Archive for April, 2012

Ghostly reminders on red brick buildings

April 30, 2012

Faded ads that are preserved in full are treasures. But most of the old signage found around the city consists of just one or two legible words—maybe a name or a type of service.

Whose business was it? What did they sell or manufacture? Without more words as clues, we may never know.

On the side of a prewar building now known as the Amsterdam Court Hotel at 50th Street and Broadway is this faded ad for apartments. How many rooms? How much per month? I wish we knew.

This faded sign, as seen from Sixth Avenue in the 20s, appears to read “R. S. Stern.” If this is correct, I wonder what Mr. Stern’s company sold.

When Murray Hill was “Little Armenia”

April 30, 2012

Little Syria, Little Hungary, the Jewish Quarter: Manhattan really used to be a collection of tight ethnic enclaves.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Lexington Avenue below 34th Street was Little Armenia, a mostly forgotten neighborhood of immigrant rug merchants, grocers, and other small business owners.

“On First, Second, Third, and Lexington Avenues, a small Armenian community was established,” writes Paul Sagsoorian in the Armenian cultural magazine Ararat.

“An Armenian church was obtained in 1915. It was named Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, after the patron saint of the Armenians.”

The cathedral is still there, on East 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

But few other traces of the old neighborhood remain. There’s Kalustyan’s grocery-turned-spice shop on 28th Street, a juncture now known as Curry Hill thanks to all the Indian restaurants and food stores there.

Huge, gold-domed St. Vartan Cathedral still draws a crowd at Second Avenue and 34th Street, and a park up the block on 35th Street bears the name of St. Vartan, the fifth century Armenian Christian martyr.

Is this what pre-colonial New York looked like?

April 30, 2012

At the southwest corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place is a fenced-in patch of green that appears to be part of Silver Towers, two 1960s apartment houses owned by New York University.

But it’s actually an outdoor sculpture of sorts: a landscape recreated by artist Alan Sonfist in 1978 to resemble pristine West Village terrain before the 17th century.

Called Time Landscape, the little plot features birch and beech trees, oaks and elms, and “a woodland with red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel above groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed,” states the Parks Department, of the city-owned land.

Of course, one person’s pre-Colonial woodland is another’s weed garden. One criticism leveled at Time Landscape is that many non-indigenous plants have taken root there.

“This is an open lab, not an enclosed landscape,” Sonfist told The Villager in 2007. “The intention was never to keep out all nonnative species, but rather to see how they come into the space with time.”

City College’s gorgeous, Gothic-style campus

April 26, 2012

In this postcard, stamped 1913, it looks like a cathedral. But it’s actually the flagship building at City College’s Hamilton Heights campus, built in 1906 at 138th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

It’s a lovely campus in a beautiful neighborhood—one of the Manhattan’s hidden gems.

I don’t think the two Gothic-inspired gates flanking the drive exist anymore. But the terra cotta-topped structure with the two towers remain.

The beautiful street clocks along Fifth Avenue

April 26, 2012

A grand avenue like Fifth should be adorned with lovely, stately street clocks, right?

New York business owners whose shops were located on this pricey stretch of real estate seemed to think so. These towering timepieces (which also functioned as advertising vehicles) sprouted up in the late 19th century until about 1920, when watches became more popular.

Several extant timepieces keep us informed to this day—like this beauty. It’s stood on 59th Street in front of the Sherry Netherland since the hotel opened in 1927.

At 57th Street is the clock that tops Tiffany & Co. The nine-foot figure of Atlas was carved in 1853 and first adorned Tiffany’s when the jeweler had its store on Prince Street and Broadway.

This 20-foot, cast-iron sentinel at 44th Street was built in 1907. It originally stood at 43rd Street, but when the bank it fronted moved up a block, so did the clock.

One of the most beautiful of the city’s street clocks is the “gilded cast-iron masterpiece,” as the Landmarks Preservation Commission called it, at 200 Fifth Avenue.

The 19-footer dates to 1909—when the Madison Square neighborhood was very posh, and the Fifth Avenue Building it stood outside was so well-known, it shared a postcard with the Flatiron Building across the way.

