Archive for the ‘Holiday traditions’ Category

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.

Hudsonfultoncityhall

With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.

Hudsonfultontheplaza

More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.

Hudsonfultonbridge

“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.

Hudsonfultonnavalflotilla

“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel was amazing

July 11, 2016

When the Hotel Brighton opened in the new seaside resort of Brighton Beach in 1878, this three-story, 174-room Victorian-style hotel became an upper middle class paradise.

Brightonbeachhotelmcny1905

An elegant pavilion led guests to the sandy beach and rolling surf. The hotel’s restaurants and banquet halls served an incredible array of seafood and shellfish. The Brighton Beach Music Hall hosted famous performers and bands.

Amid all of this seaside fun and frolic, there was one problem.

Brightonbeachhoel1888westland

The hotel was built a little too close to the ocean. Ten years later, the Atlantic Ocean was practically lapping at the Brighton’s fanciful piazzas.

“The sea has steadily encroached upon the land at Brighton Beach for years . . . Old Neptune has gobbled up a nice bit of real estate with a 500-foot sea frontage and a depth of 500 feet, to which the hotel people hold a title deed,” quipped the Evening World in April 1888.

The decision was made to move the hotel. Considering that it weighed an estimated eight million pounds, relocating the massive structure was going to take some thought.

Brightonbeachhotelmoveloc1888

The plan the hotel adopted was to put it on wheels—the wheels of 112 rail cars, that is.

On April 3, after months of preparation, the big move began. “The first step taken was to drive piles under the entire front of the hotel,” stated one architectural publication.

Brightonbeachhotel1893nypl

“As already mentioned, the waves had torn away the sand, so that the building literally hung half way over the water.”

Brightonbeachhotelaftermove“It was no small undertaking to build 24 railroad tracks on those piles and to lift the structure, so as to make it rest intact and absolutely level on the flat cars.”

It took 10 days for six locomotives to slowly drag the hotel about 600 feet inland.

In June, the hotel opened for the season. “The contrast between the hotel on its present site and the building resting upon piles with the ocean flowing beneath it, as it did last summer, is decidedly striking,” commented the Evening World on June 27.

[First image: MCNY; second image: westland.net; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: arrts.arrchives.com]

A dangerous way to sleep during a city heat wave

July 7, 2016

If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment, then you know nothing traps heat like those narrow, airless spaces.

To avoid roasting during a heat wave, tenement dwellers (two-thirds of the city lived in them in 1900, incredibly) sometimes took desperate measures, like sleeping on the roof or bedding down on the beach at Coney Island, on a pier, or in Central Park.

Fireescapesleepbettmancorbis

And of course, you could always lay out a blanket and pillow on the fire escape. None were especially safe options, but for poor people in a pre–air conditioned New York, you took your chances.

[Undated photo: Bettman/Corbis]

Overlooking the sea at a Gilded Age beach resort

July 4, 2016

When wealthy New Yorkers in the Gilded Age sought to escape the “heated term,” as summer was called, they certainly didn’t board a ferry to Coney Island with the masses.

Longbranchhomer

The “watering place” many of the new rich fled to was Long Branch, New Jersey, where enormous hotels and cottages (aka, mansions) housed the new rich, as well as actors, artists, and seven U.S. presidents.

In 1869, Winslow Homer, who sketched scenes there for leading magazines early in his career, captured one summer moment in “Long Branch, New Jersey,” the name of the lovely painting above.

LongbranchhomersketchIn both the painting and the sketch at left, a white flag has been raised, indicating that the bathing hour for proper ladies had begun.

In the painting, two well-dressed women shield themselves from the sun in a sky so blue, it could be the Mediterranean. Long Branch was actually known as the American Boulogne, after a seaside town in northern France.

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

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“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

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The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

Fasanellasangenerrofestival

But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

Fasanellastickball

“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

Fasanellanewyorkgoestowork

“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”

A New Year’s night in a wintry Gilded Age city

December 28, 2015

Frederick Childe Hassam painted his lovely and mysterious “New Year’s Nocturne” in 1892. He gives us a young urban couple bathed in brilliant light in the dark winter night.

