Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera

January 31, 2022

On the surface, Robert Bracklow probably appeared to his customers and neighbors to be a typical New Yorker.

Canal Street Between Laight and Varick Streets, 1897

Born in 1849, he immigrated to Gotham with his family when he was a child. He grew up during the Civil War and early Gilded Age, then made his living as a stationer and printer—owning his own legal stationary shop in Lower Manhattan, according to the New-York Historical Society.

He lived in Brooklyn, and though he never married, he seemed devoted to his lady friend of many years, a schoolteacher.

14th Street West of Fifth Avenue

But beneath the ordinariness of his life, Bracklow had a special passion for photography, which he discovered in his early 30s.

During early morning outings around Manhattan and sometimes to outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bracklow, nicknamed “Daylight Bob” because he was afraid of the dark (and darkrooms too), “created a picture history of New York’s growth at the turn of the century,” according to a 1984 article in Photography.

Brighton Beach, 1895

Contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz (a fellow member of the Camera Club of New York in the 1890s) were pushing the boundaries of photography as a fine art form.

Yet Bracklow “never embraced Stieglitz’s more abstract artistic vision, nor did he use his photography to expose social ills or make a clear political statement, like his contemporary Jacob Riis,” wrote the New-York Historical Society.

Corner saloon, 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

Instead, most of the thousands of photos Bracklow took were documentary-style, unsentimental glimpses of New York.

His camera captured horse-pulled wagons meandering along rundown streets, new skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, shantytowns and shacks, corner saloons, beachgoers at Coney Island, and other scenes in a changing city.

Dutch Street

The fascinating part about Bracklow’s photography is how all the images he took of a 19th century city shifting into the modern era made it into the hands of museum curators.

It didn’t happen until decades after he passed away. Bracklow died in 1920, and his possessions went to his lady friend, including “3,000 glass plates and 715 platinum prints in 28 scrapbooks,” states Photography.

Church of the Messiah, 34th Street and Park Avenue

“After the house she lived in was sold 30 years later, the collection came to the attention of Alexander Alland, Sr., who bought the negatives from a second-hand furniture dealer and made silver prints from them,” per Photography.

“In 1982, the scrapbooks were given to the New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the photographer’s sweetheart.”

Boy using a water pump on Edgar Street

In 2015, the New-York Historical Society and Metropolitan New York Library Council digitized the entire collection.

Here are some of Bracklow’s images: They aren’t romantic or necessarily artistic, but they perfectly document with composition and clarity the New York he lived in, which was in flux.

Robert Bracklow’s last known photograph of himself

[All photos New-York Historical Society Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection]

The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter

January 24, 2022

By 1895, just about all of Manhattan was urbanized. Central Park, completed only 30 years earlier far north of the main city, was now centrally located. In three years, the consolidation of Greater New York would be complete, and the city would take the shape we know today.

But the heart of the Gilded Age city was still Madison Square, a crossroads of business, shopping, nightlife, and culture. Above, artist Theodore Robinson painted the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with all the action and activity to be expected in the mid-1890s.

Missing from Robinson’s painting is the Flatiron Building, of course; the iconic skyscraper didn’t open until 1902. But to the left in the foreground is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the meeting place of business and political movers and shakers. Farther up is Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850s and one of the city’s oldest most elite congregations.

Horses power carriages along the paved avenue. Skirt hems skim the sidewalks. You can practically hear the conversation between the smartly dressed young man and the driver. Streetcars travel up and down 23rd Street, ferrying daytime shoppers to grand department stores like Stern Brothers and nighttime theatergoers.

Robinson is a new name for me. Born in Vermont, he came to New York in the 1870s and returned again after stints in Europe, according to the National Gallery of Art. His depiction of Union Square (above), also an important Gilded Age location, seems closer to his pioneering Impressionist style.

Robinson died in New York in 1896 at age 43 after a lifelong fight with severe asthma, per a New York Times review of an exhibit held in 2005. His name isn’t well known, but his work capturing the street life of the Gilded Age lets us feel the energy and excitement of the city on the cusp of the 20th century.

5 Remnants of the 19th century West Side village of Manhattanville

January 17, 2022

Think of Manhattan in the early 1800s as an urban center at the tip of the island surrounded by a collection of small countryside villages.

The city itself, with a population under 100,000, was concentrated below Canal Street. But a few miles up the Hudson River was sparsely populated Greenwich Village. Parts of today’s Upper West Side once formed the farming village of Bloomingdale. Harlem started off as a rural area in the 17th century as well.

