Archive for March, 2012

Faded ads towering over West 75th Street

March 29, 2012

An Ephemeral reader sent in this photo of side-by-side faded ads between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

They’re tricky to make out, but it looks like “Sherman Square Motors Corp” on the right. Sherman Square—the little park down the street on 70th Street.

As for the ad on the left, this online collection of faded ads revealed it: “Livingston Automobile Radiators.”

The “tuberculosis windows” in city tenements

March 29, 2012

You’ve probably seen photos of these interior windows in old tenement apartments.

 They divide the kitchen or parlor from a back bedroom, letting a little light and air into the dark tunnel that was the  typical 19th century slum apartment.

These windows have an appropriate name: tuberculosis windows. They were mandated by a 19th century city law requiring that tenements have cross ventilation to help reduce the spread of diseases like tuberculosis—the deadly “white plague” not uncommon in poor neighborhoods.

Landlords figured it was cheaper to install an interior window rather than design an apartment building with real windows in every room that actually allowed for decent air flow.

By 1901, however, the city passed the New Law Tenement Act, requiring exterior-facing windows in each room of new residences.

But just like bathtubs in the kitchen, some city apartments still have tenement windows—like this one on Avenue B.

The Martha Washington: “for women guests only”

March 29, 2012

When the Hotel Martha Washington opened its respectable doors in Murray Hill in February 1903, it was the first women-only hotel in the city. And management took the women-only part seriously.

Not only were men prohibited in rooms, few could work there. Though the elevator operators, head waiter, and bell boys were male, the rest of the staff was female.

The place was a big hit. The wave of professional women moving to the city at the time—nurses, stenographers, teachers, doctors—thronged the waiting list for a $1.50 to $5 per day room.

Over the decades, as other women-only hotels opened, it remained a safe place for fresh-off-the-bus models, actresses, and students. 1920s actress Louise Brooks stayed there (she was asked to leave, according to this account). The hotel even scored a mention in Valley of the Dolls.

By the 1980s, the MR had become an SRO, home to long-term elderly tenants, shorter-term drug dealers, and, in 1998, men, according to the Village Voice.

On its 100th anniversary, this dowager of a hotel was rebranded Hotel Thirty Thirty and more recently Lola. I love the way copywriters put a 21st century spin on its single-gender past.

Where exactly is this 1913 corner saloon?

March 26, 2012

Edward Hopper’s simply titled “Corner Saloon,” from 1913, depicts the kind of regular city bar on an ordinary street corner that makes it almost impossible to figure out exactly where it was located.

The smokestacks give a hint: probably by a river.

And a caption from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website states that it’s the same corner Hopper sketched in 1921’s “Night Shadows” (right).

It’s an “actual location in New York . . . It is a downtown street near the riverfront, marked by a simple brick building with a painted sign,” the Met says. But where?

Whimsical and welcoming housing project signs

March 26, 2012

New York City has more than 300 public housing projects, and they’re home to five percent of the city’s population.

Mostly built between the 1940s and 1960s, these usually sprawling residences have some very welcoming signs decorated with fun icons, which belie their shady reps.

The 11 buildings that make up the Robert S. Fulton Houses, on Ninth Avenue between 16th and 19th Streets in Chelsea, were finished in 1965. The steamboat couldn’t be more appropriate.

Gaylord White was a Presbyterian minister in the early decades of the 20th century who spearheaded settlement houses in East Harlem.

This 1964 apartment house named for him is for seniors only, on Second Avenue at 104th Street.

That looks like an illustration of the waves of the East River on this sign, greeting visitors to the 10-building East River Houses, on First Avenue at 105th Street.

The very first public housing development still exists in the East Village; the sign for this project is a little less spirited.

Men who gave their lives for the Brooklyn Bridge

March 26, 2012

Constructing the Brooklyn Bridge didn’t just claim the lives of up to 30 laborers.

John and Washington Roebling, the father and son engineers in charge of building the bridge, were also casualties.

John Roebling, right, lost his life early on. Named chief engineer and given the go-ahead to start construction in 1867, he died after a freak accident.

While surveying the bridge site at the river’s edge, a ferry boat crushed his toes. They had to be amputated, which led to tetanus. He was dead that July.

