Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

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]

George Bellows understood New York in summer

July 13, 2020

George Bellows was not a New York native. But this early 20th century painter—who moved to Gotham in 1904 and established himself a leader of the Ashcan school of social realism and worked from his East 19th Street studio—made a career out of depicting both bold and tender scenes of life in New York City.

[Cliff Dwellers, 1913]

Bellows painted the city in every season, particularly winter. Yet it’s his images of New Yorkers in warm weather that seem to truly capture the rhythms and rituals of a New York summer.

[Beach at Coney Island, 1908]

The sweltering heat locked in a tenement courtyard, the nighttime parks where a couple stroll by lamplight under a dark canopy of leaves, the Coney Island beaches, where moral codes could be broken under and outside a tent in the sand—these playful portrayals of the summertime city still speak to the contemporary New Yorker.

[Summer Night, Riverside Drive; 1909]

Even Bellows’ depictions of boys crowded on a waterside dock conveys the thrill—and necessity, in a roasting city still without municipal pools—of goofing around and cooling off with a swim in a river, an activity that was outlawed in the early 1900s.

[Forty-two Kids; 1907]

Not only did Bellows capture the feel of the heated summer city, but he empathized with those he painted.

That includes the subjects in these four paintings: the sweat-soaked tenement dwellers, the lovers on the beach, the couple in the park catching time while walking the dog, and the cub pack of boys smoking, peeing, hanging out, and getting ready to test their boundaries and dive into the water.

A “glorious display of pageantry” on Fifth Avenue

June 29, 2020

Imagine if Fifth Avenue today was decked out in American flags as it was on July 4, 1916—with the Stars and Stripes flying from the roofs and facades of so many buildings.

Impressionist painter Childe Hassam captured this scene, likely near his longtime studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at 17th Street.

Massachusetts-born Hassam, a successful and accomplished artist in his era, gave the painting an illustrious name: “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May).”

The painting demonstrates how “New Yorkers rallied with patriotic fervor to support the ‘preparedness movement’ in anticipation of the nation’s inevitable entry into the Great War in Europe,” states the New-York Historical Society, which was gifted the painting in 2016.

“Advocates of the preparedness cause staged parades in cities all over the country from 1914 until 1916. One such parade in May 1916―up Broadway and Fifth Avenue, led by an enormous, 95-foot flag and lasting over 11 hours―inspired Hassam to begin working on a series of works, which he painted over the course of three years from 1916 to 1918.”

Hassam supported the US entry into the war; he was a francophile who studied and lived in Paris, like many of his contemporaries.

[Above left, “The Avenue in the Rain,” 1917; at right, “Flags on the Waldorf,” 1916]

A grander parade on July 4, 1916 inspired “The Fourth of July, 1916,” described by the New-York Historical Society as a “glorious display of pageantry.”

Hassam ultimately completed about 30 works in his flags series, depicting the US flag on other city buildings and on Allies Day in May 1917 (above).

If you like his flags, you must see his evocative streetscapes that capture the beauty and poetry on day-to-day life in our metropolis.

The most famous summer house in Manhattan

May 25, 2020

You might not immediately recognize this elegant, two-story wood mansion, with its large windows and wide porches—perfect for capturing cool East River breezes.

But in the post-colonial New York of the early 19th century, the house stood out among the other posh summer estates built in the bucolic countryside of today’s Yorkville.

This was the summer home of Archibald Gracie. Born in Scotland in 1755, Gracie (at left) arrived in New York in 1784 with a cargo of goods that netted him enough money to invest in a mercantile.

By the 1790s, he was a very rich merchant and shipowner. His regular residence was a State Street townhouse so impressive it was known as “The Pillars,” according to a 1973 New York Daily News article.

But like other wealthy city residents, he wanted a summer house, too.

For $3,700, “he bought 11 acres of rolling land at Horn’s Hook, facing the Hell Gate,” a 1981 Daily News explained, referring to the treacherous section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Island that claimed hundreds of ships by the late 19th century.

The house, built on a high bluff facing the East River next to a towering cottonwood tree used as a landmark for sailors, was designed for the enjoyment of his family, elite friends, and notable guests.

“In 1799, Gracie began construction of his mansion, a sumptuous building of 14 rooms and eight bathrooms, replete with hand-carved fireplaces and priceless furniture,” wrote the Daily News. “There was a large dining room and a broad, white pillared porch that overlooked the East River—in all ways, an ideal site for holding large receptions.”

At the time, it took an entire day to sail from the Battery to reach his house at today’s East 88th Street.

But Gracie and his family made the trip often, entertaining political and literary figures such as Alexander Hamilton (a business partner of Gracie’s and the owner of a lovely summer estate in Harlem), James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and Washington Irving.

Irving, in particular, was struck by the beauty of the house and Gracie’s hospitality.

“I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I found this retreat, pure air, agreeable scenery, profound quiet,” Irving (below left) wrote in 1813 in his diary, according to the Daily News.

Of the Gracies, he wrote, “Their country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

The summer house wouldn’t stay in the Gracie family. Gracie lost much of his fortune by 1819. “The craggy-faced Scot,” as the Daily News called him, died at age 94 in 1829.

Through the mid- to late-19th century, the house changed owners at least twice. As the area’s summer estates were sold off and parceled out and Yorkville became more urbanized, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1894, the city took possession of Gracie’s house and built East End Park—now Carl Schurz Park—around it. The dwelling was home to the Museum of the City of New York from 1923 to 1936, when the museum decamped to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.

