Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

A cigar box label’s charming New Year’s greeting

December 28, 2020

When I first saw this Happy New Year greeting, I thought Schumacher & Ettlinger must be a cigar company, with offices on 19th Street and Fourth Avenue, as the image states.

Instead, Schumacher & Ettlinger appear to be a lithography company that produced labels for cigar boxes. Makes sense based on their address; Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South today, of course) was in the city’s publishing and booksellers’ district…close to what became known as Booksellers’ Row in the 20th century.

The first box label carries the date 1893, and the second one doesn’t appear to have a copyright date. Whenever they were produced, I’m sure the person gifted with a box of cigars for the New Year was quite charmed.

[First image: MCNY 40.70.487; second image: MCNY 40.70.486]

A Christmas feast at Midtown’s new Hotel Pabst

December 21, 2020

Never heard of the Hotel Pabst? You’re not alone. The nine-story tower with a steel skeleton swathed in limestone only existed from 1899 to 1902—built on the slender triangle formed by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street at Longacre Square.

Hotel Pabst in Longacre Square

Run by the Pabst Brewing Company as part of a short-term effort to acquire hotels, the elegant hostelry at the upper reaches of the city’s theater district and lobster palaces was replaced by the New York Times‘ headquarters in 1904 (and Longacre Square became Times Square).

The spicy cover of the Hotel Pabst’s Christmas menu

The Pabst didn’t last, and no one alive today would remember it. But it needs to be noted that on December 25, 1900, the hotel sure cooked up a spectacular Christmas dinner.

The eye-popping Christmas dinner menu has been preserved by the New York Public Library in their Buttolph Collection of Menus. Between the carte de jour oyster offerings to the 20-plus desserts (plum pudding! Cream puffs!) are a dozen or so courses that must have taken an army of chefs to prepare.

Many of the dishes are the typical heavy fare of a hotel menu in New York of the era: terrapin a la Maryland, quail, stuffed turkey, filet of sole, prime beef, and lamb chops.

There’s a fair number of items borrowed from French menus, which makes sense, as French cuisine was seen as the most elegant at the time.

Some of the dishes are completely foreign to contemporary American tastes, however. Cold game pie, Philadelphia squabs, and reed ducks, anyone?

One thing stands out, though: Christmas dinner at a hotel in 1900 was certainly a feast. By the time you finished your Nesselrode pudding and revived yourself with your Turkish coffee, buttons must have been popping off your clothes!

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.6427; menu: NYPL Buttolph Collection of Menus]

A food vendor’s Christmas on 14th Street in 1904

December 14, 2020

Ashcan school painter Everett Shinn gravitated toward New York’s underdogs: the lonely, the lost, the dreamers, and those who appear to be battered by life’s elements.

This food vendor pushing his flimsy wood cart during the holiday season appears to fall into the latter category. Painted in 1904, “Fourteenth Street at Christmas Time” gives us a blustery, snowy street crowded with Christmas tree buyers and other shoppers beside the lights from store window displays.

Our vendor, however, stands away from everyone, his body crouched to avoid the frightful weather. His cart glows with the warmth of hot food cooking…but he has no buyers.

When Christmas was in the air in 1908 New York

December 7, 2020

“Christmas in the Air” is the title of this illustration, a black and white rendering of various New Yorkers crossing paths on a city street just before the holiday.

James Montgomery Flagg, a prolific illustrator in the early 20th century (he came up with the Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster), captures different scenarios: men carry packages for the women they are with, a boy in a uniform looks happily at a dollar in front of a well-dressed couple, and a thin man who might have been called a tramp at the time holds out his hand in front of a woman ringing a bell.

The mix of people and feel of these vignettes are from 1908, but they’re really timeless New York street scenes, right?

[Image: MCNY 62.40.16]

How 1910s New Yorkers got their Christmas trees

November 30, 2020

News photographer George Bain spent much of his career taking photos of New Yorkers going about everyday life—and that included prepping for and celebrating Christmas.

In the captions of these 1910s photos, he didn’t explain where these trees started out before they were apparently dumped at Chambers Street, most likely, where the Erie Railroad had a ferry terminal.

They appear to be destined for the parlors of city residents (brought by a team of horses), who wouldn’t consider it Christmas without a beautiful tree to decorate and gather around.

[Photo: LOC]

Don’t forget New York’s other November holiday

November 23, 2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War.

“Washington’s Grand Entry into New York, November 25, 1783,” Alphonse Bigot

Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when the British evacuated New York for good after occupying the city during the War.

“Evacuation Day and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City,” Edmund P. Restein

Just hours after the Red Coats left, a Union Jack flag was taken down from a flagpole at Battery Park and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington returned to Manhattan, leading the Continental Army through the city and down Broadway flanked by cheering crowds.

[Images: Wikipedia]

The Pilgrim statue standing alone in Central Park

November 23, 2020

Central Park has 29 statues, some popular (like Balto, the hero sled dog) and others more obscure (Fitz-Greene Halleck, anyone?)

But standing high and alone on eponymously named Pilgrim Hill is a statue of a Pilgrim, one of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 from England seeking religious freedom in the New World.

