Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

Hanging laundry in a tenement backyard, 1912

August 17, 2020

John Sloan painted many rooftop scenes, typically depicting the ordinary activities he would see on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea roofs of his neighbors.

In 1912, a woman hanging her laundry to dry apparently caught his eye, and the painting “A Woman’s Work” is the result.

It’s Sloan at his best: her face is turned away while she secures the garments to the rope, and the laundry lines and tenements in the background seem to isolate her from the rest of the city.

The painting belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. “With its generally sunny mood, the painting lacks the nightmarish qualities of contemporary photographs of slum conditions in New York by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” the museum states. “Nevertheless, it offers a window view on how poor and working-class residents lived in America’s biggest city — and how laws and regulations shaped their world.”

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

The Medieval granite fortress once on 14th Street

July 6, 2020

It rose like King Arthur’s castle on 14th Street: a stone citadel complete with arched entryways, crenellations on top of its towers, and what look like arrow loops from the very top, the better to rain arrows down on enemy invaders.

What was this imposing granite fortress? The Ninth Regiment 14th Street Armory, completed in 1896 just west of Sixth Avenue.

For eight decades, this rough-cut armory held court on the north side of the street—first amid department stores, the 14th Street Theatre, and residential brownstones, and then among a changed neighborhood of light manufacturing and discount houses.

This wasn’t the first armory on the site. It replaced an earlier one opened in 1863 that extended to 15th Street and was nicknamed the “Palace Garden.”

Both the older and newer armory were constructed as part of a great wave of armory-building in New York City between the Civil War and World War I. That’s when the US Army went from a “state-controlled, decentralized army of citizen soldiers” to a “federally maintained, centralized corps of professional soldiers,” wrote Nancy L.Todd in New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History.

“Armories had three basic functions: they served as military facilities, clubhouses, and public monuments,” wrote Todd. As far as a public monument, the 14th Street Armory was a spectacular expression of power and might.

You’d think such an armory would be landmarked and preserved—for its architecture or its historical backstory.

But in 1971, New York bulldozed the castle and replaced it with a new concrete armory building (above, in the 1980s). It was described as “a gross and overbearing modern drill hall,” by the AIA Guide to New York City, according to the New York Times in 1993.

By the 1990s, the new armory had outlasted its military function; it was closed in 1993. What to do with a massive masonry building on a major street that was starting to attract new residents and retail stores?

Other New York City armories no longer used by the military were turned into homeless shelters (Brooklyn’s 23rd Regiment Armory), sports complexes (Armory Track on Fort Washington Avenue), and arts centers (the Seventh Regiment/Park Avenue Armory).

New York State, which owned the building, decided to go with a mixed-use developer. Today, the site is occupied by the McBurney YMCA and topped by apartments.

[First and third images: New York State Military Images; second and fourth photos: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth photo: NYPL]

Ghost buildings standing out in the desolate city

April 13, 2020

There’s something about New York right now, with its (mostly) emptied streets and deserted sidewalks, that makes the phantom buildings of an earlier Gotham come out of hiding.

You know these phantom tenements and walkups—their faded outlines tend to reappear at construction sites, giving us a glimpse of the low-rise city of another era.

Sometimes they’re a longtime ghostly imprint overlooking the empty lot left behind when the building was torn down—like the one above on East 45th Street, with its distinctive chimney.

This one above, on Lafayette Street, is another unusual one, perhaps it’s the ghost of a Federal-style house from the first half of the 19th century, when many of these little homes were built (and still survive) in Lower Manhattan.

Here’s another stubby building at the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, its chimney just visible against the lovely and much taller Bayard-Condict Building, constructed in 1899.

What will take the place of this low-rise walkup on York Avenue and 86th Street, old enough to have been dwarfed by century-old tenements?

This phantom building down at Hudson Yards might be gone by now. The building it left its outline on may have met the bulldozer, or a shiny new tower is obscuring it once again.

The slight slope to the top floor of this outline makes me think it was once a stylish brownstone or rowhouse, probably one in a group built in the late 19th century on a block in Midtown East.

Finally, on East 57th Street is this little guy, likely a 19th century apparition clinging to a more modern apartment building while haunting the bright busy Whole Foods at street level.

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

A department store becomes a makeshift hospital

March 23, 2020

This week, plans are underway to turn the glass-encased Jacob Javits Center into a hospital for the expected surge in coronavirus patients. It sounds radical, but it wouldn’t be the first time New York quickly took a massive open space and transformed it into a medical center.

