Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

Sipping cool water from a city fountain in 1900

July 27, 2015

Drinking fountains began showing up in New York City parks in the 1880s, often paid for by wealthy private citizens and supported by temperance groups, reports this Huffington Post article.

Madisonsquareparkwaterfountain

Providing cool refreshing water to passersby and park-goers was a wonderful idea. But yikes, look at the communal cups everyone had to drink out of!

This photo dates to about 1900, right about when people were realizing that sharing cups was a good way to spread germs. Pretty soon, the cups were replaced by bubbling, cup-free fountains.

The luxury power center of the Gilded Age city

July 27, 2015

When the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel was set to open in 1859, it was mocked as “Eno’s Folly,” after the developer who built it.

Fifthavenuehotelpostcard

With the city’s hotel district farther south on Broadway, why would anyone pay to stay on the outskirts of the city’s center, as Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was at the time?

But after its grand opening, the Fifth Avenue Hotel became the city’s premier luxury residence and made Madison Square the focal point of post–Civil War New York.

Fifthavenuehotelreadingroom

Among the amenities: rooms with private baths and fireplaces and the first “vertical railway”—aka, elevator—ever installed in a hotel.

Presidents and kings stayed there, attended to by a staff of 400. The city’s richest men, like Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, congregated in the drawing rooms. Local politicians held court.

In 1908 it was demolished; its demise serves as a bookend of the Gilded Age. Today the building occupying this spot houses the Italian dining emporium Eataly.

[Bottom image: the hotel’s reading room, a decidedly all-male place. NYPL]

The man who dove off the Flatiron Building

June 15, 2015

Henri LaMothe was a showman by trade. Born in Chicago, he first made a living dancing the Charleston.

Henrilemothe1974nydn

“Then came the Depression, when jobs weren’t so easy to find,” LaMothe said in 1977, “and I started diving into the water for a living.”

LaMothe came up with a signature diving stunt he ended up doing thousands of times around the country: from a height of 40 feet, he’d do his “flying squirrel” dive into a pool filled with four feet of water.

HenrilemothedivemcnyIn 1952, he decided to celebrate his birthday by climbing 40 feet up the Flatiron Building and diving into a 4-foot pool on the sidewalk.

He repeated the birthday stunt for 20 years, decreasing the water in the pool every year. By 1974, at age 70, he was down to about a foot of water, states The New York Times.

How did he not crack open his skull?

“When I’m on the platform I go through yoga, stretching and limbering exercises,” he told a newspaper. “Then I wipe out all thoughts and concentrate on the circle and sense my aim, which is what zen is.”

LaMothe discontinued his yearly Flatiron birthday dive after 1974 but continued diving around the country until his death in 1987.

If a man like LaMothe tried that stunt in today’s New York, his arrest would be all over social media before he had time to dry himself off on 23rd Street!

[Top: New York Daily News; Bottom: Museum of the City of New York]

A tough painter depicts a tender New York

April 27, 2015

George Luks arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1896.

Passionate and energetic, he was one of many young painters (along with artist friends he met in Philly, like Everett Shinn and William Glackens) whose work focused on the tenderness of the city’s underbelly.

[“The Bread Line”]

766px-'The_Bread_Line'_by_George_Benjamin_Luks,_Dayton_Art_Institute

“One of the dynamic, young group of American Realists known as the Ashcan School, [Luks] was a tough character who in art and life embraced the gritty side of turn-of-the-century New York,” states the Brooklyn Museum.

Macho and combative, he first worked as an illustrator at the New York World, honing his skills outside of his newspaper job by painting peddlers, poor older women, street kids, and other down and out New Yorkers—as well as impressionist-like scenes of the city at play and at street markets.

[“Madison Square,” 1915]

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In 1908, he’d gained notoriety as a member of the Eight, a group of social realist painters whose dark, gripping work attracted controversy.

Artistic styles change fast, and soon, Luks’ urban realism was out of fashion.

