Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

Weird things done to New York brownstones

December 18, 2017

Few things are as lovely as a row of brownstones—a solid line of stoops and cornices signifying harmony, community, and Gilded Age New York charm.

I’m using brownstone as an all-purpose word for a New York rowhouse. Brownstones themselves were kind of the McMansions of the late 19th century; every newly minted banker or merchant had to have one.

But while it’s the dream of many city residents to rent or own one of these beauties and have it restored to its 19th century grandeur, not everyone thinks so.

On some of the most fashionable brownstone blocks are strange architectural upgrades that would puzzle Gilded Age New Yorkers—like this one on East 51st Street (top photo), swathed in glass with what looks like a giant punch card over the facade.

Some brownstones still look the part—at least, the top half of the house does. This one in Flatiron has an ugly storefront addition covering the parlor and second floors.

On East 71st Street is a building I like to call the bubble brownstone. As far as I know, this is the only brownstone in the city with glass oval pods for windows.

I don’t know what to make of this brickface former brownstone on West 18th Street except that it has a very 1970s feel.

It looks like a concrete grill or lattice is covering the entire front of this rowhouse on the Upper East Side. I wonder what kind of light comes in. It was designed by a Modernist architect in the 1950s.

Finally, here’s a brownstone that looks like it’s undergone the Brutalist treatment in Chelsea. Hey, at least the owner has his or her own garage.

The gritty appeal of a 14th Street liquors sign

October 16, 2017

The low-rise, rundown buildings on the south side of 14th Street at Eighth Avenue have slowly emptied out—the liquor store moved down the block a few years back, a restaurant closed and nothing reopened, and now a candy store and corner deli are gone as well.

What will become of this wonderful discount liquors sign—bumblebee yellow, two stories tall!—when the building it’s attached to inevitably falls to the developers?

Why was this ghost sign in Chelsea covered up?

September 25, 2017

Ephemeral reader Steven O. recently sent me a photo of ghostly signage above a storefront at 180 Ninth Avenue.

Fika, the Swedish coffee chain, had occupied the spot and then moved—leaving behind the faded lettering of what appears to be a 19th century store advertising oils, glass, varnish, and other supplies possibly sold by a ship chandler.

The lettering reminded me of the faded outline of the old sign for Utah House, a hotel from the 1850s at Eighth Avenue and 25th Street—which came back into view briefly in 2013 during a building renovation.

Intrigued that the Ninth Avenue sign could also be from the 1850s, I visited the storefront, which is in a red-brick tenement building . . . only to see the lettering covered by black boards.

A little research looking into this address during the 19th century didn’t turn up any store that sounded like they would be selling these items. A poultry dealer, a fruit stand, and possibly a merchant selling corn salve all occupied the site.

But whatever business this was, what a shame that a remnant of New York history is once again out of view.

The Facebook group Ghost Signs has more on this and other old signage in New York and other locations.

[Photo credit: Simone Weissman]

The nautical loveliness of a Jane Street hotel

August 21, 2017

Today’s it’s The Jane, a pricey boutique hotel a stone’s throw from the well-manicured Hudson River waterfront and the tourist-friendly nightspots of the Meatpacking District.

But a century ago this red brick fortress with the lighthouse-like tower (“whose light flashes a welcome up and down the river”) was the New York headquarters of the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailor’s Home and Institute.

This benevolent organization founded in 1828 was “one of a number of 19th century religious organizations concerned with improving the social and moral welfare of seamen throughout the U.S. and abroad,” explains this 2000 Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report.

Built in 1908 on what was once a bustling stretch of docks teeming with ships, the building served as a hotel with amenities like a library, swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant, lecture hall, and chapel, “an alternative to the waterfront ‘dives’ and sailors’ boardinghouses,” states the LPC.

The place has a rich history. After the Titanic sunk in 1912, surviving crew who arrived in New York on the Carpathia lodged there.

When the YMCA built a new seamen’s home on West 20th Street, the organization dedicated itself to providing free room and board to destitute sailors.

Closed in the 1940s, the beacon that shone from the lighthouse tower forever dimmed, it changed names and hands through the 2000s as a transient hotel. (It was the Riverview in the 1990s—as seen on the old-timey hotel sign on the facade).

The rooms once designed to resemble ship cabins may go for hundreds of dollars a night now (as opposed to 25 cents a night in 1908). Yet the building’s past as a seamen’s retreat still resonates, thanks to the lovely ornaments like anchors, rope, wreaths, and the heads of sea creatures.

Think of them as homages to a city that built its fortunes on its waterfront—as well as to the men who worked its docks and ships.

[Second image: NYPL]

The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York

June 5, 2017

You could say that Gilded Age New York perfected the idea of the department store—a multi-floor, massive commercial space designed to dazzle consumers with sumptuous windows and fashionable displays and put the latest must-have goods within reach of the growing middle-class.

