Archive for May, 2011

A never-built subway tunnel to Staten Island

May 31, 2011

If things went according to plan and the Fourth Avenue subway tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, proposed in 1912, was actually built, would Staten Island have become as urban as the other four boroughs?

We’ll never know, because like so many other ideas tossed out by the MTA and its forerunners, this one got shelved.

Okay, it did get off the ground a little bit. In 1923, the Brooklyn Transit Company began digging a tunnel under Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge that would connect the Fourth Avenue line to Staten Island off St. George.

But 150 feet in, digging stopped due to lack of funds. A Staten Island-Bay Ridge subway link was again considered in 1929, part of the city’s plan for subway expansion (see color map above).

The Depression ended that. In the early 1960s, community leaders proposed adding subway tracks to the under-construction Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

But anti-mass transit Robert Moses, Triborough Bridge Authority boss at the time, wasn’t going to let that happen.

[Black and white map, above left, reveals the original 1912 tunnel plan]

The Gothic castle that once stood in Inwood

May 31, 2011

No, not the Cloisters, the magnificent reconstructed abbey that dominates the neighborhood today.

We’re talking about Libby Castle, just about the most impressive mansion among all of the ostentatious 19th century estates built in this hilly stretch of Manhattan, kind of a rural retreat for the city’s superrich.

Originally named Woodcliff Castle in 1855 by its first owner, importer Augustus C. Richards, it passed through several bigwig owners in its short life span.

William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame later lived there, as did department store millionaire A.T. Stewart, who bequeathed it to his business partner, William Libbey (yep, the castle’s name is a misspelling).

By 1920, Libby Castle and some land surrounding it were owned by John D. Rockefeller. He bulldozed it to build the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park in the 1930s. has a terrific article and fab photos.

The celebrated seances of the spooky Fox Sisters

May 31, 2011

Claiming to be able to talk to the dead is a skill that can instantly turn you into a celebrity. This was especially true in 1848, when Ouija boards and seances were all the rage.

That’s how the Fox sisters became notorious in New York. Growing up in Rochester, word spread that Katherine and Margaret Fox, then 12 and 15, could communicate with spirits.

How? They would snap their fingers, and this would elicit rapping sounds from the deceased that could be decoded into a message.

Within a few years, the sisters, along with their older sister and manager, Leah, were invited to the city by showman P.T. Barnum.

They quickly became the talk of pre-Civil War New York, serving as mediums for high society.

Among the bold-face names they attracted to their hundreds of seances were journalist and poet William Cullen Bryant, writer James Feinmore Cooper, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

Though thousands of people believed the sisters and followed their quasi-religion “spiritualism,” skeptics publicly doubted them. The girls eventually quarreled and became alcoholics.

In 1888, Margaret confessed in the New York World that their medium powers were a hoax; the rappings sounds that supposedly came from dead people were created by cracking their joints.

They died before the century’s end, as paupers.

“The Lone Tenement” beside the East River

May 27, 2011

George Bellows painted many busy, emotional New York scenes in the early 20th century. “The Lone Tenement,” from 1909, depicts a raw city and its cast-off residents.

“George Bellows was a poet of the city, an artist who loved New York as much as Monet loved his garden or Bierstadt loved the Rocky Mountains,” states

“There are so many things to look at in this picture that Bellows hardly knows where to direct our attention: sunlight randomly glinting on a window, transients huddled around a fire, a horse-drawn carriage, a ship belching steam on the East River, and in the center a lonely building withering in the shadow of the then-brand-new Queensboro Bridge.”

When East 79th Street was “Little Hungary”

May 27, 2011

New York’s first Little Hungary centered around today’s East Village; Second Avenue was dubbed the “Hungarian Broadway.”

“It is to that part of Second Avenue between Houston and East 10th Streets that this title has been applied, for almost everybody who walks there hails from Hungary or Bohemia, and nearly every second house presents the sign ‘Hungarian Restaurant,’ proclaimed The New York Times in 1900.

But as with the huge German population in the East Village at the time, the Hungarians and Bohemians soon relocated to Yorkville. And 79th Street east of Lexington Avenue became the new Hungarian Broadway—also known as “Goulash Boulevard.”

It’s all pretty much all disappeared now. Oh, St. Stephen of Hungary School and Church as well as the Hungarian Reformed Church, both on 82nd Street, still have a presence.

And the original 1916 Hungarian Reform Church, at left, is a few blocks south on 69th Street.

A Hungarian cafe and Hungarian meat market also exist. Yet famed Austro-Hungarian restaurants such Hungarian Gardens, the Viennese Lantern, and Debrechen have long since closed up shop.

But then, the other main drags of Yorkville have also lost their ethnic edge. East 72nd Street, once “Bohemian Broadway” because of all the Czechs living in the vicinity, has dwindled.