Then there’s Manhattanville (below, at the top of the map). Founded in 1806 in a valley known as Harlem Cove, this former outpost 10 miles from the city was centered on today’s 125th Street and Broadway.

It’s not an accident that Manhattanville was founded here. In the early 19th century, this was the crossroads of Bloomingdale Road and Manhattan Street—two crucial arteries that connected residents to Harlem and the lower city. (Manhattan Street likely gave the village its name.)

“Building lots were being advertised for sale ‘principally to tradesmen’ in this enclave that already boasted a ‘handsome wharf,’ ‘convenient academy,’ and an ‘excellent school,'” according to a Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) report.

The village’s early population included mostly poor residents of British and Dutch descent, plus a small number of African Americans, per the HLC report. Decades later, Manhattanville would be better known as an industrial center and also an early transit hub.

“By the mid-1800s, this picturesque locale was the convergence of river, rail, and stage lines,” wrote Eric K. Washington in his book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. The first northbound passenger stop on the Hudson River Railroad was at Manhattanville, Washington wrote. (Below, the little white Manhattanville train depot, in front of an early building for Manhattan College.)

Manhattanville remains on the map and as a neighborhood name. But like other villages, it became part of the larger city in the early 20th century.

Still, bits and pieces of the old village exist. For starters, the streets are a little askew; they don’t always align with the official street grid laid out in 1811. Before crossing Amsterdam Avenue, 125th and 126th Streets (the former Lawrence Street) make hard turns and slant northwest toward the Hudson.

This charming nonconformity makes it possible to stand at the corner of 126th and 127th Streets or find yourself at the intersection of 125th and 129th Streets. It’s a little puzzling, but it reminds you of the life and activity in New York that predates the Commissioners Plan.

What else still exists of the former village? Probably the loveliest remnant is the yellow clapboard parish house for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. An outgrowth of St. Michael’s church in Bloomingdale, St. Mary’s was founded in 1823 for Manhattanville residents. (St. Mary’s was the first church in the city to do away with pew rentals, which was a common practice at the time.)

The original church was a simple white wood structure consecrated in 1826, replaced in 1908 by the current English Gothic-style church building. The yellow parish house, however, was built in 1851 and feels more country village than urban city.

St. Mary’s Church is the site of a more eerie piece of Old Manhattanville: a burial vault under the church porch containing the remains of one of the village’s founders, a man named Jacob Schieffelin (along with the remains of his wife and brother). Schieffelin donated the land on which St. Mary’s was built.

Schieffelin, a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, amassed his post-independence fortune as a wholesale druggist and mercantile owner. He was one of a handful of prominent New Yorkers who made up the founding families of Manhattanville.

Among them were the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, as well as Daniel F. Tiemann—who served as mayor of the city from 1858 to 1860 and owned D.F. Tiemann & Company Paint & Color Works, which moved to the village in 1832. The arrival of the paint factory helped turn Manhattanville into an industrial center powered by an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century.

On the same block of 126th Street is another hint of old Manhattanville: the Sheltering Arms Playground and Pool. The name comes from the Sheltering Arms, which took in children who were “rejected due to incurable illnesses, some were abandoned, and others were so-called ‘half-orphans,’ whose parents required temporary assistance while striving to overcome abject poverty or other adversities,” according to NYC Parks.

Finally, there’s the mysterious street known as Old Broadway, a slender unassuming strip that spans 125th to 129th Streets and then picks up again from 131st to 133rd Streets east of regular Broadway. It’s the last piece of Bloomingdale Road.

In the late 19th century, as urbanization arrived in Manhattanville, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of regular Broadway, which became the main north-south thoroughfare. This leftover strip of Bloomingdale Road no longer served a purpose. Rather than de-mapping it entirely, it was renamed Old Broadway—a remnant of a village that’s now often referred to as West Harlem.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY, MNY29573; fourth image: NYPL; eighth image: Wikipedia]

A bronze statue that survived Hiroshima has a message for Riverside Drive

January 2, 2022

What cements Riverside Drive as one of Manhattan’s most beautiful streets is its architecture. The avenue is a winding line of elegant 1920s and 1930s apartment houses, with some surviving rowhouses and a few stand-alone mansions that reflect the beaux-arts design trend of the Gilded Age—lots of limestone, light brick, and marble.

