Archive for the ‘Gramercy/Murray Hill’ Category

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.

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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]

The brick and mortar ghosts all over Manhattan

January 16, 2017

The history of New York City is written on its walls—the walls of apartment houses and commercial buildings still standing, bearing the faded outline of those that met the bulldozer long ago.

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These phantom buildings are on every block (above, Fourth Avenue and 1oth Street), especially in today’s city with its constant renovation and rebuilding—what Walt Whitman called “knock down and pull over again spirit.”

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The roofs of these faded ghosts are often slanted and peaked—hints that a Federal-style house or stable once existed there. I’m guessing this outline on 11th Avenue in the west 20s, above, was a stable.

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Many of the outlines resemble the shells of tenements. This phantom at Rector Street, above, is likely all that remains of an anonymous tenement where generations of New Yorkers lived and raised families.

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The ghost building on Great Jones Street near Lafayette Street above, with what appears to be the outline of three chimneys, looks too short to be a tenement. Probably just a walk-up with a couple of flats per floor.

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The painted-white outline here on Third Avenue in Gramercy could have been a single family home, similar to the one on the left side of the photo hidden behind scaffolding.

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On West 57th Street a lonely tenement bears the remains of its neighbor, which had what looks like a central chimney or rooftop exit door.

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Is this the ghost of another stable or carriage house? It’s on the far West Side around 42nd Street, where the city’s last remaining working stables are.

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.

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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.

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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 walk down Manhattan’s first “block beautiful”

January 9, 2017

New York City has hundreds of breathtaking residential streets that inspire beauty—and deep real-estate envy.

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But perhaps the first “block beautiful,” as it was called by a home design magazine around 1909, is the stretch of East 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue.

19thstreet139The houses here were largely built in the 1850s—two decades after real estate man Samuel Ruggles bought land on a marsh-turned-farm called by the old Dutch name “crommesshie” and remade it into Gramercy Park.

Yet 19th Street’s eclectic charm comes in part from architect Frederick Sterner, who remodeled many of the original houses in the early 1900s, starting with his own at number 139 (left).

Sterner altered traditional brownstones, considered dour by the turn of the century, into more fashionable residences with playful touches like light colors, wide shutters, jockey statues, stucco facades, and colored tiles.

19thstreetgeorgebellowsHis alterations earned high-fives from architectural critics and attracted painters and actors, turning the block into something of an artists’ colony in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of those artists was social realist painter George Bellows, who moved his family into number 146 (right) closer to the Third Avenue end of the block and built an attic studio.

Bellows was known to paint scenes of Gramercy Park, like this one from 1920 with his kids in the center.

19thstreetgiraffepanelsPainter and muralist Robert Winthrop Chanler lived across from Bellows at number 147, the wide and pretty home with the whimsical giraffe panels over the entrances (left).

They mimic the giraffes in one of Chanler’s murals, from 1922.

Tudor-style number 132 (below), built by Sterner, has an illustrious list of former tenants, including muckraking author Ida Tarbull and painter Cecilia Beaux.

19thstreet132cityrealtySome well-known actresses also reportedly lived in this apartment building in the middle of the block: Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Theda Bara.

Of course, no New York City block beautiful would be complete without renovated carriage houses, and this pocket of East 19th Street has three.

The two neighbor stables at numbers 127 and 129 (below) near Irving Place may have been built as early as the 1860s.

Their red brick and Gothic touches make them look like they belong in a fairy tale.

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And then there’s teeny tiny number 124, also on the end close to Irving Place, which comes off as a holdover from the colonial Dutch era (below).

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This Flemish-inspired carriage house actually only dates to the late 19th century and for most of its history has been a residence.

This street by the East River needs a better name

December 19, 2016

New York City’s street grid was laid out in the 1811, part of the Commissioners’ Plan that shaped the cityscape of contemporary Manhattan north of Houston Street.

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But changes are always made, and new roads crop up to accommodate new buildings, parks, and drives.

But couldn’t the New York City Department of Transportation come up with something more descriptive than this street name above, for a small road beside the FDR Drive in the East 20s?

Even if this street really is brand new—it’s not on Google maps, so it’s hard to tell—we can be more creative than this!

East 26th Street: New York’s “Misery Lane”

December 12, 2016

It was in a part of Manhattan, at the edge of a poor neighborhood of tenements and groggeries, where no one wanted to end up.

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But thousands of city residents did found themselves on Misery Lane, as the short stretch of East 26th Street between First Avenue and the East River was known in the turn-of-the-century city.

