Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

September 26, 2016

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.

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But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.

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It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.

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Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The magic of Coney Island’s Dreamland at night

September 5, 2016

Dreamland’s tower, illuminating the summer sky with the help of a million light bulbs, looks like a magnificent cathedral in this 1905 image.

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Beach season is almost over, so a postcard reminder of this pleasure paradise will have to suffice until next year. Of course, there’s always September’s Coney Island’s Mardi Gras festival.

[Image: Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal; x2011.34.4375]

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.

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The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”

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Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

One of the worst jobs in 19th century New York

September 2, 2016

As the 1800s went on, New York was bursting at the seams with new residents. By 1850, the city had a population of a little over 500,000. By 1890, the number was 1.5 million.

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That’s a lot of bodies—and a lot of bodily waste. Though flush toilets existed in the late 19th century, they were generally installed in the houses of the rich.

Going to the bathroom for tenement dwellers meant using an outhouse (until the Tenement House Act of 1901 mandated private indoor toilets). Needless to say, waste piled up.

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Enter the night soil cartmen. These men made a living after dark, entering tenement districts and removing the “night soil”—a creative euphemism for excrement—from outdoor privies.

The guy who actually picked up the waste (using a cart probably similar to this garbage cart above) apparently worked for a company, which was awarded a city contract take care of unsanitary things like dead animals, trash, and tons of human waste.

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Where did they take the night soil? “In New York, the reeking loads were sometimes carted off to country farms to be used as fertilizer,” states a piece from Atlas Obscura.

“But more often they were hauled through the night to a designated pier and dumped into the Hudson or East Rivers (and sometimes mistakenly onto the private boats below), creating a stinking, festering shoreline. The waste would settle into the slips and city workers would periodically have to dredge the excrement so that boats could actually dock.”

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The job must have been deeply unpleasant, but it was an important one. Trucking away the night soil certainly helped cut back on disease and made poor neighborhoods packed with people slightly more habitable.

Like the blacksmith and streetcar conductor, the night soil cartman disappeared after the turn of the century in New York and other U.S. cities. Think about his job this Labor Day. Working in a cube farm won’t sound like such a bad thing after all!

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYPL; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fourth photo: MCNY collections/Robert L. Bracklow, 93.91.281]

Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen

August 22, 2016

In the 1890s, huge numbers of New Yorkers donned new riding suits, bought or rented a bike, and took part in the cycling craze—peddling along park paths or roads newly paved with smooth asphalt.

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Leisurely rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the century ride.

CenturyrideticketA century ride clocked in at 100 miles. It wasn’t a race but a feat of personal endurance. Each rider had 14 hours to get from start to finish and prove their cycling prowess.

“Bicycling clubs were formed all over the city,” reminisced future governor Al Smith in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now.

Centuryrideticketnj1895“You acquired full membership when you belonged to what was called the Century Club. That meant you had ridden 100 miles in a single day.”

Every neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top photo, in 1896).

Century rides were popular with young, athletic men. “With a number of young men from my neighborhood, I left Oliver and Madison Streets at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and wheeled to Far Rockaway,” wrote Smith.

Centuryridewhanderson1897“We went in swimming, had our dinner, and wheeled back.”

Century rides often went round trip from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island, as the ticket at the top right shows.

Another ticket from of an 1895 century ride lists each stop on the route from New York City to New Brunswick and back.

Century rides still take place today, and they sound like a lot of (very exerting) fun.

But their heyday remains the turn of the 20th century, when safer, more accessible bikes hit the market just as leisure time began to rise and a trend toward physical fitness gained popularity.

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TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd street pavements improved—thanks to the invention of asphalt, which was put down on an increasing number of city roads that were once paved with blocks, stones, even wood.

The cycling craze wasn’t the only sports trend to hit New York in the 1890s. Baseball, tennis, boxing—find out more in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY, unknown photographer, 1896, accession number 49.300.7; second image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.14; third image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.16; fourth photo: W.H. Anderson, New York State Century Club winner; fifth photo: MCNY, Riverside Wheelmen Bicycle Club, 1888, X2010.11.13347]

A solitary statue before the Williamsburg Bridge

August 18, 2016

Welcome to Williamsburg Plaza, on the Brooklyn side of the 7-year-old Williamsburg Bridge, in 1910. No bus turn-arounds, no skateboarders or cyclists, and no graffiti.

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And no people either. Now called Continental Army Plaza after the equestrian statue of George Washington at Valley Forge in the center, it’s still an often empty plaza and transit hub.

Washington and his horse rise high above it all before the entrance to the bridge.

[Postcard: MCNY]

A massive menu at the Manhattan Beach Hotel

August 18, 2016

Despite the hopes of its Gilded Age developer, the spectacular oceanside resort of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn never developed the cachet of old money Newport or elegant Long Branch.

