Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

The mystery manhole cover on Central Park West

June 1, 2020

The most interesting manhole covers are the ones that tell us who made it and when it was put in place: the name of an ironworks company, the initials of a city department, a date.

This cover, on Central Park West south of 86th Street, doesn’t offer much in the way of clues.

The two decorative stars feel very 19th century. “Water Supply” could certainly mean it was part of the Croton Aqueduct system; its location outside Central Park could be evidence that it had something to do with the receiving reservoir that existed in the park.

It looks like no other manhole cover I’ve encountered in Manhattan. But there is an identical one in Brooklyn (above). It’s on Eastern Parkway near Prospect Park.

The 1955 plan to get rid of Central Park’s Ramble

May 18, 2020

Since Central Park opened in 1859, city officials have occasionally tried to tinker with its original intent—which was to replicate the woods and pastures of nature for industry-choked New Yorkers in need of R&R.

Among the plans that luckily never came to pass: a racetrack, a cemetery for the city’s “distinguished dead,” a 1,000-seat theater, building lots from parcels of park space, even pavement replacing the grass at the lower end of the park. And these are just the ideas proposed before 1920!

But one of the weirdest plans in Central Park’s history hit the headlines in 1955: bulldozing part of Central Park’s Ramble (below, in 1900) and turning it into an indoor/outdoor senior citizens center.

The proposal meant fencing off 14 of the Ramble’s 33 acres, putting up a building with a parking lot, and also constructing an outdoor activities area, which would include croquet and shuffleboard courts behind a fence.

Who came up with this one? Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, aka the “master builder” of the 20th century city, who took charge of the parks in 1933.

In his 27 years as parks czar, Mose fundamentally changed Central Park. In the 1930s, he built 20 playgrounds and created baseball fields—going against co-designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original prohibition of play areas, which they felt interfered with the natural landscape their Greensward plan called for.

Moses also restored and preserved sections of the park, including the zoo, and his overall stewardship of the “lungs of New York” and other city agencies is still being debated.

But back to the Ramble. The idea of destroying “the dense maze of meandering paths through rocky outcrops and lush vegetation” that was one of the earliest parts of the park caused an outcry, recalled The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP).

One group of critics: birdwatchers, among them “Robert Cushman Murphy, former curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Birds,” stated NYPAP. “The Ramble, he argued, was ‘one of the park’s most important bird sanctuaries,’ which the new facility threatened to destroy.”

Moses countered that the new facility wouldn’t impede bird watching, and in fact it would be safer to have a senior center there due to the growing threat of being mugged or assaulted in the Ramble, according to one newspaper columnist.

New Yorkers voiced their opinions in the papers. “In a Moses park, everybody must do something—row a boat, ride a horse, play shuffleboard or checkers,” commented one East Side resident. “The Ramble is a place to just sit quietly and look at the trees, but Moses doesn’t understand that.”

Contemporary historians detect anti-gay bias in Moses’ plan.

“In the 1920s they called the open lawn at the northern end of the Ramble the ‘fruited plain,'” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and the People. The proposal may have been driven in part because “the Ramble was considered a gathering place for ‘anti-social’ persons,” they stated.

Because of the uproar, Moses backed down. The shuffleboard and croquet courts were never built, and the Ramble remains just the way Olmsted wanted it: a “wild garden” for getting lost in the restorative powers of the natural world (above, 1865).

[Second image: Medium; third image: MCNY X2010.11.1419; third image: New York Times headline, 1955; sixth image: MCNY 94.64.14]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

A Midcentury artist’s storybook-like Central Park

April 27, 2020

If it’s been so long since you’ve walked through Central Park that you’ve forgotten how magical it is in the springtime, then let Adolf Dehn’s Midcentury lush and dreamy park paintings remind you.

Dehn, who started his artistic career as a lithographer of satirical scenes in the early 20th century, found more success as a New York City landscape painter in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

“Spring Blossoms, Central Park,” at top (exact date unknown), focuses on blooming leafs and love, perhaps, with couples lounging and walking in the forefront. “Central Park Stroll,” completed in 1942, above, gives us the park’s gentle, verdant hills and trees—with the Chrysler building and other skyscrapers surrounding the lawn like castles.

“Central Park,” from 1950, is a portrait of the park’s playful characters: strollers, dog walkers, boat rowers, and bench sitters. It’s a dollhouse-like miniature of the park at twilight, a reminder of the park’s dreamy enchantment. When the lockdown lifts, it’ll be waiting to greet you.

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

The unromantic tale of Bronx’s Valentine Avenue

February 10, 2020

Old New York had many romance-themed paths and street names.

18th century Chelsea used to have a meandering road called Love Lane; some city parks also had Lovers’ Lanes. And Brooklyn Heights still has its own Love Lane, a sweet former mews off Henry Street.

But with Valentine’s Day coming up this week, it’s only fitting to recognize the Bronx’s long, bustling Valentine Avenue.

Valentine Avenue really isn’t all hearts and flowers, unfortunately. This crowded corridor runs alongside the Grand Concourse from Fordham to Bedford Park, a long stretch of small apartment buildings and neighborhood shops.

The street didn’t get its name for any romantic reason, either.

Valentine Avenue likely honors Isaac Valentine, a young blacksmith and farmer who built a house near the former Boston Post Road in the village of Fordham in 1758—when the Bronx was a collection of farming hamlets and not even part of New York City.

