Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Don’t forget New York’s other November holiday

November 23, 2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War.

“Washington’s Grand Entry into New York, November 25, 1783,” Alphonse Bigot

Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when the British evacuated New York for good after occupying the city during the War.

“Evacuation Day and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City,” Edmund P. Restein

Just hours after the Red Coats left, a Union Jack flag was taken down from a flagpole at Battery Park and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington returned to Manhattan, leading the Continental Army through the city and down Broadway flanked by cheering crowds.

[Images: Wikipedia]

A thermometer and clock on a Broadway building

November 16, 2020

Sometime after the New York Sun moved into 280 Broadway between Reade and Chambers Street in 1919, it made its presence known by adding two things to the facade of this circa-1845 building: a fantastically gorgeous four-face clock and two-sided thermometer.

The Sun’s bronze clock: “It shines for all”

It makes sense for a storied publication in New York’s competitive newspaper world of the era to install these on the new headquarters’ Italianate facade.

The Sun thermometer: It was not 120 degrees outside when this photo was taken

Both the clock and the thermometer carried the Sun’s name, so it was good advertising on this busy corner north of City Hall Park. Also, as a newspaper, the Sun existed to inform—and that includes informing passersby about the time and temperature.

Long after the Sun closed up shop in 1952 and departed what became known as the Sun Building (though before that, it was A.T. Stewart’s first department store, his “Marble Palace”), the beautiful clock is still with us on the southwest corner.

The Sun building, 1917

The thermometer, on the northwest corner at Reade Street, was in its usual spot a few years ago. It was broken then, but that’s okay, I just hope it still exists.

[Third photo: New-York Historical Society]

A lovely view of Trinity Church from Wall Street

November 9, 2020

In the shadowy canyons of the Financial District are two New York City icons. Most recognizable is Trinity Church, whose 281-foot spire was the tallest structure in the city until 1890.

There’s also Federal Hall, built in 1842 on Wall Street, which has had this George Washington statue out front since 1882.

View of Trinity Church From Wall Street, undated

This view was painted by Elizabeth Weber-Fulop. Born in Budapest in 1886, she lived in Europe before moving to Charleston, South Carolina and then Tennessee.

To my knowledge, she never lived in New York. But it’s hard not to see why she was struck by what she saw one sunny, early 20th century day in Lower Manhattan.

A Midcentury artist’s muted Manhattan beauty

November 2, 2020

You’ve seen paintings of Washington Square, Greenwich Village markets, and the New York Harbor before. But through the eyes and brush of Bela de Tirefort, these and other city scenes take on a muted, Impressionist beauty.

“6th Avenue El,” 1940

I didn’t find much information about De Tirefort’s early years. Born in Austria in 1894, he made his way to New York City and became instrumental in organizing outdoor art fairs, included something called the Greenwich Village Art Fair (maybe the Washington Square Outdoor Art Fair, which got its start in 1931?).

“Bleecker Square,” 1961

He organized an art fair in Brooklyn outside Grand Army Plaza in 1932, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle seemed to get a kick out of. “Brooklyn is still the city of churches and homes—to artists,” the Eagle wrote. “Neurotic, erotic, exotic, and degenerative ‘art’ may go in Greenwich Village, but Brooklyn likes its art conservative.”

“Evening, Central Park” undated

De Tirefort comes off like a pragmatic artist in his reply to the Eagle: “We are not here to argue with the public. We are here to sell. We are guests. We do not want to offend.”

“Brooklyn Bridge,” undated

It’s not clear where de Tirefort himself lived, but Greenwich Village is a good guess. Many of his paintings focus on Washington Square Park, Bleecker Street’s Little Italy, and other Village icons. He also sold his painting directly from Washington Square, stated 1stdibs.com.

“Hansom Carriage Central Park” 1940

He tended to bathe his scenes in soft tones and thick brush strokes, presenting evocative city scenes that feel dreamlike but with decidedly Modernist touches.