It happened in 1918 with the Siegel-Cooper store, above. When this enormous emporium opened in September 1896, New York shoppers had their minds blown.

Inside a new Beaux-Arts building that spanned Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets—choice real estate along Ladies Mile—”the Big Store” featured 15 acres of more than 100 departments, restaurants, and a soon-to-be-famous fountain.

In its early years, Siegel-Cooper was by all accounts a success. But by the early 1900s, New York’s biggest stores were following Macy’s lead and relocating to Herald Square.

Siegel-Cooper was in financial trouble. After a new owner and name change to “Greenhut’s,” it closed for good in 1918.

What to do with an enormous empty building in what was no longer a prime neighborhood?

Turn it into a makeshift hospital—just in time for the return of American soldiers wounded while fighting the Great War in Europe.

Within months, the store that once featured the latest fashions and even boasted a bicycle department was now known as Debarkation Hospital Number 3, a temporary home for hundreds of doughboys whose conditions ranged from mild to grave.

“In general, debarkation hospitals were intended to receive overseas patients who landed back on United States soil,” states a historical note to a collection of papers from a nurse at Debarkation Hospital No. 5, on Lexington Avenue and 46th Street in the former Grand Central Palace exhibition hall.

New York quickly turned other empty buildings into makeshift debarkation hospitals. One was at Ellis Island, another on Staten Island.

No. 3 was ready for wounded men by November 1918.

“About 250 additional wounded soldiers from overseas arrived here yesterday and were taken to Debarkation Hospital No. 3, the old Greenhut store at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue….The newcomers, all practically recovered, brought the total of soldiers in the hospital up to 700,” wrote the New York Times on November 25.

The six floors of the former store had room for 3,000 soldiers. While entertainers visited and politicians took photo ops, the goal was to help the men convalesce yet get them back to their hometowns, where a hospital closer to loved ones could treat them.

Debarkation Hospital appears to have only served as a medical center for a few years. And if the facade (or the interior columns) look familiar, it’s because the same building now houses Bed, Bath, and Beyond!

[Second photo: unknown; third photo: MCNY X2011.34.280; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Alamy; sixth image: New York Times]

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]

The neighborhood leveled to build Penn Station

February 3, 2020

Mention the original Penn Station, and most New Yorkers simply sigh—resigned to the cold reality that in 1963 the city allowed a demolition crew to tear down the 1910 “Roman temple to transportation,” with its doric columns and two-block waiting room at West 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Everyone mourns that Penn Station. But what about the neighborhood that was leveled by 1904 so Penn Station could be built and completed six years later?

Four entire blocks were demolished to make way for the station, blocks bounded by West 31st and 33rd Streets and Seventh and Ninth Avenues. (At right, West 30th and Seventh Avenue, 1903—not in the demo zone but still a good idea of the surrounding neighborhood.)

These blocks were on the western edge of the Tenderloin: by day a functional to rundown walkups and tenements, and by night Gilded Age New York’s rollicking sin district roughly between 23rd and 42nd Streets and Sixth to Ninth Avenues.

[Above, John Sloan’s Haymarket, the name of a popular club in the Tenderloin circa 1908]

Formerly known as “Satan’s Circus,” the area got its new colorful name after a crooked cop named Alexander “Clubber” Williams transferred to a police precinct in the Tenderloin.

“I have had chuck for a long time, and now I’m going to eat tenderloin,” Williams supposedly told an associate—a reference to the riches in protection money he planned to seek from local madams and gambling den owners.

But one person’s vice district is another’s home sweet home. While the Tenderloin met wealthy New Yorkers’ needs for gambling, dancing, and sex, thousands of working class and poor residents went about day-to-day life there.

“Many respectable and hard-working folks lived and toiled here, as the recent census recorded, and by day it appeared to be just another shabby city enclave,” wrote Jill Jonnes in Conquering Gotham: a Gilded Age Epic.

“When night enveloped Gotham, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers and grand hotels glowed with the wondrous electric light, the streets here became a hotbed of vice.”

Immigrant Jews, Irish, and Italians lived in crowded, sketchy apartments, working as tailors and waiters.

African Americans also resided here in relatively large numbers. (As seen in the three images on West 30th Street in 1903.) “They toiled as railroad porters, hotel porters, waiters, launderers, stable hands, and cooks,” wrote Jonnes.

Few of the people who were involved with acquiring and then demolishing these blocks saw the humanity of the residents.

