Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

This alley was once an exclusive New York street

September 18, 2017

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

Painting prewar New York from the outside in

September 11, 2017

Art that captures a single moment of beauty and activity on New York’s streets is always captivating. But there’s something to be said for images that reveal something about Manhattan from a far away vantage point, showing a city not in the center but on the sidelines.

Leon Kroll, born in New York in 1884 and a contemporary of George Bellows, Robert Henri, and other social realists, gives us that sidelined city.

Kroll, who studied at the Art Students League and exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, was known for his nudes and country or seaside landscapes, and he also painted Central Park, Broadway, and other city locations.

But he also depicted New York in the early 20th century from the outside in, illustrating the city’s rhythms from across the East and Hudson Rivers.

“Queensboro Bridge,” from 1912, the painting at the top of the page, is one such example. The majesty of the relatively new bridge (only three years old here) takes center stage, but the monolithic city looms behind it.

I’m not exactly sure where Kroll was when he painted the second image, 1920’s “Manhattan Rhythms,” the second image.

He presents us with a solid, impenetrable city high above the wharves and docks of the river, a metropolis that dwarfs the men who work there.

“View of Manhattan Terminal Yards From Weehawken” (1913) puts industry and commerce on display. The train tracks may be on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, but they and the boats sending smoke into the sky work to enrich Manhattan across the water.

“Terminal Yards,” the fourth painting (also 1913) gives us another, snow-covered view.

I love that the city skyline is barely in “Manhattan From Hoboken” (1915), another painting of the metropolis from the heights of New Jersey.

The vibrant colors and web of tree branches—not to mention the thick clouds and smoke coming from boats and trains beside the river—almost obscure the Empire State Building and the rest of the cityscape.

If you’re not there in the middle of it, New York is far enough away to feel like another country.

A short history of short Elk Street near City Hall

September 4, 2017

As one of New York City’s oldest sections, Downtown is a minefield of cut-off and leftover streets, of demapped alleys and oddly placed thoroughfares that have no place in the modern city street grid.

Case in point is Elk Street. It’s about as short as its name, stretching just two blocks from Chambers Street to Duane Street, anchored on the southern end by the 1907 Surrogate’s Court building.

Yards later it ends east of the African Burial Ground, where free and enslaved black New Yorkers were buried from the 1690s to 1794.

Since there’s no record of elk roaming around what would have been the outskirts of the colonial city, how did this little spit of land get its name?

Elk is actually the last remaining stretch of Elm Street, which once ran from Chambers Street all the way to Spring Street.

When the city decided to enlarge Lafayette Street and make it a bigger north-south thoroughfare in the early 1900s, they incorporated the existing roadway of Elm Street and another now-defunct street, Marion Street.

So why Elk, not Elm? The current name is a nod to the first Elks Lodge, which was organized in 1866 at a rooming house at 188 Elm Street farther north. (At right, Elm between Grand and Broome Streets, 1900)

The first Elks Lodge was a group of “15 actors, members of an informal drinking association called the ‘Jolly Corks'” and “formed to circumvent the state’s Sunday dry laws,” explains a New York Times FYI article from 1998. “It was the golden age of American fraternal orders, and the Elks’ declared purpose was the practice of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity.”

The Elks went national, and in 1939, Mayor La Guardia, himself an Elk, decided to rename Elm in honor of the lodge to which he belonged.

[Fourth and fifth images: NYPL]

Your ticket to cross the new Williamsburg Bridge

August 28, 2017

Before coin tokens came into use, passengers riding the New York City subway in its early days needed a paper ticket.

And apparently a paper ticket also allowed you to take a trolley across the Williamsburgh (note the h!) Bridge after it opened in 1903.

This ticket comes from the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal. The caption reads: “Good for one passage over Williamsburgh Bridge on local bridge cars only. Three rides 5 cents.”

That’s a bargain; when the subway opened in 1904, a ride ran you a nickel.

