Archive for December, 2012

An old postcard peeks inside the Hudson Tubes

December 29, 2012

Here’s a glimpse inside the cast-iron tube PATH trains travel through as they shuttle from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan.

Engineered by the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, they opened to the public with huge fanfare in 1908.


Known as the Hudson Tubes, they were also called the McAdoo Tunnels, named after William Gibbs McAdoo, who financed construction and led the efforts to link the two states by rail.

A Chelsea block lined with brothels in the 1870s

December 29, 2012

27thstreetsignToday, 27th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is kind of a mishmash of wholesale business and small shops anchored on the western end by the Fashion Institute of Technology.

It was a different world in the 1870s, when the block ground zero for prostitution, with 22 houses of ill repute lining both sides of the street.

That’s in addition to dozens of other brothels on nearby blocks. This was the city’s post–Civil War neighborhood of vice, called the Tenderloin, a sinful stretch of 23rd to 42nd Streets between Sixth and Eighth Avenues.

107West27thstreetThe brothels of 27th Street were so notorious, they scored a mention in The Gentleman’s Companion, a guide to prostitution published in the 1870s, reports Andrew Roth in his book Infamous Manhattan.

Among the proprietors listed in the guide are “Mrs. Disbrow, 101; Mrs. Emma Brown, 103; Miss Maggie Pierce, 104; Joe Fisher, 105; Miss Dow, 106; Mrs. Standly, 107,” writes Roth.

Number 107, in the photo, is noteworthy because it’s the only original building left.

“Evidently the author of The Gentleman’s Companion didn’t think too much of the place, since his only comment is ‘the Ladies boarding-house at 107 West 27th St. is kept by Mrs. Standly and is very quiet.'”

“Not much of an endorsement, but better than the review received by her next-door neighbor . . . of which he warns that ‘the landlady and her servants are as sour as her wine,'” adds Roth.

New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub

December 29, 2012

CafesocietyaudienceDid it really take until 1938 for the first truly desegregated nightclub to open in New York?

It’s hard to believe, but though black performers entertained whites at Depression-era venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club, audiences remained separate.

Blacks were either not permitted, or they were relegated to the back of the club.

This kind of segregation was finally undone at a Greenwich Village basement lounge called Cafe Society—a play on the upscale nightclubs for snobbish elites popular in the 1930s.

OnesheridansquareThe club, at One Sheridan Square (right), was the creation of a former shoe salesman with leftist leanings named Barney Josephson.

He’d spent time traveling in Europe and was impressed by the racially mixed cabarets he’d visited.

He was also a huge jazz fan, and at his new venue he booked talent such as Lena Horne, Art Tatum, and Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holiday (below) was the opening night performer, and she later debuted Strange Fruit there.

Cafe Society Sheridan Square (Josephson opened another cabaret uptown) had a good run for a decade or so. “Ultimately, his political cabaret was undone by politics,” wrote Sam Roberts in The New York Times in 2009.


“In 1947, after Mr. Josephson’s brother Leon, a Communist, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the cafe owner was pummeled by prominent columnists, customers left, and both clubs were sold.”

[Bottom Photo: Charles B. Nadel via Downtown Express]

George Bellows paints the raw New York winter

December 27, 2012

Realist painter and longtime East 19th Street resident George Bellows is best known for his bold views of amateur boxers as well as the grittiness of urban life in the early 20th century.

He painted scenes showing every season. But there’s something about his depictions of New York beneath cold gray skies, covered in snow, or surrounded by ice that captures the city’s abrasive, isolating winters.


“Pennsylvania Station Excavation,” from 1907-1908, puts the fiery equipment brought in to clear out 31st to 33rd Streets between snowy ground and an icy sky.

“The scene has an infernal quality, with the digging machinery circled by small fires and rising smoke near the center of the snowy pit, and all overshadowed by a massive building from which soot streams across the acid blue of a winter sunset,” states the website for the Brooklyn Museum.


“Snow Dumpers,” painted in 1911, shows us overcoat-clad city workers and snorting horses tasked with carrying loads of snow from Manhattan streets to be dumped into the choked-with-traffic East River.

The skies over the river and Brooklyn Bridge look gray and frigid, and the snow has streaks of blue.


“Steaming Streets,” from 1908, reveals winter as an agent of chaos. “[The painting] is dealing with a fleeting, highly charged moment during winter in New York when weather and traffic conditions have combined to create havoc in the street,” explains the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

“Immediately one feels that the vapors from the melting snow and slush are unsettling the horses and adding to the annoyance of the driver, who is forcibly braking them against the oncoming trolley and team to its left.”

The Met’s George Bellows exhibit runs until February 18, a powerful collection of paintings by an artist with a sharp eye for the moods of his adopted city.

Music and theater on East 10th Street in the ’80s

December 27, 2012

LimboloungeIf you found yourself looking for entertainment in the East Village 30 years ago, you might have ended up at the Limbo Lounge, described as a “gallery and performance space; serves refreshments” in this 1984 New York cover story on the newly hip Lower East Side.

This is where campy cult play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom got its start in 1984, two years before the Limbo Lounge closed.

Then there’s 350 East 10th Street, the former PS 64, decommissioned as a school and used for years as a performance space for community groups, artists, and musicians.

Rockers, rappers, breakers, and scratchers—and local punk band 3 Teens Kill 4, wonderfully named after a New York Post headline! Both ads come from the May 1983 issue of the East Village Eye.


