Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Summer among the tenement houses in 1879

June 18, 2018

“Among the tenement-houses during the heated term—just before daybreak” reads the caption to this 1879 illustration of New York’s poverty-stricken slums in the summertime.

Under a gaslight, adults and kids try to catch a breeze and sleep on the front steps of a rundown grocery, as well as on the roof and beside open windows.

In July and August, any New Yorker who could left the city for cooler weather in the country. These residents remained behind to deal with the oppressive heat made worse by the airless rooms of tenement flats.

They don’t even have fire escapes to sleep on, which 20th century city residents used as beds for hot summer nights.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

What the bronze reliefs on 195 Broadway mean

June 11, 2018

Inspired by ancient Greece, the 27-story office tower at 195 Broadway features a marble lobby and interior classical columns.

The building, completed in 1922, also paid tribute to what qualified as modern communication at the time. This was the new headquarters for AT&T, after all, and company heads topped the tower on the Fulton Street side with a sculpture called “Genius of Telegraphy,” a 24-foot winged male figure cast in bronze holding bolts of electricity in its hand.

“Gold Boy,” as that statue was nicknamed, is no longer there. But four bronze reliefs on the facade of 195 Broadway still exist. Instead of paying tribute to modern communications, they hark back to ancient times.

The four reliefs are collectively titled “The Four Elements,” an early work by sculptor Paul Manship, who designed the Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Plaza.

Manship honored the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. According to Landmarks Preservation Committee report from 2006 (the year 195 Broadway was deemed a landmark site), the panels there today are copies of the originals.

They’re somewhat racy for the 1920s, with topless female figures. And it’s a little strange to see them outside the latest branch of trendy retailer Anthropologie, which now occupies the ground floor.

But the Art Deco touches—and the elements they celebrate—make these reliefs an inspiring break along the canyons of Lower Broadway.

[Top photo: Blue Rock Construction]

The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

May 28, 2018

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

The lives of a former Chambers Street firehouse

April 23, 2018

New York is all about repurposed buildings. And the slender, restrained brick building at 160 Chambers Street perfectly exemplifies this.

For almost 200 years, as this stretch of today’s Tribeca has changed, it’s served as a private home, police station, charity hospital, firehouse, commercial space, and then back to residences once more.

160 Chambers began as the three-story brick home of a builder named Samuel Thomson. Completed in 1833, it would have been a half-block from Stuart’s candy and sugar refinery at Chambers and Greenwich Streets—a place of industry it what was still a mostly residential section of the city.

The house changed hands three years later, according to a Landmarks Preservation Committee report. A prominent lawyer named David Ogden moved in; he made it his home until 1848.

Who lived in it after that is unclear. But an ad for the residence ran in the New York Times in 1853 described it as “built in the most substantial manner.”

By 1863, as the neighborhood lost its luster as a residential enclave, 160 Chambers was purchased by the city and turned into a police station for the Third Precinct. At the time, a professional police department had only existed in Manhattan for 18 years.

During its years as a precinct house, two more stories were added, and it underwent a redesign in the Second Empire style, reflected in the mansard roof.

“The Third Police Precinct Station House was located here until 1875,” states the LPC report. “The building then housed the House of Relief (left), a hospital under the charge of New York Hospital, from 1875 until 1894.”

After the House of Relief left, city officials decided to make 160 Chambers Street a firehouse for Engine Company 29, altering the first floor to make room for a fire engine. Firefighters were based here until 1947.

Until the 1960s, it was home to the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

Subsequently sold by the city and put back in private hands, “[160 Chambers] was converted to commercial use in 1967, and since the mid-1980s the building has had commercial use at the ground story with residential units above.” StreetEasy gives us a peek inside some of these million-dollar apartments.

The current commercial tenant is a beauty spa. But isn’t it wonderful that the word “engine” flanked by two 29s still exists above what was once a fire engine exit?

[Third image: New York Times 1853; fourth photo: Medical Center Archives of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell via Tribeca Trib]

What remains of downtown’s “College Place”

April 16, 2018

On the side of a red brick walkup on West Broadway and Warren Streets is a gem of an old New York street sign: College Place.

It’s two stories up, visible from the street as well as the elevated train that ran up and down this stretch of West Broadway from 1878 to the 1930s.

What was College Place? This part of Lower Manhattan was the first home of King’s College, chartered in 1754 and renamed Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.

College Place became the name of the southern end of what was then known as Chapel Street in 1830; eventually Chapel Street merged with another road called Laurens Street to become today’s West Broadway in 1896.

Columbia relocated to the eventual site of Rockefeller Plaza in 1857; by the turn of the century, what was now called Columbia University occupied its present-day campus on Broadway in Morningside Heights.