Harrison Street’s stunning 1820s row houses

August 28, 2017

They sparkle like 19th century gems against drab Independence Plaza: nine Federal–style, red-brick beauties with signature dormer windows and peaked roofs.

And though this L-shaped enclave of lovely homes and leafy backyards look like they’ve stood side by side on Tribeca’s Harrison Street since they were built between the 1790s and 1820s, only six are original to this Belgian block corner at Greenwich Street.

Three others were trucked in from a now-demapped stretch of Washington Street during a vast historic preservation effort in the 1970s—one that was derided by architectural critics but the contemporary city is richer for.

Forget the 1970s for a moment and go back in time to the city’s booming post-colonial era. Private homes (like these in an illustration of Greenwich Street) built in the modest yet fashionable Federal style were sprouting up as far north as Bleecker Street.

Federal-style row houses fanned out east along the Bowery and west to Harrison Street, which was once the “bouwerie” of settler Annetje Jens (“a little woman with merry eyes beneath her Dutch cap and a fondness for bright clothing” her biographer says) and then the site of Harrison Brewery.

From the early 1800s to the Civil War, this Lower West Side area formed a well-to-do neighborhood where prosperous residents built homes: dry goods sellers, printers. John McComb Jr., the architect who designed City Hall, Gracie Mansion, built two of the Harrison Street homes.

Like so many other downtown neighborhoods, this enclave lost its cache after the Civil War. They houses fell into disrepair. Two were combined into boardinghouses populated by poor immigrants, and some of the ground floors turned into storefronts.

What had once been an exclusive residential area was now home to industry and commerce, with the bustling produce sellers of Washington Market a stone’s throw from Harrison Street.

Through the 20th century, the homes remained shadows of what they once were, with dormer windows boarded up and storefronts abandoned. But in the 1960s, with Washington Market now gone, New York City historians took notice.

“At the same time that the World Trade Center was being built, from 1969 to 1973, a wide swath of buildings north of Chambers Street along the Hudson River was being cleared for the Washington Market Urban Renewal Area,” wrote Christopher Grey in a New York  Times article in 2001.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to preserve the six houses on Harrison and Greenwich Streets, while saving and moving three more Federal-style survivors on a stretch of Washington Street that was slated to for development.

Once all nine houses were on Harrison Street in an L formation (six facing the street, and three to the side), the architectural firm in charge of Independence Plaza restored them to their former glory.

Some critics at the time found the restoration synthetic. Paul Goldberger wrote in 1979’s The City Observed, “There are facades at Disneyland that look more real, and all that these houses make you want to do is run back again across Greenwich Street where old buildings are still real and not kept alive by artificial respirator,” according to the Times story.

Four decades have since passed, and unless you look closely, it’s difficult to notice that the facades only date back to the 1970s. This auspicious plan to save six of the city’s oldest private homes should be considered a success, especially for the lucky owners.

In the 1970s, “[T]he city offered the houses for sale, with unfinished interiors, for $35,000 to $75,000, and began transferring title in 1976,” wrote Gray.

In October 2016, 27A Harrison Street was listed at $7.9 million!

[Third image: NYPL; Fourth image: NYC Department of Records’ Fifth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.721; Sixth Image: MCNY 2013.3.1.284]

There is no beach anywhere near Beach Street

August 19, 2017

Beach Street—the name of this little strip of a road in Tribeca conjures up images of a sandy shoreline and gentle waves.

And while the Manhattan shore did used to lap at Greenwich Street, which Beach Street intersects, it’s apparently just a geographical coincidence.

So did Beach Street get its name from a colonial settler homesick for Liverpool or the West Indies?

It’s actually a corruption of Bache, named for Paul Bache, the son-in-law of Leonard Lispenard, who himself (or an older family member) was the namesake of nearby Lispenard Street.

The original Lispenard was a French Huguenot who arrived in Manhattan in the 17th century and eventually owned the swampy land south of Canal Street, which was known for a century at least as Lispenard’s Meadows (above), according to Henry Moscow’s The Street Book.

