Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

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]

A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

April 17, 2017

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

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.

The most spectacular roofs are in Union Square

April 10, 2017

On a walk around Union Square, it’s impossible not to look up, thanks to the number of gorgeous roofs—stacked, sloping, multi-tiered roofs that top off the Gilded Age buildings like the elaborate feathered hats worn by stylish women of the era.

The four-story mansard roof crowning 201 Park Avenue South is perhaps the most impressive. This gorgeous building—close to the heavily German East Village back in the day—was once the headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company, built in fashionable French Renaissance style in 1911.

On the north side of the square at 33 East 17th Street is the Century Building, with it Queen Anne bells and whistles and two-story gambrel roof. Opened in 1881, the first tenant was a music publisher—and there’s a publishing link today, with Barnes & Noble occupying four floors.

A little farther up Broadway at 20th Street is a mansard roof like no other. Lord & Taylor built this Victorian blowout in 1870, when this stretch of Broadway was nicknamed Ladies Mile. The enormous store featured one of New York’s first steam elevators, and the company installed the first Christmas window decorations.

A detour to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street puts this double-decker Addams Family–esque roof in view. This is the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods store, also part of Ladies Mile.

Constructed between 1869 to 1877, the monster emporium spanned 19th Street from Broadway to Fifth Avenue.

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

All that remains of the Flatiron Novelty District

January 12, 2017

noveltyshackmansignIs this cast-iron plaque outside a trendy clothing store on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street really all that’s left of Manhattan’s once-thriving Novelty District?

I think it must be. B. Shackman & Co. began selling cheap toys, costumes, and gag gifts in 1898—one of several novelty stores that popped up in the early 20th century between Union and Madison Squares.

Jeremiah has a treasure of photos of the store from 1980, before the space was taken over by Anthropologie in the 1990s.

noveltymgordon

An entire neighborhood devoted to party favors, decorations, jokes, games, and magic tricks? It made it into the 1980s, but it couldn’t possibly survive in a more luxurious city and a digital commerce world.

The Novelty District went the way of Flatiron’s former Photo District and Chelsea’s Fur District and Sewing Machine District. The Flower District on Sixth Avenue in the 20s might be next.

gordonnovelties

Gordon Novelty, with its 1930s storefront lettering and facade painted in explosive blue, was the last holdout of the Novelty District, located on Broadway and 22nd Street. [Second photo in 2007; third in 2010, from Greenwich Village Daily Photo.]

The place went down in 2007, Jeremiah reported.

A modern facade hides a 19th century building

November 14, 2016

Paint, glass, brick face—there are lots of ways to cover up the original facade of an old city building and give it a more modern spin.

18east14thstreet

But sometimes a piece of the old structure ends up peeking through, or it’s impossible to cover it up completely. That appears to be the case with 18 East 14th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place.

The second through fifth floors are covered in what looks like 20th century brick face. The sixth floor, though, has the facade of an older turn-of-the-century building, with oval windows similar to its neighbor on the right and 19th century-era decorative touches.

18east14thstreetcloseup

Was this structure really built in 1930, as Streeteasy states? Looks more like it belongs to the bustling 14th Street of streetcars, department stores, piano showrooms, and elevated train stations.

New York inspired this 1930s masterpiece mural

October 17, 2016

Biographies of painter Thomas Hart Benton usually describe him as a Regionalist, an art-world misfit who eschewed the Abstract style of the 1920s and 1930s and painted images of everyday life in the American heartland.

bentonityactivitieswithsubway

But Benton did live in New York in the teens and 1920s, and he drew partly on his experiences in the city when he created his 1931 mural masterpiece, “America Today.”

bentoncityactivitieswithdancehall

Asked by the New School to paint a mural for the boardroom of the college’s new building at 66 West 12th Street, Hart produced a 10-panel monument to American life—depicting the rise of industrialization and technology as well as the harvesting of cotton and wheat, along with allusions to societal inequality and hardship.

bentonmadisonsquare1924

[Above, Madison Square Park by Thomas Hart Benton (1924), not part of the mural]

Two panels in particular were inspired by New York. “City Activities with Subway” (top image) shows the energetic street life at the time: burlesque shows, sidewalk preachers, tabloid newspapers, and subway riders looking in every direction except at one another.

bentonportrait1935“City Activities With Dance Hall” (second image) captures the rush of big business, going to the theater, drinking at a bar (Prohibition was still in effect), and letting loose by dancing.

In a 2014 Smithsonian article about “America Today,” Paul Theroux quoted Benton. “’Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.’”

Taken down by the New School (who reportedly paid Benton in tempura paint, not money) in the 1980s, Benton’s masterpiece moved to the lobby of 1290 Sixth Avenue. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Above: Thomas Hart Benton, 1935]

Where fashionable Gilded Age ladies lunched

September 12, 2016

Let’s say you’re a well-off New York woman in the late 19th century, and you’re on an excursion to Ladies Mile—the area roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th and 23rd Streets where the city’s chicest emporiums and boutiques were located.

maillards1902shop

Shopping is time-consuming, and your stomach starts growling. Where could you grab a bite to eat or a snack?

maillardstheatermagazinead1908Social rules at the time made it almost impossible to sit down at a restaurant, as most eateries either banned or discouraged women unaccompanied by men (you might be mistaken for a prostitute).

You certainly couldn’t sit at the counter at a saloon or club, as these were off-limits to women as well.

Your options, then? Going to one of the new women’s lunch rooms or tea rooms, sometimes in the department store itself. Or you could visit a confectionery—a fancy sweets shop that served a light lunch and treats.

Maillard’s Confectionery, on 23rd Street inside the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel, was one of the most fashionable. Billing itself as “an ideal luncheon restaurant for ladies,” the shop was “an Edwardian fantasy” according to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.

maillards1902

This description of a new Maillard’s on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street that opened in 1908 (as department stores relocated uptown, so did the restaurants catering to female shoppers) gives an idea of what was on the menu.

maillardsladiesluncheon

“The lunches, as of old, will be light and dainty with the Maillard chocolate and cocoa, coffee or tea. Wines will not be served,” stated Brooklyn Life in October 1908.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverLife for New York women after the Civil War was decidedly not coed, with ladies generally expected to stick to and find fulfillment in what was dubbed the domestic sphere.

Find out more about how women’s roles began to change in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY: 93.1.1.18170; second image: The Theatre Magazine Advertiser, 1908; third photo: MCNY: 93.1.1.18409; ; fourth photo: MCNY: X2011.34.3811]

Walking along Madison Square after the rain

September 9, 2016

I don’t know the name of this painting, but the artist, Paul Cornoyer, often depicted Madison Square and other well-traveled hubs of the Gilded Age city, especially after a rainstorm.

cornoyerdeweyarch

Doesn’t look like Madison Square? It must be the arch and colonnades that are throwing things off. It’s all part of the Dewey Arch, erected at Fifth Avenue and about 25th Street for a parade honoring Admiral George Dewey, victorious in the Philippines in 1898.

The triumphant arch only stood for a year. After the 1899 parade, money was supposed to be raised to make the arch permanent—like Washington Square’s new marble arch. Instead, it was bulldozed in 1900.