Archive for May, 2014

A dazzling sunset from a West 23rd Street roof

May 31, 2014

“Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street,” completed in 1906, is another evocative take on the city by John Sloan, with a solitary figure, dramatic sky, and representations of daily life: laundry on a line.

Sloan had a thing for the triple combo of women, rooftops, and laundry, as these paintings reveal.

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“A study of dramatic beauty and unexpected tranquility in an undistinguished urban landscape, ‘Sunset, West Twenty-third Street,’ displays Sloan’s ability early in his career to transform a utilitarian setting into a more sublime vista.”

Sloanheadshot1891That’s from the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, which has the painting in its collection.

“Although ‘Sunset, West Twenty-third Street’ could easily be understood as an image of an anonymous woman distracted from her laundry, the figure represented is the artist’s wife, Dolly, on the rooftop of the building that housed his studio.”

Where was his studio? At 165 West 23rd, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Here it is today via Google.

[Photo: John Sloan, 1891]

Manhattan’s lonely little holdout buildings

May 31, 2014

These walkups were once the sought-after modern buildings of the block.

Now, they’re the holdouts—sometimes well-kept, often shabby reminders of an earlier New York that refuse to bow to the wrecking ball.

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Without these low-rise survivors, many more city streets would be a boring canyon of uniform buildings.

The two tenement holdouts in the top photo, on West 36th Street, have had their side exteriors raked over by developers. Yet these 19th century stalwarts refuse to go.

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Nestled between two limestone apartment houses is this Upper Fifth Avenue beauty, holding its own across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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On Eighth Avenue at 39th Street is this blue former townhouse, now a commercial building. It makes the block resemble a gap-tooth smile.

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This three-story sliver on lower Seventh Avenue in Chelsea is a bit of a mystery. It’s architecturally the same as the building next door, which houses the Rubin Museum.

Yet it’s painted the same color as the former Loehmann’s store on the other side, being renovated into Barneys once again.

Check out more holdout buildings here, and of course, the most famous of all the holdouts—the one in the middle of Macy’s.

The jet-age Airlines Terminal on 42nd Street

May 31, 2014

In the 1930s, the future of passenger air travel looked bright—if still out of reach for the average New Yorker (a NYC to Europe flight cost $375, or more than five grand in today’s cash!)

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To make flying more convenient, the city constructed the Airlines Terminal Building, an appropriately futuristic, Art Deco-inspired structure on 42nd Street in Midtown.

Here, passengers didn’t actually catch their flights but could pick up tickets for any airline serving New York.

Airlinesterminalbldg19501The idea was that “you could buy your ticket in town and ride in comfort on a dedicated bus to LaGuardia or Newark airports,” explains citynoise.org.

Of course, LaGuardia Airport wasn’t LaGuardia yet—in 1939, it opened as New York City Municipal Airport, where Pan Am, American, United, Eastern, and an outfit known as Transcontinental & Western Air, aka TWA, flew out of.

Located across the street from Grand Central, it was a wild building, with kind of a space age crown flanked by two eagles on top.

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The Airlines Terminal Building outlived its usefulness. It was bulldozed to make room for the headquarters for Phillip Morris, which has occupied the address since the early 1980s.

[Middle photo: MCNY collections; bottom: Citynoise.org]

The NYPD’s pioneering 19th century mugshots

May 26, 2014

One more thing that appears to have gotten its start in New York? The mugshot. The city’s nascent police force began taking photographs of criminals as early as 1857.

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“The culprits of New-York, pickpockets. burglars, shoplifters, forgers, and the whole genus of swindlers, owe no debt of gratitude to Monsieur Daguerre,” stated a New York Times article published that year.

RoguesgallerynypdThe article explained that police had hired a “daguerreotypist” to capture 28 images of some of the more notorious street thieves, which were then kept in a book dubbed the Rogue’s Gallery.

Over the next few decades, the Rogue’s Gallery expanded into the hundreds.

ThomasbyrnesphotoBut it really took off and became a prime crime-fighting tool under the reign of chief of detectives Thomas Byrnes in the 1880s.

Among his other police innovations (like the Third Degree and the Dead Line), Byrnes came up with the idea of taking a photo of every criminal suspect, not just known crooks.

He then cataloged the suspect’s image, along with a physical description and other details that could be used to identify the potential lawbreaker before an offense was committed.

Byrnes’ Rogue’s Gallery was housed in a room on the first floor of police headquarters (above), which was then located on Mulberry Street.