But every so often, the Upper West Side portion of Riverside has a surprise. Case in point is the 15-foot, 22-ton bronze statue that has stood outside 332 Riverside Drive, between 105th and 106th Streets, since 1955, according to Japan Culture NYC.

The statue is of Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist monk in Japan who founded a sect of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu in the 13th century. The monk is depicted in missionary robes, his face mostly obscured by his hat. (Originally he carried a cane, presumed stolen in the early 1980s, per Japan Culture NYC.)

Riverside Drive has always been an avenue of grand statues. But how did the statue of a Japanese monk end up here?

The story begins in Japan in 1937, when a businessman in the metal industry commissioned his factories to make six identical bronze statues of Shinran Shonin, according to fascinating research by Sam Neubauer at I Love the Upper West Side. “The statues were spread across Japan, with one standing on top of a hill overlooking Hiroshima,” Neubauer wrote.

Once war broke out, the Japanese military turned three of the statues into scrap metal for ammunition. “A similar attempt was made in Hiroshima but after significant protests over the importance of the statue, the government allowed Shinran Shonin to remain on his hilltop,” stated Neubauer. 

Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Street, about 1903

“It was from the hilltop that, on August 6, 1945, the statue witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb exploded over the city,” he continued. “Although the epicenter of the blast was just 1.5 miles away, the statue somehow survived.” An estimated 80,000 people perished in immediate aftermath of the atomic blast.

In 1955, after the New York Buddhist Church moved to Riverside Drive from its original home in a brownstone on 94th Street, the church’s minister and the businessman who commissioned the statue decided to bring it to New York.

“The statue of Shinran Shonin was unveiled in the front garden of the New York Buddhist Church, where it remains today,” wrote Neubauer. “A carved stone plaque along the sidewalk describes the statue as ‘a testimonial to the to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.'”

Apparently radiation was a concern when the statue was unveiled. According to Atlas Obscura, the statue “has been free from radiation since it began its stay in the United States and has never posed a danger to visitors.”

Japan Culture NYC has a slightly different take. “The statue still bears red burn marks on its robes and a trace of radioactivity as a result of the blast from the atomic bomb,” the site stated.

[Third photo: MCNY, MN122632]

An Impressionist painter’s Christmas in Madison Square Park

December 6, 2021

Paul Cornoyer’s work has been featured in Ephemeral New York in several earlier posts; this Impressionist artist originally from St. Louis was captivated by the Gilded Age city’s energy and vitality, as well as the beauty of its parks.

Cornoyer depicted Madison Square Park many times. But to my knowledge, “Christmas in Madison Square Park” is the only painting of his that captures what appears to be New York City’s first official park Christmas tree.

The tree—a 60-footer from the Adirondacks—made its debut in Madison Square on December 21, 1912, lit with 1,200 colored lights donated by the Edison company. It was such a hit, decorated Christmas trees soon became the norm in many city parks and squares.

I haven’t been able to confirm the date of the painting. Cornoyer moved to New York City in 1899 and spent several years here, so if the tree in this nocturne isn’t the very first park Christmas tree, it’s likely to be one of the firsts.

What a beauty it is, next to what could be the tower of Madison Square Garden in the blue glow of a winter’s night!

This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue

September 6, 2021

Forsyth Street between Grand and Hester Streets is a pretty typical Lower East Side block, with an uneven row of shabby but serviceable tenement walkups lining the east side of the street along Sara Roosevelt Park.

But one of those walkups, number 80, has some curious architectural touches. The third floor of the three-story building features Gothic arched and circular windows; you can almost imagine them filled with stained glass. And iron stars of David decorate each fire escape landing.

There’s good reason for these design flourishes. Though 80 Forsyth was built in 1874, according to 2013 post in The Lo-Down, what was once a house or tenement was converted into a synagogue in the late 19th century.

Turning a residential or commercial space into a synagogue may not have been unusual at the time. (Just as it’s not so unusual now, with storefront churches.) In the 1880s and 1890s, the Lower East Side was filling up with thousands of Jewish immigrants, who formed or joined congregations and needed places to worship.

Several congregations used the synagogue over the years. In the 1880s, a congregation identified by The New York Times as Kol Israel Anschi Poland occupied the space. The Times wrote that the congregation was fighting a tax bill from the city because the property was used for religious purposes, the congregation asserted.

But the city won the case, convincing the judge that since the ritual baths in the basement were open to “all Hebrews,” not just congregants, the building was liable to taxation.

