Archive for the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Category

The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

June 7, 2021

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

What remains on a Hell’s Kitchen block from an 1883 painting

April 26, 2021

Louis Maurer immigrated to New York from Germany in 1851 when he was 19 years old (second image below). He first worked as a cabinetmaker in the antebellum city—but within a few years he became a painter and lithographer working for Currier & Ives and then his own lithography firm from an office on William Street.

As an artist, his subjects ranged from firefighters to racehorses. But in 1883 he painted what might be one of his few urban landscapes, “View of Forty-Third Street West of Ninth Avenue.”

Maurer didn’t have to go far to paint this Manhattan street scene. His longtime home where he lived with his wife and children (including Modernist painter Alfred Maurer) was at 404 West 43rd Street, according to his New York Times obituary from 1932. (You can see what were probably his front steps with cast iron handrails on the far right of the painting.)

Maurer would only have to look out his parlor window to capture the action: children playing in the Belgian block street, adults in the background going about their day on the sidewalk, and the man whose job it was to empty ash barrels pouring the contents of one into his horse-drawn wagon (while a black scaredy cat runs off).

What’s special about the painting is how ordinary it is—depicting what was likely an average unglamorous city block, with red brick tenements on three corners, horses and carriages traversing the streets, and the steam train sending belching smoke along Ninth Avenue.

What else is unique about this piece of visual poetry? The corner doesn’t look entirely unrecognizable now, 138 years later. (Or even a half-century later in the above photo of the same block in the 1930s.)

Sure, the Belgian blocks are now asphalt; the ash barrels have been replaced by garbage and recycling bins. It’s been decades since kids played in New York City streets, and parked cars have replaced a waiting horse and wagon. The Ninth Avenue El met its bitter end in 1940. Times Square, just a few avenues away, was sparsely settled Longacre Square, at the time the center of New York’s carriage trade.

But see the tenement building with the side entrance on the northwest corner—today it looks almost identical. And across Ninth Avenue on the northeast corner is another red-brick building looking strangely similar to the one in Maurer’s painting.

[Second Image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL]

Defunct city hospitals and their amazing buildings

March 9, 2020

These days, New York’s hospitals are consolidating and shrinking. But in the late 19th century city, hospital building was on the upswing—inspired by a rapidly growing population, the benevolent spirit of Gilded Age society, and a better sense of how to treat disease and illness.

“There are nearly 80 of these ‘inns on the highway of life where suffering humanity finds alleviation and sympathy,’ and many of them are among the largest and most magnificent buildings in the city.” stated King’s Handbook of New York City in 1892.

Recently the New York Academy of Medicine digitized 118 postcards of New York City hospitals. They’re part of the Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection, which includes about 2,000 postcards—many of 19th and early 20th century hospitals that have either been demolished and forgotten, repurposed for other uses, or are still (partially at least) standing, but with a different name.

Hahnemann Hospital (top image) is one that no New Yorker today would recognize. This spectacular hospital building opened in 1878 at Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets. “In addition to its free beds, the hospital provides a quiet and comforting home for the sick and suffering of all classes under homeopathic treatment,” stated King’s. It was sold in 1919 and an apartment building went up on this site in the 1920s.

City Hospital, on what was then called Blackwell’s Island, is another stunning structure (second image)—built by inmates serving time in the island’s prisons. James Renwick, Jr. designed the building, which opened in 1861. Closed in the 1930s and abandoned, City (later called Charity) hospital was bulldozed in 1994.

In 1874, an English surgeon described The Roosevelt Hospital, at 59th Street and 10th Avenue (third image), as “Without exception the most complete medical charity in every respect,” according to King’s. It owes its existence to James H. Roosevelt, who left his estate to create “a hospital for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons, and for its permanent endowment.”

Today, what eventually became St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital has been rebranded Mount Sinai West. I believe most of these original buildings are gone, but the early surgery theater still remains.

Morningside Heights’ Woman’s Hospital (above) moved to this spot near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1906. It merged with St. Luke’s Hospital in 1952, though this incredible Gothic building remained until the mid-1970s.

Originally located on Madison Avenue and 29th Street and then Park Avenue and 51st Street, Women’s Hospital was founded by surgeon Dr. Marion Sims—whose reputation has been called into question and a Fifth Avenue statue dedicated to Sims removed in 2018.

[All postcards belong to the New York Academy of Medicine/Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection]

The neighborhood leveled to build Penn Station

February 3, 2020

Mention the original Penn Station, and most New Yorkers simply sigh—resigned to the cold reality that in 1963 the city allowed a demolition crew to tear down the 1910 “Roman temple to transportation,” with its doric columns and two-block waiting room at West 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Everyone mourns that Penn Station. But what about the neighborhood that was leveled by 1904 so Penn Station could be built and completed six years later?

Four entire blocks were demolished to make way for the station, blocks bounded by West 31st and 33rd Streets and Seventh and Ninth Avenues. (At right, West 30th and Seventh Avenue, 1903—not in the demo zone but still a good idea of the surrounding neighborhood.)

These blocks were on the western edge of the Tenderloin: by day a functional to rundown walkups and tenements, and by night Gilded Age New York’s rollicking sin district roughly between 23rd and 42nd Streets and Sixth to Ninth Avenues.

[Above, John Sloan’s Haymarket, the name of a popular club in the Tenderloin circa 1908]

Formerly known as “Satan’s Circus,” the area got its new colorful name after a crooked cop named Alexander “Clubber” Williams transferred to a police precinct in the Tenderloin.

“I have had chuck for a long time, and now I’m going to eat tenderloin,” Williams supposedly told an associate—a reference to the riches in protection money he planned to seek from local madams and gambling den owners.

