Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

A “glorious display of pageantry” on Fifth Avenue

June 29, 2020

Imagine if Fifth Avenue today was decked out in American flags as it was on July 4, 1916—with the Stars and Stripes flying from the roofs and facades of so many buildings.

Impressionist painter Childe Hassam captured this scene, likely near his longtime studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at 17th Street.

Massachusetts-born Hassam, a successful and accomplished artist in his era, gave the painting an illustrious name: “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May).”

The painting demonstrates how “New Yorkers rallied with patriotic fervor to support the ‘preparedness movement’ in anticipation of the nation’s inevitable entry into the Great War in Europe,” states the New-York Historical Society, which was gifted the painting in 2016.

“Advocates of the preparedness cause staged parades in cities all over the country from 1914 until 1916. One such parade in May 1916―up Broadway and Fifth Avenue, led by an enormous, 95-foot flag and lasting over 11 hours―inspired Hassam to begin working on a series of works, which he painted over the course of three years from 1916 to 1918.”

Hassam supported the US entry into the war; he was a francophile who studied and lived in Paris, like many of his contemporaries.

[Above left, “The Avenue in the Rain,” 1917; at right, “Flags on the Waldorf,” 1916]

A grander parade on July 4, 1916 inspired “The Fourth of July, 1916,” described by the New-York Historical Society as a “glorious display of pageantry.”

Hassam ultimately completed about 30 works in his flags series, depicting the US flag on other city buildings and on Allies Day in May 1917 (above).

If you like his flags, you must see his evocative streetscapes that capture the beauty and poetry on day-to-day life in our metropolis.

Old subway sign beauty on a 23rd Street platform

February 17, 2020

You won’t notice them as you descend the grimy stairs into the 23rd Street station.

But once you’re on the platform waiting for your R or W train, the uniqueness of the individual tiles and swirly typeface hits you.

These are the original mosaic tile bands and tablets added to platform walls when this station opened in 1918, per Subway.org.

What is it about the tiles themselves, as well as the curlicue numbers and serif lettering, that are so much more magical than the helvetica signage used in many stations today?

They turn an otherwise drab local station beneath Broadway into a time machine to the early days of the subway system, when architects were brought in to refine and beautify rough, industrial-looking platforms.

This is the station with the beloved hat tiles as well, a recent installation that’s a nod to the area’s history as an entertainment and shopping district.

But there’s just something about the colors and craftwork of those “23” and “23rd Street” tiles that really enchant and delight.

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]

A Lower East Side artist who painted the city

January 6, 2020

You might not know of Samuel Halpert, who was born in Bialystok, Russia (now Poland) and moved with his family to live among other Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1890 when he was five years old.

[“The Flatiron Building,” 1919]

But you’ll recognize the New York City he painted in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of his subjects—new skyscrapers, steel bridges—foretold that the 20th century would be big and bold.

Other subjects, such as the East River waterfront, downtown neighborhoods, and the poetic view from tenement rooftops, were more intimate glimpses of the moods of the modern city.

[“Sheridan Square, New York,” 1920]

Halpert’s art education consisted of classes at neighborhood settlement houses, then the National Academy of Design as well as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, and also painted figures, interior scenes, and murals (for the money, according to a biography from the Spellman Gallery).

[“Downtown,” 1922]

But perhaps the New York he came of age in was his main inspiration and most popular subject matter—which he took on in a style that blended Post-Impressionism and Fauvism (in the style of “wild beasts,” according to one source).

[“City View,” date unknown]

Halpert’s talent was immense, and he attracted attention. But his life was brief. He moved between New York and Paris in the teens, came back to New York for a spell, then took a teaching job at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit in 1926.

[“A View of the Brooklyn Bridge,” date unknown]

Halpert died in 1930. While his name is mostly forgotten, his colorful, sometimes dynamic and sometimes somber paintings remain…and deserve a wider audience.

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.