Archive for June, 2010

How working horses handled hot city summers

June 28, 2010

By about 1900, some city streets featured drinking fountains for thousands of working horses, courtesy of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

They were also treated to free cold curbside showers, as seen in the 1911 Library of Congress photo above.

And in the strange but true category, the SPCA had a plan to give away free straw sombreros to shield working horses’ eyes from the sun:

“The hats will be specially prepared by a horse outfitter in Union Square, following a pattern designed by [SPCA superintendent] Hankinson,” wrote the New York Times in June 1902.

“The hat, known as the horse sombrero, will be made of coarsely woven straw, about sixteen inches in diameter. The hat has an extraordinary flat brim, and, with the exception of the large holes for the horse’s ears, has the appearance of an ordinary hat.”

The SPCA got the idea from the street horses in Paris, all of whom wore sombreros in the summer, the Times goes on to say. Photo above sent in by an Ephemeral reader.

A hidden cemetery in the East Village

June 28, 2010

Yellow fever had a big impact on the young city. Lethal outbreaks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries led officials to ban in-ground burials.

So New Yorkers opted to buy a plot in a cemetery and have their corpse stored in a marble vault (which were thought to prevent the spread of germs)—like the vaults at the New York Marble Cemetery.

The entrance is on Second Avenue between Second and Third streets; an alley leads you to a secret garden, a half-acre bounded by stone walls.

Those walls note who is buried in the vaults underground. They’re a bigwig lot: Varicks, Deys, Motts, Pecks, and Scribners.

Amazingly, this pastoral patch of the city was almost turned into a playground. In the 1890s, social reformer Jacob Riis pushed the city to seize the land for street kids who had no place to play.

The city didn’t bite, of course, and now there are two 19th century marble cemeteries in the East Village. The other, the New York City Marble Cemetery, is around the corner on Second Street.

A secret passage to an old Times Square hotel

June 28, 2010

Go to the north end of the subway platform of the Times Square shuttle, and you’ll see a grimy door with an old darkened sign above it.

This was once an underground passageway leading from the subway to the Knickerbocker Hotel, a Beaux-Arts beauty built in 1906 by John Jacob Astor.

The Knickerbocker, on Broadway and 42nd Street, was a trendy place back in the aughts and the teens. Legend has it that the martini was invented there.

And opera great Enrico Caruso supposedly belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” from his room balcony one Veterans Day.

Covered up by construction scaffolding for a few years, the sign and door are visible once again. 

And as tempting as it is to imagine going inside and doing a little time traveling, don’t even try. The door remains locked, and though the building still exists, the hotel was shut in 1920.

The “loud and lurid” Haymarket on 30th Street

June 25, 2010

In the late 19th century, the Tenderloin district—from Madison Square to the West 40s along Broadway—was the city’s boozy, sleazy, party area, kind of like Times Square in the 1970s.

Incredible New York, by Lloyd Morris, describes it this way:

“Here were located the most noted gambling resorts and brothels, the garish saloons, restaurants and dance halls where prostitutes solicited customers, the shady hotels and lodging houses where couples without luggage could hire rooms by the hour or the night.”

But no place in the Tenderloin was as sinful as the Haymarket, here painted by John Sloan in 1907.

“The Haymarket—which combined the attractions of a restaurant, dance hall, and variety show—saw to it that you did not lack feminine companionship,” wrote Morris. “The fun, like the females, was loud and lurid.”

The fight over naming Lenox Hill Hospital

June 25, 2010

It started out in 1857 on Canal Street as the German Dispensary.

As the city’s German population moved north, the dispensary did too, first to East Third Street, then Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, and finally in 1905 to Fourth (Park) Avenue and 77th Street.

But in 1918, with anti-German sentiment raging, the dispensary got a more palatable name: Lenox Hill Hospital.

In 1925, the war long over, many hospital trustees, most of German descent, wanted the name changed back.

It wasn’t a nationalistic thing so much as a cash donation one. “Last year the deficit had grown to $50,000,” reported a New York Times article. “[a hospital trustee] felt certain that the resumption of the word ‘German’ in the hospital’s title would have a marked financial effect.”

The name switch didn’t fly though, and Lenox Hill Hospital is still based on 77th Street.

Griping about the subway: a New York tradition

June 25, 2010

The first subway line opened to riders on October 27, 1904. And almost since that day, New Yorkers have been grumbling, justified or not, about crappy service.

“Trains will run at the company’s convenience” states the fine print in this New York Herald cartoon from 1905.

It wasn’t just lateness that annoyed residents a century ago. Other grievances are the same ones we have today, like jam-packed trains and filthy stations. 

“All the trains are dirt-filled and full of nameless odors,” bellyached one passenger in a letter to the New York Times in 1915.

Even dim lighting was open to complaints. “The lighting of subway trains was now so poor as to be dangerous to the sight of passengers who might attempt to read their newspapers,” states a 1909 Times article.

Heading for Coney Island on the trolley

June 23, 2010

A school outing? Church picnic? Just some neighborhood mothers and kids seeking a fresh breeze on a hot day?

Whatever the reason, they’re all heading out to get some sea air at Coney Island on June 2, 1913, according to Historic Photos of New York State.

Supercool store signs that time forgot

June 23, 2010

Design shifts and styles change, but these colorful mid-century signs remain the same. 

Fashions Coiffures must have done many a beehive hairdo in its day. It’s off Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.

La Delice bakes old-school pastries in Murray Hill and also has the French thing going.

Mermelstein Caterers, also in Crown Heights, has that festive wine glass looped inside the M. Clearly your kosher party headquarters.

Who murdered the Broadway Butterfly?

June 23, 2010

Dorothy “Dot” King was a 28-year-old Jazz Age party girl with a nominal career as an artist’s model-slash-actress (hence her Broadway nickname) and lots of gentlemen callers.

When her maid found her lifeless body one morning in March 1923—she’d been chloroformed to death in her West 57th Street apartment—all of New York tried to figure out who killed her.

According to reports, thousands of dollars in jewelry was missing from her apartment—perhaps she’d been the victim of a burglary.

Was it an overdose? Chloroform was a party drug in the 1920s, so investigators thought she may have offed herself, intentionally or not.

Dot also had ties to a wealthy older benefactor she had dinner with at the Hotel Brevoort the night she died. He claimed they were just friends.

Police ended up arresting her con man boyfriend, Albert Guimares, but he had an alibi. Other possible killers included an ex-husband and her tough laundress mother.

In the end, no one was ever tried. Three movies based on her case later, Dot’s murder remains unsolved.

The birdmen of an Upper East Side building

June 21, 2010

Lots of buildings in the city are decorated with bird sculptures and reliefs. But I think this the first time I’ve seen birdlike hybrids with very human-looking legs standing guard on an apartment house.

These four, plus another four on the other side, adorn the facade of a prewar building in the East 60s off Fifth Avenue.