Even after part of the Bronx joined New York, it was still quite rural—there was even a spring named after Valentine, seen in the photo above in 1897.

Valentine didn’t stay in his house for long. During the Revolutionary War it was used by American General William Heath and his troops, according to the Bronx Historical Society.

The war ruined Valentine, and in 1792 his house was purchased by Isaac Varian. Today, the Valentine-Varian House still stands, a monument to the old agrarian Bronx and the borough’s second-oldest house. (Above)

Speaking of Valentine, there was a Valentine Street in Queens…but it looks like it was renamed 66th Street at least a century ago and doesn’t appear on Google maps. If it does still exist, I’d like to know!

[Second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: Wikipedia]

What became of the first, short-lived Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2020

When the Plaza Hotel finally opened its doors on October 1, 1890, the debut of this elegant, long-awaited hotel (construction began seven years earlier, but the developers needed more financing to finish it) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South was heralded across the city.

This “magnificent” new building “was inspected by an immense number of people, and illimitable appropriation was bestowed upon the management for the almost perfect arrangements, elegance of decorations, etc,” wrote Brooklyn’s Standard Union newspaper.

King’s Handbook of New York City also gushed praise. “It is a palatial establishment…and it is sumptuously furnished,” stated the 1892 book. “There are 400 rooms…it is one of the grandest hotels in the world.”

Ads for the Plaza painted a luxurious image, like the one above. “Absolutely fireproof…Overlooking Central Park…the pioneer in the new hotel centre.”

Sounds a lot like the Plaza Hotel that’s been an icon of New York City for more than a century, right?

Except this isn’t the 19-story Plaza Hotel holding court on Fifth Avenue today, the one that was designed to be a skyscraper-high chateau in French Renaissance style.

These rave reviews actually describe the first Plaza Hotel—a more modest eight-story building that only stood at this elite corner of Manhattan for 15 years.

Why was it demolished, especially considering the swooning reception it received? Basically, “it was unprofitable,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition.

The design of the first Plaza Hotel—called neo-Classical and Italianate by Inside the Plaza, by Ward Morehouse—also quickly became dated in a city of newer, more fanciful hotel buildings.

So the first Plaza Hotel was bought by a new developer, who had it demolished in 1905.

The second Plaza Hotel, “with three stories composed of rusticated marble, the rest white glazed brick, all topped by a three-story mansard roof,” according to Morehouse (those small windows peeking through the roof were for the servants rooms), went up in just two years.

The new Henry Hardenburgh-designed Plaza Hotel (which served more as a longterm residence than a per-night kind of place) opened to equally rabid fanfare and acclaim on October 1, 1907.

 Here it is at the end of 2019, still stunning in a transformed city.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.31.9; second image: New York Times, 1894; third image: MCNY 2010.28.15; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.6467; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.3.1529; sixth image: Ephemeral New York]

The melancholy feel of Central Park in autumn

October 7, 2019

At the turn of the 20th century, social realism was all the rage among New York’s painters, who created masterpieces inspired by the city’s tenements, saloons, and gritty waterfront.

Impressionist artist Paul Cornoyer was different. Cornoyer painted New York’s blurred edges, bathing buildings and trees and people and puddles of water in somber tones or reflective streaks of rain or snow.

At first glance “Central Park Autumn,” from 1910, seems placid and benign; we’re at the boat pond close to East 73rd Street, a favorite of parkgoers then and now.

But the autumn leaves and subdued bench sitters create a sense of melancholy stillness. Cornoyer “has painted for us the New York that he felt,” one critic wrote in 1909, a year before this painting was completed.

How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

September 9, 2019

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?

July 22, 2019

This is the story of an 1889 painting, a mysterious stone wall, and a religious institution that occupied part of today’s Central Park in the mid-19th century—before the park was even in the planning stages.

It starts with Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. He was dubbed the “artistic interpreter” of Central Park and Prospect Park in an 1891 Harper’s Weekly article, owing to his many evocative landscapes of these and other city green spaces.

One Chase painting that stands out as darker and more mysterious than most of his park landscapes is this one (above) from 1889, “In the Park (a By-Path).”

A child under a watchful nanny wanders away from a park bench and follows a stone wall, “one of those sections of rough rock-work which give character to the many nooks and corners of the Park at the same time that they serve a useful end,” wrote Charles De Key in Harper’s Weekly.

Where was—or currently is—this “rough rock-work,” and what was its useful end?

According to various sources, this impressive stone wall is what remained of a convent and school called the Academy of Mount St. Vincent (above in 1861), the first institute of higher learning for women in New York.

Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent had the misfortune of setting up shop East of Fifth Avenue at about today’s 105th Street, in what would become Central Park a decade later.

The school relocated in the 1850s to Riverdale, where it continues its educational mission today. The college buildings left behind in the park burned down in 1881.

That rough rock wall, apparently a retaining wall from one of the original buildings, still stands behind the Conservatory Garden not far from a stone that marks the former site of the college (above left).

I went looking for the wall in this hilly, rocky section of Central Park. The mosquitos and thick brush kept me from finding it.

Luckily some other intrepid New Yorkers did locate it, like Michael Minn, whose 2007 photograph of the retaining wall is above. It doesn’t look exactly like the wall in Chase’s painting—artistic license, or the effects of time?

The folks from Untapped Cities also have a photo of the wall from 2017.

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: Copyright © Michael Minn]