Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

Madison Square Garden, luminous by moonlight

November 11, 2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890.

At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the most recognizable buildings in New York City, a palace of inspiration and excitement that hosted everything from boxing matches to the circus to the annual Westminster Dog Show.

By 1907, the heyday of the Garden was coming to an end.

A year earlier, White was murdered on the very rooftop garden he designed. He was shot by the jealous (and mentally ill, a jury eventually concluded) husband of Evelyn Nesbit—the young showgirl White sexually assaulted after lacing her drink years earlier at his East 24th Street hideaway across Fifth Avenue.

This Madison Square Garden became the center of the city’s first trial of the century. The story of the building and the scandal surrounding it (including new information about this most notorious murder) is detailed in the new book The Grandest Madison Square Garden, by Suzanne Hinman.

[Postcard: MCNY Collections Portal, F2011.33.1324]

A painter’s stormy view of the Flatiron Building

November 4, 2019

Born during the Civil War in Chicago, Frank Coburn made a name for himself after the turn of the century as an Impressionist landscape painter, known for his moody scenes of Los Angeles and the desert and mountains of Southern California.

But Coburn also painted New York as well. In 1921, he depicted the Flatiron Building, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and the edge of Madison Square Park during a rainstorm: slick streets, bare tree branches, a lone figure under an umbrella…and a sky glowing yellow.

“New York, a Landscape,” is at the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California.

A Gilded Age oddball and his mansion menagerie

October 28, 2019

Imagine yourself at Broadway and 19th Street in the 1870s. All around you is the bustling city of streetcars and grand emporiums, including Arnold Constable & Company’s magnificent store on the southwest corner, part of the Ladies Mile shopping district.

On the northeast corner (above photo), however, is something of a throwback to a rural, undeveloped New York.

At the time, this was the site of a stately, restrained brownstone shielded by a cast iron fence and with a substantial backyard garden where peacocks, storks, guinea fowl, and even a cow roamed the premises.

This 1830 mansion, called a “curiosity shop” by one publication, was the longtime home of Peter Goelet, a wealthy heir and one of Gilded Age New York’s best known oddballs.

“An eccentric man gone,” read the headline of the New York Times on November 22, 1879, one day after the lifelong bachelor’s death at the age of 80.

Everyone in New York at the time knew of the Goelet family. Peter Goelet was a descendant of François Goellete, a Huguenot refugee who arrived in New York in 1686, according to a McClure’s magazine article in 1912.

His son Peter became a wealthy ironmonger and owner of a hardware concern on Hanover Square. Peter’s sons married into a landowning family that in the early 19th century held a swath of Manhattan from roughly Union Square to Grand Central Terminal.

This land was all beyond the city limits at the time, and neither Union Square nor Grand Central Terminal even existed. But as the 18th century went on and Manhattan moved northward, this land, much of it centered on Broadway, would make the Goelets extremely rich.

The Peter Goelet living on Broadway and 19th Street, aka “Peter the Hermit,” helped manage the family real estate holdings. While passersby were charmed by his livestock—in particular the one lone cow on the property, which Peter kept for fresh milk and even milked the cow himself—the man was very much a mystery.

On one hand, he was notoriously thrifty, “noted for his economy” as the Times put it. He saved scrap paper to use as rent receipts and stood by his rule of “never parting with a foot of land.”

He was not a people person. “His usual expression was of complete abstraction, bordering, at times, upon melancholy,” the Times continued. “It is said of him that he never smiled but once, and that was 20 years ago when a Mr. Naylor congratulated him upon the handsome pair of horses he had recently been driving at Rockaway.”

Nor did he have any interest in being a society swell. “Of Peter himself his fellow New Yorkers obtained only occasional glimpses,” stated McClure’s.

“A spare, bent, gray-haired figure, shabbily and scantily dressed, with hat drawn down and coat closely buttoned up, passed silently now and then through the streets, usually on some rent-collecting tour.”

Goelet’s devotion was to his widowed sister, Hannah Gerry (who lived with him); Hannah’s son, a favored nephew; and his animals.

