Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

The Gilded Age painter devoted to ‘scenes of every-day life around him’

October 11, 2021

“I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him,” Childe Hassam said in 1892, three years after this Boston-born Impressionist painter settled permanently in New York City.

“New York Winter,” 1900

Painting scenes of everyday life around him is exactly what Hassam did for the next four decades. From his first studio at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, he began depicting random moments in the Gilded Age city. His Impressionist style brilliantly captured light and color: of gaslit lamps, snowy sidewalks, rain-slicked umbrellas, and the sky at the “blue hour” just before twilight.

“Messenger Boy,” 1900

Perhaps his best-known works are urban landscapes near Washington Square, Union Square, and Madison Square, and Ephemeral New York has posted many examples over the years. But ultimately, Hassam was interested in what he termed “humanity in motion.”

“The Manhattan Club,” 1891

“‘There is nothing so interesting to me as people,’ he remarked in 1892,” according to an article from Smithsonian Magazine. “’I am never tired of observing them in every-day life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me.’”

“Broadway and 42nd Street,” 1902

Hassam’s subjects engage in habits and rituals New Yorkers still take part in, and they occupy a city that looks familiar to us today. Despite transportation options like elevated trains, streetcars, and horse-drawn cabs, Gotham was a city of walkers, then and now.

“Old Bottleman,” 1892

New York was also a class-structured city in Hassam’s era, as it remains today. Elegant men and women enjoy leisure time while cab drivers, messengers, doormen, vendors, and other workers earn a living around them.

“View of Broadway and Fifth Avenue,” 1890

Critics then and now have pointed out that Hassam’s work lacks the rough edges and raw social realist energy of many of his contemporaries. “In New York, for example, he ignored the new heterogeneity and hardships, romanticized symbols of modernism such as skyscrapers, and emphasized fast-fading Gilded Age gentility,” states Boston’s Gardner Museum.

“Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue,” 1893

Hassam had a simple answer for his critics and those in the art world who latched onto trends. According to the Smithsonian Magazine article, he told a critic in 1901: “I can only paint as I do and be myself. Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint.”

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

It’s hard not to love New York’s holdout buildings

May 17, 2021

A holdout building is a piece of property that refused the wrecking ball. Instead of bowing to threats of eminent domain or accepting an offer to sell, the building’s owner holds their ground and forces developers to change plans.

In New York City, that doesn’t seem to usually stop developers; they simply build around the holdout. and that leads to some pretty incongruous streetscapes, like this one above. Here, a late 19th century tenement continually gets the squeeze from two postwar towers on East 79th Street between First and York Avenues.

Some holdout buildings stood their ground decades ago. This yellow brick walkup was probably part of a long line of once-fashionable townhouses on East 20th Street near Fifth Avenue in the mid- to late 1800s. Tall loft buildings replaced them in the early 1900s…but the set-back holdout at number 34 remains.

Was this holdout in the Diamond District on West 47th Street once bright white and glorious? That balcony makes it look like a palace flanked by two dour bullies.

This skinny holdout (only wide enough for one window per floor!) was built in 1865, when West 46th Street was near the magnificent Croton Reservoir at 42nd and Fifth. I imagine this was another block of residences slowly replaced by tall loft buildings after the turn of the century…except for this one.

Nat Sherman Cigars operated out of this townhouse for years before closing up shop in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic. Though the townhouse itself wasn’t built until 1971 at 12 East 42nd Street, a previous holdout building stood its ground between these bigger guys, reserving the space.

This last one is a holdout mystery. The photo was sent to me years ago, and I’ve had no luck tracking down where exactly it was taken. In any event, it’s hard not to love the little cabin and the walkup behind it (those shutters!), both almost swallowed up by the cityscape around it.

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]