Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

Let the Brooklyn Bridge show you the way

June 8, 2020

The Brooklyn Bridge (or the East River Bridge, as this 1920 postcard charmingly calls it) is many things.

It’s a display of engineering might, a graceful web of wire over water, a symbol of New York’s unity, the embodiment of promise and possibility. Let it be a source of inspiration during this time when our city has been tested.

[MCNY F2011.33.1882]

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover?

April 27, 2020

Manhattan still has several manhole covers that mark the Croton Aqueduct, the 1842 engineering masterpiece that fed fresh water to the 1840s metropolis from a series of gravity-powered pipes and city receiving reservoirs.

Dated 1862, this one hiding in plain sight on the grimy corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street is thought to be the oldest in the city. It’s might also be the most southerly one, since the Croton manhole cover once on Jersey Street in Noho has disappeared.

But unless it was removed recently (and that’s certainly possible), an almost identical cover, also dated 1862, lies underfoot in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, at First Avenue and 112th Streets.

In the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, it’s a fitting time to take a moment and celebrate what the Croton Aqueduct did for New York City: it brought clean drinking water to an unsanitary city where fresh water was hard to find.

Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted.

A mob torches New York’s Quarantine Hospital

April 20, 2020

New York in the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of constant ship traffic. Ships helped make the city rich—but the passengers and crew aboard them also brought bacteria and viruses.

To prevent ships from sparking more disease outbreaks in a city that was regularly besieged by them, the state built the New York Marine Hospital in 1799, a complex of buildings behind a six-foot wall in Tompkinsville, a village on the north shore of sparsely populated Staten Island.

The Quarantine, as it was known, functioned as a first line of defense.

Ships headed for the city were required to dock there, and health inspectors would board the vessel and make sure no one showed signs of disease, especially yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhus (so common it was dubbed “ship fever”). If all was well, the ship could continue on to Manhattan or Brooklyn.

But if inspectors suspected or saw evidence of disease, they would flag the vessel and “divert everyone on board to the Quarantine until they were cleared as disease-free,” wrote the New York Daily News in 2013.

Those who were not sick still had to go to the Quarantine. “If the healthy passengers and crewmen did not develop any symptoms of illness over a specified period of time—the period depending on the disease—they were released,” explains a 2004 article in Public Health Reports.

As for the sick passengers, their clothes were washed immediately. They were then loaded into wagons and brought to one of the hospital buildings. (Interestingly, there was a separate quarantine hospital building for first class passengers, which was described as more of a hotel.)

If they died, they were buried in a cemetery two miles away.

As immigration boomed in the 19th century, the hospital became busier. Throughout the 1850s, two million immigrants came to the city, and the Quarantine sometimes housed a thousand newcomers at a time, according to Public Health Reports.

While the Quarantine was necessary to help prevent outbreaks, the people who lived on Staten Island in the mid-19th century weren’t too happy about having it as a neighbor. A yellow fever outbreak that killed 11 Staten Islanders in 1856 was blamed on the hospital.

Residents of Tompkinsville and other nearby villages felt that the facility hurt the value of their property. They also called out the hospital for carelessly wheeling dead bodies through their town on the way to the cemetery.

In the late 1840s, Staten Island residents convinced the city to move the Quarantine to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, but the plan stalled. For the next decade, residents fought to close and relocate the hospital, but the battle was tied up in legislation.

Finally, in August 1858, tensions hit the breaking point, and “citizens began stockpiling straw, wood, and flammable camphene near the Quarantine,” wrote the Daily News.

On September 1, the local board of health approved a resolution that ended with “Resolved: That this board recommend the citizens of this county to protect themselves by abating this abominable nuisance without delay.”

That night, about 30 men went to the Quarantine, lit a pile of straw mattresses pushed against a building, and watched the facility burn. The next night, the mob had swelled into the hundreds. Arsonists continued to burn down buildings until nothing remained.

“Three fire companies lolled their way to the scene, then stood and watched, claiming their hoses had been cut,” stated the Daily News. “A contingent of harbor policemen who arrived by boat were driven off by boys throwing rocks. City police from across the harbor didn’t even answer the alarms.”