Newyear'snocturne

He’s dressed to the nines in top hat and tails, and she looks elegant in winter white and furs. They’re part of the in crowd, the smart set. Maybe they’re returning from the theater. Perhaps they are on their way to a New Year’s party.

In the shadows, other couples go on their way. Meanwhile, these two have stopped in front of a shop window display. If only we could ask Hassam, one of the great painters of New York’s Gilded Age, what has given them pause.

Santa has been spotted all over Manhattan

December 21, 2015

Santa Claus has come to town many times, and he’s hung out in some unlikely places.

Here’s proof, courtesy of New York’s street photographers. They always capture the weirdness and whimsy of the city…like the time Santa was waiting on the platform at Bleecker Street train in 1976 [Photographer: Richard Kalvar]

Santasubwayrichardkalvar1976

In 1982, Santa was caught poking around Central Park, across the street from the Plaza Hotel. Hopefully he wasn’t lost. [Photographer: Raymond Depardon]

Santacentralparkraymonddepardon1982

1968 was a tumultuous year of political and social upheaval, which might explain why he stopped off at this bar (with color TV!) next to a pastry shop. Even Santa needs a little nip now and then. [Photographer: Bruce Gilden]

Santaleavingbar1968brucegilden

Back when the Bowery had actual bums in 1977, Santa spent some time cheering up the down-and-out guys who made their home there. That garbage can probably held a nice warm fire. [Photographer: Susan Meisales]

Santabowery1977susanmeisales

Here he is in 1962, refueling at the coffee shop in a Woolworth’s, in a window seat at a booth with a formica counter. It might be Christmas Eve, so he’s in for a long night. [Photographer: unknown]

Santacoffee1962

New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of thenightbeforechristmas.com]

The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York

November 23, 2015

It’s one of the strangest holiday traditions in late 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Ragamuffins1915bain

On Thanksgiving day, kids (and often adults as well) used to dress up in costume (cowboys, pirates, and princesses were big) or in their most threadbare clothes and go door to door in the neighborhood, asking, anything for Thanksgiving?

How the tradition started isn’t all that clear. Though New Yorkers had been celebrating Thanksgiving as an official holiday since 1817, it was only nationalized in 1864.

Ragamuffinsbrooklyneagle1902

Somehow, a day to feast on turkey (and later watch football games) became associated with a practice that was part Mardi Gras, part modern-day Halloween.

These ragamuffins, as the kids were called, charmed (and sometimes irritated) New Yorkers; they begged for nickels and pennies and played jokes.

RagamuffinsNYPL1933

In some areas, these “masqueraders” even won prizes for the best getup.

“In the old days,” a policeman recalled in a New York Times article from 1930, “the Hudson Dusters, and the Rangers and the Blue Shirts used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costume and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.”

Ragamuffinsnypl19332

Of course, this old-school tradition couldn’t last. In the 1930s, the schools superintendent discouraged the tradition. Soon, only kids who lived in neighborhoods where the “subway lines end,” as the Times put it, continued to dress up, beg, and play pranks.

Ragamuffinsbain1911

As another policeman the Times spoke to in 1947 remarked, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.” (Red because they were heated on the stove, intended to burn little kid hands.)

“But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore,” he added.

[Photos: LOC; Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NYPL Digital Collection; NYPL Digital Collection; LOC]

When New York celebrated “Columbus Week”

October 12, 2015

The Columbus Day parade of 2015 is expected to draw a million viewers to the parade route on Fifth Avenue.

Columbusdayparade1892

That’s peanuts compared to the crowds that turned out for Columbus Day parades of decades past. And it’s nothing compared to the Columbus Day—actually Columbus Week—of 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s washing ashore in the Caribbean.

Columbus Week 1892 was an all-out party, featured a naval parade up the Hudson, fireworks at the Brooklyn Bridge, displays at various city parks, a Catholic school parade of thousands of kids, and a music festival.

Columbusdayparade1892nypl

And of course, there was a grand parade, seen here in two images at Union Square. “Many miles of men in the great Columbus procession,” the New York Times wrote in a headline on October 13.

“Streets turned into arbors of bunting—cascades of gay colors everywhere—model work by the police in handling the greatest crowd New-York ever held.”

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]


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