Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

This mosaic in the Waldorf Astoria will be missed

February 27, 2017

waldorfpostcardWhen it opened on Park Avenue in 1931, the Waldorf Astoria was the most incredible hotel New York had ever seen: 2,200 rooms, several restaurants and ballrooms, even a private railway platform.

In a few days, this dowager hotel will close up shop for a long renovation designed to turn it into a residence of mostly condos, not by-the-night rooms.

There’s a lot that will be missed, like the Art Deco ambiance and the bronze lobby clock with a gilded Lady Liberty on top.

But perhaps the most impressive feature no one will see for a couple of years at least is the 18-foot mosaic that’s welcomed visitors since 1939.

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Titled “Wheel of Life” and made with 148,000 hand-cut marble tiles from all around the world, the mosaic depicts life from birth until death. It’s the work of French artist Louis Rigal.

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“Wheel of Life,” which is currently in the running for landmark status, isn’t your ordinary hotel lobby curiosity. It tells a story and has something to say about innocence, struggle, love and the rest of the human existence.

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Imagine all the millions of visitors who walked over it and perhaps really looked at it over the decades. See it in full on video here.

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

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Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

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Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

Holdout buildings that escaped the wrecking ball

February 6, 2017

If most developers had their way, contemporary New York’s skyline would probably consist of an unbroken chain of modern monoliths reaching into the sky.

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Luckily, thanks to real estate owners who refused to sell their smaller-scale carriage houses, tenements, and humble 19th century walkups, the cityscape is filled with lovely low-rise reminders of a very different Gotham.

The slender, circa-1893 beauty (above) at 249 West End Avenue beat the wrecking ball because the widow who occupied it refused to sell—even as the four identical homes on either side of hers were demolished in the 1920s, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

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Streeteasy says that this dollhouse-like carriage house (above) at 407 Park Avenue was built in 1910. The tie shop on the ground floor is dwarfed by its Midtown neighbors.

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This wide, four-story yellow row house was probably the prettiest home on East 57th Street near Sutton Place when it was built. Now, it’s sandwiched between two handsome apartment towers.

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Also on East 57th Street but closer to Midtown are these two very typical 19th century tenements, nestled inside a 1960s white brick apartment house.

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This little red charmer on West Broadway looks like it comes from the 19th century. According to Streeteasy, it was actually built in 1950. That’s okay—it keeps the two modern monsters on either side of it at a nice distance apart.

What Tudor City tells us about an older East Side

January 2, 2017

When ground broke for Tudor City in the 1920s, the idea was to create a modern and pretty mini-city at the foot of a rocky projection at 42nd Street known in Revolutionary War times as Prospect Hill.

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But before they could build apartment towers and gardens, the developers had to do something about the unsavory occupants of this far East Side neighborhood—a former 19th century gang hideout called Corcoran’s Roost (also known as Dutch Hill) and even then a major Manhattan industrial zone.

tudorcityad“The view of even 75 years ago is no more,” stated the New York Times in a 1926 article about Tudor City and the area’s history. “Swaying tree tops made way for factory roofs with their black smoking chimneys.”

“Seventy feet below the crest of the hill, running parallel with the river and lying directly under the overhanging cliff, is First Avenue with its lumber and coal yards, its slaughter and packing houses, its poor dwelling places, and with the great Edison power plant occupying four blocks of the waterfront.”

By the time the first apartment houses of a scaled-down Tudor City opened—with all the decorative bells and whistles of the English Tudor era, which was fashionable at the time—developers had bulldozed blocks of rowhouse slums.

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But there wasn’t much they could do immediately about the factories and power plant along the river below.

The solution? Construct attractive apartment towers that turn their backs on the waterfront, literally.

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Only very small apartment windows in Tudor City’s residential buildings open onto the East River. This way, the well-heeled residents wouldn’t be put off by the noise and stench of industry.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1935, X2010.7.2.6334; third photo: unknown]

This street by the East River needs a better name

December 19, 2016

New York City’s street grid was laid out in the 1811, part of the Commissioners’ Plan that shaped the cityscape of contemporary Manhattan north of Houston Street.

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But changes are always made, and new roads crop up to accommodate new buildings, parks, and drives.

