Archive for the ‘Flatiron District’ Category

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.


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.”


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.


[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.


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.


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.


“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:; second image: The Theatre Magazine Advertiser, 1908; third photo: MCNY:; ; 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.


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.

Random sightings of old phone exchange signs

July 4, 2016

The traditional two-letter phone number prefix was officially abandoned in the 1960s.

From time to time, as readers of this site know, they sometimes reveal themselves in faded ads and randomly found signs, like these two below.


I’m not exactly sure what an asbestos curtain was, but American Stage Equipment sold them from an East Harlem office South Bronx office.

The CY exchange is new to me, but according to this guide, it stands for cypress, which places it in the Bronx. The sign hangs in an antiques shop in Brooklyn.


ST could have stood for stagg or sterling in Brooklyn, stillwell in Queens, or Stuyvesant in Manhattan. It was found on a Flatiron building, so Stuyvesant is a good bet.

Confusion and despair in the Tenderloin District

June 16, 2016

At night, the Tenderloin was the city’s red-light district during the turn of the century, a center of sex and sin that blazed with light and put high-rolling millionaires in proximity to lower-class drinkers, gamblers, showgirls, and prostitutes.


During the day, with its veil lifted, the Tenderloin revealed its gritty despair. In “Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street,” John Sloan depicts a confused, distressed woman as others stare or pass her by with indifference.

Sloan seemed to have a fascination with the Tenderloin; the same year, he painted the neighborhood’s “loud and lurid” club, the Haymarket.

A Gilded Age painter’s springtime New York

May 23, 2016

I used to think that Frederick Childe Hassam’s most evocative paintings were his moody, poetic winter scenes of turn of the century New York.


But his Impressionist renderings of Manhattan in springtime—lush parks, rainy blue twilight, and exaggerated pastel skies—are just as striking.


“Lower Fifth Avenue,” at top, depicts the lights and shadows of what appears to be an early spring day in 1890, warm enough to do without overcoats and for leaves to appear on fledgling trees.


“New York is the most beautiful city in the world,” Hassam reportedly said, citing Fifth Avenue as the city’s loveliest street. “Fifth Avenue Nocturne,” from 1895, gives us sidewalks slicked with rain and illuminated by electric lights.

Union Square is an oasis of lush greenery amid the backdrop of a gray city in 1896’s “Union Square in Spring.”


The stretch of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Washington Square was Hassam’s milieu; no surprise, as he had studios at Fifth and 17th and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Washington Arch, Spring,” from 1890, shows what Hassam called “humanity in motion,” which he considered his primary subject and theme.

Madison Square Garden’s massive bowling alley

May 16, 2016

Over the years, the various Madison Square Gardens built in New York have hosted just about every sport: football, boxing, track, hockey, basketball, even swimming.


But who knew the Garden has once been converted into an enormous floor-spanning bowling alley—with pin boys perched at the end of each lane and wooden desks set up where judges sat and did the scoring?

MSG1890It happened in 1909,  when the Stanford White–designed arena was located on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The National Bowling Association came to town to hold its championship, transforming the place into a “bowlers’ paradise” with 24 lanes spanning the entire amphitheater—and $50,000 in prize money.

[Photo: Madison Square Garden 1900, MCNY]

The story behind three faded ads in Manhattan

April 11, 2016

If you look up enough while walking through the city, you see a fair number of these weathered ads, partly erased by rain and grime.


Deciphering what they say isn’t always easy. Take this ad at 23 East 20th Street. “Furs” is still legible, but the name of the company is tricky.

It looks like M. Handin & Grapkin—which is close, as sure enough a company with the name Drapkin appears to have gone into the furrier business as early as 1909.

The wonderful faded sign site says that M. Handin and Drapkin were located in this building around 1909, and the faded ad could be more than a century old.


This building on East 12th Street and University Place is a faded sign spotter’s dream. “Student Clothes” up top is easy enough to read.

Walter Grutchfield’s photo is better than mine, and his caption explains that the company occupied this building from 1924 to 1929.


To get this view of this faded ad at 324 West 84th Street, you have to stand inside the 15th floor apartment of the building next door.

The address is barely legible—and though 324 is an apartment house today, as early as 1918 it was the Hotel Ramsby.

The left side of the ad must have listed room rates, forever lost to the ages.

New York’s most charming holdout buildings

March 21, 2016

Amid New York’s soaring skyline are some lilliputian-size gaps—the low-rise, 19th century buildings whose owners refused to sell when a developer had plans to bulldoze and rebuild next door.


These holdout buildings, now in the shadows of giants, are fun to come across—especially when the architectural style is so vastly different from its newer neighbor.


That’s what I love about this photo of a Romanesque Revival former soap shop on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, dwarfed by a contemporary high rise.


Same goes for these two stately townhouses on Sutton Place. Perhaps they were mansions in their day, but now clearly overwhelmed by the two pre- and post-war luxury apartment houses were built on either side.


This townhouse on Lexington and 57th Street looks like it’s being subsumed. The bigger building is the former Allerton Hotel for Women, built in 1923.

The banner advertisement on the townhouse suggests it’s the property of the larger hotel.


A lovely three-story remnant of old New York has withstood the test of time in the East 20s off Broadway, sandwiched between two 1920s loft-style buildings. What stories it must have to tell!

Stopping at the Buckhorn Tavern on 22nd Street

March 21, 2016

Imagine that it’s the early 19th century.

You’re a farmer coming from the vast countryside of Manhattan or a traveler from Albany or Boston, and you’re trying to get to the actual city of New York, which is concentrated below Canal Street.


Roads aren’t so great, and travel by wagon or stage takes a long time. Good thing that when you need to eat, rest, or take a bed for the night, there are taverns that will welcome you.

One of those taverns is the Buckhorn (or Buck’s Horn), which since 1812 stood on once-bucolic Broadway and 22nd Street. (Below, today, not so bucolic)

Bucksheadtavern20162Described by one 1911 book as “an old and well-known tavern,” this rustic outpost “was ornamented with the head and horns of a buck and was set back a short distance from the street about ten feet higher than the present grade.”

This short description of the tavern also offers a glimpse of the few roads surrounding it.

“It was a favorite road-house for those who drove out upon the Bloomingdale Road (Boston Post Road) … the drivers of the day used to come as far as the Buck’s Horn, then turn through the quiet and shady Love Lane to Chelsea, and thence by the River Road through Greenwich Village and back to the city across the Lispenard meadows.”


Buckhorn Tavern “was the stopping-place for the butchers and bakers,” reminisced one New Yorker in 1866, who recalled the cock fights there.

MadisoncottageOh, and it had a ten-pin alley for bowling, a popular pastime in the post-Colonial city.

The Buckhorn met its end in an early morning fire, which consumed the entire building in 1842 along with four stabled horses.

Luckily another popular roadhouse, Madison Cottage (above), was just a few blocks away at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street—by 1850 a much more populated area.