No one in the hospital was killed in the blaze; at the time, only 60 patients were inside. Newspaper headlines talked of the “Quarantine Wars.” Two ringleaders went on trial in front of a Staten Island judge but were acquitted.

Ultimately the mob got its way. A year later, a floating quarantine hospital was anchored off Staten Island as a temporary replacement. By the 1860s, quarantine facilities were moved to Swinburne and Hoffman Islands, both created by landfill in the lower end of New York Harbor.

[Top image: JStor; second image: NYPL; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: New York Herald; sixth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; seventh image: NYPL]

Ghost buildings standing out in the desolate city

April 13, 2020

There’s something about New York right now, with its (mostly) emptied streets and deserted sidewalks, that makes the phantom buildings of an earlier Gotham come out of hiding.

You know these phantom tenements and walkups—their faded outlines tend to reappear at construction sites, giving us a glimpse of the low-rise city of another era.

Sometimes they’re a longtime ghostly imprint overlooking the empty lot left behind when the building was torn down—like the one above on East 45th Street, with its distinctive chimney.

This one above, on Lafayette Street, is another unusual one, perhaps it’s the ghost of a Federal-style house from the first half of the 19th century, when many of these little homes were built (and still survive) in Lower Manhattan.

Here’s another stubby building at the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, its chimney just visible against the lovely and much taller Bayard-Condict Building, constructed in 1899.

What will take the place of this low-rise walkup on York Avenue and 86th Street, old enough to have been dwarfed by century-old tenements?

This phantom building down at Hudson Yards might be gone by now. The building it left its outline on may have met the bulldozer, or a shiny new tower is obscuring it once again.

The slight slope to the top floor of this outline makes me think it was once a stylish brownstone or rowhouse, probably one in a group built in the late 19th century on a block in Midtown East.

Finally, on East 57th Street is this little guy, likely a 19th century apparition clinging to a more modern apartment building while haunting the bright busy Whole Foods at street level.

A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

March 9, 2020

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images: Metmuseum.org]

Who is taking the steam ferry to Brooklyn in 1836

February 10, 2020

This was how you crossed the East River in the 1830s: by a steam-powered ferry sporting an American flag and a belching smokestack. Perhaps you’d be accompanied by some horses, one attached to a covered wagon.

That’s what this hand-colored 1836 engraving from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by G.K. Richardson after William Henry Bartlett, tells us. It’s simply titled, “The Ferry at Brooklyn, New York.”

You might take this river crossing all in stride and not demonstrate any excitement about it, as the ladies talking in a circle on the left side of the ferry seem to be doing. Or the ferry ride might thrill you or make you ponder things, as you rest against the railing like the figures on the right.

Go to the Smithsonian site via the link above and use the zoom button to really see the ferry riders.

A mystery ghost building on Lafayette Street

February 3, 2020

Every time I walk up Lafayette Street, it catches my eye: the stark imprint of a small house or building between Spring and Prince Street at what would be number 246. (Seen here in a 2013 photo.)

Short but with a sharply outlined chimney and slightly steeped roofline, It’s like a phantom from another New York, perhaps the mid-19th century. Who lived or worked here?

Lafayette Street has a long history. The stretch south of Prince was originally part of Elm Street, which began at Chambers Street and became a tenement district as the 19th century continued. (A sliver of Elm Street still exists near the Municipal Building.)

In the early 1900s, Elm Street was extended and connected to the former Lafayette Place—an elite enclave built by John Jacob Astor in the 1830s from Astor Place to Great Jones Street. The wide new thoroughfare was renamed Lafayette Street and became much more commercial.

The street name changes complicate unsolving the mystery. But according to a 2010 report by the Soho-Cast Iron District Extension prepared by the NYC Landmarks Commission, what was once number 246 was “a brick nineteenth century” demolished in 2008 to become a “dining pavilion” for a hotel on the other side on Crosby Street.

This 1940 tax photo (and a closeup) shows what the little building looked like. Perhaps it began as a house like so many other commercial buildings did in the mid-19th century, then changed as the neighborhood went out of fashion and became rougher around the edges.

[Tax photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services)