But couldn’t the New York City Department of Transportation come up with something more descriptive than this street name above, for a small road beside the FDR Drive in the East 20s?

Even if this street really is brand new—it’s not on Google maps, so it’s hard to tell—we can be more creative than this!

Who killed this pretty East Side model in 1937?

December 5, 2016

veronicagedeonphooIt was a gruesome scene inside the fourth floor apartment at 316 East 50th Street on Easter afternoon, 1937.

Veronica Gedeon, a 20-year-old model, was found naked and strangled to death on a bed; her mother, Mary, had also been strangled. Mary’s clothes were off as well, her body under the same bed.

Newspapers reported that Mary had been “ravished.” Meanwhile, a deaf bartender who had rented another room as a boarder was also dead in his bed, stabbed multiple times.

Only Mary’s pet Pekinese was spared, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 29.

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Police from the 17th precinct rushed to the home after Joseph Gideon, the estranged husband of Mary and father of Veronica, came upon it when he paid a holiday visit to the apartment, which Mary ran as a boardinghouse.

veronicagedeonhouseCops questioned Joseph, but nothing tied the immigrant upholsterer to the murders. They picked up other suspects who were cleared.

While the police tried to solve the crimes, the press focused on Veronica, known as Ronnie, according to Undisclosed Files of the Police: Cases From the Archives of the NYPD.

Her modeling work wasn’t high fashion. The pretty blonde posed sometimes nude for ads, artists, and detective magazines.

She had a fiance, but the night of the murders, she was out with another man and reportedly returned to the East 50th Street apartment intoxicated.

Her modeling work and love life were mined for clues; even pages of her diary were printed in the papers.

veronicagedeonirwinThanks to this focus, the public didn’t shy away from blaming Veronica for the crimes. “The young model probably messed around with too many men . . . she should have been more particular with her boy friends,” commented one Brooklyn resident in another Eagle story.

The real killer, however, wasn’t interested in Veronica—he was infatuated with her married older sister, Ethel.

Robert Irwin (right), a sculptor and “sex mad” divinity student became obsessed with Ethel when he boarded with the family in another apartment the Gedeons had on East 53rd Street.

A massive hunt for Irwin consumed the NYPD. “The city’s entire detective force, 1950 strong, armed with photographs and thumbnail descriptions of the vanished sculptor, probed through cheap Bowery lodging houses and saloons, through hospital wards and missions for down-and-outers,” wrote the Eagle on April 6.

Caught in the Midwest, Irwin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

He calmly told officials the story: he “arrived at the Gedeons’ apartment on Holy Saturday night,” stated a New York Daily News article from 2008 that looked back on the crime.

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“He and Mary Gedeon chatted amicably for some time, but when Irwin pried for gossip about Ethel, Mrs. Gedeon told him it was time to let go of the imagined romance. Irwin snapped.

veronicagedeonandmomgetty‘The room was blue with death,’ he later said. ‘There wasn’t anything I could do.'” He killed Mary first, then murdered Veronica when she came home at 3 a.m. The boarder was stabbed to death as he slept.

Sentenced to 139 years in prison amid controversy about his mental state, Irwin was eventually moved to Matteawan, a state institution for the criminally insane, where he died in 1975.

[First and third photos: Life magazine, April 12, 1937; second photo: Find a Grave; third and fourth photos: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fifth photo: Getty images]

A hidden magical garden behind the FDR Drive

November 28, 2016

Considering the density of its streets, New York is a city with a surprising number of hidden gardens: some in churchyards, others created on empty lots, and some designed to mask garages and other unpretty structures.

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But few of these green spaces are as hard to get to as the quarter-acre oasis between the FDR Drive and First Avenue, behind the cluster of buildings that make up Bellevue Hospital Center.

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It’s the Bellevue Sobriety Garden, a strangely magical place that mixes sculpture, trees, flowers, mosaics, doll parts, cement, and foliage.

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Started by a Bellevue psychiatrist in 1989 and tended to by recovering addicts in the hospital’s Chemical Recovery Program, this isn’t your typical serene green space.

