Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

An East Side sign with an old New York address

May 14, 2018

Outside a pretty walkup building at 242 East 60th Street is a postwar-style sign for an apartment building called Ambassador Terrace, a white-brick highrise in the East 40s.

I’m sure the interiors and lobby at the Ambassador have undergone upgrades over the years. But you wouldn’t know it from the sign, with its wonderful two-letter prefix on the management office’s phone number.

LO for Longacre, a reminder that Times Square was Longacre Square until 1904.

What’s also great is the two-digit zip code: 18.

These short postal codes were instituted in the 1940s to help speed mail delivery. They were replaced by the 5-number zip codes we use today in the 1960s.

Here’s more examples of old phone exchanges found around the modern city. And postal codes too: this one was hiding on East 10th Street.

The view from the last shot tower in Manhattan

May 7, 2018

Nineteenth century New York was a very low-rise city.

At 281 feet, Trinity Church’s spire dominated the skies above Manhattan, with other church steeples and fire watchtowers aiming toward the heavens as well.

Shot towers were part of the skyline too. These were built to manufacture shot balls; lead was heated and then dropped through a sieve down a thin tower, and as it cooled, round pieces of ammunition formed.

In the mid-1800s, manufacturers put up shot towers on Centre Street, Water Street, Beekman Street, East 15th Street, and East 53rd Street beside the East River.

But the East 53rd Street tower held out the longest and became an early 20th century icon.

Originally built in the early 1820s as Youle’s shot tower, it was “partially destroyed by an explosion and fire,” in 1857, explains stuffnobodycaresabout.com. “It was rebuilt with imported Holland brick with walls that were seven feet thick.”

Perhaps because of its bucolic location miles from the center of the city, or maybe due to its lighthouse-like design, the 53rd Street shot tower was a frequent subject for painters and illustrators.

Landscape painter Jasper Cropsey painted it in 1845, at the top left, showing the small inlet where boats ferried people to the institutions of Blackwell’s Island.

The second illustration was done in 1831 and included this caption: “It is about four miles and a quarter from the city, and rises to the height of one hundred and fifty feet in one of the pleasantest spots on the island.”

Landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church took a stab at it in this 1846 oil painting, showing the shot tower peeking through thick trees. (And look, cows!)

The last two photos show the shot tower in 1905 and 1906, long after the cows and trees had been cleared and manufacturing took over East 53rd Street.

In 1920, Youle’s tower—almost a century old—met the wrecking ball. The New York Herald published a fitting elegy.

“What sights of municipal history it has viewed. What scenes of lovemaking it has witnessed on the nearby Kissing Bridge. What changes it has seen on Blackwell’s Island and on the island of Manhattan in its vicinity.”

“The fields which once comprised the Spring Valley Farm are now a wilderness of gas works, breweries, stone yards, and tenement houses….How these bluffs would be tended and beautified if they existed in the heart of certain European capitals is a thought that accentuates the present ugliness.”

These days we don’t have shot towers or manufacturing in the East 50s. Apartment towers loom on 53rd Street down to the river, and on the Queens side too.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.5519; fifth photo: x2010.11.5523]

This parking garage was once a silent film studio

May 7, 2018

I’ve always loved the bright neon 20th Century Garage sign at 318 East 48th Street.

But I had no idea that the garage behind the sign was once a movie studio—where famous silent screen stars churned out the comedies and melodramas early 20th century audiences couldn’t get enough of.

On the first floor was the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, opened around 1916.

Her name might not be well-known today, but Norma Talmadge (left) was an A-list actress in the teens and early 1920s.

Talmadge was a plucky young woman who often played the lead in dramas and romantic comedies; she got her start doing bit parts at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush while still a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance made her films.

 

Constance Talmadge, also a bit player at Vitagraph, was a star in her own right. She played “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and became a popular comedic actress.

Also in the same building was the Comique Film Corporation, where Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton made slapstick films like The Butcher Boy.

The thread uniting all these stars was Norma’s much older husband, Joseph Schenck—a producer who brought his different movie concerns under one roof for a brief time until 1921, according to Hollywood on the Hudson.

After that, Schenck and his stars decamped to Hollywood. New York’s brief run as the movie-making capital of the country was coming to an end.

Norma and Constance’s careers didn’t last much longer either. Once talkies hit the scene, the two were edged out and mostly retired from screen roles. Reportedly they made lots of cash from their movie days, getting a cut of the box office.

It’s been a century since the garage was a film studio—but imagine the glamour in that warehouse all those years ago!

[Fourth photo: The Real Deal]

Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island

April 30, 2018

We know it as Roosevelt island. But until the 1920s, it was Blackwell’s Island—the two-mile spit of land in the East River.

Here, the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other institutions.

Edward Hopper’s 1928 painting, Blackwell’s Island, contrasts the cobalt blue waters of the East River (so lovely a speedboat is whizzing along) with the island’s haunting past as a broken-down dumping ground for so-called undesirables.

There’s almost no one in the painting—but you can feel the humanity emanating from those buildings.

Hopper “painted this work at the height of his powers and it exemplifies some of the best of Hopper’s style: a complex architectural composition with a full range of light and shadow, few people and the drama of the past colliding with the present in the form of historic architecture meeting modern,” says Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, which owns the painting.

The bishop’s crook lamppost on Beekman Place

April 30, 2018

The bishop’s crook isn’t the only old-school style New York lamppost. But it might be the most beloved.

