Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting

March 1, 2021

Figuring out the location of a long-ago image depicting some part of New York City is a fun challenge. So when a reader sent me this painting—the basis for a 1945 Mack truck ad—looking for information on where the scene was set, I was intrigued.

“The caption for the ad said ‘An old AC Mack Bulldog Nose truck at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market,'” explained the reader.

“Peter Helck, the artist who painted this scene (also my grandfather) was born in Manhattan and lived or worked there most of his life, so he knew the city very well. I believe this represents an actual location and I am hoping you might be able to identify it.”

References to the ‘New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market’ turned up vague information. But considering that Manhattan’s main produce market in 1945 was the sprawling Washington Market (above, in 1962), centered on Washington Street and spilling over from Fulton to Chambers Streets and beyond in today’s Tribeca, I figured that was the location of the painting.

The confusing thing, though, was the elevated train—which appears to be a true el, not the High Line, which ran a mostly straight line in and out of warehouses. The closest elevated train to Washington Market would have been the Ninth Avenue Elevated. which ran a block over on Greenwich Street. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover any images of the Ninth Avenue El on the Lower West Side with such a pronounced curve in it.

But could that curved track run farther up Ninth Avenue beside what’s still known as the Meatpacking District (above in 1938)—a 19th century wholesale market that by the 1940s primarily handled meat and poultry? The Belgian block street certainly look like today’s Little West 12th or Gansevoort Street.

Turns out at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street (below, in 1940), the el does make a curve similar to the curve in the painting. Problem is, the Ninth Avenue el was dismantled in 1940.

Could the artist have added an el train per artistic license? Is the date of the painting earlier than thought? A little more detective work needs to be done.

[Painting: courtesy Tim Helck; first photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 43.131.6.152; third photo: MCNY X2010.26.171]

An Art Nouveau clock on a downtown skyscraper

March 1, 2021

The Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway (officially its address spans 10-30 Broadway) has been part of the downtown skyline for almost a century. At street level, the building follows the 17th century contours of lower Broadway, while the 480-foot tower adheres to the city street grid.

Built to serve as the headquarters for this Rockefeller-run company, the 1928 skyscraper also incorporates Standard Oil’s original building, constructed on the same spot in the 1880s.

But there’s something curious at the building’s second entrance at 28 Broadway: a beautifully designed, possibly Art Nouveau-inspired clock.

What’s the backstory on this unusual clock—a timepiece of Roman numerals as well as tendrils and petals similar to the two stone-carved florals below it?

The 1995 Landmarks Preservation Committee report notes the clock briefly: “The two secondary entrances in the Broadway facade are interposed on large arched window openings, both of which are in pedimented door surrounds with clocks mounted above,” the report states.

The other Broadway entrance, at 24 Broadway, opened into a jewelry store, per the LPC report. Today it’s a branch of the New York Film Academy and is topped by a smaller clock with Roman numerals that lacks the decoration of the clock at number 28 (see it here).

Could the clock in question have come from the original building—or perhaps it has some significance to Standard Oil? Or maybe it’s just a stunningly designed naturalistic timepiece that added a nice contrast with this dignified corporate headquarters.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.1129]

George Washington never slept in this Bowling Green mansion built for him

February 22, 2021

It was called Government House—and despite its stodgy name, it was elegant and beautiful.

The Georgian-style, two-story stunner sat at the foot of Broadway with New York Harbor behind it and Bowling Green in front. Begun in either 1789 or 1790 on the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the elevated mansion looked upon New York’s most elegant neighborhood, surrounded by the fine houses and churches of the rich.

But this premier residence with a portico and carvings of the arms of the state wasn’t designed for any old member of Gotham’s elite. New York in 1789 was the capital of the new United States. And city fathers intended Government House to be the official home of all US presidents.

The immediate hope was that George Washington, sworn in as the first commander in chief on April 30 of that year, would move into Government House. After his inauguration, Washington lived in a borrowed mansion at One Cherry Street. Then in February 1790, President Washington made the Macomb mansion at 39 Broadway opposite Bowling Green his residence.

Unfortunately for New York, the city’s stint as the capital of the US was about to be cut short. Later in 1790, temporary capital status went to Philadelphia while a new capital between Maryland and Virginia could be built. Washington spent the rest of his presidency in Philly, never relocating the Government House or the White House.

Government House didn’t stay empty though. New York City was still the capital of New York State, and the mansion became the official residence of state governors like DeWitt Clinton and John Jay. But in 1797, Albany became the state capital, and Government House became the Custom House from 1799 to 1815.

