Archive for January, 2012

The famous names in “Winter Scene in Brooklyn”

January 30, 2012

Brooklyn has changed quite a lot since Francis Guy painted this corner of the newly incorporated village in 1820.

It’s one of two very similar paintings showing almost the same bustling winter scene at Front Street between Main and Fulton Streets, near the Fulton Ferry dock.

The Brooklyn Museum owns one of the two paintings. The museum website features a fascinating key that identifies who these shopkeepers and village residents are.

You’ll recognize many of the names—such as Rapelje, Middagh, Hicks, and Patchen—as they continue to live on in borough street signs and park plaques.

The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

January 30, 2012

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”

What happened to the residents of The Whitby?

January 30, 2012

Ex-chorus girls and actresses. Retired jazz musicians. A female impersonator who once worked the vaudeville circuit.

These were some of the characters interviewed in a 1988 New York Times article who lived at the Whitby—a grand 1923 apartment building designed by Emery Roth on 45th Street just west of Eighth Avenue.

The article chronicled a familiar story. The Whitby—once a residential hotel popular with theater people and in the 1980s a rental with rates as low as $221 a month—was going co-op. The retired show folk who lived there feared the change about to hit their eclectic longtime home.

“‘It was a home for actors,” said Jon Richards, an 84-year-old retired Broadway actor who has lived at the Whitby since the 1964 New York World’s Fair. ”We walked in, and we walked in among friends, among family.”’

In the article, a rep for the Whitby’s owner said none of the tenants would be kicked out if they couldn’t afford to buy their apartments.

I wonder what happened to them in the ensuing 24 years—and if the Whitby is now populated by executives and bankers rather than eccentric theater people.

[Top photo: from Bottom: a photo of the Whitby originally from The New York Times, by way of]

The Williamsburg Bridge’s inferiority complex

January 24, 2012

When the Williamsburg Bridge opened on December 19, 1903, Scientific American (by way of had this to say about a structure critics conceded wasn’t nearly as breathtaking as its neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge:

“Considered from the aesthetic standpoint, the (Williamsburg) Bridge is destined always to suffer by comparison with its neighbor, the (Brooklyn) Bridge,” the magazine wrote.

“It is possible that, were it not in existence, we would not hear so many strictures upon the manifest want of beauty in the later and larger (Williamsburg) Bridge, which is destined to be popular more on account of its size and usefulness than its graceful lines.

“As a matter of fact, the (Williamsburg) Bridge is an engineer’s bridge pure and simple. The eye may range from anchorage to anchorage, and from pier to finial of the tower without finding a single detail that suggests controlling motive, either in its design or fashioning other than bald utility.”

The “horse walks” hiding in Greenwich Village

January 24, 2012

Anyone who has strolled down a Greenwich Village side street has probably seen a horse walk door—an unadorned, mysterious entrance without a stoop that opens to the sidewalk.

The horse walk door is the brown one to the left at this house at 7 Leroy Street, a Federal-style beauty built in 1831.

Behind this door is the horse walk, a narrow passageway through which a homeowner’s horse was led from the street to a separate carriage house or stable behind the main house.

Of course, it’s been a good century or so since anyone has used a horse walk for their own equine. Those back carriage houses are now sought-after private residences.

Here’s a listing for the carriage house behind 7 Leroy Street—yours for $16,000 a month.

This horse walk door to the right of the main entrance is part of another lovely Federal-style house built in 1819 at 83 Sullivan Street near Spring Street.

You can just imagine a horse being led to and from the door every day to what was probably a very muddy street, so his owner can use him as transportation to get around the growing city.

The Lantern: an 1890s downtown writers club

January 24, 2012

The Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. The Bohemian crowd at Pfaff’s in the 1850s.

New York writers have always organized formal and informal clubs where they could share their wit and their work—over alcohol, of course.

The Lantern Club was one of these. Now just a footnote in the city’s literary history, the Lantern (sometimes called the Lanthorn) was founded in 1893. Its headquarters, an old house on William Street near the newspaper offices of Park Row, was fashioned to resemble a ship cabin.

