Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

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]

A 1910 packing plant subsumed by Hudson Yards

April 1, 2019

For more than a century, the two-story building at 527-531 West 36th Street held its own with its neighbors in this once-industrial part of Manhattan—away from more traditional retail stores and apartment buildings in the far west 30s.

It’s an unusual survivor that looks a lot older than records reveal.

Apparently constructed by 1910 (though one 1902 newspaper article said it was supposed to have five stories), the brick building has large arched windows and ornamental trim on the second floor.

One of its earliest occupants was a fruit packing plant; another business was Rohe and Brothers, a wholesale beef and pork provisions company.

It makes sense that Rohe operated here; West 36th Street is three blocks from what used to be known as Abattoir Place because of all the slaughterhouses that turned cattle brought to the West Side via rail or ferry into beef.

A milk distributor and pasteurization company operated here in the 1940s. Soon the food packers and distributors were replaced by auto body businesses, like Steven and Francine’s, whose sign hangs on the building’s boarded-up second floor.

Recently, this humble holdout in the shadow of Hudson Yards’ steel and glass luxury towers was sold to Tishman Speyer for $20 million. The real estate developer plans to turn the site into a park in exchange for air rights for another office tower going up next door.

It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the far west 30s (at the recently named “Hudson Boulevard”) on the fringes of Manhattan. But it won’t be here much longer.

[Second image: 1940 Tax Photo NYC Department of Records]

The 1877 “palace of trade” opens on Ladies Mile

March 25, 2019

Ask old-school New Yorkers where B. Altman & Company used to be, and they’ll sigh before telling you it was on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

That palazzo-inspired building, home to the luxury department store from 1906 until its bankruptcy in 1990. still stands.

But so does the magnificent, block-long, cast-iron “palace of trade” Benjamin Altman opened in 1877 in stages at 615-629 Sixth Avenue. (Above and below right)

That’s the year when this “merchant prince” outgrew his first dry goods store on East 10th Street and Third Avenue and joined the growing number of retailers occupying spectacular buildings on Ladies Mile, the Gilded Age’s shopping district.

Altman was something of an unusual character among the other major store owners of the time.

His parents immigrated to the Lower East Side from Bavaria in 1835, and he learned the dry goods trade by working at his family’s modest store on Attorney Street before launching his eponymous Third Avenue store.

Quiet and described as reclusive, Altman never married (though he did help raise and support his nieces and nephews).

He was a serious art enthusiast who donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the foundation he launched in 1913 just before his death continues to fund educational organizations.

Unlike other retail barons, Altman wasn’t a showman. It was his talent for merchandising and his understanding of the new consumerism that helped make his store so popular.

His innovations paved the way for the department store of today. Altman’s was the first to feature “designated areas for displaying clothing for customers of all ages, as well as a diverse variety of household items at fixed prices,” wrote Jeanne Abrams in a 2011 series on immigrant entrepreneurs.

“Altman made it a point to outdo his competitors in style and elegance, and the store featured an impressive central court, a glass-domed rotunda, mahogany woodwork, and carpeted elevators,” she explained.

“B. Altman & Company’s reputation for excellent service, reliability, and the latest in fashion, which included luxurious silks, velvets, and satins, many imported from France, made the store a favored shopping stop for affluent New Yorkers.”

Then there was the delivery service. Wealthy women weren’t expected to carry their own packages, so Altman pioneered home delivery with liveried drivers in maroon wagons working out of a stable (above) built at 135 West 18th Street.

He understood the needs of his elite customers so well that he provided a separate store entrance on West 18th Street (maybe this door at left?) for the most elite of them.

That way, they wouldn’t have to enter the store on Sixth Avenue and deal with the riffraff coming off the Sixth Avenue elevated, which had a stop on the corner.

Altman could also see the future—and it wasn’t on Ladies Mile. After Macy’s packed up and relocated to 34th Street in 1902, Altman followed suit.

More than 140 years later, his extravagant Sixth Avenue store serves as a Container Store, part of a shopping district very different from the fashion-heavy one that attracted throngs of well-heeled Gilded Age shoppers.

[Second image: Department Store Museum; Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: Manhattan Sideways; Sixth image, 1948: MCNY X2010.7.1.9378]

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

A Christmas card from a defunct Ladies Mile store

December 24, 2018

Hugh O’Neill was an Irish-born retailer who eventually ran one of the biggest dry goods emporiums on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.

His was the impressive domed building in the district once known as Ladies Mile, a late 19th century enclave of fancy emporiums and more middle class department stores roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets.

Like any smart store owner, O’Neill happily celebrated the consumerism that took hold in late 19th century New York, and this card gets his sentiments across in a cheeky way.

The O’Neill store is now a high-end condo called The O’Neill Building—apparently some lucky owners get to live in those corner domes!