Beach Street has undergone as much transformation as any city block has over time.

Lispenard’s Meadows was a desirable area, as this ad in the Evening Post from 1807 shows. (No yellow fever!) After the swamp was drained, the neighborhood became exclusive St. John’s Park (above, in 1866).

When the railroad came in and the wealthy moved uptown, Beach Street was part of a warehouse district.

At some point, for one block, it was renamed Ericsson Place—after former street resident John Ericsson, a Swedish-born inventor, designer of the USS Monitor (built in Greenpoint), and a popular hero after the Civil War.

Today it’s a quiet stretch in a posh-again area. Apparently Beach Street did extend to the Hudson River at one time, one last chance for the name to actually make sense.

Alas, a modern office building cuts it off from the river, and Beach Street is forever landlocked.

[Second, fourth, and fifth images: NYPL; third: Evening Post 1807]

New York’s hustle and bustle down at Park Row

August 7, 2017

Here is Park Row at the turn of the century. Why the crowds, which the caption on the back of the postcard says numbers 50,000 commuters, workers, and idlers every day? Think of all the worlds that collide at this juncture.

The statue of Ben Franklin, with its Victorian lampposts, is a nod to New York’s printing and publishing industry, still centered here at Printing House Square.

A treeless City Hall Park is mostly out of view on the left. But centered on the northern end are government buildings, courts, and City Hall, which employ politicians and big staffs that serve them.

Factor in the transit hub known then as the Park Row Terminal, which ferried people across the Brooklyn Bridge so they can pick up streetcars on either side and continue on their way.

And of course, at this time Park Row is still the center of the newspaper trade.

See the delivery wagons lined up in front of various newspaper buildings, ready to bring the latest edition of the news of the world to the city. (Here they are in a closer view from a black and white photo.)

[Photo: Teamster.org]

Hudson River vs. North River: which is right?

July 31, 2017

Anyone familiar with old New York maps and guidebooks has probably seen it: the river running along the western side of Manhattan is referred to as the North River, not the Hudson, as we know it today.

I always believed that North River was an old-school name for this body of water that fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century.

But then I came across this plaque from 1960, affixed to Pier 40, the massive site built as a terminal for the Holland America cruise ship line that now serves as a recreational facility for Hudson River Park.

The plaque refers to the “Pier 40 North River.” As far as I can tell, most people by 1960 were calling it the Hudson. So which name is right?

Turns out the part of the Hudson parallel to Manhattan is actually the North River.

“The North River is that section of the mighty Hudson River which runs from the tip of Manhattan Island, at the Battery, northward to approximately beneath the George Washington Bridge—a distance of 11.3 miles,” states one 2008 book, Railroad Ferries on the Hudson.

“It is always called the North River by people in the shipping industry, with the name Hudson generally reserved for that stretch above Yonkers where Hudson River pilots are taken on board.”

The Dutch apparently named the river the North River to distinguish it from other rivers in the fledgling New Netherlands colony, like the East River and the South River (today’s Delaware River).

Nevertheless, a century later, there must have been some confusion over what to call it. Both names were in use even in colonial times—as this 1781 British map on the left shows.

The tenement between two elevated train lines

July 24, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of New Yorkers lived in tenements bordered by elevated train tracks.

Trains thundered so close to living rooms and kitchens, one observer in the 1880s described the elevated as “so near to the houses you might shake hands with the inhabitants and see what they had for dinner.”

Having a train outside one window was one thing. But what in the world was it like living in a slender building at the juncture of two elevated lines, with trains lurching and screeching day and night on both sides of your home?

The curtains in the windows of this tenement, at the Battery Place stop where the Sixth Avenue El and Ninth Avenue El meet in Lower Manhattan, tell us people did make their homes here.

Both elevated lines were dismantled in the late 1930s. At some point, the Flatiron-like tenement had its date with the wrecking ball as well; I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere in the downtown streetscape.

[Photos: MCNY/Wurtz Bros.]

All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

July 15, 2017

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]