“Park View, New York City” 1961

Through the 1940s and 1950s, de Tirefort exhibited his paintings in galleries and made a living as a working artist. In 1966, he moved to South Florida, where he died at age 99 in 1993, according to his obituary in the Tampa Bay Times.

“New York Harbor From the East River” 1951

“Using muted tones, strong silhouettes, and incisive textures, his paintings capture the structure of the city in the decades between the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the growth of the New York art scene,” wrote 1stdibs.com.

De Tirefort in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, 1932

De Tirefort’s work, often up for sale at auctions, commands the kind of prices you’d expect from a chronicler of Midcentury New York’s poetic moments and elusive beauty.

[Images 1-7, mutualart.com; eighth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1932]

The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony

October 19, 2020

West Village blocks don’t get any lovelier than West 11th Street (below) and Perry Street (bottom photo), two slender old streets lined with mostly well-tended brownstones and brick houses—particularly the stretch west of Seventh Avenue South.

West11thstreet

As picturesque as they are, there’s a secret hiding between these parallel blocks: Go through the horse walk between them (which is private, so you need access from a resident), and you’ll come upon a backyard garden with winding paths, places to sit, and a romantic, artsy vibe.

West11thstreetgarden

What’s the backstory? The garden and the brownstones surrounding them were christened in the early 20th century by a real-estate savvy reverend as “St. John’s Colony.”

West11thstreetgardenchurch

In the early 1900s, the reverend, John Armstrong Wade, led the church that still occupies the corner of Waverly and West 11th Streets, St. John’s in the Village.

Established in 1853, St. John’s built a church with ionic columns (below, in 1970), and the congregation grew along with the neighborhood through the 19th century.

But neighborhoods change, and what were once more middle-class, single-family brownstones were chopped into apartments, which became rundown.

With Rev. Wade at the helm, St. John’s decided to buy up some of the neighboring houses on West 11th and Perry Streets (below, in 1930), with the idea of renovating them to attract more stable residents and keep the parish from having to relocate uptown, like so many downtown churches did at the time.

West11thstreet1930nypl2

“Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony,” states the website for St. John’s.

Soon, properties on Perry Street were also purchased by St. John’s, and the development of the backyard garden was underway.

“Thus, St. John’s Colony began,” states an unidentified article from 1927, reproduced on St. John’s website. “One by one the houses were acquired. One by one under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm.”

Wset11thstreetmarycantwellbook“Fences and rubbish were cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one—a large, open space where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New York.”

In the 1950s, writer Mary Cantwell and her husband moved into 224 West 11th Street, which she recalls in her beautifully written 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

“Between West 11th and Perry Street, “and hidden from passersby, was perhaps the most secret of all the Village’s secret gardens,” wrote Cantwell. “It was very large, with two fountains, a small stone alter, private sitting areas at the rear of each basement apartment, a towering catalpa tree which in spring had a haunting, peppery scent, rose of Sharon bushes and spirea and a community of box turtles, invisible in winter and shy in summer.”

Wset11thstreetgardenfacingperry

“Once there had been peacocks, too, spreading their tails along the paved pathways,” wrote Cantwell.

In 1971, the original St. John’s church was destroyed in a fire. A new building replaced it in 1974 and still stands today (below). In the 1980s, St. John’s began selling off some of the houses of St. John’s Colony, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

Sthjohnschurch

By the mid-1990s, St. John’s wanted to “relinquish its rights and responsibilities” regarding the garden, the Times wrote, because it was costly to maintain.

Today, does St. John’s still have a stake in St. John’s Colony? I’m not sure, but the garden seems to open to the back of the church. Perhaps church leaders decided that the peace and beauty there was worth the price of upkeep.

Perrystreet

[Fourth photo: St John’s Church, 1970, MCNY 2013.3.2.1623; Fifth photo: NYPL 1930; Sixth image: “St. John’s Gardens-Greenwich Village,” 1945, by Josephine Barry/MCNY 75.43.89; seventh image: Publishers Weekly]

An old IRT subway sign still in view at City Hall

October 12, 2020

This site has crazy love for vintage signs. But what a treat to come across a faded and worn remnant of the old time New York City subway—like this Lexington Avenue IRT sign, spotted at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station after a trip on the 6 train.