An 1880s swindler who preyed on New York men

April 26, 2012

“How can hard-headed business men of caution and experience be victimized by women who lack the first elements of female charm?”

That’s the question posed in a May 1923 New York Times article about notorious 19th century swindler Bertha Heyman, whose picture “is one of the least attractive in the police records of that day.”

Heyman, dubbed the Confidence Queen in the 1880s, came New York after immigrating from Prussia in 1878.

Her scheme was the one fraudsters use today: She’d claim to be a wealthy woman who was blocked from accessing her estate. (Nigerian internet scams, anyone?)

The men would advance her money in return for a cut of her fortune—and she’d take off.

Heyman, who stayed at the finest hotels and boasted of having A-list friends, had a knack for picking rubes.

After getting hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars from several men, she was convicted of obtaining $500 on false pretenses and sentenced to prison on Blackwell’s Island.

But even there, she didn’t stop: She convinced another male New Yorker to fork over his $900 life savings.

What’s so fascinating isn’t how she pulled the wool over the eyes of so many guys but that she later said she didn’t do it for the money—it was the sheer enjoyment of tricking someone.

“The moment I discover a man’s a fool I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned,'” she told The Times in an 1883 article. “It ministers to my intellectual pride.”

[top photo: a tobacco card of Bertha from 1888]

Three ways of looking at East 86th Street

April 23, 2012

Few city neighborhoods have changed in the past 100 years as much as Yorkville, the center of German immigrant life through much of the 20th century. This new Kleindeutschland was a hub for German food, culture, and politics for decades.

This photo shows the main drag, 86th Street, looking east from Lexington Avenue; it was published in the wonderful book New York Then and Now.

The book tells us that the six-story building on the right, behind the middle of the second car on the Third Avenue El, was the Yorkville Casino, a popular social center.

Sixty-one years later, here’s the same view of 86th Street. High-rise apartment buildings have replaced walkups, movie theaters, and the Casino, and street traffic has increased dramatically—no more Third Avenue El to whisk passengers above ground.

Here’s the same view today: fewer tenements, more high-rises, lots of chain stores, same amount of traffic. It’s still called Yorkville on maps, but it’s less of a distinct neighborhood than ever.

A Revolutionary War legend at Bowling Green

April 23, 2012

Created by the Dutch as a cattle market in the 17th century, Bowling Green became New York’s first park in 1733—leased to three private landlords for “one peppercorn a year.”

Amazingly, the wrought-iron fence built in 1771 to surround the park still stands.

But it was partly destroyed on the eve of the Revolutionary War, and you can still see the desecration if you look closely.

It happened on July 9, 1776. After the Declaration of Independence was read to Washington’s troops at nearby City Hall, a crowd of patriots, whipped into a frenzy, rushed to the park at the foot of Broadway.

There they toppled the statue of King George III the British had placed inside it—and they also sawed off the finials that crowned each post.

“[A] partially drunken mob, led by the patriot Isaac Sears, raced to the fence that surrounded the park,” states It Happened in New York City, cowritten by Fran Capo.

“Sears and the others systematically sawed off the king’s crowns on each of the thick supporting fence sections.”

You can still see the saw marks. What became of the finials is unclear, but the lead from the statue was melted down and used as ammo against the Redcoats.

Vintage phone exchange signs in Chelsea

April 22, 2012

You have to look down to the ground and inside doorways to find them, but references to New York’s old two-letter telephone prefix system still exist.

These signs are probably at least 50 years old, as the two-letter exchanges were phased out in the 1960s.

EXeter 2 existed in Queens, hence this sign on West 19th Street for the Marcato Elevator Company in Long Island City.

Kaufman Management Company still has its offices at 450 Seventh Avenue in Midtown. They no longer use the LOngacre exchange on signs or in advertising, but they could: their current phone number is the same as it is on this 19th Street plate.

This website is a great resource for looking up the history of the city’s old exhanges.

The giraffes grazing above a 19th Street door

April 19, 2012

East 19th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place is an enchanting block with lovely renovated carriage houses and pretty townhouses.

And above the entrance at number 149 is this colorful depiction of a couple of giraffes in front of a tree, then two more behind it.

Who painted the bas relief there? This Flickr page might offer some insight—or at least some background on a very artistic-minded block.