“He was a lifelong collector of blooded poultry and rare birds,” wrote McClure’s. “He filled his Broadway garden with storks, peacocks, birds of paradise, cranes, and Indian pheasants—his backyard, indeed, would have served as a modern stage-setting for Chantecler.”

The Times‘ obituary pointed out that though he was eccentric, he wasn’t mean; he took care of the families of soldiers from a New York regiment who died in the Civil War. Goelet was also a blacksmith who spent hours in his basement forge.

After Peter’s death and his burial in the family vault at St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street, Hannah Gerry continued to live in the house. Gradually, the birds and the cow disappeared.

Gerry died in 1895, and the house was torn down in 1897. It was replaced by a tall commercial building that blended right into this corridor of commerce—Goelet and his mansion menagerie mostly forgotten.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893, second photo: New-York Historical Society, 1893; third and fourth images: date and source unknown; fifth photo: MCNY, 1885, X2010.11.820; sixth photo: NYPL 1900; seventh photo: New York Times headline 1879]

Two beautiful mystery signs on a Flatiron facade

May 13, 2019

Lots of older New York buildings have stylized signs that contain the building’s street address.

But none are as unusual and mysterious as the two signs affixed to the facade of 144 Fifth Avenue, a four-story, late 19th century walkup near 19th Street.

“One Hundred Forty Four” the first one playfully proclaims. “Fifth Avenue” reads the second sign.

Both signs look like medallions or shields, yet the numerals and letters seem inspired by Art Nouveau—a type of design popular in the early 20th century in Europe that didn’t quite take off the same way in New York.

Art Nouveau borrows its twists and curves from nature, and each sign has what looks like flowers drooping at the bottom.

Who added these to the building? It’s a mystery. (At left, 144 Fifth Avenue in 1940.)

However, at the turn of the century the building was occupied by a furniture dealer and decorator, according to the Evening World. Later it housed an art gallery called Cottier & Co.

Perhaps one of these artistically minded occupants thought to create the signs, which blend in behind the fire escape and are almost impossible to see.

[Third photo: NYC Tax Photo Department of Records]

The 1905 hotel named for a Gilded Age beauty

March 18, 2019

When it opened in 1905 at 7 East 27th Street, it was the Hotel Broztell: an elegant, 250-room Beaux Arts hotel with an entrance flanked by globe-like lamps and decorative touches on the limestone facade.

After a renovation in 2014 (at right), the hotel was rechristened the Evelyn.

The new name pays homage to Evelyn Nesbit, one of the most famous beauties of the Gilded Age.

Nesbit was a model and actress whose rise and fall in the city centered right here in this Madison Square Park neighborhood.

Born near Pittsburgh in 1884, her father’s death left Nesbit’s family penniless. After many stops and starts she, her younger brother, and her mother moved to Manhattan in 1901, taking rooms on East 22nd Street.

The teenager’s beauty caught the eye of artists and photographers. Soon Nesbit was a much sought-after model and chorus girl in the Broadway musical hit Florodora.

She also caught the eye of architect Stanford White. “Stanny,” as he was called, was famous for the buildings he designed, many of which were in the East 20s.

The middle-aged White was also famous for his interest in pretty young showgirls.

He was introduced to Nesbit by another chorus girl, who brought her to the apartment he kept at 22 West 24th Street.

Of the apartment, Nesbit later described being ushered into “the most gorgeous room I have ever seen….It was hung around with velvet; divans and great billowing cushions were everywhere, tiny little Oriental tables, all the impedimenta of luxury, were displayed on either hand.”

Soon Nesbit was visiting White here on her own. At first, their relationship was more paternal, she later wrote. But after White encouraged her mother to leave town one weekend, he invited Nesbit over and subsequently drugged and raped her, she later alleged.

The Evelyn hotel is also just down the street from where Madison Square Garden once stood. Designed by White, this second incarnation of the Garden had a breezy rooftop that was popular with the city’s movers and shakers.