Washington Roebling then took over. In 1872, while submerged in a caisson to supervise construction, he suffered decompression sickness—paralyzing him.

Though he was unable to leave his bed in his Brooklyn Heights home, Washington Roebling wasn’t ready to give up his gig as chief engineer.

From his top-floor bedroom at 106 Columbia Heights, he directed daily operations through his wife, Emily, right, who was unofficially in charge until the bridge was completed in 1883.

He could look through binoculars (above illustration) and watch the bridge—the towers, the steel cables, the roadway—go up, just as he’d planned (below photo).

A plaque on the bridge gives big props to Emily, her husband, and her father-in-law. And Roebling Street in Williamsburg also pays them homage.

A mysterious and exotic view of Chinatown

March 22, 2012

Alluring and unorthodox, Chinatown was already a big tourist attraction for out-of-towners as well as slumming-it city residents in the early 1900s.

This postcard, dated 1911, really plays it up. The front shows Mott Street; that’s the Port Arthur restaurant, opened in 1897. The back of the card reads:

“Here are located the joss houses, the civil offices of the colony and lodging houses and restaurants, the gambling rooms and opium-smoking dens.”

Joss house: I had to look it up. It’s another term for a house of worship.

Old-school phone booths hiding around the city

March 22, 2012

What a pair of beauties: Two wooden phone booths with hinged doors that close all the way and stools to relax on while you make your call.

In the left booth, a light even goes on when you shut the door.

They’re at Montero’s, the divey but warm Brooklyn bar at the river end of Atlantic Avenue.

The bartender said they were there when the place opened in this spot in 1947.

This row of phone booths, in the basement of the Whitney Museum, isn’t made of wood.

But they are actual booths, which is pretty rare these days, and worth noting.

I have no idea when they date to, but it’s from a time when museum directors had no idea the cell phone era was on its way.

Check out more examples of the phone booths still holding on around the city.

Vintage house numbers of an older Manhattan

March 22, 2012

I love the huge typeface and style variety of the house numbers painted on or carved into city residences and businesses.

Walk down any street in Manhattan, and you’ll likely see a fantastic mix: decorative lettering from the late 19th century, sans serif fonts from the 1920s and 1930s, spelled out numerals that are supposed to be classy.

Like this script above the front entrance to One Sheridan Square, a West Village apartment house built in 1920.

I like this understated plaque, affixed to the Greek Revival-style column fronting a residence on Murray Street near West Broadway. Streeteasy says it was built in 1920, but it looks older.

The No. 9 of this Flatiron address feels very Gilded Age New York. It must have housed a pretty swanky business.

The terracotta Water Street address is truly lovely. Unfortunately, a search through the New York Times archives reveals that in 1894, a night watchman who lived at 251 Water Street, a widower with five children, was murdered at the candy factory where he was employed on Franklin Street.

The killer, an ex-employee, admitted he’d been caught stealing by the watchman. So he murdered him with a double-headed hammer. Just one of the city’s thousands of forgotten tragedies.

Three views of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street

March 19, 2012

In 1901, when this first photo was taken, Sixth Avenue and 20th Street was the center of the city’s posh shopping district.

It was part of the fabled Ladies’ Mile, where stores like Siegel-Cooper, Adams & Co., and Hugh O’Neill’s Dry Goods Store sold fashion and furnishings.

“By 1915, all these stores had failed, merged, or moved farther uptown,” states the caption to the photo, which was published in New York Then and Now.

Here’s the crowd of well-dressed, well-to-do women in front of O’Neill’s. A hansom cab waits, a gas lamp will light the street at dusk, and the Sixth Avenue El is hurtling down the tracks, bringing smoke and more shoppers to the 18th Street station.

By 1975, when the second photo (also from New York Then and Now) was shot, the area had become grungy and grim.

It hadn’t been a viable shopping district of any kind at least since the El was torn down in 1939. The gas lamppost has been replaced, and the lovely cast-iron buildings support light manufacturing and small offices.

Today, in 2012, it’s a bustling shopping strip again—and residential area too. The O’Neill building has been renovated into pricey luxury condos.

The ground-floor store is home to a bank branch, of course.