“Ironically perhaps, by the time Luks exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, his formerly radical subject matter and style were overshadowed by the developing abstract movement,” states one gallery site.

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[“Spring Morning in New York,” 1922]

220px-George_Luks_I“Luks would teach at the Art Students League in New York from 1920 to 1924 and go on to establish the George Luks School of Painting in New York,” on East 22nd Street.

His death in 1933, at age 66, was characteristically dramatic. On October 29, Luks (at left) was found in the early morning hours slumped in a doorway, beaten to death after a barroom brawl.

Step into the remains of a Gilded Age hotel

April 20, 2015

Hollandhouse“Every window in the Holland House, at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, was glowing with light last night when the doors were opened to hundreds of visitors bidden to see the beauties of the new hostelry,” wrote the New York Times in a gushing review of the newest kid on a luxury block on December 6, 1891.

In a Gilded Age city resplendent with so many sumptuous hotels, the Holland House quickly became the place to live, dine, and enjoy a stretch of Fifth Avenue lined with the mansions of wealthy New Yorkers.

And former mansions, as New York’s richest residents were steadily relocating their residences uptown.

Hollandhouse1905

“The Holland House presents many novelties—and extremely attractive ones too . . .” stated the Times.

“In the main hall, leading from the Fifth Avenue entrance, the walls and the carved staircase are of Sienna marble.”

Hollandhousestaircase“There are 350 guest rooms in the hotel, and from the bridal suites down are all beautifully furnished and decorated,” wrote the Times.

The writer of the article also noted the novel wine cellar, the banquet and drawing rooms, the restaurant, and the staff of 180 employees.

Holland House offered sumptuous accommodations through the teens, hosting president Taft (and an army of Secret Service guards) in 1912.

HollandhouseornamentationBut the hotel was eclipsed not long after it opened when the Waldorf and the Astoria Hotels went up a few blocks north on 34th Street.

In 1897, the two joined forces to become the city’s premier hotel, turning the area into kind of a luxury hotel row which played host to the most exclusive balls and parties, like the legendary Bradley Martin Ball.

Today, unlike the original Waldorf-Astoria, Holland House still stands.

Hollandhouse2015Its facade is remarkably unchanged, and mysteriously there is a marble staircase and ornamental motifs in marble visible in the lobby.

The building manager says they are originals.

If so, they’re some of the last remnants of Gilded Age glamour on this once exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

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He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

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The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

Hoffbauerrainynightinnyc1912

The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.

A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

Chesterarthurhome2

And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

A chilling holocaust memorial at Madison Square

January 5, 2015

For such a stark yet provocative memorial, it’s easy to miss.

Appellatecourt25thstreetwikiBut if you head to 25th Street and Madison Avenue, on the facade of the circa-1900 marble Appellate Division Courthouse facing Madison Square Park, you’ll see it at eye level: a bas relief of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s a grim and affecting aerial view of the camp. Buildings are arranged inside a high walls. “Torture Chamber” and “Commandant’s House” are inscribed beside two separate structures.

 “Execution Wall” and “Gas Chamber and Crematorium I” are chillingly noted as well.

Holocaustmemorialaerialview

A small plaque next to it lets us know that this is a “Memorial to All Victims of the Holocaust,” completed in 1990 by Harriet Feigenbaum, who used a photo as her guide.

Holocaustmemorial25thstreet“Feigenbaum’s choice of source material is used to question the moral character of the Allies, who, by the taking the photo itself, exhibit their awareness of the camp existence, and their simultaneous indifference to addressing that very existence,” wrote Nasha Virita at Untapped Cities.

“By doing so, she demonstrates the terrors that arise when law and justice are left by the wayside.”

The smokestack-like column that tops the memorial mimics the columns of the rest of the building. Note the flames carved on the side, above the words “indifference to justice is the gate to hell.”

New York’s postwar-planned Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park remains unbuilt.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks

November 27, 2014

I wonder what Edith Wharton would say about the Starbucks that occupies the ground floor of her former childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue?

