Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The dazzling beauty of New York autochromes

August 26, 2019

When you’re used to seeing 19th and early 20th century New York City in black and white photos, images of the pre-World War II city in stunning color are a revelation.

And few color photos are quite as much of a revelation as the dreamy, ethereal images known as autochromes.

What’s an autochrome? It’s an early form of color photography patented by French filmmakers August and Louis Lumiere in 1907.

“It involved glass plates, a backlight, soot and (oddly) potato starch—and it revolutionized photography,” stated NPR.com, in an article covering National Geographic’s vast archive of autochromes, which include the images here.

“For about 30 years, it was the most widely used process for capturing color.”

“The pointillistic quality of these photographs—small dots of orange, green and purple—gives them a misty, nostalgic tone,” stated NPR.com.

These five autochromes here give us New York in 1929 and 1930: the Hudson River waterfront, two images of Washington Square Park, a view of the Woolworth Building and the demolished Post Office at City Hall, and the street poetry of two men rifling through the wares of a downtown junk shop.

Historically, they’re fascinating—they reveal the spectrum of colors of buildings, signs, vehicles, and clothes of an earlier city, rather than the contrasts of darkness and light most older photographs offer.

Artistically, autochromes don’t just capture color; they create something magical.

[Autochromes: Clifton R. Adams and Edwin L. Wisherd/National Geographic Creative/Corbis]

Two magical views of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

August 19, 2019

What’s more inspiring than an old color postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge?

An old color postcard of this “eighth wonder of the world,” as it was called on its opening day in May 1883, at night—with the city skyline and the lights of the bridge casting an enchanting glow across the East River.

The earliest postcard of the nighttime bridge is from 1906 (above), and I’m not sure I recognize what appears to be the Brooklyn side in the foreground.

Buildings are short and squat. Pedestrians walk the bridge as they do today, though the trolleys are gone; they were discontinued in 1950.

This second Brooklyn Bridge postcard gives us the bridge three decades later, in 1930.

The bridge itself doesn’t seem to be the focus so much as the magnificent Manhattan skyline of gleaming, towering buildings.

And wow, an airship! I hope it’s not planning to dock at the top of the Empire State Building; that idea didn’t exactly pan out when it was proposed in the 1920s as the building was under construction.

The first New York tenement is on Mott Street

August 12, 2019

The orange building in the middle of the photo below, 65 Mott Street, looks like an ordinary Manhattan tenement.

It lacks a cornice, sure, and a renovation at some point in its history has erased any ornamental features on the facade. But that’s no different to countless other 19th century tenements across the city.

Aside from this, you’d never know that this walkup has one distinction that makes it different from its neighbors.

65 Mott Street “was apparently the very first New York building built specifically to serve as a tenement,” wrote historian Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points—his study of the horrific slum neighborhood this stretch of Mott Street used to be part of.

“Historians have generally cited a building erected on the Lower East Side in 1833 by iron manufacturer James P. Allaire as the city’s first designed tenement…” Anbinder wrote. “But the building at 65 Mott almost certainly predates Allaire’s structure by nearly a decade.”

Anbinder noted that an article in an 1879 trade journal stated that 65 Mott had been occupied for 55 years, which means the tenement was constructed in 1824.

“Its seven stories—a height then unprecedented for a dwelling place—dwarfed the surrounding wooden two-story homes and must have made quite a spectacle when it was first built.”

Tenements, of course, are a New York City invention.

Short for tenant houses, tenements started out as subdivided single-family homes or back houses meant for the city’s growing working-class and poor city residents. (Above, Mott Street in 1911, lined with similar tenements.)

As the city’s population boomed in the first half of the 19th century, unscrupulous builders began constructing substandard multi-family dwellings, knowing they could find plenty of desperate people willing to live in them even thought they lacked basic amenities like natural light and fresh air.

“Tenements built specifically for housing the poor originated at some time between 1820 and 1850….By the end of the Civil War, ‘tenement’ was a term for housing for the urban poor, with well-established connotations for unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” according to NYPL.

From 1868 to 1901, the city enacted a secession of laws mandating that tenements be outfitted with safety features like fire escapes, indoor plumbing, and windows in every room.

Without photos, it’s hard to know when 65 Mott Street was updated and modernized so it looks like any other New York tenement.

A peek inside shows the same kind of tile design in the hallway so common in other late 19th century tenements. Anbinder estimated that the building probably had at least 34 two-room apartments in this 2450-square-foot property.

