Archive for the ‘central park’ Category

A Gilded Age mansion goes down in the 1960s

June 16, 2016

Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

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But Brokaw did have at least one thing in common with Gilded Age titans with names like Frick, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie: he too built himself a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Brokaw1927mcnyBrokaw’s French Renaissance palace, modeled after a 16th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley, went up in 1887 at 1 East 79th Street.

It had all the trappings of a multimillionaire’s home from the Age of Elegance: four stories, stained glass windows, a staff of seven, even its own moat.

“Its grandiose entrance hall is of Italian marble and mosaic and huge murals line the walls,” wrote the New York Times decades after it was built.

“The ceilings are paneled in stone and wood and no two of them are alike. The library has a seven‐foot‐tall safe concealed behind a panel opened by press­ing a hidden catch in the mould­ing,” the Times continued.

Brokawmansion1960sBy 1911, three more modest mansions adjoined the chateau, built by Brokaw for his two sons and daughter.

After he died, squabbling family members occupied all four Brokaw mansions. Three were eventually sold off to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers between the 1940s and early 1960s, which used them as office space.

Gilded Age chateaus with skyrocketing upkeep costs had long since gone out of favor; dozens of the more than 70 mansions constructed along Fifth Avenue in its Millionaires’ Mile heyday had been razed in favor of stately apartment houses.

BrokawmansionIEEE

In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.

BrokawmansionprotestNYPAPNewspaper editorials denounced the demolition. More than 100 people (including Ed Koch, then a city councilman) attended a rally in front of the original chateau to persuade officials to protect this remnant of a fast disappearing older city.

“However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965,” reports The New York Preservation Archives Project.

Brokawmansion2016The wreckers came the next day. A year later, the Brokaw mansion’s successor, a 26-story apartment co-op, was completed.

It stands today, across 79th Street from one of the last remaining Gilded Age palaces—the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, occupied by the Ukrainian Institute of America.

[Top photo: 1920s, LOC; second photo: 1927, MCNY; third photo: Getty Images, 1960s; fourth photo: 1960s, IEEE; fifth photo: The New York Preservation Archives Project]

The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.

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On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.

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The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.

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Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

Darkness and light in Central Park in 1905

June 6, 2016

Dark trees, pinkish city buildings, shadowy carriages and tribes of people, and a wide, warm lawn are all part of George Bellows’ interpretation of Central Park on a temperate day in 1905.

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This is one of Bellows’ earliest New York paintings; he left his native Ohio in 1904 to study art in the city under Robert Henri.

Girls playing games in Central Park in springtime

May 2, 2016

I’m not sure what these girls are up to as they hold hands and form a line under a towering tree with the Plaza Hotel in the distance.

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A girls’ school recess, perhaps? The woman standing under the tree could be a headmistress or teacher. In any case, it looks like a carefree spring day.

[Photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The Roaring Twenties nightclub in Central Park

February 29, 2016

Central Park was originally intended to be a place of rest and relaxation, a naturalistic preserve away from the teeming crowds of the mid-19th century city.

Centralparkcasino

So how did a posh, glitzy nightclub end up on the park’s East Drive at 72nd Street in the high society 1920s?

It has to do with James J. Walker, the nightlife loving, charmingly corrupt mayor of New York from 1925 to 1932.

CentralparkcasinointeriorThe nightclub was called the Casino (above and left), and even before it became a club, it had an interesting history.

In 1864, it started out as a modest stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux to be the “Ladies Refreshment Saloon,” where respectable women visiting the park unaccompanied by a man could grab a bite to eat.

By the late 19th century, it evolved into a regular restaurant. Rather than a gambling house, the Casino (“little house” in Italian) was “where well-to-do diners could get a steak for seventy-five cents” while sipping wine on a terrace (below), according to Andrew F. Smith’s Savoring Gotham.

Enter Mayor Walker. The Casino would now be run by Walker’s friends, who turned the expanded cottage into a Jazz Age nightspot.

“Under its new regime, the Casino catered to the rich and famous,” reported the Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park.

Centralparkcasinopostcard

“Met at the door by liveried footmen, guests dined on elegant French cuisine, and—despite Prohibition—happily paid inflated prices for mixers to go with the bootleg liquor they brought with them.”

Centralparkcasinowalker“Dancing, in a spectacular black-glass ballroom to the tunes of Leo Reisman’s society orchestra, went on until 3 a.m. Mayor Walker and his mistress, the Broadway showgirl Betty Compton (left), were often the last to leave.”