But even New Yorkers who shopped (or at least window-shopped) emporiums like Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, and Macy’s along Ladies Mile were blown away by the city’s first Siegel-Cooper store, which opened in September 1896.

Nicknamed “The Big Store” for, well, obvious reasons, Siegel-Cooper boasted 15 and a half acres of selling space inside a Beaux-Arts building on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets.

More than 120 departments run by 3,000 employees offered everything from ladies’ fashions to a grocery store, dentist’s office, a pets department, several restaurants, and a bicycles department (this was the 1890s, after all, and wheelmen and wheelwomen had taken over the city).

The fountain in the center of the store gave rise to the phrase “meet me at the fountain”—which New York ladies did, in droves.

Women were the buyers for their families, after all, and the stores and restaurants of Ladies Mile were acceptable places for them to go when they were not in the company of men.

“The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.

Steel-framed Siegel-Cooper was quite technologically advanced for its day. The tower over the marble-columned entrance bathed Sixth Avenue in electric light, and the basement had its own power station.

Siegel-Cooper even had its own exit on the 18th Street stop of the Sixth Avenue El. Shoppers could get off the train and walk into a second-floor entrance, without having to descend to the gritty street shadowed by train tracks.

New York in 1896 was just three years out of the Panic of 1893, which crippled the economy. But this was the Gilded Age, and ostentatious displays still appealed to consumers. Opening day, as you can imagine, was a madhouse.

“The crowds around the store half an hour before the opening time, 7:30 o’clock, numbered probably 5,000 men, women, boys, and girls, and they were for a little while interested in the unveiling of the show windows,” wrote the New York Times a day later, on September 13, 1896.

“When they had satisfied their curiosity, they found that 20,000 persons had joined them, and that they were hemmed in. . . . So great was the jam inside the store that few of the visitors saw anything, except the general details of the vast floors, beautiful floral trophies sent by friends and mercantile houses to the heads of departments, [and] the word ‘Welcome’ blazing in electric lights over the main aisle of the ground floor.”

The amazing thing about The Big Store is that it only dazzled New York a short time.

Less than 20 years later, Siegel-Cooper declared bankruptcy, and the building was converted into a military hospital during World War I.

After decades of use as a warehouse, among other functions, the Siegel-Cooper store was resurrected in the 1990s as a mini-mall anchored by Bed Bath & Beyond—one of the central businesses in a modernized Sixth Avenue shopping district.

Pieces of the old Siegel-Cooper legacy remain, however. The original imposing marble columns and lanterns flank the entrance.

And on the facade of what is now a Room & Board furniture store on 18th Street, you can see C-S insignias, as this building once served as the Siegel-Cooper’s wagon delivery storage space.

[Second photo: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: unknown; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon; 2013.3.2.1799; seventh photo: Wiki]

This is the coolest coffee sign in New York City

April 14, 2017

In a city with almost as many coffee places as bank branches and most of them bearing chain store logos, it’s hard to believe that this wonderfully generic plastic sign hasn’t been replaced . . . or fallen off.

It’s on West 21st Street west of Fifth Avenue, advertising a slender coffee house that consists of basically a long counter and chairs—the kind a different New York used to have on almost every block.

Except for the ATM machine by the door, nothing about this storefront seems to have changed in half a century; it’s a sliver of the city frozen in time.

Tiny Jewish cemeteries hidden in busy Manhattan

April 10, 2017

They’ve been there for centuries, just steps away from traffic lights and the rush of crowds: three small burial grounds tucked behind iron fences and shaded by untended trees.

They’re not in the best shape. Some of the headstones are broken or knocked askew, as this photo of a cemetery on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue shows. The Hebrew lettering on the stones has been worn down by the elements. Graffiti marks a brick wall.

But the story behind how these cemeteries came to be starts with the story of the first Jews to live in New York City.

That means going back to the 17th century. In 1654, a ship carrying 23 men, women, and children docked in Lower Manhattan. They were refugees fleeing Brazil, which the Portuguese had just recaptured from the Dutch.

This little group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews felt that New Amsterdam might be a more welcoming place.

Eh, not exactly. Peter Stuyvesant tried hard to throw them out. The refugees wrote letters to Holland to solicit support so they could stay.

A year later, the Dutch West India Company gave them the go-ahead to remain as long as they “do not become a burden.”

Free to build new lives here, the group quickly founded the continent’s first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. And though the synagogue had no permanent space until 1730, space for the deceased was established in 1656.

That original burial ground has disappeared. But what’s considered the first Jewish cemetery in the city still remains in Chatham Square (above), in a pocket facing St. James Place behind several tenements (below right, in a 1900 photo).