“An early American settler stands confidently with one hand leaning on the muzzle of a flintlock musket,” writes Centralparknyc.org, describing the statue. “On the pedestal beneath him are four bas reliefs referencing the era—including the Mayflower—as well as an inscription: “To commemorate the Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers on Plymouth Rock: December 21, 1620.”

The bronze statue, by John Quincy Adams Ward, was commissioned and dedicated here in July 1885 by the New England Society to mark the group’s 75th anniversary, according to NYC Parks. (A procession heading to the site passed President Grant’s house on East 66th Street, and an ill Grant saluted from his window, newspaper accounts noted.)

Whatever one thinks about early settlers to America these days, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

With Thanksgiving days away, consider heading over the Pilgrim Hill and seeing this mostly forgotten figure. The bas reliefs of the Mayflower and other symbols tell more of the Pilgrims’ story.

[Top photo: centralpark.com]

New York invented the first Labor Day parade

August 31, 2020

History isn’t sure who actually came up with the idea of a holiday honoring workers. What is known is that the first Labor Day was launched by the Central Labor Union in New York City, with a parade and festivities taking place in Union Square on September 5, 1882.

 

The holiday was popular. “The following year the union shifted the holiday to the first Monday of the month,” states the Smithsonian/National Museum of American History.

“This tradition generally spread as state governments began to officially put the holiday on their calendars. Finally in 1894, the federal government made Labor Day a national holiday for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”

This image of the parade five years later also shows marchers in Union Square. And what about the 2020 Labor Day Parade? I tried to look it up but found nothing. Perhaps it’s being held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: MCNY]

A British writer visits a NYC resort hotel in 1829

July 20, 2020

In 1828, James Stuart, a British lawyer and politician, took a trip to the United States. He journeyed to various East Coast cities, traveled through Georgia and Alabama, then went west to Missouri and Illinois before heading back east.

In his 1833 book documenting his travels, Three Years in North America, Stuart seemed to take a liking to the young nation. He described cities and states, the customs of people he met, as well as current events of the era, such as slavery.

But it’s his stay in Manhattan that I want to focus on here, especially his time at what was then an elite riverside retreat called the Mount Vernon Hotel, at today’s 61st Street between First and York Avenues.

In the early 1800s, Mount Vernon was located far from the city, which barely existed past 14th Street. The hotel was originally built as the carriage house for the planned country estate for Abigail Adams Smith (President Adams’ daughter, below right) and her husband. After the Smiths’ fortunes dwindled, the carriage house fell into other hands and was transformed into a hotel.

Stuart and his party visited Mount Vernon after traveling by steamboat from New Haven in May 1829.

During his stay, he took note of the habits of the New Yorkers who soon surrounded him—habits that might seem familiar to contemporary city residents.

“We immediately set about obtaining a comfortable lodging-house in the neighbourhood of the city, and at length pitched our tent at Mount Vernon, about four miles from New-York, on the East River or Long Island Sound, a good house in an airy situation, from the door of which a stage went to New-York two or three times a day.”

“The house is placed upon the top of a bank, about fifty feet above the river; and the view of the river and of the gay sailing craft constantly passing, and tossed about by the eddies in every direction, is very interesting.”

Mount Vernon had first-class amenities, including a ladies parlor and a men’s tavern. Stuart noticed the hotel’s trotting course next door. He also wrote that it was the custom for people to stop into Mount Vernon from the city for “a little spirits or water or lemonade.”

Warm weather in Manhattan meant dealing with crowds. “We bargained from the beginning to have our meals in our own parlour, and had many pleasant walks for exercise in the neighboring parts of the island of Manhattan, at times when they were free from the crowds of people who came out of the city in the evenings.”

Stuart observed that in the summer, “the great mass” of New Yorkers liked to “leave the town in carriages, gigs, or on horseback, for an hour or two before sunset, which, at the longest day, is at half past seven.”

These New Yorkers “drive and ride very fast,” he noted, “and the number of carriages of all descriptions on the various outlets of the city, especially toward the beautiful parts of the island, is such as I never saw but in London or its immediate vicinity.”

Stuart remarked about the quiet East River area where Mount Vernon was located. “The bustle, however, of this house is over before or very soon after sunset, and we are not in the slightest degree subjected to noise or intrusion,” he wrote.

He also touched on crime in the city, finding that at Mount Vernon, there was little need to be cautious about theft. “Near as we are to New York, and within 300 yards of the high road, there is neither a shutter nor a bar to a window in the house. Clothes are laid out to bleach all night without the slightest fear of their being carried off.”

Stuart eventually left for Philadelphia. Mount Vernon lasted until 1833, when it was turned into a country house. In 1905 it passed into the hands of a local gas company, which in turn sold it to the Colonial Dames of America in 1924.

In the 1980s, the Dames set about restoring Abigail Adams Smith’s one-time (and short-lived) carriage house. They renamed it the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, recreating the feel of the hotel resort Stuart wrote about during his travels to early 19th century America.

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden still operates as a museum. Here you can stop in and imagine what it was like for Stuart as he lounged in his room and enjoyed river breezes, or took to the men’s tavern for spirits and conversation. The sailing crafts on the river are still interesting; the neighborhood still quiet and off the beaten path.

[Second image: Mount Vernon in 1850; Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden Collection via Wikipedia; third image: Google Books; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: The Evening Post, 1827; eighth image: NYPL; ninth image: New-York Historical Society]