The Casino continued entertaining the city’s elite club crowd even after the Depression hit.

It was a huge success, grossing more than $3 million in five years of operation . . . with the city getting $42K in rent.

But by the early 1930s, it was seen as a symbol of excess. Mayoral candidate Fiorello La Guardia denounced it as a “whoopee joint.”

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In 1935, Robert Moses, the city’s legendary Parks Commissioner, tore it down (above, right before demolition) and replaced it with Rumsey Playfield—a concert venue that entertains New Yorkers in an entirely different way today.

[Photos: centralpark.org; MCNY]

The meaning of a 200-year-old Central Park bolt

January 11, 2016

It’s easy to miss, just a gray iron rod hammered into a slab of gray Manhattan schist in Central Park. But this unassuming bolt is a relic with historical meaning.

Centralparkbolthouse

It was put there more than 200 years ago by John Randel Jr., a surveyor and engineer. Randel had been hired by a state-appointed commission tasked with drawing up a street plan for the growing city of New York.

BoltcentralparkcuBeginning in 1808, Randel’s job was to map out a grid that would divide Manhattan into blocks formed by east-west streets and north-south avenues, few of which existed at the time (Gotham’s northern border was Houston Street back then).

He submitted his plan, famously known as the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for the City of New York. Then the grunt work began.

“Randel spent the next 10 years staking out and marking the intersections from First Street to 155th Street with 1,549 three-foot-high marble monuments and, when the ground was too rocky, with 98 iron bolts secured by lead,” wrote Sam Roberts in a 2011 New York Times article.

As the city marched northward and the streets Randel mapped out were developed, the marble monuments and iron bolts disappeared.

Boltcentralparkdrive

In 2004, this one in Central Park—left undisturbed, as Central Park escaped the street grid plan—was discovered by surveyor Lemuel Morrison and geographer Reuben Rose-Redwood while researching the grid system.

Exact directions to this unassuming relic are hard to find, since no one wants it to fall into the hands of souvenir hunters. New York history fans should start looking in the park’s southern end.

Santa has been spotted all over Manhattan

December 21, 2015

Santa Claus has come to town many times, and he’s hung out in some unlikely places.

Here’s proof, courtesy of New York’s street photographers. They always capture the weirdness and whimsy of the city…like the time Santa was waiting on the platform at Bleecker Street train in 1976 [Photographer: Richard Kalvar]

Santasubwayrichardkalvar1976

In 1982, Santa was caught poking around Central Park, across the street from the Plaza Hotel. Hopefully he wasn’t lost. [Photographer: Raymond Depardon]

Santacentralparkraymonddepardon1982

1968 was a tumultuous year of political and social upheaval, which might explain why he stopped off at this bar (with color TV!) next to a pastry shop. Even Santa needs a little nip now and then. [Photographer: Bruce Gilden]

Santaleavingbar1968brucegilden

Back when the Bowery had actual bums in 1977, Santa spent some time cheering up the down-and-out guys who made their home there. That garbage can probably held a nice warm fire. [Photographer: Susan Meisales]

Santabowery1977susanmeisales

Here he is in 1962, refueling at the coffee shop in a Woolworth’s, in a window seat at a booth with a formica counter. It might be Christmas Eve, so he’s in for a long night. [Photographer: unknown]

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A view of an unfinished Central Park in 1862

November 23, 2015

Isn’t that a not-quite-completed Bethesda Terrace and the Central Park Lake on the far left?

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Landscape painter George Loring Brown depicts a very rustic Central Park in 1862, after the park had officially opened but with much more work to still be done. The city looms to the south.

Listening to the orchestra play in Central Park

November 9, 2015

A century before Summerstage and free shows by Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel, Central Park hosted free concerts.

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First given in the Ramble, “concerts soon moved to the Mall, where the tradition grew into the 20th century,” states nycgovparks.org.

“At the northern end of the Mall, an elaborate cast-iron bandstand once stood (on the present site of the bust of composer Ludwig von Beethoven). Thousands of people would attend open-air performances. To prevent the landscape from being damaged during musical performances, fences that also provided seating for concertgoers were cleverly designed by Calvert Vaux.”

The men in these crowds look like sitting ducks for the Straw Hat Riot instigators!

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.

Trampjacobriis1890

“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]


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