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This block was a dumping ground for the sick, alcoholic, and mentally ill, who sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital, which bordered East 26th Street (above).

Some New Yorkers had a sense of humor about it, as this rhyme from a 1917 medical magazine demonstrates:

miserylane19142T.B., aneurysm, and gin-drinker’s liver;
Tabetics, paretics, plain drunk, and insane;
First Avenue’s one end, the other’s the river;
Twenty-sixth Street between they call Misery Lane!

Criminals showed up on Misery Lane as well.

Men and women convicted of a range of crimes were deposited via police wagon on a dock known as Charities Pier at the end of East 26th Street (below).

From there, they were ferried to the workhouse and penitentiary across the East River to Blackwell’s Island to serve their time.

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The poor also stood in line at Charities Pier. Unable to afford rent, food, coal, and other necessities, their last resort was the Blackwell’s Island almshouse.

Misery Lane was the site of the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 to house mostly homeless, often derelict men (top and second photos), but also women and children.

trianglefireoutsidemorgueWith the city morgue on 26th Street as well, Misery Lane was the last place New York’s unknown dead went before being interred in the potter’s field on Hart Island.

And when mass tragedy struck the city, Misery Lane was involved as well.

Bodies found after the General Slocum disaster were brought here to be identified—as were the horribly burned corpses of Triangle Fire victims (above right).

Misery Lane is long gone, of course.

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Today, 26th Street ends not at a charity-run pier but with a lovely view of the deceptively placid river . . . all the way to Blackwell’s, er, Roosevelt Island (above).

[Top and third photos: NYC Municipal Archives; second and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A hidden magical garden behind the FDR Drive

November 28, 2016

Considering the density of its streets, New York is a city with a surprising number of hidden gardens: some in churchyards, others created on empty lots, and some designed to mask garages and other unpretty structures.

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But few of these green spaces are as hard to get to as the quarter-acre oasis between the FDR Drive and First Avenue, behind the cluster of buildings that make up Bellevue Hospital Center.

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It’s the Bellevue Sobriety Garden, a strangely magical place that mixes sculpture, trees, flowers, mosaics, doll parts, cement, and foliage.

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Started by a Bellevue psychiatrist in 1989 and tended to by recovering addicts in the hospital’s Chemical Recovery Program, this isn’t your typical serene green space.

You won’t find many tourists or crowds here; it’s accessible via a lonely stretch of 26th Street beyond First Avenue or from an FDR Drive off ramp. And it’s not a landscaped masterpiece; grass can be patchy, and it has a wild, overgrown look to it.

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But that’s all part of its whimsical and imaginative charm, a garden straight out of an artist’s fairy tale. It’s not exactly a secret, but if you visit, you’ll feel like you stumbled into a New York you never knew.

The entrance, flanked by enormous statues and pieces of old buildings, welcomes visitors while encouraging them not to steal the veggies and fruits grown here in warmer months.

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Slender cobblestone paths take you past patches of flowers to benches, trellises, a wooden bridge, and a tiny gingerbread-like house. Along the way you’ll walk past mosaics and sculptures of sheep, dogs, pigs, and a snake.

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Take a walk through it, and you’ll forget about the parking lot next door and the roaring traffic on the FDR Drive.

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Back in 2014, someone came in and vandalized the garden, defacing its statues. By the looks of things now, on a warmish autumn day, everything seems back in order—a peaceful and magical respite not very accessible to the average New Yorker.

A turkey dinner at the Municipal Lodging House

November 24, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1931, in New York City.

By early 1932, one in three city residents will be out of work. Roughly 1.6 million were on the relief rolls, according to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Down and out New Yorkers began building a Hooverville in Central Park.

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And an astounding 10,000 men waited for their turn to sit down to dinner at the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the foot of East 25th Street.

This New York City Department of Records photo captured a group of these men in bulky overcoats and hats. They’re young and old, mostly oblivious to the camera and focused only on consuming their turkey and potatoes.

The first children’s court was in the East Village

November 14, 2016

childrencourtstreetsignSay you were a 19th century New York kid picked up by cops for pickpocketing or stealing candy.

Like all alleged offenders, your case would go before a judge, and you might even have been held in one of the city’s infamous prisons, like the Tombs, with other adults.

But in the early 1900s, a novel idea hit in the city: trying minors under age 16 in a special court just for kids, to “guard children against the exposure and environment of crime,” as a 1902 New York Times piece put it.