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But the upper-class guests who made the Queen Anne–style Manhattan Beach Hotel a premier sand and surf destination after it opened in 1877 certainly dined well.

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This menu from the 1905 summer season reveals hundreds of dishes, from shellfish to soups to salads to “Long Island vegetables,” perhaps a nod to Kings  County’s vegetable-producing past.

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Calf’s head, calf brains, sweetbreads—the hotel guests liked their organ meats. Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. Look, they offer charlotte russe, a much-missed lost food of New York City.

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By the time this menu (view it in its four-page entirety) was printed, Manhattan Beach’s glory days were behind it.

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The enormous resort was demolished in 1912, not long before its rivals, the Brighton Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel, also met the wrecking ball.

[Menu: NYPL; photo: Getty Images]

A robber baron gunned down in a Broadway hotel

August 15, 2016

JimfiskwikiIf ever a New Yorker could be described as an unscrupulous, gaudy vulgarian, it would be “Jubilee” James Fisk.

“He was a striking figure, tall, florid, very fat,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “His light brown hair was pomaded and carefully waved, his mustache waxed to fine points, and huge diamonds blazed on his frilled shirt front and pudgy fingers.”

Fisk was a financier, unprincipled and notorious even in a Gilded Age city that celebrated greed and showiness.

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In 1868 he and his business partner, Jay Gould, were responsible for the Black Friday stock market crash, the result of their plan to manipulate the price of gold.

They made millions off the scheme, though, just as they profited handsomely after they joined forces with Boss Tweed to gain control over and loot the Erie Railroad.

“He never pretended to be governed by anything but expediency and self-interest,” wrote Morris. “And he conducted his life in full view of the public.”

JImfiskgrandcentralhotelThat may have been Fisk’s fatal mistake. Because when another business partner decided to kill him, he knew exactly where to find him.

That would be Edward Stokes, who entered the picture in 1869. The flashy son from a well-off New York family, Stokes convinced Fisk to invest in a deal to reopen an oil refinery in Brooklyn.

Stokes got money from Fisk—and he also ended up with Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield (below), a would-be actress who had “an exquisite figure and perfect features, large black-lashed eyes, magnificent glossy black hair,” wrote Morris.

Mansfield and Stokes were now the talk of the town; everyone, including Fisk, eventually knew about their affair.

JimfiskjosiemansfieldMeanwhile, by 1871, Fisk’s and Stokes’ refinery deal went sour. Unless he paid him an additional $200,000, Stokes threatened to release a series of love letters between Fisk and Mansfield that presumably reveal Fisk’s shady business practices.

After some legal maneuverings, Fisk had Stokes and Mansfield indicted for extortion.

When Stokes found out about the extortion charges on January 6, 1872, he packed his pistol, went to the Grand Central Hotel—a new hotel on Broadway and West Third Street popular with Fisk’s posh and powerful crowd—and waited for Fisk, who was due to meet friends there.

“He knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so Stokes went in first and waited on the second floor landing,” states Murder by Gaslight.

Jimfiskfranklesliesweeklycover“When he heard Fisk climbing the stairs Stokes started down saying: ‘now I’ve got you.’”

Stokes fire point blank. Fisk cried out in pain, and Stokes shot again. Fisk collapsed on the staircase leading to the lobby but gave a dying declaration that Stokes was his killer.

His life ended the next morning at age 36. Stokes served four years in prison.

Fisk was the consummate Gilded Age robber baron, yet he had his admirers, many of whom paid their respects in the foyer of the Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where Fisk had his offices and his body lay in state.

JimfisklayinstateBrooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher had disparaged Fisk as “the glaring meteor, abominable in his lusts and flagrant in his violation of public decency.”

But younger New Yorkers who came of age as the Gilded Age began seemed to admire his “smartness and shrewdness,” explained Morris.

“In refusing to be bound by the traditional moral code, in declining to become the prisoner of convention and decorum, in rejecting the easy compromise of hypocrisy, Jim Fisk had shown an intrepidity that compelled their admiration,” he wrote.

Power, greed, lust, corruption—the Gilded Age was one of notorious crimes and murder trials, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available now for pre-order, lays out.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, MCNY, 1910; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: via Minneapolis Star Tribune; fifth and sixth images: covers of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 1872, NYPL]

Taking a spin on Coney Island’s “Witching Waves”

August 12, 2016

The variety and creativity of amusements at turn-of-the-century Coney Island was astounding. This 1910 postcard shows one of the most popular rides, the Witching Waves.

Witchingwaves

Invented by the same man who patented the revolving door and installed at Luna Park, “it consisted of a large oval course with a flexible metal floor whose hidden reciprocating levers could induce a moving wave-like motion,” explains Coney Island site westland.net.

“While the actual floor didn’t move, the continuously moving wave propelled two seated small scooter-like cars forward while patrons steered.”

[Postcard: MCNY]