You won’t find many tourists or crowds here; it’s accessible via a lonely stretch of 26th Street beyond First Avenue or from an FDR Drive off ramp. And it’s not a landscaped masterpiece; grass can be patchy, and it has a wild, overgrown look to it.

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But that’s all part of its whimsical and imaginative charm, a garden straight out of an artist’s fairy tale. It’s not exactly a secret, but if you visit, you’ll feel like you stumbled into a New York you never knew.

The entrance, flanked by enormous statues and pieces of old buildings, welcomes visitors while encouraging them not to steal the veggies and fruits grown here in warmer months.

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Slender cobblestone paths take you past patches of flowers to benches, trellises, a wooden bridge, and a tiny gingerbread-like house. Along the way you’ll walk past mosaics and sculptures of sheep, dogs, pigs, and a snake.

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Take a walk through it, and you’ll forget about the parking lot next door and the roaring traffic on the FDR Drive.

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Back in 2014, someone came in and vandalized the garden, defacing its statues. By the looks of things now, on a warmish autumn day, everything seems back in order—a peaceful and magical respite not very accessible to the average New Yorker.

New York’s most charming holdout buildings

March 21, 2016

Amid New York’s soaring skyline are some lilliputian-size gaps—the low-rise, 19th century buildings whose owners refused to sell when a developer had plans to bulldoze and rebuild next door.

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These holdout buildings, now in the shadows of giants, are fun to come across—especially when the architectural style is so vastly different from its newer neighbor.

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That’s what I love about this photo of a Romanesque Revival former soap shop on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, dwarfed by a contemporary high rise.

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Same goes for these two stately townhouses on Sutton Place. Perhaps they were mansions in their day, but now clearly overwhelmed by the two pre- and post-war luxury apartment houses were built on either side.

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This townhouse on Lexington and 57th Street looks like it’s being subsumed. The bigger building is the former Allerton Hotel for Women, built in 1923.

The banner advertisement on the townhouse suggests it’s the property of the larger hotel.

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A lovely three-story remnant of old New York has withstood the test of time in the East 20s off Broadway, sandwiched between two 1920s loft-style buildings. What stories it must have to tell!

Hard times on Depression-era East 61st Street

October 12, 2015

Last week, Yale University launched an interactive digitized photo archive packed with 170,000 incredible photos taken during the Depression.

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The images, shot by various photographers, are also part of the Library of Congress. They cover faces and places across the nation—including ordinary residents of New York City working, playing, and rushing on their run.

But one subset of photos, shot by Walker Evans in 1938, is particularly haunting. These 40 or so images focus on one gritty tenement block on East 61st Street, and the unglamorous people who live there.

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This isn’t the East 61st Street of Bloomingdale’s or Fifth Avenue. This is the East 61st Street between Third and First Avenues, a poor neighborhood known at the turn of the century as Battle Row.

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In the middle of the Depression, East 61st Street looks like a regular workaday part of New York City—thanks in part to the corner cafeteria, an idling beer truck, and laundry-laden fire escape (below).

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The people seem ordinary too. Kids play on the stoop, men and women gather to talk, a lone woman hangs out a window. A solitary older gentleman sits on his stoop forlornly.

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Who were they? The photos reveal their quiet humanity, and their stony faces hint at hard times. They certainly don’t look like they enjoyed having Evans hang around with his camera.

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Above, a resident is moving in or out of one building—via a horse-drawn wooden cart. And are those Belgian blocks paving the road?

Evans and his camera lurked around other parts of Manhattan in the 1930s as well, like on the subway, where he surreptitiously shot random subway riders staring, reading, or lost in their daydreams.

Art Deco beauty of an East Side subway entrance

September 3, 2015

Art Deco skyscrapers stand proud like shiny monuments across the Manhattan skyline. But Art Deco subway stations? Those are harder to find.

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The lucky commuters who take the E or 6 train at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street get to pass this stylized Art Deco subway entrance.

Thanks to the sleek design and surrounding buildings, it’s always the end of the Jazz Age.

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The sign is right outside the General Electric Building (formerly the RCA Victor Building) a 1931 Art Deco beauty, with its decorative bursts along the facade meant to represent the awesome power of radio waves and electricity.

And that wonderful clock, with forearms that stretch time!