four-hour battle ended with the enemy capturing Fort Washington, and she was severely wounded, Margaret supposedly proved to be one of the best gunners on the colonists’ side. 

She never fully recovered from her injuries and was eventually given $30 plus a lifetime disability pension.

Today, a plaque in Fort Tryon Park honors her bravery. And Northern Manhattan near The Cloisters is home to Margaret Corbin Drive and Margaret Corbin Circle.

Faded ads from the 1940s

May 24, 2009

A couple of blue-and-white mid-century ads appear one on top of the other off Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill. They’re strangely (yet nicely) preserved, probably because a neighboring building covered them up for decades.

DoehlerfurnitureDoehler Metal Furniture owned the building these ads appear on, on 32nd Street. Based on a look through online newspaper archives, they seem to have had a lot of contracts with the army during World War II. Manningbowman3

Manning-Bowman had a showroom on the seventh floor. The Connecticut-based electronics firm made things like waffle irons and coffee makers. 

Taking a drive along The Narrows

May 20, 2009

Life is good in this circa-1930s postcard depicting The Narrows, the shipping lanes that mark the entrance to New York Harbor.

This must be Bensonhurst—or maybe Bay Ridge? One missing landmark: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which won’t be built for another 30 or so years.


The Belt Parkway hugs the shoreline. The back of the postcard calls it “the most scenic motor road in all New York City.”