Archive for March, 2012

The Peters of Second Avenue’s Peter’s Field

March 8, 2012

There’s a city park between First and Second Avenue and East 20th and 21st Streets that isn’t remarkable in any way—except for its curious name of Peter’s Field.

So who was Peter? Petrus Stuyvesant (right), the Dutch director-general of New Netherlands who ruled the city until 1664.

The park name is a play on the name of Stuyvesant’s sprawling farm, or Bouwerie, which once encompassed this location: Petersfield.

Of course, Stuyvesant graces a ton of other landmarks in the area: Stuyvesant Town, Stuyvesant High School (the original building), and Stuyvesant Square.

Peter’s Field also commemorates another famous Peter who lived in the neighborhood: Peter Cooper. He’s the Kips Bay glue manufacturer, founder of Cooper Union in 1859, and namesake of Peter Cooper Village.

Ah, but the little park pays homage to more Peters. Cast concrete plaques put up in the 1990s on the Second Avenue side honor Peter Rabbit, Peter Pan, Peter Piper, Peter Parker, and other fictional characters who share Stuyvesant and Cooper’s name.

The “Great White Hurricane” changes New York

March 5, 2012

Think it’s unlikely that a late-winter blizzard will strike this month? That’s what New Yorkers assumed in early March 1888, when the city was also treated to unseasonably warm weather in the 50s.

Then on March 11, heavy rains fell. As the day turned to night, temperatures plunged, rain turned to snow, and fierce winds gripped the city.

The snow continued for 36 hours. By the time it was over, more than 20 inches buried New York. Trains had stopped running.

Telegraph and telephone wires snapped, and the city was paralyzed for days. More than 200 deaths are attributed to the Great White Hurricane.

But the terrible storm taught the city a few things. First, it showed officials that an underground transportation system was absolutely necessary, one that wouldn’t be brought down in a storm. It set in motion the creation of the New York City subway.

Second, the blizzard permanently cleared the city of the mish-mash of telephone and telegraph cables that marred so many streets. They were moved underground.

[Top photo: the snow weighs down telephone and telegraph wires. Middle, a street car stuck in the snow at Ninth Street and University Place; bottom: Park Place in Brooklyn, snowed in]

The hottest concert draw in the city in 1850

March 5, 2012

Linsanity has nothing on Lind-mania, the word the press coined for the fervor surrounding Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind’s visit to New York City in September 1850.

A plain-looking 30-year-old who lived in London, Jenny and her beautiful voice wowed Europe in the late 1840s.

P.T. Barnum was visiting London when he heard about Jenny. He struck a deal with her to bring her to America for a 150-city tour.

Her first stop was New York. No one in the U.S. had heard her sing, but 30,000 people greeted her ship as it docked in New York Harbor.

Her first of six city concerts planned for Castle Garden, in Battery Park, was held on September 11. Tickets went for up to $650 a seat—quite a lot in 1850.

The Swedish Nightingale blew away the crowd. “Never in New York City had a singer so captured an audience as Jenny Lind did on that September evening,” writes Fran Capo, coauthor of It Happened in New York City.

“When the performance finally drew to a close, the applause was tumultuous. The audience did not want her to leave the stage. Jenny simply remained silent with her arms across her chest, bowing in acceptance for the admiration shown by the crowd of New Yorkers.”

Jenny and Barnum raked in profits. Jenny gave much of hers away.

“She donated her share of the proceeds from two of her concerts to twelve different New York City charitable organizations, with the lion’s share going to the New York City Fire Department to help support widows and orphans,” says Capo.

History recalls her as a gifted singer and giving woman. Too bad she died before her voice could be recorded.

[Top: Jenny sits for a Mathew Brady portrait; right: a Currier lithograph of her opening night at Castle Garden]

The cats and dogs of East 68th Street

March 5, 2012

New York buildings are decorated with all kinds of creatures.

Horses, sheep, owls, rabbits, and squirrels are some of the most popular animal motifs.

But for a city so crazy for cats and dogs, it’s not often you see canine and feline figures decorating building facades.

The 1930s co-op at 116 East 68th Street (above) is an exception. Carved into its stone doorways is a menagerie of pelicans, owls, and rabbits—but also cats, a bulldog, and two hounds.

They’re not cuddly critters; they look rather menacing actually. For more dogs of New York City, meet the East Village pugs, guarding a tenement on East Seventh Street.

Crossing Riverside Drive on a beautiful day

March 1, 2012

“Everything is fine and dandy so far,” someone scrawled in cursive on the back of this postcard, stamped March 11, 1912—almost 100 years ago to the day.

“Jake met us at the station. Was very nice. We are having a fun time.” It’s signed “F & M.” Father and mother? I wonder who they were.

Does anyone know exactly where this stretch of Riverside Drive is? My guess is the upper 80s.

The old folks’ homes of the 19th century city

March 1, 2012

They weren’t called assisted living centers or nursing homes then.

Instead, the Victorian institutions built to house elderly New Yorkers had names that didn’t sugarcoat their purpose.

This one at left, on Amsterdam Avenue and 103rd Street, was the “Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females.”

Here, “decayed gentlewomen find a pleasant and congenial home, as their faces turn toward the setting sun, ” explains King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

“Any gentlewoman over sixty years of age is admitted on payment of $200 and the surrender of any property she may possess.”

The building still stands and now serves as a youth hostel.

The Home for the Aged of the Little Sisters of the Poor, above, stood at 135th West 106th Street; a second home run by this order was at 207 East 70th Street.

Men and women of any faith were welcome, so long as they were “over 60 years old and destitute,” states King’s. “The two homes give gratuitous care to nearly 500 inmates.”

This Addams Family–like building at left was the Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm, at 151 East 66th Street. The rules were stricter.

“An applicant must be over 65 years old, and must pay an admission fee of $300, a physician’s examination fee of $5, and a burial fee of $50,” explains King’s. [Photo: NYPL digital collection]

Check out this gorgeous structure at 207-215 West 15th Street, formerly St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged. King’s tells us “it is entirely for the comfort of aged women.”

The 1913 art exhibit that scandalized New York

March 1, 2012

The organizers of the 1913 International Exhibit of Modern Art knew their show would be a magnet for attention and criticism.

Consisting of more than 1,200 paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces by 300 bold avant-garde European and American artists, the exhibit opened on February 17, 1913, at the Lexington Avenue Armory on 25th Street.

Immediately, it was derided by the press and public.

A New York Times letter described it as the art of “savages and children.” Even President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly weighed in by announcing, “That’s not art!”

Few knew what to make of Cubist, Symbolist, and Impressionist artists. Taking a big hit was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. One critic said it resembled “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

Still, at 25 cents to $1 per person for admission and running until mid-March, it drew packed crowds and was considered a success, ultimately introducing Modern art to a nation used to Realism and signaling a “rebellion in art.”

Here’s a list of the artists (such as John Sloan, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, and Edvard Monk) whose work appeared in the show.