It was here on the roof garden one warm night in June 1906 where Nesbit’s mentally ill and extremely jealous husband, Harry Thaw, approached White from behind and shot him dead.

The ensuing courtroom drama was considered the first “trial of the century” by city newspapers. (Thaw was ultimately found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.)

Little inside the Hotel Evelyn remains from the Gilded Age. The facade is preserved, and a hotel employee told me the original marble floor remains. (At left, the hotel in 1910 next to the once equally elegant Prince George Hotel.)

But how many guests know of the hotel’s namesake and that the events surrounding her fame and then scandal happened within five years right here in today’s Flatiron neighborhood?

(Second Photo: MCNY, 1906; 93.1.1.6019; fifth photo: New-York Historical Society)

A Gilded Age painter’s rainy, wintry New York

January 7, 2019

Cold rain and wet snow make it hard to get around New York on foot and take in its beauty. But damp weather like this was ideal for the Impressionist painters who lived and worked in the city at the turn of the last century.

With dark streets marked by puddles and tree branches heavy with water, the Gilded Age city glistened. The blurred faces of New Yorkers in black coats and hats came across as elusive and mysterious.

Carriages and street cars made their way through wet streets with passengers hidden and snug inside. Tall buildings higher than treetops and small walkup tenements alternate in the background.

Few painters revel in this rainy enchantment quite like Paul Cornoyer. Born in St. Louis in 1864, he came to New York at the tail end of the Gilded Age in 1899.

Cornoyer focused on Madison Square Park, at the time still a lovely spot in Manhattan but no longer than exclusive park of the city’s elite. The Flatiron building and Madison Square Park can be seen in the background of many of his paintings.

But he also visited other locations, like Columbus Circle, Central Park West (the site of the fourth painting above), Washington Square. His depictions of these and other streets and parks present us an atmospheric Gotham with soft, dreamlike contours.

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.

The blue glow of the Flatiron Building at twilight

October 22, 2018

When the Flatiron Building opened in 1902, this graceful steel-frame skyscraper was a symbol of 20th century urban power and progress.

Two years later, pioneering photographer Edward Steichen created this photo of the Flatiron. He gave the image a blue glow during printing to make it evocative of twilight. And with the tree branches and puddles of rain in the foreground, he juxtaposed the made-made tower with powerful elements of the natural world.

“Steichen may have been drawing on his knowledge of Japanese prints, in which similar natural and built features exist harmoniously,” states this Middlebury College Museum of Art page. Japanese woodblock prints were all the rage at the time.

[Photo: Metmuseum]

A 1906 dust storm beside the Flatiron Building

September 3, 2018

Ever notice that the area in front of the Flatiron Building—that triangular juncture where 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway meet, is kind of a windy spot?

John Sloan did. On a June day in 1906, he recorded this in his diary: “In the afternoon, walking on Fifth Avenue, we were on the edge of a beautiful wind storm, the air full of dust and a sort of panicky terror in all the living things in sight.”

This painting, “Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue,” is Sloan’s interpretation of that day. It “captures the mayhem of that afternoon, in which the Flatiron Building itself—the only skyscraper in a low-rise neighborhood—created the wind tunnel effect depicted by Sloan,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting resides today.

The windy effect on 23rd Street was the subject of a 1901 film clip and then another from 1903, the latter placing the camera at the foot of the Flatiron and capturing hats and skirts blowing in the gusts.

A mysterious store sign reappears in Flatiron

April 23, 2018

The upside of new construction is that old bits and pieces of the city come back into view.

At 1165 Broadway, a landmarked 1867 building (below, in 1900) currently being transformed into coop, a shadowy color sign has reappeared.

“Smith’s” the sign says. The logo next to it reads “Guaranteed never to rip” and includes an image of the biblical Samson and a lion. A smaller tagline reads “wear like Samsons . . . made?” That fourth word is hard to figure out.

So what was Smith’s selling? The phrase “guaranteed never to rip” was used in ads for cheap suits decades ago. But the mention of Samson, known not for cheap suits but his ability to rip a lion in half, makes this ad a mystery.

[Second image: NYPL]