I’m not sure when the last congregation abandoned the building. But this 1939-1941 tax photo of 80 Forsyth (above) appears to have a commercial tenant on the ground floor. (There’s the stained glass; if only the photo was in color!)

In the 1960s, the house turned synagogue took on an entirely new life: It became the studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Pat Passlof, per The Lo-Down.

Passlof bought the building in 1963 for $20,000 with her husband, painter Milton Resnick, and help from her parents, who pronounced it a “rat hole,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece.

“They called it a rat hole, but I couldn’t deny that,” Passlof said in the Times article. She was 83 and died later that year.

In 2014, the ex-synagogue went on the market for $6,250,000. Number 80 Forsyth has returned to its original purpose as a residence, it seems.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The anti-slavery past of a Bowery house built in the 1790s

June 14, 2021

Numbers 134 and 136 Bowery, between Broome and Grand Streets, look like they were designed to be twins.

Both houses were constructed when the Bowery was a fashionable address north of the city center. Each reflects the Federal style that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th century—with dormer windows, steep roofs, and Flemish-bond brickwork.

But 134 Bowery (on the left) has the edge when it comes to New York history. This 3-story house dates back to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest houses still extant in Manhattan. Number 136 is old by Gotham standards, but it didn’t go up until 1828, according to the Bowery Alliance.

Sources vary on who built the houses, but one or both were constructed and occupied by Samuel Delaplaine and his family. Delaplaine, a Quaker, was an outspoken member of the city’s nascent abolitionist movement.

“…may servitude abolish’d be, As well as Negro-Slavery, To make one LAND of LIBERTY!” read a manifesto Delaplaine reportedly wrote in 1793, according to The Historical Markers Database. (Below, 134-136 Bowery two doors down from the bank building on the left in 1910.)

Delaplaine’s ancestors made their wealth as merchants. “The Delaplaines were descendants of a Huguenot refugee who landed in New Amsterdam after fleeing France,” states Alice Sparberg Alexiou in her book, Devil’s Mile: the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery.

His Quaker faith may have spurred on his opposition to slavery, which was legal in New York City until 1799, when the first of a series of gradual emancipation laws were enacted. (New York state fully abolished slavery in 1827.)

In 1795, he donated the land for St. Philips Church, New York’s first black Episcopal church, notes Alexiou, which originally stood on Centre Street. He also donated plots he owned on Chrystie and Rivington Streets for a cemetery for black New Yorkers, who made up about 20 percent of the city’s population the time.

“Delaplaine was one of a group of ‘diverse, well-disposed individuals,’ as described by the Common Council, who were well-disposed to the ‘African society’ (‘free people of color’) for a Negroes’ cemetery,” Alexiou wrote.

Delaplaine’s descendants were also active in the abolitionist movement, which became stronger in antebellum New York. “Booksellers and circulating libraries published and distributed anti-slavery literature in these buildings, which also served as boarding houses and possible fugitive-slave safe houses in the 1830s to the 1860s,” states the Bowery Alliance.

After the Civil War, 134 Bowery became one of the first YMCAs located on the Bowery. “Partnering with the New York Mission Society, a reading room and the Carmel Chapel were opened, and food, lodgings, and baths were provided to ‘all persons, without respect to country, creed, color, sex, or age,” per the Alliance.

While both houses have long had commercial tenants on the ground floor, their link to abolition can hopefully save them from the wrecking ball.

“The historic houses at 134-136 Bowery are now documented to be significantly associated with the anti-slavery movement beginning at the end of the 18th century,” wrote Mitchell Grubler at Place Matters. “They meet the established qualifications to be deemed of most important historic value through documented connections.”

[Third image: Library of Congress]

5 remnants of the old Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side

April 19, 2021

It’s been decades since Czech could routinely be heard on the streets. Restaurants like Praha and Vasata, heavy on the goose, duck, pork, and dumplings, are long defunct.

The Little Slovakia bar has vanished, and markets, bakeries, relief organizations, and travel agencies catering to Czech and Slovak immigrants closed their doors long ago.

Yet traces do exist of the former Czech neighborhood centered on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Created after waves of immigration in the late 19th century and then again in the 1940s, Little Czechoslovak once had a population of 40,000—with many finding work in local breweries (alongside their German neighbors in Yorkville) and cigar factories in the east 70s.

One of the oldest remnants stands on East 71st Street near First Avenue. This beige brick Renaissance-style structure opened in 1896, and its name is still carved into the facade: Cech Gymnastic Association. (Interesting side note: The architect is the same man who designed the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place.)