Prominent members included Stephen Crane (left, in 1899), the young, struggling author of Bowery tale Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt occasionally dropped by.

Crane and his cohorts didn’t just sit around and booze. They actually shared their work during regular literary banquets held every Saturday evening.

“Each week at the banquet, one of the members read a short story he had written,” writes Stanley Wertheim in A Stephan Crane Encyclopedia.

“Only negative criticism was permitted, and ‘the highest tribute that a story could receive was complete silence.'”

Stephen Crane died in 1900 of tuberculosis at age 29. When the Lantern bit the dust, however, is a mystery.

A fresh blanket of snow on a New York block

January 22, 2012

Robert Henri painted “Snow in New York” in 1902. Writes the National Gallery of Art, where the painting hangs:

“Henri’s Snow in New York depicts ordinary brownstone apartments hemmed in by city blocks of humdrum office buildings. This calm, stable geometry adds to the hush of new-fallen snow.

“The exact date inscribed—March 5, 1902—implies the canvas was painted in a single session. Its on-the-spot observations and spontaneous sketchiness reveal gray slush in the traffic ruts and yellow mud on the horsecart’s wheels.”

More manhole mysteries on city sidewalks

January 22, 2012

If you’ve never looked down and noticed them before, you’ll be surprised by the huge variety of manhole covers out there on city streets.

They’re clues to the industries and ironworks that built the modern city.

The one above, spotted in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, was made by Howell and Saxtan, a foundry on Adams Street. James Howell served two terms as Brooklyn’s mayor.

An 1885 guide called New York’s Great Industries described E. McGuinness & Co. as “a leading house engaged in the manufacture of iron railings, etc.,” established in 1878. This cover was found in the East 70s, not far from where McGuinness’s factory was.

Fassler Iron Works made it at least until 1970, where a Google search turned up some legal documents. A tenement is at the 10th Street address, between Avenues C and D.

This cover comes from the West Village. H. Richter was Herman Richter, an immigrant from Saxony who founded Centennial Iron Works at 190 Elm Street. His son Albert was his partner.

Elm Street—where is it? Apparently it’s been de-mapped. It was the original name for Lafayette Street south of Houston Street, but the name was changed in 1905.

The 1826 country resort still there on 61st Street

January 22, 2012

When this Georgian-style stone carriage house—built in 1799 on today’s 61st Street off of York Avenue—became the Mount Vernon Hotel in 1826, it must have been a beautiful place for a country vacation.

“The Hotel advertised itself as ‘free from the noise and dust of the public roads, and fitted up and intended for only the most genteel and respectable’ clientele,” reports the Colonial Dames of America.

“In those days, one could take the stagecoach or steamboat up to 61st street and spend the day at the hotel sipping lemonade in the ladies parlor or playing cards in the gentlemen’s tavern.”

The hotel, complete with a one-mile racetrack, didn’t exist very long.

In 1833, it was sold and made into a country house for the Towle family (left; below, 61st Street and the East River).

Family members occupied it into the 1900s, by which time the area had become crowded and industrial, in the shadow of the new Queensboro Bridge.

Today it’s a historic site called the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Gardens—formerly the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, named after President John Adams’ daughter, who with her husband built the carriage house before the 19th century.

[Middle and bottom photos: from the Colonial Dames of America, which runs the museum]

The vintage store signs of the far East Side

January 18, 2012

Some of those Manhattan neighborhoods lining the East River—Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, East Midtown—are kind of in a store sign time warp.

Seems like First, Second, and Third Avenues have more old-school signage than trendier blocks closer to Midtown or in other areas.

This is far from a complaint though. Seeing a decent number of vintage signs still hanging on is so charming, like this one with “Corby” in 1960s-style cursive. It’s on First Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets.

The Sutton Place Frame Shop is another example, on First Avenue and 55th Street. It’s such a posh name for a no-frills kind of establishment.

Farther south on Second Avenue and 34th Street is Kips Bay Optical, with this lovely sign laid it on script as well.