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He even published a book in 1886, Professional Criminals of America, which was kind of a portable Rogue’s Gallery containing photos and descriptions of 200 bad characters.

NY3DBox“In fact, it is a bad thing to judge by appearances, and it is not always safe to judge against them,” wrote Byrnes.

Did the Rogue’s Gallery work? Crime did drop, but it’s hard to know if all the mugshots had anything to do with it.

Read more about the early policing efforts of the NYPD and the pioneering crime-fighting tactics of Byrnes, promoted to police chief in the 1890s, in New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age, in bookstores June 3.

[Mugshot images: Professional Criminals in America]

The controversial royal Queens is named for

May 26, 2014

CatherineofBraganzayoungIn 1683, not long after England permanently took over New Netherlands from the Dutch, a round of renaming was in order.

The entire colony was rechristened New York, after the Duke of York.

And because the Duke of York was given control of the area by his brother, King Charles II, the Duke named Kings County for him.

Queens County reportedly was named for Charles’ wife, Catherine of Braganza.

Who was Catherine? A Portuguese-born royal who came with a huge dowry (crucial to cash-strapped England at the time) and trade rights to Portuguese-controlled colonies around the world, she was not widely loved in the UK.

QueensubwaysignOne one hand, she’s credited with introducing the fork, tea, and orange marmalade to her subjects.

But she was unable to produce an heir, and she was Catholic in a Protestant-ruled nation.

After her husband died, sick of being hassled by the new regime, Catherine soon returned to her home country and spent the rest of her life there.

NPG 597,Catherine of Braganza,studio of Jacob HuysmansShe stayed under the radar for more than three hundred years.

But her name popped back up in the 1980s when it was announced that a Portugal-backed, 35-foot bronze statue of her was to go up along the Queens waterfront at Hunters Point.

Politicians were on board; a sculptor brought in and casts made. By the 1990s, however, community groups rallied hard against the statue—because Catherine’s family had benefited from the 17th century slave trade.

Also, some historians questioned whether Catherine really was the woman who lent her title to the borough’s name.

CatherinestatuegolisbonBecause of the controversy, the sculpture project was nixed.

Catherine became such a lightning rod, even her portrait was removed from Queens Borough Hall.

Eventually, a smaller-scale model of Catherine, made from the original mold, was created. It now sits on the waterfront in Lisbon (right; via Golisbon.com).

A faded war memorial in Grand Central Terminal

May 26, 2014

GrandcentralwarplaqueForget the network of rail lines bringing thousands of visitors and commuters in and out of the city every day.

Even without them, Grand Central Terminal is a fascinating place.

Opened in 1913, its starry-ceiling, cavernous concourse, marble stairways, and lovely clocks make waiting for a train a more enchanting experience.

And in a lonely corner on the subway concourse is a faded, mostly forgotten bronze tablet that commemorates the men who fought in a war that is officially 100 years old this year.

“In Memory of the Known and Unknown Employees of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company Who Made the  Supreme Sacrifice in the World War” it reads.

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Thirty-six names are inscribed. We don’t know what these men did for a living, whether they dug tunnels or conducted trains, took tickets or worked in office jobs.

But we do know that their deaths overseas meant something to the long-defunct IRT.

Grand Central played a pivotal role during World War II; part of it was turned into a “Service Men’s Lounge” for soldiers coming and going.

The sad decline of an Art Deco movie theater

May 22, 2014

Metrotwinmidtown1933nyplIt started out in 1933 with great promise in the cinema-crazed Depression.

The auspiciously named Midtown was a gem of a movie house on Broadway and 99th Street that played first-run films (Ann Harding! William Powell!)

By the 1950s and 1960s, it had switched to foreign movies, showing European flicks like Belle de Jour, Breathless, Repulsion, and other non-mainstream fare.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The neighborhood was still rebounding after decades of decline, and the Metro took on second-run films, then porn flicks, according to Cinema Treasures.

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After a resurgence as an art house venue in the 1980s (and a name change to the Metro), it served as a first-run theater in the 1990s, only to shut its doors in 2004.

MetrotheateremblemSince then, it’s been abandoned, a shuttered eyesore in a neighborhood of higher-end development.

Over the years, new tenants were announced—including retail outlets and a movie theater chain that serves beer—yet never moved in.

Metrotheater2014At least the unique facade, with its Art Deco emblem representing comedy and tragedy amid two female figures, scored landmark status back in 1989.

A piece of another era, the theater haunts the upper Upper West Side, a reminder of something lovely that entertained the community.