The Gymnastic Association, or Sokol Hall, was an elegant community center. “Old photographs show a space full of gymnastic equipment, ringed by a great oak gallery and painted like a European concert hall—marbleized columns and elaborate stencil and decorative work on the walls,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1989.

“The hall was a centerpiece for the Czech community in New York, offering dinners, theatrical events, concerts, bazaars and a comfortable social club.” Sokol Hall still operates as a gym, though the restaurant (see the sign above in a photo from 1940) seem to have vanished.

All of New York’s former ethnic neighborhoods had their own funeral parlors, and Little Czech is no exception. John Krtil got its start in 1885, and it’s the only one that remains, on First Avenue at East 70th Street.

Immigrant enclaves always built churches. St. John Nepomucene Church is one that survives; it’s a stunningly beautiful Catholic church at First Avenue and East 66th Street. The parish was founded by Slovak immigrants in the East Village before relocating here in 1925, according to Slavs of New York.

Inside St. John’s recently, I met a parishioner who’d been going to this church since he was a child and recalled the huge congregation and holiday parties in the basement.

I’d passed the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church many times over the years and was eager to include it here. Completed in 1888, this Gothic Revival church on East 74th Street off First Avenue was one of the earliest houses of worship to serve the Bohemian community.

What a surprise to find it impossible to view behind heavy scaffolding! The church building was sold to the Church of the Epiphany, which is doing a heavy renovation. Jan Hus Church will be moving to 90th Street and First Avenue. (The photo above was shot before the building went into hiding; it’s from the Historic Districts Council.)

“The [Jan Hus] Church design evokes the streetscape of Prague with its distinctive Romanesque and Gothic Revival details, including a tower said to recall the entrance to Charles Bridge, which was added in 1915 as part of the expansion,” wrote Majda Kallab Whitaker, in a thoughtful farewell on the website for the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association.

Luckily Bohemia National Hall is still with us. Completed in 1896, this stunning five-story building on East 73rd Street could be described as the heart of the neighborhood. “Since its beginning it has served as a focal point for its community, offering ethnic food, Czech language and history classes as well as space for its large community to meet and hold various events,” the Hall’s website states.

With its lion heads on the facade and beautiful arched upper windows, the Hall serves a new purpose these days. Owned by the Czech Republic since 2001, it’s the headquarters of the Czech consulate, according to the New York Times. It’s also the site of a restaurant, Bohemian Spirit, that serves the kind of Czech and Slovak food once dished out in the small cafes and eateries in the neighborhood,

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: Six to Celebrate/Historic Districts Council]

The country chapel still standing on 42nd Street

March 29, 2021

On the eastern end of 42nd Street between First and Second Avenues stands a delightful little brick church.

Hemmed in on all three sides by tall apartment towers, it’s an eclectic dollhouse-like structure—with Gothic windows and arches as well as a facade that looks like a nod to its Tudor City neighbors.

But this church predates Tudor City and the modern hustle of East 42nd Street by at least 50 years.

So how did a country-style chapel end up on one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares?

The story begins with another church, the Church of the Covenant (above in 1890)—a Presbyterian church completed in 1865 at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 35th Street. After the Civil war, this area was on its way to becoming one of the poshest enclaves in Manhattan.

“Dedicated in 1865, the graceful stone building was designed in the Romanesque style by James Renwick, Jr., the noted architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, All Saints Catholic Church and Grace Church in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC,” wrote nycago.com.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Church of the Covenant began running a mission school out of a stable on East 40th Street. One of the Church’s well-heeled congregants was architect J. Cleveland Cady, the designer behind the original Metropolitan Opera House, part of the American Museum of Natural History, and dozens of churches and synagogues in and around New York City.

Cady ran the mission school, and in 1871 he designed a country-style chapel known as Covenant Chapel that served as kind of a satellite branch of the church down on 35th Street.

By the 1890s, East 42nd Street was a developing residential area. But it still didn’t have the population and cache of Murray Hill.

That would soon change. As New York’s population marched northward, Covenant Chapel’s congregation became larger than that of the main church.

In 1893, the country chapel on 42nd Street became the main church. “A Fellowship Hall was added to the 42nd Street site in 1927, with a half-timbered facade to complement neighboring Tudor City,” wrote David Dunlap in From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

The original Church of the Covenant outlived its use and was bulldozed—and the little country chapel continues to serve the neighborhood.

[Second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]