Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

The neon glow is gone from a Murray Hill deli sign

November 16, 2020

After 72 years in Murray Hill, including 63 of them at Second Avenue and 34th Street, the Clover Delicatessen has shut its doors for good.

The Clover Deli, RIP

The shutdown was partly due to of Covid, but also because the third generation family members who ran the deli wanted to move on, according to the New York Post.

No more black and white cookies and rugelach from this old-school deli. But what will become of the gorgeous neon sign, which glowed at this corner since 1957?

The sign in better days, exploding with color

It’s off now, but the Post reports that the owners intend to bequeath it to the new tenant. They’re also considering donating it to a sign museum—good news for fans of New York’s disappearing vintage neon store signs.

[Top Photo: Duane Sherwood]

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]

Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan

July 27, 2020

You can learn a lot about New York’s makers and inventors just by coal hole covers—the decorative iron lids that lead to a storage space beneath the sidewalk where coal for heating a house or building was stored.

This beauty embossed with stars sits at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street.

“Dreier Safety Coal Hole Cover” it reads, listing an address in today’s East Village and a patent date, April 1919.

What’s a safety coal hole cover? A 1979 New York Times obituary for Abraham Dreier, the Polish immigrant who founded the Dreier Structural Steel Company in 1917, doesn’t explain it. But the obituary does say that Dreier patented the cover after he began his career making fire escapes.

Dreier’s company had an earlier address on the Lower East Side’s now-defunct Goerck Street.

What’s better than a coal hole cover than a coal hole cover with vault lights? This one was made by the Brooklyn Vault Light Company, once located on Monitor Street in Greenpoint. (The company had several addresses in the neighborhood, the ever-informative Walter Grutchfield says.)

Vault lights are basically glass skylights that allow sunlight into a space, though I’m not sure why that would be advantageous in a hole designed to store coal.

This coal hole cover is also a safety cover, patented in August 1905. The company operated from 1896 to 1958, according to Glassian. The company is gone, but the cover remains at East 73rd Street near Lexington Avenue, a quiet monument to the ironworks of another New York.

The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

June 22, 2020

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY 93.1.1.1995; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.18096; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

A Downtown plaque for a soldier who died at sea

May 25, 2020

It’s a simple marker inside the dog run at Stuyvesant Square, the leafy park on either side of Second Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets.

“In honor and memory of Pvt. Moses Miller, who died at sea January 26, 1944.” The plaque was dedicated in 1946, it says.

The dog run is currently closed, unfortunately, but a photo of the plaque, taken by Larry Gertner, is on the Historical Markers Database—a site that keeps track of markers and memorials across the country.

Who was Moses Miller? His exact fate remains a mystery, but the Brooklyn Eagle in March 1944 included him on a list of men from Brooklyn and Queens who were deemed missing in action by the War Department.

Private Miller’s address was listed as 417 South Fifth Street, making him a Williamsburg resident. He was lost at sea in the Mediterranean, according to the Eagle.

New York City has many elaborate war memorials. But sometimes it’s the simple plaques in out-of-the-way spots that really hit home what it means to die for your country.

[Photos: Larry Gertner/Historical Markers Database]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

The gingerbread carriage house of 38th Street

March 16, 2020

Every once in a while, you see a building in New York City that’s so whimsical, it looks like it stepped out of a fable.

Take a look at this Dutch Revival–style carriage house, with its brick facade, spirals, stepped gables, and fan-like stonework surrounding the door and windows.

Ornate and unusual, the little stub of a building on East 38th Street in Murray Hill seems inspired by a fairy tale—you almost expect it to be made from gingerbread.

Adding to the carriage house’s beauty are the two stone horse heads looking out between the first and second stories. Then there’s the growly bulldog keeping an eye on things up top.

For such a fanciful structure, its backstory echoes that of other New York City carriage houses—built for wealthy New Yorkers who resided in nearby mansions and could afford to spend money on the place they housed their horses.

Named for a banker who worked with J.P. Morgan, the George S. Bowdoin Stable was completed in 1902 by architect Ralph Townsend. He designed it for Murray Hill landowner and real estate developer William Martin, according to Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill.

“The carriage house was acquired by Bowdoin in 1907, converted to a garage in 1918 by Mrs. Bowdoin, and later converted to a single-family residence, eventually yielding to commercial use.”

This homage to the whimsy of early 20th century architects was up for sale in 2016—check out the ultra modern interior, courtesy of 6sqft.com. (The price at the time: $8.35 million!)

[Third image: MCNY, 1976, 2013.3.2.252]