Edithwhartonhome

Wharton, beloved by many New Yorkers, was the witty, perceptive writer who chronicled the city’s Gilded Age and early 20th century upper crust society.

EdithwhartonyoungportraitShe noticed manners and morals, and though a coffee chain like Starbucks probably wouldn’t have been her stomping ground, she might have had some sharp insight into why some New Yorkers flock to the place, while others revile it.

Her thoughts about Starbucks can never be known, but she did pen a lovely third-person description of Fifth Avenue in the 1860s.

That’s when young Edith Jones (left) lived in what was then a new brownstone (below, on the right, in the 1880s) in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

Edithwhartonhome1880picturehistory“The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue; the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only—and surprisingly—by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys’ cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York’s water supply,” Wharton wrote in 1934’s A Backward Glance.

Edithwhartonportrait“The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare along which genteel landaus, broughams, and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the ‘carryall’ and ‘surrey’ type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.”

Wharton’s family left the home in the 1870s; it was extensively remodeled, with a cast-iron front added, and barely resembles the stately brownstone it once was.

But down the block are a few brownstones that still maintain parts of their original facade. The New York Times has a piece from a few years’ back on the history of 14 West 23rd Street.

[Third photo: Picture History via The New York Times]

One photographer’s abstract, shadowy New York

September 8, 2014

Some photographers turn their cameras to the faces of people, capturing depth and unguarded emotion in human expression and behavior.

Alvin Langdon Coburn found quiet, abstract beauty in the light and shadows of the landscape of turn of the century New York City.

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[“The Coal Cart,” 1911]

Born in 1882 in Boston, Coburn received his first Kodak as a child in 1890. Infatuated with this relatively new medium, he learned the craft and experimented in the darkroom.

In his 20s, he traveled to New York City and Europe to study with greats such as Edward Steichen. Like leading photographers Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, Coburn was part of the Pictorialist movement.

Coburntheoctopus1912

[“The Octopus,” 1912, taken from the top of the Met Life Tower in Madison Square Park]

Pictorialists “argued that photography was a creative art form, on a par with other visual arts including painting, and not simply a mechanical means of objectively recording the world,” states this post from amateurphotographer.co.uk.

“They used a wide variety of techniques to express emotion and mood, and were particularly known for producing atmospheric, soft-focus portraits and landscapes.”

[“Fifth Avenue From the St. Regis,” 1913]

Coburn exhibited photos in galleries and was commissioned to do portraits of notable men of the era, such as George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. Soon, his work took a more abstract turn.

“Like many photographers associated with Stieglitz, Coburn by 1910 sought to shed the romanticism of the pictorial movement and bring photography more in step with abstract painting and sculpture,” states the National Gallery of Art website.

“He made photographs looking down from the tops of tall buildings to explore the use of flattened perspective and geometric patterning. During World War I he became involved with the Vorticists, a group of British artists, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, who sought to construct a dynamic visual language as abstract as music.”

Coburnbroadwayatnight1905

[“Broadway at Night,” 1905]

“As a photographer of cities and landscapes (1903–10), he concentrated on mood, striving for broad effects and atmosphere in his photographs rather than clear delineation of tones and sharp rendition of detail,” states MOMA.

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[“Flatiron Building,” 1912]

“He was influenced by the work of Japanese painters, which he referred to as the ‘style of simplification.’ He considered simple things to be the most profound,” continues the MOMA website.

AlvinlangdoncoburnselfportraitCoburn didn’t stay in New York long. He moved permanently to the UK in 1912.

By 1918 he had given up photography professionally, devoting the rest of his life to the study of mysticism and the occult.

He died in Wales in 1966, leaving a legacy of enchanting images of the New York of a century ago: the soft glow of early electric lights, 22-story skyscrapers casting monstrous shadows over parks and sidewalks, and the presence of powerful machinery interrupting the serene beauty of nighttime streets.

[Right: self-portrait, 1905]


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