It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who suggested revamping the house and turning it into the official residence of New York City’s mayors.

Gracie Mansion, as it’s known to New Yorkers, is probably the city’s best-known summer house. Once a country retreat for one of New York’s richest men, it now serves as the designated home for city mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia was in office…and sadly is hard to see behind an ugly tall fence.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1923; second image: Wikipedia; third image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; fourth image NYPL, late 19th century; fifth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; sixth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; seventh image: Wikipedia; eighth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923]

The solemn story of Park Avenue’s holiday trees

December 30, 2019

Uptown Park Avenue is an almost unbroken line of stately, impeccable apartment buildings. And every December, it’s also a miles-long line of sparkling holiday trees.

Each year since the end of World War II, the fir trees on Park Avenue’s traffic islands are strung with lights that glow like white or amber jewels in the crisp winter night, a “glittering necklace,” as one 1987 article called it, bathing this stretch of Park in a soft winter glow.

The story behind the trees (and the annual tree-lighting ceremony) is less celebratory and more solemn: “The tradition of lighting trees on Park Avenue began in 1945 when several Park Avenue families wanted a special way to honor those men and women who had died in World War II,” states the website for the nonprofit Fund for Park Avenue, which administers the event.

These families paid for the cost of bringing in fir trees, buying lights, putting together a crew of electricians, and holding the annual ceremony that always included a bugler playing “Taps,” according to a 2005 New York Times article.

It’s since continued every year with the help of other donors. Lovely as the trees are, it’s not an easy venture to organize. Some changes have been made since the early days, when Boy Scouts manually turned on all the lights.

For starters, the holiday lights used to be red, white, green, and blue, but that made it hard for drivers to see traffic lights, so only white remained, stated the Times.

Interestingly, people have tried to steal the trees…which is why each one is now attached to the ground with cables, the Times wrote.

The number of trees and the exact streets they span appears to change as well. And in recent years, service members who fought in other wars haven’t been left out. A Daily News article (above center) from 1963 mentions that soldiers who served in Korea were honored.

“Today the illuminated trees—which appear on the malls between 54th and 97th Streets—remain a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made to attain it,” states the Fund. The playing of “Taps” before the trees are lit continues.

[Last photo: Park Avenue in 1964, MCNY X2010.11.14131]

A downtown neon candy store sign is falling apart

December 30, 2019

What in the world is going on with this Loft’s Candies sign? Faded and falling apart, it’s been hanging on for dear life at 88 Nassau Street for several years, after another store sign came down and brought it back into view.

I’m not sure how long it’s been visible again, but it seems that it reappeared long after what remained of the once-renowned Loft Candies company closed its existing stores for good in the mid-1990s.

Not only have the neon red letters long gone dark, but the small, unusual building—at the edge of the Financial District—looks like it’s coming apart at the seams.

An Ephemeral reader who worked downtown for years snapped this recent photo (at top) of the sign; it’s the first time the reader spotted it and was astounded enough to take a picture.

The sign is in worse shape since I captured it in a photo in 2017 (at left). And while I don’t know when the store closed, it didn’t occupy this space until after 1940, since it doesn’t show up in the Department of Records 1940 tax photos database.

As dilapidated as it looks, imagine the Loft company in a sweeter time, say the first half of the 20th century—when its candies were popular all across New York City and ads for their holiday sweets appeared in all the city papers as Christmas approached.

Just think about how wonderful it was to get the “De Luxe Round Gift Box” as a gift, pictured above in the New York Daily News ad from holiday season 1941.

Or imagine the thrill of being a kid and finding a pound of “glass candies” in your stocking on December 25, as the 1914 ad in the Evening World suggested!

[Thanks to NA for snapping the recent photo!]

How New York celebrated Christmas in the 1910s

December 23, 2019

If you like to browse photos of early 20th century New York City, then you’ve seen the work of George Grantham Bain.

Bain wasn’t just a talented news photographer who started one of the first photo agencies. He was also a poetic chronicler of street life in the city, a man with a knack for creating visual narratives of how life was lived in New York—especially when it came to lives of the working men and women, the down and out, and kids.

The Christmas season was a prolific time for Bain, who captured dozens of images in the 1910s showing all the ways the holiday was celebrated in the city by the down and out, the young, and the forgotten.

The top two photos were taken outside a Salvation Army Christmas Dinner held at Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall on 42nd Street. It was an annual event where 4,000 people, “found places at 60 long tables set on the main floor of the hall and extending practically from one side of it to the other,” wrote the New York Times in 1903.

Some people didn’t sit; they took home their holiday meal in baskets—like the woman in the center of the photo.

The third and fourth images show women and kids posing in front of a Christmas tree at what’s likely the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the end of 25th Street on the East Side.

We’re at one of the Newsboys’ Houses in the fifth image, above. Facilities for street kids who worked as newsies, bootblacks, flower sellers, and other jobs children often took were built in the late 19th century and funded by benevolent societies.

Some New Yorkers celebrated Christmas by peddling everything from trees to cheap toys to food, like these vendors under an elevated train.

Meanwhile, others spent the holiday delivering all the gifts picked out of toy stores and department stores. The ropes holding these boxes into the back of this delivery wagon don’t look very secure!

[All photos: Bain Collection/LOC]