I wonder if any of the apartments still have bathtubs in the kitchen, or “tuberculosis windows” in the rooms.

[Third photo: George Bain Collection/LOC]

The delightful Gothic mash-up building in Tribeca

July 15, 2019

Gothic architecture usually brings to mind shadowy vaulted ceilings and cathedral spires, and there are plenty of examples of this all over New York City.

But there’s a mashup of a building on a tiny Tribeca block that’s such a fascinating kaleidoscope of Gothic details, it suggests something light and frothy, not dark and Medieval.

The 5-story slender building is at 8 Thomas Street, between Broadway and Church Street. This architectural confection was completed in 1876 by a young designer named J. Morgan Slade.

“It was built as a store for David S. Brown Company, a soap manufacturing firm, and as such is a reminder of the first large-scale commercial development in the area following the Civil War,” explained the Historic Districts Council.

Brick, stone, cast iron, ionic columns, arched windows, a gabled roof, and one single fanciful oculus on the top floor, it has all the bells and whistles that makes coming across the building such a treat.

The Historic Districts Council calls it Venetian Gothic.

“This building is a rare New York example of Venetian Gothic, a Victorian style popularized by the British architecture critic John Ruskin,” the group wrote.

Other sources describe it as Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, and Ruskinian Gothic.

To me, it feels similar to Jefferson Market Courthouse, an architectural leap of faith but on a smaller scale.

After the soap company departed in the late 19th century, other manufacturing concerns moved in, including a wool company. A French restaurant was tried in the early 20th century.

By 1990, it was described in a New York Times article on Tribeca as “a giddy mix of Romanesque, Venetian Gothic, brick, sandstone, granite and cast-iron elements that stands alone, a little forlornly, beneath a giant construction project.”

Originally, 8 Thomas Street was flanked by two larger late 19th century cast-iron buildings, as the 1940 Tax Photo from the NYC Department of Records shows.

Sadly, both were lost—leaving number 8 to stand out on its own between a 2-story restaurant on one side and a modern residential tower on the other.

It’s now a 4-unit condo, a luxury building like so many of its Tribeca neighbors. What would the folks at the David S. Brown soap company think of this stylish pad which sold for $2.9 million in 2018?

[Fourth image: 1940 Tax Photos/Department of Records and Information Services]

What a tourist saw on a trip to New York in 1970

July 8, 2019

In March 1970, a traveler now living in Rotterdam paid a visit to New York City.

Jaap Breedveld was in his 40s at the time. Like many tourists, he took photos that reflect the typical itinerary of a sightseer from overseas, like Times Square (above, with the old Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street on the left).

But Breedveld also captured images of New Yorkers at work, like this pretzel vendor on an unknown street, above. (Were pretzel carts really so low-key in 1970?)

During a foray into Chinatown, Breedveld immortalized these two men slicing fish on a barrel.

His photos also reflect a changed cityscape. In this image above, the Chrysler Building dominates the skyline, as it does today.

But Roosevelt Island—in 1970, still officially Welfare Island—has yet to be developed into a residential enclave, and the tramway wouldn’t start operating until 1976.

Midnight Cowboy fans will recognize the lovely Beaux-Arts building on the left in this image of Times Square.

It’s the Hotel Claridge, where Joe Buck gets a room after he arrives in New York. Opened in 1911 as luxury accommodations, the old hotel was torn down in 1972 to make way for an office building.

This photo appears to be taken from Battery Park and looks toward State Street; that must be the Elizabeth Ann Seton shrine and James Watson House in the center.

Today, the shrine and 18th century house are surrounded by boxy towers, one of which is going up in the photo.

This breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan contains no Twin Towers, and no Battery Park City. Both would be on maps by the end of the decade.

[Breedveld shared these previously unpublished images with Ephemeral New York. Special thanks to Peter van Wijk. ©Jaap Breedveld]

The Grand Street bus cruising 1970s New York

June 24, 2019

This is Park Row and Broadway in 1972. John Lindsay was the New York’s mayor; that year, he launched a short-lived quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Transit strikes, teacher strikes, and a sanitation workers’ walkout in the 1960s continued to cripple the 1970s city. By the end of the decade, almost a million people had left Gotham and resettled elsewhere.

But New York kept going, just like this “fishbowl” style bus is doing—cruising its way downtown back to Grand Street. The photo was taken by Joe Testagore and is part of a large collection of vintage transit photos at the wonderful nycsubway.com website.

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

May 6, 2019

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]