In 1815, Government House met its end—some sources say the city simply dismantled it, another attributes its demise to a fire. Private residences were built on the site, but as the city’s elite decamped to more fashionable neighborhoods, the Bowling Green area became a commercial zone.

In 1907, the site became the home of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House—and today, that building houses the National Museum of the American Indian. A plaque marking Government House was put up in 1890 by the Holland Society of New York, which I didn’t find, but Wikipedia has it.

[Images: Wikipedia; NYPL]

What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

February 22, 2021

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

The colonial city’s most romantic ‘kissing bridge’

February 1, 2021

Manhattan in the 1700s was mostly bucolic countryside, thick with woods and swamps and crossed by brooks outside the small downtown city center.

To get across these brooks, residents of the island’s villages and far-apart estates built small wooden bridges. Perhaps because some of these bridges were in secluded spots that inspired romance, at least three became known into the 19th century as “kissing bridges.”

On these bridges, couples could enjoy a little PDA…and they were encouraged by custom (or bound by tradition) to indulge in a little lip action.

“In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from the city, which you always pass over as you return, called the ‘Kissing-Bridge,’ where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection,” wrote Rev. Andrew Burnaby of the UK, who visited New York in the summer of 1760.

One of these kissing bridges spanned Old Wreck Brook (you have to love these colonial-era names, right?) at today’s Park Row and now-defunct Roosevelt Street. Details about this kissing bridge have been hard to uncover, but it did inspire this 1920 poem.

Another kissing bridge occupied East 77th Street and Third Avenue, about four miles from the city on the edge of Jones Wood. It crossed the Sawkill River near Boston Post Road, according to the New York Times in 2006.

But the kissing bridge that inspired old New York memoirists (and appears to be the one Burnaby wrote about) is the bridge that spanned the Sawkill River (or Turtle Creek, according to one historian) at today’s Second Avenue and 50th or 52nd Street. This was on the farm owned by the DeVoor family, stated Charles Hemstreet in When Old New York Was Young.

“And at the crossing of the waterway and the roadway…there was a bridge over which the road led and under which the stream flowed,” wrote Hemstreet. “This was called the ‘Kissing Bridge’, and it was not the first bridge of the kind on the island, nor was it the last. Twice more on other places a road crossed a stream; and there, too, was a Kissing Bridge.”

The heyday of this kissing bridge was in the 1760s Hemstreet explained, and the name “was gotten from an old Danish custom, giving to any gentleman crossing such a bridge, not only the privilege, but the right of kissing the lady who chanced to be by his side.”

It’s unclear when this and the other two kissing bridges met their end. But the one in today’s Turtle Bay survived the longest. Valentine’s Manual published an illustration of the kissing bridge in 1860 titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge on the Old Boston Road, 50th & Second Ave.”

If only one of these bridges made it to the 21st century—what an appropriate place for New York couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

[Top image: The American Magazine, 1882; second and fourth images: NYPL; third and fifth images: Ballads of Old New York]

The coal company helped the city survive winter

December 21, 2020

Stuart Davis was a New York artist of the 20th century best known for his playful Modernist paintings filled with bright colors and geometric shapes. But early in his career, he was influenced by the Ashcan School—and he stuck with the social realist style with this 1912 piece, Consumer Coal Company.

It’s a powerful painting that invites viewers to feel the sharp snap of snow whipping around a low-rise block somewhere in New York City. (I’m guessing Lower Manhattan, see the Federal-style houses with the dormer windows.)

Forced to work in the blustery weather, the men from the coal company shovel a load into a sidewalk coal hole, where it can be transferred to the furnace to keep residents from freezing to death.

It probably wasn’t Davis’ intention when he painted this scene to provide insight into how life was lived in New York in 1912. But the painting immortalizes the role the coal companies played in New York winters—when Gotham was still largely dependent on coal-burning furnaces (not to mention horse-pulled wagons).

Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards

December 21, 2020

While looking through the website of the Museum of the City of New York last week, my eyes fixated on what I thought must be a painting: a colorful, somber scene in Little Italy in 1920—the men mostly standing against a brick storefront while women and children sifted through a basket of fresh loaves of bread on the curb.

Which of New York’s many Little Italy neighborhoods is it? Based on one of the postcard captions that mentions Mulberry Bend, this is the Little Italy of Mott and Mulberry Streets. Manhattan had others, one on Bleecker Street and another in East Harlem, which was once the the borough’s biggest Italian enclave.

