Archive for July, 2010

The much-maligned city hall post office

July 31, 2010

If you’re into mansard roofs and colonnades, the 1878 federal post office building that once stood at the southern end of City Hall Park was for you.

New Yorkers generally hated it though. As soon as it opened, it was called “Mullet’s Monstrosity” after architect Alfred B. Mullet.

An “architectural eyesore” chimed in the New York Times.

Plans to tear it down were in the works since 1920. But it stood until 1938, unloved, in the shadow of the heralded Woolworth Building across the street.

This postcard, from 1911, shows the building, plus people who look like they’re waiting for the trolley.

The flag at the top and flags in the window are clues that it must be a holiday. Fourth of July, judging by the few umbrellas in the image?

Nighttime buying and selling on Allen Street

July 29, 2010

A dress shop, furniture and rugs for sale on the sidewalk, a pretzel vendor—there’s a lot happening on bustling Allen Street in George Luks’ 1905 painting of a Lower East Side street.

Remnants of old Manhattan live on in city parks

July 29, 2010

Bloomingdale Playground, a spit of land on Amsterdam Avenue and 104th Street, is a reminder that much of the west side was once known by Dutch settlers as Bloemendaal, or “valley of flowers.”

Bloemendaal turned into Bloomingdale once the British moved in. 

In 1703, an early highway called Bloomingdale Road was built. It eventually ran through today’s Upper West Side.

By 1900, Bloomingdale Road had become Broadway, and the Bloomingdale name forgotten.

Collect Pond was never a neighborhood name. But after the pond was filled in by the city in 1811, it eventually became the site of the notorious 19th century slum called Five Points.

[Illustration depicting Collect Pond in the late 18th century. What was once the city’s water source soon became a filthy, polluted body of water.]

Collect Pond Park, on Leonard Street off Lafayette Street, is all that’s left.

If the Blitz crossed the Atlantic to New York City

July 29, 2010

Even before the Blitz began in England in September 1940, city officials had feared German air attacks here in New York. 

“Knowing that his city would be a prime target, [Mayor La Guardia] believed it was imperative that New York City begin taking steps to protect itself,” writes Lorraine B. Diehl in Over Here! New York City During World War II.

In June 1940, “In addition to 62,000 air-raid wardens, the mayor was asking for 28,000 specially trained volunteers to manually turn off the city lights in the event of a blackout. A fire auxiliary force was already being trained, and volunteer ‘spotters’—who would remain on rooftops should enemy planes attack—were being canvassed.”

This 1940 poster, by editorial cartoonist Rollin Kirby, pulls no punches letting New Yorkers know how devastating a similar attack here would be.

It and other vintage posters are on display starting Friday at Swann Galleries and will go up for auction August 4.

“On the Beach at Rockaway”

July 27, 2010

Beachwear sure was formal back when this (undated) photo was taken. Unlike the men, at least the little girls get to bare their legs!

[Postcard from the NYPL digital collection]

Edgar Allan Poe: New York’s first bohemian?

July 27, 2010

He eked out a living as a writer, drank and scored drugs, and resided in a succession of Village apartments. Oh, and he seemed to wear a lot of black.

Poe as the first bohemian is an idea put forth by Ross Wetzon in his 2002 book on Greenwich Village, Republic of Dreams.

After referencing Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and O. Henry, Wetzon wrote: 

“None of these writers could be considered more than semi-bohemians, but the Village could put in a partial claim to America’s first true bohemian, Edgar Allan Poe. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, Poe lived at 85 West Third Street, 1131/2 Carmine Street, 137 Waverly Place, and 130 Greenwich Street—at all of which he is said to have written ‘The Raven’ and at none did he live abstemiously.”

Bohemianism in the U.S. was born in the 1850s at Pfaff’s, a bar at either 653 or 647 Broadway (sources list both addresses), where artists, writers, and freethinkers hung out. 

Poe was dead by the time these early bohemians emerged, but scholars credit him as their inspiration. He’s been nicknamed the “spiritual guide” of bohemia and called its patron saint.

A seedy place to stay in the Village in 1970

July 27, 2010

If you were a guy who could only swing $2.75 per night in 1970 but really wanted a room of your own in the West Village, then the New Greenwich Hotel may have been your best option.

This ad comes from the December 2, 1970 New York Post. If separate showers are a main selling point, it was probably pretty rundown.

Interestingly, the handsome block-wide building at 160 Bleecker was built as a lodging house for poor gentlemen almost a century earlier, in 1896.

It was Mills House Number One, a clean hostel that encouraged residents to get a steady job. Mills hostels were the brainchild of philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills; three existed in New York City by 1904. 

“By the 1960s it came to be known as the Greenwich, and was a seedy hotel which was generally considered a source of crime and drug activity in the neighborhood,” states the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation report on the South Village.

In 1976 it was converted to luxe apartments and renamed the Atrium.

Noho’s wonderfully named Shinbone Alley

July 24, 2010

It’s a colorful and curious name for a 19th century alley, isn’t it? 

Perhaps this tiny lane—which starts on the north side of Bleecker Street east of Lafayette Street and ends about 50 feet later—was a rough place where you got your shins kicked in.

Maybe it was the dumping ground for animal bones. [In 1934, photo from the NYPL digital collection]

In any event, it was laid out in 1825, according to a 1957 New York Times article, and in apparently was more substantial back then.

“It winds northward from between 41 and 43 Bleecker Street, and turns westward and again northward, coming out at 1 Bond Street and then on to Great Jones Street,” explains another Times article, from 1897.

“The alley is paved and flagged, and has for years, after nightfall, been the haunt of a crowd of idle young fellows, who give the police a good deal of concern.”

[Shinbone Alley today, now just a driveway ending at the back of Bond Street. Paved with Belgian blocks though.]

Brooklyn-born stars of Hollywood’s golden age

July 24, 2010

Forget the myth of the small-town girl being whisked off to Los Angeles to become a star. Many of Hollywood’s biggest leading ladies and sex symbols hail from big-city Brooklyn.

Barbara Stanwyck (left) was born Ruby Stevens in Flatbush in 1907. She had it rough: Her mother was killed when a stranger pushed her from a streetcar, and Barbara bounced around foster homes until getting a foothold as a Ziegfeld girl at 15.

Mae West, aka Mary Jane West (right), comes from Bushwick. Born in 1893, she got her start performing at the Royal Theater on Fulton Street.

I don’t know what neighborhood Clara Bow (left) grew up in, but reportedly her strong Brooklyn accent worked against her when she started acting in the teens.

Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino (right), didn’t stay in Brooklyn long; her family moved to L.A. in the 1920s.

Ghostly faded ads of old city businesses

July 23, 2010

On 18th Street overlooking Broadway is this ad for A. Steinhardt & Brother, an importing company once located in the Union Square building were Petco is today.

Goodall Rubber, as seen in this Tribeca sign, also had a New York office. But the real find is the older, more weathered ad behind it.

You can just make out “manufacturer of handkerchiefs” at the bottom.