Named for the fanciful staff bishops carried, cast-iron bishop’s crook lampposts first hit the streets around 1900, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“Made from a single iron casting up to the arc, or ‘crook,’ it incorporates a garland motif that wraps around the shaft,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Because bishop’s crooks are so charming, the city began putting up reproductions of cast-iron originals in 1980.

But the one on the southeast corner of East 51st Street and Beekman Place is an authentic oldie.

Beekman Place is a quiet two-block stretch in Turtle Bay lined with townhouses and stately apartment buildings. The street features bishop crook reproductions, but this one is an original, according to the LPC report, The Landmarks of New York, and The New York Times.

Amid steel and aluminum modern lampposts this old New York streetlight and dozens of others through the city continue to illuminate dark corners.

This gas lamp at the end of West Village alley Patchin Place might be the oldest in New York.

The end of a one-screen East Side movie theater

April 2, 2018

On a walk along East 59th Street between Second and Third Avenues, something caught my eye—a former movie marquee fronting a row of tenements.

Was this little space, now a high-end workout studio, once a theater?

A quick investigation showed that it was the site of the former D.W. Griffith Theatre, a single-screen movie house that appears to have opened in the 1960s. At some point underwent a name change and became the 59th Street East Cinema.

“The 59th Street East Cinema, originally called the D.W. Griffith Theatre, was an art house theater located in midtown Manhattan,” explains Cinema Treasures.

“It belonged to a cluster of single, twin, and triplex movie theaters; all of which were within two blocks of each other.”

“One of many subterranean venues around the city, this single screen theater was reached through a small entrance that originates on E. 59th Street,” continued Cinema Treasures.

“The entrance continued past a modest concession area and then ended at a staircase, descending to theatre level.”

The 59th Street East Cinema looked like a wonderful place to hide away for a few hours in a pre-multiplex era.

It seems like the kind of theater that felt like a secret, transporting you to a cinematic world of thoughtfulness and reflection, and perhaps exposed you to new artists.

Alas, the art-house thing didn’t last. By the 2000s this little jewel box was renamed ImaginAsian (at right), showing Asian films, according to Cinema Treasures.

In 2010 it became Big Cinemas Manhattan, playing Bollywood flicks. Today, the theater is an exercise studio run by workout star Tracey Anderson with motivational wisdom rather than movie titles on the marquee.

It’s a transformation similar to what’s happened to other small city theaters, like this one in Greenpoint that now has Starbucks on the marquee!

[Third image: Cinema Treasures; fourth image: Yelp]

The twin wood houses time forgot in Turtle Bay

March 12, 2018

It’s 1866 in the Turtle Bay neighborhood in Manhattan.

What was once verdant farmland bisected by Eastern Post Road far from the city center was now humming with new houses and industry. Soon, the Second Avenue Elevated would start clanging nearby on enormous iron trestles.

And two men listed as “builder-carpenters” decided to build twin clapboard houses on the old Eastern Post roadbed, getting these wood frame homes up at today’s 312 and 314 East 53rd Street just before the city passed a law banning wood houses up to 86th Street.

(Wood tended to go up in flames, and fire was a major concern of the 19th century city, of course.)

Amazingly, these wood homes have remained here for 152 years, as Turtle Bay shifted from a mixed-use neighborhood with factories, tenements, and slaughterhouses to one with lots of quiet enclaves and posh residences.

From the outside, these sister houses are like the homes time forgot. Built in the French Empire style (very fashionable after the Civil War), they feature mansard roofs, bracketed cornices, and round-hooded dormer windows.

While they match each other nicely, they’re startling to see on the block—it’s like coming across a country house in the middle of the city.

Brooklyn has its share of wood houses, especially in Brooklyn Heights. But these simple beauties are two of just a handful surviving in Manhattan, like this one in the West Village and this farmhouse wedged into 29th Street.

“Relatively few wooden buildings survive in Manhattan, and the majority are found in the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, particularly in Greenwich Village,” states the Landmarks Preservation Committee Report from 2000.

“The Upper West Side has only one frame building, and no. 314 East 53rd Street and its twin, no. 312, are among only seven frame houses of note on the East Side.”

The interior isn’t quite as shabby chic. Check out these photos from a recent Streeteasy listing at no. 312.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.350; Third photo: NYPL]

Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

October 23, 2017

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

July 7, 2017

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]

Dandy Point: the 1820s city’s popular swim spot

June 26, 2017

How did New Yorkers of the early 19th century handle summer?

If they didn’t cool off at one of the city’s lovely pleasure gardens, they may have gone to Dandy Point—a popular East River recreation spot at today’s East 13th Street, depicted here by William Chappel.

A Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article from the 1882 looked back at Dandy Point, which was just north of several shipyards.

“Above of the northernmost yard the bank of the river sloped into a beautiful beach of clean fine sand, where at evening scores of men and women assembled to bathe in Arcadian simplicity,” stated Harper’s.

“Dandy Point, or ‘Pint,’ as they called it, was the name of this popular resort, and no summer night passed without witnessing the arrival of bathing parties of twenty of more persons of both sexes.”

“Down from the big wagons they jumped, the men going to one spot, the women going to another not far off; and when their clothes had been exchanged for older or less valuable ones, without the protection of bath-houses of any kind, down into the water they ran, disporting themselves as freely as dolphins.”

[Second image: East River at 53rd Street in the 1830s, to give an idea of what Dandy Point might have looked like; Wikipedia]