Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

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.

Centuryridewilliamsburghwheelmen

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.

Centuryclubriversidewheelmen

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.

Williamsburghplaza

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.

Menumanhattanbeach1

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.

Menumanhattanbeach2

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.

Menumanhattanbeach3

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.

Menumanhattanbeachhotel

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

Manhattanbeachhotelgetty

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.

Jimfiskbroadwaycentralhotelcolor1910mcny

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]

The adults-only slide that thrilled Coney Island

July 28, 2016

How crazy was Helter-Skelter, a whiplash-fast snaking slide designed for adults that debuted at Coney Island’s Luna Park in 1906?

Helterskelterconeyislandmcny

“Participants rode an escalator to the top of a huge chute made of rattan, then slid down the winding slide before landing on a mattress in front of a crowd of onlookers,” wrote Laura J. Hoffman in Coney Island.

Wish I had a time machine to go back and give it a try!

[Postcard: MCNY, 1907]

A weird, popular sport in 19th century New York

July 25, 2016

Lots of today’s sports built their fan base in the late 19th century, like baseball, tennis, and cycling. But none of these had the city cheering nearly as hard as a forgotten competitive activity called pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismnpr

A form of race walking, pedestrianism “spawned America’s first celebrity athletes, the forerunners—forewalkers, actually—of LeBron James and Tiger Woods,” wrote Matthew Algeo in his book, Pedestrianism.

Pedestrianismbrooklyneagle1867“The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals . . . their images appeared on some of the first cigarette trading cards, which children collected as avidly as later generations would collect baseball cards.”

Pedestrianism boomed after the industrial revolution and the standardization of the workweek gave millions of middle class New Yorkers leisure time, something once available only to the rich.

The idea that the masses needed rest and relaxation, specifically in nature, had also gained popularity, particularly after the Civil War.

Pedestrianismrollerrinknpr

Parks were built, the seashore became a place of enjoyment, and ordinary people flocked to watch competitive walking the way millions of Americans watch Sunday football today.

Pedestrianism was pretty rough. Long-distance events involved walking hundreds of miles between cities. Madison Square Garden hosted six-day races (competitors walked for 21 hours, then slept for three) that drew thousands of spectators, stated Kerry Segrave’s America on Foot.

PedestrianismNYT1874

One pedestrian star, Edward Payson Weston (above), would enter a roller rink and “attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours,” Algeo said via a 2014 interview with NPR. “And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.”

The sport’s heyday stretched through the 1870s and 1880s, then died down as the bicycle became safer and other sports stole away fans. But not before a pedestrianism revival was attempted.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“More than 20 years ago the craze for affairs of this sort was at its height, but the novelty of the thing soon wore off and the sport was relegated to the oblivion that its absurdity and uselessness so richly merited,” sneered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1902.

The rise in leisure time in New York after the Civil War spawned a sports craze in the metropolis, covered more extensively with terrific images in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: NPR; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1867; third photo: NPR; fourth image: New York Times, 1874]

The magical colors of a New York sky at twilight

July 11, 2016

I haven’t been able to find out very much about Edward Willis Redfield, the Impressionist painter behind these three scenes of the city as it slips from day to night.

[“Lower New York,” 1910]

Lowernewyorkredfield1910

Born in 1869 in Delaware, he studied in Philadelphia and Paris during the Gilded Age and after the turn of the century gained fame for his landscapes of rural Pennsylvania and Maine.

[“Brooklyn Bridge at Night,” 1909]

Brooklynbridgeatnightredfield1909

Redfield spent some time in New York City around 1909. What comes across in these three paintings from his time in the city is a deep enchantment with the landscape of Lower Manhattan at twilight.

Betweendaylightanddarknessredfield

[“Between Daylight and Darkness,” undated]

His depictions of the twinkling lights of the city under the dreamy, magical colors found only at the mysterious time when evening chases away the day are beguiling.

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel was amazing

July 11, 2016

When the Hotel Brighton opened in the new seaside resort of Brighton Beach in 1878, this three-story, 174-room Victorian-style hotel became an upper middle class paradise.

Brightonbeachhotelmcny1905

An elegant pavilion led guests to the sandy beach and rolling surf. The hotel’s restaurants and banquet halls served an incredible array of seafood and shellfish. The Brighton Beach Music Hall hosted famous performers and bands.

Amid all of this seaside fun and frolic, there was one problem.

Brightonbeachhoel1888westland

The hotel was built a little too close to the ocean. Ten years later, the Atlantic Ocean was practically lapping at the Brighton’s fanciful piazzas.

“The sea has steadily encroached upon the land at Brighton Beach for years . . . Old Neptune has gobbled up a nice bit of real estate with a 500-foot sea frontage and a depth of 500 feet, to which the hotel people hold a title deed,” quipped the Evening World in April 1888.

The decision was made to move the hotel. Considering that it weighed an estimated eight million pounds, relocating the massive structure was going to take some thought.

Brightonbeachhotelmoveloc1888

The plan the hotel adopted was to put it on wheels—the wheels of 112 rail cars, that is.

On April 3, after months of preparation, the big move began. “The first step taken was to drive piles under the entire front of the hotel,” stated one architectural publication.

Brightonbeachhotel1893nypl

“As already mentioned, the waves had torn away the sand, so that the building literally hung half way over the water.”

Brightonbeachhotelaftermove“It was no small undertaking to build 24 railroad tracks on those piles and to lift the structure, so as to make it rest intact and absolutely level on the flat cars.”

It took 10 days for six locomotives to slowly drag the hotel about 600 feet inland.

In June, the hotel opened for the season. “The contrast between the hotel on its present site and the building resting upon piles with the ocean flowing beneath it, as it did last summer, is decidedly striking,” commented the Evening World on June 27.

[First image: MCNY; second image: westland.net; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: arrts.arrchives.com]

Four ghost store signs in the Village and Brooklyn

July 7, 2016

In a city that changes as rapidly as Gotham, ghost signs abound. You know these phantom signs, left behind by a building’s previous tenant and never replaced by the new one—if there even is a new tenant.

Ghostsignmarinerepair

That seems to be the case with this wonderfully preserved Meier & Oelhaf Marine Repair sign on Christopher and Weehawken Streets. The company occupied 177 Christopher from 1920 to 1984.

It’s been an empty and eerie presence for 30 years, a clue to Christopher Street’s maritime past. Maybe it won’t be unoccupied for long; a different sign says the ground floor is for rent.

Ghostsigncoffeeweststreet

Around the corner on a lonely stretch of West Street, this coffee sign remains high above two empty, rundown storefronts—one of which was presumably a lively coffee shop not long ago.

Ghostsignsschoolsupplies

A store solely devoted to school supplies? The old-school signage can be seen behind the new awning for the Pure Perfection Beauty Salon on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights.

You don’t come across these too often anymore, a store name spelled out in tile amid a geometric design at the entrance. But it’s a charming old-timey New York thing.

Ghostsignshecht's

The people who ran Hecht’s, once at 363 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, must have agreed. The antique store there now, Sterling Place, luckily didn’t do away with it.


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