The IRT—or Interborough Rapid Transit Company—was the independently owned subway system that launched the first trains in 1904. August Belmont founded the IRT in 1902, though it was soon dubbed the “Interborough Rattled Transit” by riders frustrated by late and overcrowded trains.

Illustration by W.A. Rogers, via Wikipedia

The IRT company disbanded in 1940, and the city bought the line. For decades, New Yorkers would still refer to numbered trains as the IRT, but I doubt you’ll find any straphanger who still uses the old-school name.

Why Manhattan has two streets named Beekman

October 12, 2020

For such a small strip of land, Manhattan has a lot of duplicated street names. Think Jones Street and Great Jones Street, Washington Street and Washington Place, and Greenwich Street and Greenwich Avenue.

But there’s one shared street name that’s always been a curiosity: Beekman. Beekman Street lies south of City Hall near the South Street Seaport, while Beekman Place is a residential enclave between 49th and 51st Streets by the East River.

Beekman Street, south of City Hall Park

Both Beekmans are slender roads on the East Side, with Beekman Street running three blocks and Beekman Place two. Beekman Street has a rougher mix of 19th century walkups and 1970s-style buildings, while Beekman Place is a posh lane of charmingly restored townhouses and elegant apartment buildings.

Who were the Beekmans, and how did their family name end up in two places on the Manhattan street map?

Beekman Street is the older of the two, named after Wilhelmus Beeckman (right), “who came to New Netherlands with Peter Stuyvesant and became prominent,” states A Landmark History of New York. At some point after arriving in 1647, Beeckman anglicized his name to William Beekman and bought a vast farm, and then another, where Beekman Street sits today.

Beekman Street itself may have started out as a cow path on Beekman’s farm leading to today’s City Hall Park—a community pasture known as the Commons in the 17th century.

William Beekman was just 21 when he relocated to New Amsterdam. He became socially and politically popular, serving as sheriff, burgomaster, and then deputy mayor and acting mayor, both under British rule.

Beekman Place, Turtle Bay

He had many descendants who made their own name in the growing city. One, great-grandson James Beekman, is the namesake of Beekman Place.

Born in 1732, James Beekman (below right) was a wealthy merchant who built a mansion he called Mount Pleasant on an estate centered at today’s First Avenue and 51st Street.

James Beekman’s mansion served as a country respite for his wealthy family from the increasingly crowded city center.

But during the Revolutionary War, Mount Pleasant had some new residents: British generals, who made it their military headquarters. (Nathan Hale was also supposedly hanged here, but that’s a piece of history still in dispute.)

When the war ended, the Beekman family returned to Mount Pleasant; they stayed until 1834, driven away by a cholera epidemic, according to a 1977 New York Times article.

After the mansion was demolished two decades later, the Beekmans created a new street running through the former estate and sold lots to developers.

Brownstones replaces the mansion, but by the late 19th century, “the Beekman Place brownstones were abandoned to the poor, many of whom worked in the packing houses, slaughterhouses and coalyards along the East River,” states the Times.

Beekman Place’s restored townhouses

“The wealthy, drawn largely by the river setting, began to reclaim the neighborhood in the 1920’s.” This is the Beekman Place that remains with us today: quiet, hidden, and with some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

[Third image: Wikipedia; sixth image: MCNY 95.76.3; seventh image: Wikipedia]

The mysterious portrait artist of Spring Street

October 12, 2020

Very little is known about a 19th century New York painter named John Bradley.

He “may have” immigrated to America from Ireland in 1826, the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted. In the 1830s, he was in Staten Island, where he painted portraits of well-known Staten Islanders with last names like Totten, Cole, and Ellis.

In a New York City directory in 1836, however, John Bradley is listed as a portrait painter on Hammersly Street—today’s West Houston Street, according to the National Gallery of Art.