But is this image, part of a collection of several separate images of life among the vendors and residents of Little Italy, actually a painting? If it is, it’s part of an unusually beautiful postcard series produced by the penny postcard company Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Rather than colorize and reprint photos, perhaps the company commissioned an artist to illustrate these scenes. It might have been worth the effort considering how popular postcards were in the early decades of the 20th century. The new medium allowed people to see brilliant images of other parts of the world in much higher quality than newspaper photos.

“The postcard was to communications at the beginning of the 20th century what the internet is to this one; it was a relatively new idea taking hold like wildfire that revolutionized communication,” states the introduction to the book New York’s Financial District in Vintage Postcards.

Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the leading postcard publishers, capturing images of New York City’s prettiest streets, tourist attractions, and ethnic neighborhoods. (The MCNY collection includes a Raphael Tuck postcard of Chinatown in 1908, among other sites.)

“Raphael Tuck & Sons is generally acknowledged as the greatest picture postcard publisher in the world,” states J.D. Weeks in the introduction to Raphael Tuck US Postcard List. “From the time they produced their first set of twelve postcards in 1899 until they ceased operations in 1962, their postcards have been among the most highly prized to collect.”

The company doesn’t exist anymore, but their postcards live on in archives like that of the MCNY. I’m not sure if these images are colorized photos or paintings they commissioned, but they are lovely and evocative—scenes of an immigrant neighborhood that’s almost entirely vanished.

[All postcards from the Collections Portal of the Museum of the City of New York. First image: X2011.34.2163; second image: X2011.34.2161; third image: X2011.34.2164; fourth image: X2011.34.2162; fifth image: X2011.34.2160; sixth image: X2011.34.2165]

A rich family’s spectacular 18th century carriage

December 14, 2020

James Beekman, a dry goods merchant who lived at Hanover Square, was one of the wealthiest men in 18th century New York City.

Beekman had cash, a prominent family name (his great-grandfather was Wilhemus Beekman, who came to New Amsterdam aboard the same ship in 1647 as Peter Stuyvesant), and a riverside country estate called Mount Pleasant (below) at today’s 51st Street and Beekman Place.

It makes sense, then, that a man so distinguished would want a distinguished carriage, so he and his family could get around Manhattan in style.

This is the stunning coach he purchased from a sea captain in the UK and had shipped to New York in 1771, according to the New-York Historical Society, which has the carriage in its collection.

“If you watch movies set in the 1700s, you might get the impression that everyone rode in carriages like this one. But painted carriages like this—with beveled glass windows and a place at the back for a footman—were rare even among the elite of the colonies,” states the New-York Historical Society, which adds that only 26 carriages like the Beekman coach existed in the city in the mid-1700s.

Of course, Beekman probably didn’t use this carriage for running errands. “[The coach was] the crown jewel in his fleet of prestigious vehicles that already included a chaise, chariot, and phaeton,” according to the New-York Historical Society. Records indicate that the coach cost £138, “with additional expenditures for painting the family arms and varnishing.”

Reserved for special events like balls and banquets, the coach may have also been used to transport a president.

Before the Revolutionary War, George Washington was friendly with James Beekman, who actively supported the American cause.

“After the disastrous Battle of Long Island and with New York under the threat of a British invasion, Washington, a regular guest of the Beekman’s, urged James to flee Manhattan with his family,” states revolutionarywarjournal.com.

The Beekmans (which included Mrs. Beekman, aka Jane Ketaltas, at right, along with their 12 children) hid their valuables, including the carriage, and abandoned New York City for seven years.

After the war and Washington’s ascent to the presidency, The Beekmans lent him their carriage in 1789, states revolutionarywarjournal.com, so Washington could take it from his Cherry Street home to his inauguration at Federal Hall (below).

The New-York Historical Society, however, reports a different event. They make no mention of Washington riding in the Beekman carriage to his inaugural, but they do say he reportedly used it to get to his first congressional session.

The carriage was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1911 by Beekman’s great-grandson. Imagine traveling across the 18th century city’s muddy roads in rain and snow in such a spectacular vehicle!

[Top image: Wikipedia; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third image: posterazzi; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: painting by Ramon de Elorriaga; sixth image: Wikipedia]

 

 

 

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

How 1910s New Yorkers got their Christmas trees

November 30, 2020

News photographer George Bain spent much of his career taking photos of New Yorkers going about everyday life—and that included prepping for and celebrating Christmas.

In the captions of these 1910s photos, he didn’t explain where these trees started out before they were apparently dumped at Chambers Street, most likely, where the Erie Railroad had a ferry terminal.

They appear to be destined for the parlors of city residents (brought by a team of horses), who wouldn’t consider it Christmas without a beautiful tree to decorate and gather around.

[Photo: LOC]