A word about the theater’s original name, the Midtown: I suppose the owners thought that this corner at 99th Street and Broadway would soon be the city’s new midtown?

[Photos: top, New York Public Library Digital Collection; second: New York Architectural Images]

Seven East Villagers hanging out on Ninth Street

May 22, 2014

Meet seven very different East Villagers, plus one very cool cat checking things out from the top of an air conditioner. They’re on a tenement wall at East Ninth Street.

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This scene comes from the imagination of street muralist Chico, whose work brightens up many facades in the neighborhood. See more of it here.

The uptown Museum Row no one knows about

May 22, 2014

It was a visionary idea around 1900: the construction of a majestic cultural complex in the wide-open, breezy space between Riverside Drive and Broadway at 155th Street.

AudubonterracesignAt the time, this area of Upper Manhattan, once part of the estate of artist James Audubon in the 1840s, was being developed into a residential neighborhood.

Builders were putting up apartment houses and flats in what they hoped would be a prime part of the city. Adding a beautiful museum row would enhance the area and give it cultural cache.

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So the Beaux Arts-style, granite and limestone structures were built, centered around a brick walkway and sunken courtyard and marked by a wrought-iron gate. Opened in 1904, this uptown museum row was called Audubon Terrace.

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The Hispanic Society of America, a museum with Goyas and El Grecos, moved in. So did the American Indian Museum, American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Geographical Society, and the American Numismatic Society.

Audubonrowelcid2This cultural crossroads attracted crowds, at least at first. The problem? As they say, location location location.

Upper Manhattan didn’t pan out as the well-to-do enclave developers had hoped. And it was far out of the loop of the main part of the city.

Decades passed. Three of the original tenants moved out. Only the Hispanic Society museum and the American Academy of Arts and Letters remain. Boricua College, a bilingual institution, has joined them.

Audubon Terrace today feels like a secret. The wide courtyard, ghostly equestrian statue of El Cid, and other monuments to art and culture are devoid of crowds.

Audubonterrace2

The art at the Hispanic Society is fantastic (and free!). It’s an ideal place for walking and looking and dreaming.

[Photos: Second photo, 1919, MCNY; third, 1925 postcard from MCNY]

Boss Tweed’s brazen escape from a city jail

May 19, 2014

TweedportraitNew York has had its share of corrupt politicians. But few cast as depraved a shadow as William M. “Boss” Tweed.

How brazen was Tweed? As head of Democratic political organization Tammany Hall, he passed a new city charter in 1870 that gave him control of the city treasury.

That allowed Tweed and his cronies to embezzle tens of millions of dollars, mostly by creating fake contracts, padding bills, and invoicing the city for services never rendered.

After an outcry on the part of The New York Times and Harper’s cartoonist Thomas Nast (below, one of his infamous illustrations of Tweed), he was tried and convicted of fraud and larceny charges in 1873.

TweedprisoncartoonnastHe should have been locked up for life. But a year later, his sentence was reduced from 12 years to one.

After his release from prison on Blackwell’s Island, he was rearrested on civil charges and sent to the Ludlow Street Jail—a relatively cushy prison for white-collar criminals.

Now here’s the really ballsy part. Because the Ludlow Street Jail was so accommodating, they allowed Tweed to take carriage rides in Central Park and visit his family at their Madison Avenue mansion (with a prison guard in tow).

TweedludlowstjailnytDuring one visit in December 1875, Tweed disappeared. He took off and fled the city.

Where did he go? First to New Jersey, then Florida, and then to Cuba. From there he made his way to Vigo, Spain.

However, the Spanish recognized him from a Nast cartoon and notified New York officials—who had offered a $10,000 reward for information about his whereabouts.

“When asked about his flight, Tweed said that some friends urged him to go to Turkey or to Egypt, where the telegraph could not so easily locate him,” wrote The New York Times, “but he finally picked Spain, hoping that in the absence of an extradition treaty the Spanish authorities would not surrender him.”

NY3dBookIntCoverNo such luck. He was sent back to the city, and a year later, in 1876, was again incarcerated on Ludlow Street.

This time, he wasn’t allowed daily family visits. He confessed his crimes in an attempt to win freedom, but he was convicted of nonpayment of a civil judgment and kept in jail.

He died there, on Ludlow Street, at age 55 in 1878.

Read more about Tweed’s crazy web of corruption in New York City in the Gilded Age, in bookstores and on Amazon starting on June 3. [Ludlow Street prison photo: New York Times]