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City law already made a few concessions for minors; for example, they waited for their case in a separate room, so they wouldn’t come into contact with “the intemperate and dissolute classes that are found in police courts.”

But reformers wanted to take it a step further. Most of the crimes kids committed were misdemeanors, and the thinking was that a separate court “inclined toward mercy,” in the words of another Times writer, would help keep children from becoming hardened criminals.

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With this in mind, the city’s first Children’s Court opened that year at Third Avenue and 11th Street (second image) in today’s East Village, “with much fanfare,” wrote Robert Pigott in his 2014 book, New York Legal Landmarks.

The building had been part of the criminal justice system in New York already; it was the former headquarters of The Department of Public Charities and Correction.

childrencourt22ndstreetx2010-7-5154Thousands of kids were brought in during the court’s early years, and the top charges were disorderly conduct and petit larceny. Forgery, arson, and even drunkeness also made the list of offenses.

“William Buckley, fourteen years old, was charged with intoxication,” read one Times article in 1905. “He also realized that he had lost his job, by which he had supported himself for two years since the death of his mother.”

“Justice Deuel talked to the lad about the dangers of drinking, released him on parole, and told him to report at once to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the event that a friendly laundryman could not find a place for him.”

Children’s Court didn’t curb the number of crimes committed by kids. But it was deemed a success because judges were able to keep children out of the criminal justice system by giving them suspended sentences or probation, not jail or reformatory time.

Of the young offenders brought in, it is “reasonable to state that at least 50 percent would have been committed to institutions under the old method,'” the Times quoted the chief probation officer.

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In 1912, Children’s Court moved to East 22nd Street (above left). It’s now part of the city’s Family Court system, but the second building still stands today and is part of Baruch College, a branch of CUNY (above).

[Second photo: MCNY, 1911, 2010.11.41961911; third photo: LOC/Bain Collection, 1902; fourth photo: MCNY, 1917, 2010.7.5154; fifth photo: Google]

The sauciest society hostess of the Gilded Age

October 31, 2016

mamiefish One thing about those self-appointed doyennes of New York’s social scene in the late 19th century: they sure knew how to throw a party.

But no party host was as outrageous as Mamie Fish, the wife of old money scion Stuyvesant Fish, a banker whose colonial lineage went back centuries in New York.

Born Marion Anthon, Mamie brought an acid tongue and catty wit to society, which was serious business for women like the dour Caroline Astor, who reigned over the social season and who Mamie hoped to usurp.

“Mamie Fish was a hostess with flair and a capacity for the unexpected, qualities notably lacking in Mrs. Astor’s entertainments,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.

From her first mansion at 19 Gramercy Park South (right) and later inside her spectacular Stanford White–designed palazzo on Madison Avenue and 78th Street (below), Mamie hosted dinner parties for the city’s elite, complete with after-dinner vaudeville shows in the ballroom.

mamiefishgramercyparkShe “was plain, could barely read and write and had a laugh that was described as ‘horselike,’: writes the blog The Gilded Age Era.

“But Mamie was sharp, witty and irreverent which made her an excellent hostess with never a dull moment.

“She once sent out invitations to a dinner honoring a mysterious prince; when the guests arrived they found that the “prince” was a monkey dressed in white tie and tails,” according to one biographical site.

At another party, she reportedly rented an elephant and had dancers feed the animal peanuts as they entertained invitees.

mamiefish78thstreetx2010-28-59mcny“Make yourself perfectly at home,” she would tell guests, “and believe me, there is no one who wishes you there more heartily than I do.”

Perhaps her most fun and frivolous event, symbolizing the excess of the Gilded Age, was the birthday party she threw for her dog—who showed up at the table wearing a $15,000 diamond collar.

Her catty side came out often as well. Speaking about Theodore Roosevelt’s wife Edith, she remarked, “It is said [she] dresses on three hundred dollars a year, and she looks it.”

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She also opposed suffrage for women, telling the New York Times, “a good husband is the best right of any woman.”

After Mrs. Astor died in 1908, Mamie inherited the mantle of society queen. But times and tastes had changed, and the social comings and goings of New York’s old money set was never less relevant.

Mamie Fish, the “fun-maker” of New York’s Gilded Age, died in 1915.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAmazingly, her homes still survive; former mayor Michael Bloomberg owns the East 78th Street mansion now.

For more on the fun and frivolity of late 19th century society, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: The Esoteric Curiosa; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: MCNY X2010.28.59; fourth photo: New York Social Diary; fifth photo: The Gilded Age Era]