The rundown area was “given up to the French and Negro colonies, to much manufacturing and to buildings that grow more and more shabby as they approach the river, finally degenerating into a slum…this section today is one of the most troublesome in New York,” Jonnes quotes one source.

In 1901, after the site for Penn Station was selected, Pennsylvania Railroad operatives began identifying property owners and buying them out, or began getting them condemned.

It probably wasn’t difficult. With a progressive city cracking down on prostitution and drinking in the early 1900s, Gotham was less likely to tolerate a vice district with, for example, an entire row of brothels like “Soubrette Row” on West 39th Street.

By 1903, many of the properties were condemned; the people who lived there dispersed to Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, or San Juan Hill, in the West 60s.

By 1905, they were gone—replaced by an enormous pit the New York Sun called “the biggest hole ever dug in New York.”

“Where only three or four years ago something like 400 houses, shops, and other structures stood, and their 5,000 or 6,000 lived and trafficked, to-day there is nothing but earth and rock and devastation—and a small army of laborers working day and night with drills, steam shovels, and several lines of narrow gage railroad, working incessantly to make a big hole in the ground bigger and deeper,” wrote the Sun.

Five years later, Penn Station opened and dazzled New Yorkers.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18076; third image: Haymarket, 1908 by John Sloan; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15396; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15398; sixth image: New York Sun, 1905; seventh image: George Bellows, 1907-1908; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: Wikipedia]

All the ways to get to 23rd Street in 1910

January 20, 2020

By foot, streetcar, horse-driven carriage, automobile, or elevated train, New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century came to do its shopping on 23rd Street—the northern border of the Ladies Mile shopping district, which boasted eminent stores such as Stern Brothers and Best & Co.

23rd Street was such a busy shopping corridor, postcards showing the commercial hustle and bustle were printed for sale. This one, dated 1910, looks to capture the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

See the “toys” sign hanging off a building on the left? That might be the original FAO Schwarz, which operated at 39 and 41 West 23rd Street from 1897 to 1935, when the store moved uptown.

[Postcard: MCNY X2011.34.504]

This woman made Macy’s a Gilded Age success

July 1, 2019

Macy’s—the retail giant that got its shaky start at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street (below right) in 1858—takes credit for a lot of firsts.

This dry goods emporium was the first to offer set prices for each item (in other words, no haggling), a money-back guarantee, and a store Santa starting with the 1862 holiday season.

But the retailer that eventually operated 11 shops across 14th Street in the Ladies Mile shopping district before decamping for Herald Square in 1902 can also claim another first.

Macy’s was the first store, or perhaps the first business in New York at all, to employ a female executive.

Having an astute woman leading a company that largely marketed itself to women may have been the secret that helped make Macy’s the retail giant it still is today.

Born in 1841, Margaret Getchell (above) was a former schoolteacher from Nantucket who moved to New York City at the age of 20. She applied for an entry-level job as a Macy’s clerk.

[Some accounts have it that Getchell was a distant relation of Rowland H. Macy, the store founder; but it’s unclear if this was actually true.]

“[Getchell] was an incredibly hard-working employee and, aside from her quick calculations as a cashier, she would often stay late at night to help with the company bookkeeping,” states The Folding Chair, a women’s history website. “Macy decided to promote her to the store’s bookkeeper.”

Soon, Getchell wasn’t just keeping track of the books and training new “cash girls,” as the shopgirls were called. She was recommending trends to Macy that he should capitalize on.

“At the end of the Civil War, Margaret suggested the addition of military-inspired fashion. She also began to spot budding trends in gifts, jewelry, clocks, homeware and cooking equipment,” The Folding Chair explains.

“These suggestions, as they began to materialize in the shop, transformed Macy’s into the first modern department store in America.”

By 1867, after pioneering an in-store soda fountain and window displays with cats dressed in baby clothes, Getchell, 26, was promoted to store superintendent.

She married another Macy’s employee, and the two lived above one of the stores, according to Macy’s for Sale.

As consumerism exploded in the Gilded Age, Macy’s became one of New York’s leading new department stores.

Getchell, sadly, didn’t live to see the store make its historic leap to Herald Square at the beginning of the 20th century.

Two years after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1878, Getchell succumbed to heart failure and inflammation of the ovary.

Her business motto, however, still applies to retail today: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

[Top photo: The Folding Chair; second photo: Bettman/Corbis; third photo: Postcards From Old New York/Facebook; fourth photo: Alice Austen; fifth photo: The Folding Chair]