This cemetery opened in 1683. It once contained 256 graves, including those of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. The above sketch of what Chatham Square looked like marks the “Jews Burying Ground” at the top right.

Speaking of the Revolution, the cemetery made an important appearance. In 1776, Major General Charles Lee wrote to George Washington:

“The East River, I am persuaded, may be secured in such a manner that [British] ships will scarcely venture into it…A battery for this purpose is planned at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground.”

An expansion of the Bowery cut the burial ground down in size to closer to 50. Some of the lead epitaph plates are missing because during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers melted them down to make bullets.

In 1805, a second cemetery opened on the outskirts of the city, at Sixth Avenue and what was then Milligan Place (below). The expansion of the city grid chopped its size as well to a tiny triangle.

“Initially, this graveyard was the burial site for victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, for recently immigrated Jews who did not have strong ties to Shearith Israel, and for those who died at their own hand through suicide,” states the Shearith Israel website.

After the city banned burials below Canal Street in 1823, the Sixth Avenue cemetery became the main Jewish burial ground — until a third cemetery opened in what was then the bucolic country fields of Chelsea and is now a big-box shopping mecca (below).

“The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750,” wrote Tablet magazine. “The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street.”

Shearith Israel operates out of a majestic synagogue building on Central Park West with some spectacular history of its own; the wood floorboards under its reader’s desk are the same floorboards from the first permanent synagogue built in 1730 on Mill (now South William) Street.

The congregation maintains these three burial grounds, and near Memorial Day, members hold a ceremony at the Chatham Square cemetery, honoring the Jewish Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

Each cemetery has a story to tell about Jewish life in the city and the development of New York as a whole. Look for these ghostly reminders of Gotham’s first residents next time you’re nearby.

Manhattan is a necropolis of other little-known burial grounds, especially in the East Village.

[Fourth photo: NYPL; Sixth photo: MCNY: 93.91.359; Tenth photo: NYPL]

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

The many lives of two Chelsea carriage houses

April 3, 2017

Certain old buildings in New York are so enchanting, they hijack your imagination. Who lived in them, you wonder as you pass by, and what stories can they tell us about their neighborhood?

This is what happens to me whenever I walk by 461 and 463 West 18th Street, just off Tenth Avenue.

These twin carriage houses were built in the 1880s, when the area known today as West Chelsea was a working-class industrial district of low-rise flats and factories.

The earliest image I could find of the twin stables dates to 1932 (above). You can see them tucked behind a corner restaurant. Cyrus Rheims, the name on a building sign on Tenth Avenue, rented and sold draft horses. Maybe the stables were built for Rheims.

Or perhaps the stables housed the horses used by the West Side Cowboys. These were the men hired to ride in front of the street-level freight trains that roared up Tenth Avenue from the 1850s to the mid-1930s, warning pedestrians out of the way (not always successfully; hundreds were killed over the years).

By 1938, when Berenice Abbott took this photo of the carriage houses for her exhibit and subsequent book Changing New York, number 463 “was attached to a corner liquor store at 130 Tenth Avenue,” the book notes in an updated index.

With curtains in the windows of number 461, it was likely a residence—maybe the man and woman on the right made it their hideaway. “These businesses, and the junk shop at number 461, served the seamen and dockworkers of the still-active West Side waterfront.”

Here’s a 1941 photo of the corner, with the two carriage houses (now painted white, along with 130 Tenth Avenue) in the center. Deliverymen unload their trucks; a tire business has taken over three tenements.

The freight trains on Tenth Avenue are gone, replaced in 1934 by elevated trains running along the new High Line. The gleaming New York of modernity, symbolized by the Empire State Building, appears far away.

By the 1970s, with industry in decline and the Hudson River waterfront all but abandoned, Tenth Avenue and 18th Street was a desolate place, judging from this 1975 photo by Edmund V. Gillon.

The shipping industry on the waterfront was gone, though the freight trains on the High Line were still running. Small businesses like Congo Tires, however, continued to hang on.

By 2000, twenty years after the High Line’s abandoned rail tracks were reclaimed by weeds, the carriage houses were looking better.

French restaurant La Lunchonette had opened on the corner in 1988, taking over the ground floor at number 463. But note the bars on the door of number 461—a holdover of a more crime-ridden West Chelsea.

Here we are in 2017, and the two carriage houses are prime real estate (take a peek inside the second-floor former hay loft at number 461, courtesy of these listing photos from 2012) in a revitalized, wealthier West Chelsea—thanks in part to the new High Line Park.

La Lunchonette is gone, though. This locals favorite was a casualty of a suddenly trendy neighborhood where landlords can command the kind of sky-high rents no one who lived on West 18th Street when a freight train belched up the avenue could have ever imagined.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: Berenice Abbott, Changing New York; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: MCNY by Edmond Gillon; 2013.3.2.141; sixth photo: mrjumbo.com]