Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

When New Yorkers went to roofs to sunbathe

July 16, 2018

Here’s an old-school New York City summer pastime you don’t see very much anymore: rooftop sunbathers.

These UV fiends are soaking up the rays on Prospect Tower at Tudor City in 1943—and I have a feeling not one of them is using any kind of sunblock.

Tudor City’s rooftop is clearly designed to host residents. What did New Yorkers do if they lived in a building without an official rooftop? Tar beach, of course!

[Photo: Wurts Brothers, MCNY, X2010.7.1.8408]

The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street

July 9, 2018

Turtle Bay is one of the most enchantingly named neighborhoods in Manhattan.

But did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East River?

Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay?

The truth is lost to the ages. But turtles are what inspired the designers of this iron fence along East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

The fence keeps the riffraff away from these elegant townhouses, which are part of Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century brownstones lining East 48th Street and East 49th Street that were restored in the 1920s.

The 20 houses are connected in the back by a shared secret garden modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome between East 48th and East 49th Streets (below in 1920).

These exclusive residences gave Turtle Bay cachet, and they become home to privacy-seeking celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.

Most of us will never get a personal glimpse inside one of these beauties or the hidden garden. (Though real estate listings offer a peek inside the restored homes.)

But we can walk down East 49th Street and get a kick out of the turtle-adorned fence posts, which pay homage to the aquatic creatures the neighborhood may or may not be named for.

[Third and fourth images: Library of Congress]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island

June 25, 2018

City officials had good intentions when they built the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841 on Blackwell’s Island.

Rather than confining city residents who were deemed insane to prison cells (which had long been the preferred course of action), this new institution with the octagon entrance was all about “moral treatment,” explains Stacy Horn in her new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

Insanity was to be considered an illness, not demonic possession. And “therapy was focused on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs,” wrote Horn. That meant exercise instead of shackles, work that would build self-esteem, and recreation to lift spirits.

What kind of recreation? Activities included lectures, concerts, magic lantern shows—and a periodic event dubbed the Lunatic’s Ball.

“On special holidays they’d fit up one of the pavilions as a dancing hall and everyone—patients, attendants, and doctors alike—would dance,” explains Horn.

In 1865, Harper’s Weekly covered one of these Lunatic’s Balls in an article titled “Dancing by Lunatics.”

“The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was the scene of a most interesting and remarkable spectacle on the night of November 6,” the article stated.

“The completion of the first of a series of four frame buildings was celebrated by a ball, in which the patients of the Asylum were the dancers, ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’ after a fashion even more fantastic than Milton dreamed of in ‘L’Allegro.'”

The new buildings were necessitated by an increase in asylum residents, causing overcrowding and making the place much less therapeutic and more dangerous than the city had hoped.

“A prominent fiddler, himself a patient, is lost in ecstasy in the sounds which he produces, and in their influence upon his fellows. Every variety of ‘pigeon wing’ is being cut by the active dancers. Now and then there darts out one who enchains the attention of all her acquaintance by her excellent execution of the most difficult pas.”

“Occasions of this sort no doubt tend in a great degree to relieve the sluggish melancholy which too close confinement or too monotonous surroundings are apt to produce in our institutions for insane people. It is often the case that isolation renders incurable diseases of the mind which a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”

This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and “sluggish melancholy” was the least of the problems residents encountered.

Bly’s expose on the terrible conditions there ultimately led to its closing. Residents were relocated to a cleaned-up facility on Ward’s Island, one that didn’t seem to continue the Lunatic’s Ball tradition.

[Top image: Lunatic asylum scene in 1868; second image, the Lunatic’s Ball, Harper’s Weekly; third image: NYPL, 1850s; fourth image: Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s; fifth image: Lunatic Asylum, undated]

The spider in the web on a 57th street building

May 28, 2018

Owls, bats, elephants, rats, rams, horses, squirrels—there’s a Noah’s Ark of animals decorating New York’s prewar buildings and apartment houses.

But I’ve never seen anything quite as whimsical as the spider webs at 340 East 57th Street, between Second and First Avenues.

The windows and doors along the ground floor all have cast iron webs, and they’re a wonderful touch on a stretch of elegant and exclusive co-ops with kind of a staid and sedate feel.

Even better, one of webs on a utility door has a spider in it, although whoever designed it gave the predator just six legs, not eight.

But just like in real life, this spider is hiding and waiting, hanging out until prey gets stuck in his trap.

340 East 57th has another fun animal ornament higher up on the facade: sea dragons (or sea horses?). A pair of pheasants welcome tenants and guests on the lobby doors.

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.