The tragic end of an alcoholic 19th century actor

December 27, 2012

GeorgefrederickcookecolorGeorgefrederickcookeiagoAt the turn of the 19th century, George Frederick Cooke was the A-list star actor in his native England.

He was deemed a figure of the “first rank of the London stage” whose portrayal of Richard III at Covent Garden Theatre in 1800 cemented his rep as “the leading tragedian of the day.”

But like many artists, Cooke was an alcoholic. He’d vanish from the stage for long periods, and when he made it to a performance, he was “often so drunk as to not be able to come on the stage at all,” recalls the New York Times in 1873.

As with countless other actors, his addiction torpedoed his career. So Cooke left London and went on tour in New York in November 1810.

Here, he played Richard III to rapt, star-struck audiences at the Park Theatre, then on Park Row.

GeorgefrederickcookeplaqueUnfortunately, he never made it back to England. The War of 1812 left him stuck in the city, and the 56-year-old actor died here that year of cirrhosis.

Now his story gets more dramatic. Cooke was buried behind St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street in a pauper’s grave, supposedly without his head, which he’d willed to science to pay down his debts, according to rumors.

His skull was also reported to have made it on stage—as a prop in a British performance of Hamlet later that century.

A monument to Cooke was erected at St. Paul’s by his protegee, British thespian Edmund Kean in 1821. His body was reburied there, but whether it was intact remains a mystery.

[Photo at right: from]

A TV yule log becomes a city Christmas tradition

December 24, 2012

Channel11logoIn 1966, WPIX Channel 11 came up with a brilliant idea: film a yule log burning in a fireplace and run the footage on Christmas Eve.

The point was to treat viewers who didn’t have a fireplace to the warm glow of a fire—and give station employees a little time off.

So a camera crew set up shop beside a fireplace in Gracie Mansion, then occupied by Mayor John Lindsay, lit a log, and let it flicker.

“A 17-second image of the fire there was repeatedly spliced together until it was three hours long,” a 2011 New York Daily News article reported. Christmas classics were selected to play in the background.


On Christmas Eve 1966, the Yule Log ran at 9:30 pm—and was a surprise hit. It aired every year until 1970, when the 16 mm footage wore out. So the station shot a new yule log—not at Gracie Mansion (Mayor Lindsay refused to give them permission after the 1966 camera crew accidentally set a rug on fire), but in a house in California with a similar hearth.

The Yule Log ran yearly until 1989. It was brought back in 2001 to help the city deal with 9/11, earning a new audience and its own fan website.

It’s been shown every Christmas since and scores big ratings. Catch this New York holiday tradition from 9 to 1 p.m. on December 25. Or get into the Christmas spirit by watching the log anytime here.

Old-school awesomeness on a Brooklyn street

December 24, 2012

Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge is pretty typical shopping district with the usual mix of mostly independent stores characteristic of many city neighborhoods.


So what makes it stand out? The supercool store signs, so many of which are wonderful relics of a more personal city, when shop owners named their stores after themselves and advertised their business with big blocks of 1960s- and 1970s-style letters.


The sign for Fritsch Upholstering, above, is so old-school, they still use the old two-letter phone exchange: SH for nearby Shore Road.


The parking sign got in the way of the sign for Bay Ridge Bakery. That says “classic patisserie” underneath it in neon. Sounds delicious.


A 1960s “party of the century” at the Plaza Hotel

December 24, 2012

November 28, 1966 was a rainy Monday in Manhattan. That didn’t stop the city’s elite from donning black and white attire and eye masks and attending the exclusive Black and White Ball—a masquerade party thrown by writer Truman Capote for Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post.


“The guests, as spectacular a group as has ever been assembled for a private party in New York, were an international who’s who of notables,” wrote Charlotte Curtis for The New York Times.

Miaandfrankblackandwhiteball“There were 510 diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons, and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things.'”

The invite list reads like a time capsule of the mid-1960s: Lynda Bird Johnson, Candice Bergen (below), newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow (left), Diana Vreeland, William F. Buckley, Andy Warhol, George Plimpton, and assorted Vanderbilts, Fords, and Kennedys.

Capote forked over $16,000 for the event. “The ballroom had been done up in red, with not a flower in sight—‘the people are the flowers,’ declared Capote,” states At the Plaza by Curtis Gathje.

CandicebergenblackandwhiteballWrites Deborah Davis in The Party of the Century: “Jean Harvey Vanderbilt compared the party to the court of Louis XV because ‘people promenaded around the perimeter of the room in their finery, looking at each other.’ One guest commented, ‘It’s weird, there are only black and white and red in this room, and yet everything’s so . . . so colorful.'”

TrumancapoteblackandwhiteballCBS News covered the party live from the coat room (so much for the idea that celebrity-driven media is a new thing).

At the end of the evening, Capote (with Katherine Graham, left), flying high thanks to the recent success of In Cold Blood, remarked, “It was just what it set out to be . . . I just wanted to give a party for my friends.”

Christmas shopping on Fifth Avenue, 1896

December 21, 2012

Substitute puffy parkas for fur coats and town cars and taxis for carriages, and not much has changed in 116 years on Fifth Avenue in December.


I’m not sure where painter Alice Barber Stephens set this painting, titled “Christmas on Fifth Avenue.” Can anyone take a stab at the cross street?