But one person’s vice district is another’s home sweet home. While the Tenderloin met wealthy New Yorkers’ needs for gambling, dancing, and sex, thousands of working class and poor residents went about day-to-day life there.

“Many respectable and hard-working folks lived and toiled here, as the recent census recorded, and by day it appeared to be just another shabby city enclave,” wrote Jill Jonnes in Conquering Gotham: a Gilded Age Epic.

“When night enveloped Gotham, and Manhattan’s skyscrapers and grand hotels glowed with the wondrous electric light, the streets here became a hotbed of vice.”

Immigrant Jews, Irish, and Italians lived in crowded, sketchy apartments, working as tailors and waiters.

African Americans also resided here in relatively large numbers. (As seen in the three images on West 30th Street in 1903.) “They toiled as railroad porters, hotel porters, waiters, launderers, stable hands, and cooks,” wrote Jonnes.

Few of the people who were involved with acquiring and then demolishing these blocks saw the humanity of the residents.

The rundown area was “given up to the French and Negro colonies, to much manufacturing and to buildings that grow more and more shabby as they approach the river, finally degenerating into a slum…this section today is one of the most troublesome in New York,” Jonnes quotes one source.

In 1901, after the site for Penn Station was selected, Pennsylvania Railroad operatives began identifying property owners and buying them out, or began getting them condemned.

It probably wasn’t difficult. With a progressive city cracking down on prostitution and drinking in the early 1900s, Gotham was less likely to tolerate a vice district with, for example, an entire row of brothels like “Soubrette Row” on West 39th Street.

By 1903, many of the properties were condemned; the people who lived there dispersed to Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, or San Juan Hill, in the West 60s.

By 1905, they were gone—replaced by an enormous pit the New York Sun called “the biggest hole ever dug in New York.”

“Where only three or four years ago something like 400 houses, shops, and other structures stood, and their 5,000 or 6,000 lived and trafficked, to-day there is nothing but earth and rock and devastation—and a small army of laborers working day and night with drills, steam shovels, and several lines of narrow gage railroad, working incessantly to make a big hole in the ground bigger and deeper,” wrote the Sun.

Five years later, Penn Station opened and dazzled New Yorkers.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18076; third image: Haymarket, 1908 by John Sloan; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15396; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.15398; sixth image: New York Sun, 1905; seventh image: George Bellows, 1907-1908; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: Wikipedia]

Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

July 2, 2018

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]

Emptying the ash barrels on a tenement block

April 23, 2018

It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Sidewalks in late 19th century New York were lined with ash barrels—where people dumped the ashes from their furnaces as well as rotting food and household refuse. (And very sadly, infants too.)

Similar to the sanitation workers of today who empty trash cans into hulking vehicles, the ash men came by to empty the barrel’s filthy contents into a horse-drawn cart. The ashes would then be transferred to a dump—like Queens’ infamous “Valley of Ashes” in Corona.

Louis Maurer’s painting shows what the job was like. In “View of Forty-Third Street West of Ninth Avenue,” you can practically hear the roar of rowdy kids and the Ninth Avenue El screeching overhead.

This was Longacre Square in 1883, the center of the city’s horse and carriage trade—an area that earned the nickname “Thieves Lair” for its sketchy reputation.

A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen

September 25, 2017

Is there anything quite as enchanting as coming across a quiet hidden courtyard in the middle of a dense Manhattan neighborhood?

It’s especially magical when the courtyard is just a quick walk from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. That was my reaction when I took a walk through tiny Clinton Court in Hell’s Kitchen.

This secret space is about halfway down the busy tenement block between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s accessible through a long slender walkway behind a heavy iron door, which you can find to the right of the residence at 422 West 46th Street.

The door is locked, of course. But it’s worth the trip if you can catch a glimpse of the courtyard from the street through the door.

And if you can convince a resident to let you in and see Clinton Court up close, you’ll want to grab your camera.

Clinton Court is an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens. The courtyard is steps from the back entrances for 420 and 422 West 46th Street (with their ivy-covered walls).

And right in the center is an entirely separate carriage house, with a facade right out of New Orleans or Paris, or a fairy tale.

The carriage house has an unclear history. It was probably built in 1871 by the builder who put up the tenement at number 422.

This was approximately 20 years after 420 West 46th Street went up in the 1850s—before Hell’s Kitchen filled up and became a poor Irish neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and small businesses in the decades after the Civil War. (And long before the neighborhood got its colorful nickname.)

The carriage house “had horse stalls on the ground floor, but occupancy of the upper floors at this time is unclear—in the 1880’s a milkman, Jacob Michels, occupied the entire structure,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1992 New York Times piece.

Yet some sources have it that the carriage house dates back to the 1820s and was owned by George Clinton, governor of New York at the turn of the 19th century and a descendant of DeWitt Clinton, who has a park named after him in the neighborhood.

With Halloween coming up, it might be worth mentioning that a couple of sources claims the place is haunted either by Governor Clinton himself, one of his kids, or by an executed British Revolutionary War sailor named Old Moor, as the site of Clinton Court occupies an former potter’s field cemetery.

The carriage house’s history becomes clearer in the 20th century. “In 1919, Raffaello and Frank Menconi, prominent architectural sculptors, purchased both 420 and 422 and merged the lots,” wrote Gray.

The Menconis are the designers behind the flagpole bases outside the New York Public Library, among other city sculpture icons.

“They added a one-story studio with a skylight on the rear lot of 420 and occupied the entire rear building for their business.”

[ALL PHOTOS © EPHEMERAL NEW YORK]

In 1958, the tenements at 420 and 422 West 46th Street, the carriage house, and the studio became one single apartment complex entity, says Gray—serene seclusion steeped in New York history and mere steps from Midtown.

The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

July 7, 2017

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]