From 1837 to 1843, Bradley was listed at 128 Spring Street. “Bradley’s last address in New York, from 1844 to 1847, was 134 Spring Street,” states the National Gallery. After this, “nothing further has been determined of Bradley’s life or career.”

But Bradley did leave behind some of his portraits—and two, both of little girls, showcase his folk art style and rich attention to detail. They also give us an idea of what well-off little girls in New York wore in the 1840s, from their bonnets to jewelry to dresses down to their slippers.

“Little Girl in Lavender,” at top, was done in 1840. The second portrait, from 1844, is of two-year-old Emma Homan, whose father ran the first omnibuses in the city. Both works would have been painted while Bradley was on Spring Street—a desirable address in a fashionable area at the time.

John Bradley’s studio was at this corner in the 1840s.

Today at his former Spring Street addresses, no building survives that could have housed Bradley’s studio. Here’s the corner where it once was, at Greene Street, above. The mid-19th century Spring Street of small houses is long gone.

Emma Homan herself might be the last known connection to Bradley. After moving away from New York City with her family as a girl, she grew up to be botanical artist and writer, at right in an 1897 photo.

[First portrait, National Gallery of Art; second portrait: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Two elite addresses on 1830s Bleecker Street

October 5, 2020

Named for the family whose farm once surrounded it, Bleecker Street between the Bowery and Sixth Avenue became one of New York’s most fashionable addresses in the 1830s.

Leroy Place, drawn by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1831

But for rich New Yorkers, it wasn’t enough to just live on Bleecker Street. Two developments in particular were built to cater to the cream of the crop.

The first was Leroy (or LeRoy) Place, above. Spanning the south side of the block between Mercer and Greene Streets, Leroy Place emulated the “terraces,” or terraced houses, popular in London—essentially a group of identical attached townhouses with harmonious front yards.

Isaac G. Pearson hired architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design Leroy Place, which he built out of granite, according to Luther S. Harris’ Around Washington Square. Once it was finished, Pearson managed to get the city to rename the block after his development.

Leroy Place on an 1835 map of New York City, by Henry Schenk Tanner

“Christened LeRoy Place in honor of the Knickerbocker merchant Jacob LeRoy, its Federal-style row houses sold for a hefty twelve thousand dollars,” states Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New Yorkers with names like Clinton and Beekman took up residence here.

Impressed with the way Pearson attracted Clintons, Beekmans, and other affluent New Yorkers, Francis DePau completed DePau Row between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in 1830.

DePau Row, in what’s described as a proposed illustration, from MCNY (32.159.1)

DePau Row had just six houses. “All were unified by their identical height, a seamless finish, and common detailing, including a long ornamental iron verandah—the first in the city—extending across all six fronts,” states Around Washington Square.

A.T. Stewart, dry goods mogul, lived at DePau row, as did Valentine Mott, one of the city’s most esteemed surgeons.

While Leroy Place and DePau Row had status in their day, their wealthy residents decamped for more spacious homes uptown as soon as commercialism (and lower class people) crept in. “By 1853, the Builder observed that ‘Bond and Bleecker Streets, that were then the ultima thule of aristocracy, are now but plebian streets,’ per the NYPL.

Depau Row, 1896, from the New-York Historical Society

Leroy Place in the 1850s and beyond hosted an oyster house, furniture warehouse, and saloon. Long after it lost its luster, it was demolished in the mid-20th century.

DePau Row also fell into disrepair; it was bulldozed in 1896 to make way for Mills House No. 1, a home for single men funded by banker and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills.

All the ways to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903

September 21, 2020

Here we are at Brooklyn Terminal in 1903, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge known as the “East River Bridge” during its long construction.

To cross the bridge, you had options. Taking a trolley car was one method; a horse-drawn cart was another. And of course, walking was a possibility. By 1903, it was free to be a pedestrian on the bridge, but when the span opened in 1883, the fee to walk was one cent!

What, no bike lane yet?

[MCNY F2011.33.1886]