Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River

Jara Henry Valenta was a Czech-born American artist who made his way to New York City in 1934. Here he painted this scene of a lonely East River power generating station, with New York Hospital and the Queensboro Bridge in the background.

eastriverjaravalenta

His waterfront—we’re on the Manhattan Brooklyn side—feels stark and remote. Off to the right are two small figures holding shovels beside a pile of coal, a coal company truck parked beside one.

This is a waterfront without the usual hustle and bustle, perhaps a comment on the Depression-era city’s change in fortune from a vibrant metropolis of trade and shipping to one of economic stillness.

[Note: this post was updated to reflect the background information and history provided by the commenters below. Thanks everyone for their insight. Now, if only I could find out more about the painter.]

[From the Smithsonian American Art Museum/Renwick Gallery]

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13 Responses to “Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River”

  1. Richard Kenyon Says:

    Looks to me like a utility generating station that produced both electricity and steam, piped underground, to heat local buildings. The boats, loaded with coal, are canal boats of the type that brought coal from Pennsylvania via the Morris Canal, to NJ and NYC. The Morris canal was no longer in use by the time this painting was done, but rail cars may have been unloaded in NJ onto these former canal boats and moved to their destination by tug boat.

  2. Brian G Andersson Says:

    That’s the Manhattan side, New York Hospital looming in the background.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks RK and BA for your additional info.

  4. Tom Hakala Says:

    Very interesting picture. Thanks for sharing it. However, let me note that the only East River bridge that could be is the Queensboro Bridge (59th Street Bridge) as it is clearly not a suspension bridge. What the picture shows is barges offloading coal to a power generating station – if on the Manhattan side, well before the East Side Drive was built. There were several power generating stations along the East River. The coal generally came from Pennsylvania by rail and was offloaded to barges on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, then pushed to the numerous power stations by tug boats. In the nineteenth century, and into to the early twentieth century, the coal came by canal barge across New Jersey on the Delaware and Raritan Canal or the Morris and Essex Canal. Once reaching the canal exit points in New Brunswick and Jersey City, the canal barges were taken across the harbor and up the East River by tugs. The canals closed in the post-WW I period, after which the coal moved from Pennsylvania to New York City by rail until it reached the Hudson. – Tom Hakala

  5. AJ Handler Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. As others have pointed out, this the Manhattan, facing south toward the Queensboro Bridge and NY Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. The building we’re looking at in the foreground is the 74th Street Power Station, designed by George Pegram, chief engineer of the Manhattan Elevated Railway Company (and then of the IRT system), to power the electrification of the elevated train lines on 9th, 6th, 3rd, and 2nd aves. It was completed in 1902. It’s still standing today, as part of the ConEd plant at that site.

  6. Joe R Says:

    Definitely the UES. You can see the white tower of the Presbyterian Hospital in the background. In fact, I believe that the East 70’s near the river was a major Bohemian (Czech) community at one time.

  7. David Roth Says:

    That is the 59th St. Bridge and NY Hospital–this painting is evocative of the present-day view from the southbound FDR around 75th Street. In fact, that red brick building, the coal conveyer over the FDR and barges can still be seen today!
    See Google Maps: https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7718263,-73.9409908,365a,20y,235.78h,75.09t/data=!3m1!1e3
    –David Roth

  8. Steven Gaines Says:

    I believe the tall building is New York Hospital, now called Presbyterian. Its Gothic windows are distinct

  9. Mosquito Says:

    New York hospital with the 59th. St. Bridge further down the east river.

  10. shamimsobhani Says:

    I love reading history stories like this with a picture to relate to. Thanks for sharing.

  11. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you all for pointing out what seems so obvious now: this is the Queensboro Bridge and a power generating station. Now that I can place it, I love it even more.

  12. Tom Hakala Says:

    Excellent! Loved the initial and all follow up posts by fellow NYC history buffs that helped to identify the exact location. It’s really a treat to participate with ‘youse guys.”

  13. Sheer Beauty – Reading Other People Says:

    […] via Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River — Ephemeral New York […]

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