And though some German food specialty stores still exist along East 86th Street, the “German Boulevard” is nothing like it was in its heyday.

“New York Entrance to the Holland Tubes”

May 25, 2011

This 1920s postcard of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel looks like a Hollywood set, not real lower Manhattan.

The “tubes,” as they were known then, opened in November 1927 to incredible fanfare. The New York Times reported the next day:

“When the two flags had parted before the New York entrance, there surged beneath their drawn folds and on into the chill depths of the white-tiled, brilliantly lighted subaqueous thoroughfare, an almost solid mass of pedestrians eager to make the trip from shore to shore afoot.

“It was estimated that within an hour 20,000 or more persons had walked the entire 9,250 feet from entrance to exit, and the stream of humanity, thinning a little toward the last, continued to traverse the tunnel until 7 p.m., when it was closed until 12:01 a.m., the hour set for vehicular traffic to begin its regular, paid passage.”

The city’s oldest hardware stores (and signs)

May 25, 2011

Ever notice that hardware and paint supply stores in New York tend to be independent, family-named shops dating back generations?

How do they beat back bigger chains—do they own the buildings they’re in and therefore are immune to drastic rent hikes? Lure in customers with hard-to-find parts made for the city’s old buildings?

The number of independent drugstores, bookstores, and other shops keep dwindling, but these guys manage to stick around. Warshaw Hardware, on Third Avenue and 20th Street, has been holding court since before the Great Depression.

Vercesi Hardware, on 23rd Street near Lexington Avenue, got its start when Woodrow Wilson was running the country.

S. Wolf Paints and Wallpaper, on Ninth Avenue in the 50s, is the granddaddy of them all, opening in 1869—just a few years after the end of the Civil War!

Shuttered on a recent weekday, S. Wolf still seems to be in business though—they have a Yelp page after all.

Weegee: life and crime in black and white

May 23, 2011

Photographer Weegee—born Usher Fellig in 1899—got his nickname thanks to his Ouji Board–like ability to arrive at crime scenes almost as fast as the bullets flew and the bodies fell.

But Weegee, at left at his 5 Centre Market Street apartment, wasn’t psychic.

The Austria native, who grew up on the Lower East Side, had a shortwave radio that let him listen in on police calls.

He also built a darkroom in his car so he could get his photos to New York’s tabloids in record time.

Weegee didn’t earn his iconic status simply because he was quick. His stark black-and-white shots of gangsters, street kids, regular joes, trashy women, and crowds defined the New York noir style of the 1930s and 1940s.

[At left, “Joy of Living,” 1942, chronicles a hit and run death outside a Third Avenue movie theater]

His 1945 book of photos was even the inspiration for the 1948 classic crime drama, The Naked City.

He wasn’t all about blood and grit. Weegee had a Fellini-esque eye for the weird and wonderful, as well as a soft spot for the tender—such as his 1938 photo of city kids sleeping on a tenement fire escape.

In his 1961 memoir, Weegee wrote: “Crime was my oyster. I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers.”

He died in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment in 1968. Here’s more on Weegee’s life and photos, from the International Center of Photography.

[Above: “Crime Scene of David ‘the Beetle’ Beadle” 1939]

New York’s most decorative manhole covers

May 23, 2011

Usually they’re simply engraved with “Con Edison” or, strangely enough, “NYC Sewer—Made in India.” But sometimes you can spot one that a 19th century iron works company decided to make a little lovelier.

Like this one, with images of stars and fancy “DPW” lettering, found underfoot on a sidewalk at Fifth Avenue and about 100th Street.

“Croton Water” references the old Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842, which brought clean water to the city from Westchester’s Croton River.

Even more decorative is this fleur-de-lis cover on the sidewalk on Charlton Street off of Sixth Avenue.

It hides a coal hole, into which coal deliverers dumped their wares. This way, coal could reach a building’s basement, where the furnace was, without mucking up a home or office.

Why a Gramercy playground honors a sculptor

May 23, 2011

City parks and playgrounds named for a specific person usually memorialize a political bigwig or community leader, not an artist.

Which makes it a bit of a mystery as to why the playground on Second Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets is named for Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

It’s not that he doesn’t deserve the honor. Saint-Gaudens created many of late 19th century America’s most beautiful bronze sculptures.

He’s the genius behind the 1881 Admiral Farragut statue in Madison Square Park, as well as General Sherman on a horse led by winged Victory at Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue, unveiled in 1903.

So why was his name given to a playground opened in 1966? It must have to do with his roots in the neighborhood.

When he was a boy, his French-born father, a cobbler, opened a shop on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) and 21st Street.

As a student, Saint-Gaudens attended Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, on 23rd Street in the 1860s.

He then got himself a studio on 14th Street and Fourth Avenue—in the same building as up-and-coming architects Stanford White and Charles McKim.