The little street sign hiding in plain sight above a dry cleaners isn’t the only remnant of Columbia’s colonial-era downtown days.

A 1918 subway tile in the nearby Chambers Street Station, hard to see thanks to grime and soot, depicts the school’s first building.

[Third image: 1835 David Burr Map of New York City]

The lion and unicorn clock above William Street

March 26, 2018

New York needs more street clocks, those lovely public time pieces that people in a pre-smartphone world relied on to let them know they were late for an appointment.

Or maybe we just need to refurbish the ones that already exist—like this lion and unicorn themed clock four stories up above the entrance to 84 William Street, at Maiden Lane.

In 1907, this breathtaking 17-floor building—a confection of Georgia marble, red bricks, and terra cotta—was the brand-new headquarters of the Royal Life Insurance Company.

An article that year in American Architect and Building News reported that the clock reproduced, “the lion and unicorn which form a part of the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, and replacing the shield by a marble and bronze clock-face eight feet in diameter.”

Lion heads decorate a ribbon of trim around the facade on the third floor. The image of a crown on the clock is a nice royal touch too.

At left is the building and clock as they originally looked; it’s virtually unchanged today in this shadowy corner of Lower Manhattan.

It’s unclear how long the company lasted here, but today, 84 William Street is an extended stay hotel.

Street clock hunting in New York can turn up some beauties, like this colorful terra cotta clock space on Avenue C and this cast-iron clock at an old shoe store on Duane Street.

And of course, no avenue in the city has more street clock loveliness than Fifth Avenue.

[Third Photo: MCNY]

What remains of two downtown colonial streets

March 19, 2018

The financial firms of Lower Manhattan help fuel the global economy of the 21st century.

But in the middle of their cathedrals of commerce, the remains of some humble streets that were instrumental in powering the economy of the 17th century still linger.

Take Marketfield Street, for example. You can just make it out on the circa-1797 map below; “market” is on the far left and “field” picks up on the right.

This narrow stretch between today’s Beaver and Broad Streets is anglicized from its original colonial Dutch name, Markveldt (which loosely translates into “market field”).

Almost 400 years ago, here stood New Amsterdam’s cattle market, opened in the 1650s—and there’s still a cowpath-like bend in the middle of today’s Marketfield Street, harkening back to its livestock days.

Marketfield Street once extended farther west, as this colorful 1642 map below also shows. It’s unclear how long the cattle market survived the city takeover by the British in 1664.

By 1695 the street went by a racier name: Petticoat Lane: “for it was here that, at the western end of the street near the fort which guarded the harbor, New York City’s prostitutes gathered,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1983.

Every country town has a Mill Lane, and Manhattan does too. This slender alley hides between South William and Stone Streets. (On the map at the top, it’s just a faint curvy footpath with what could be a mill illustrated beside it.)

“It was in existence by 1657; the present name dates from after 1664,” states the LPC report. “Mill Lane ran from a mill built in 1628 to grind bark used by tanners.”

Mill Lane today, thought to be one of the city’s shortest streets, is unfortunately covered by scaffolding. Lets hope it survives this latest wave of development in the oldest part of New York City.

[Second map: Keren Wang’s Personal Website; third map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

This office tower helped guide Battery tugboats

March 19, 2018

They don’t make office buildings as enchanting and beautiful as the Whitehall anymore.

Completed in 1904, architect Henry Hardenbergh (of Plaza Hotel and Dakota fame) created a 20-story beauty with a limestone base and decorative touches like entwined serpents—the building overlooked New York Harbor at the Battery, after all.

The Whitehall Building isn’t on Whitehall Street, curiously. So where did the name come from?

Whitehall was the nickname the British reportedly gave to Peter Stuyvesant’s former home (left), which was constructed in 1655 when Stuyvesant was director general of New Amsterdam.

Mosaics of Manhattan’s Whitehall can be seen at the Whitehall Street N/R station, but they’re too grimy to photograph well, sadly.

As the city’s tallest office tower for a brief moment in the early 20th century, the Whitehall Building was a huge success—and almost a decade later, a taller annex was built, called the Greater Whitehall.

The Whitehall annex (towering over the first Whitehall at the right) had a second purpose: It  helped guide tugboats in New York Harbor.

“With its singular top, this building was visible from the dozens of piers that once lined the Hudson River,” states New York for New Yorkers. “It functioned as a control tower; tugboats received their instructions from offices in this building.”

The city’s once mighty shipping industry is long gone, of course. But the Whitehall still soars over the harbor.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC-architecture.com]