Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Departing the ferry across the monolith of Lower Manhattan

August 2, 2021

Born in Michigan in 1865, William Samuel Horton was a prolific Impressionist painter of many landscapes and water scenes, especially in Europe and his adopted country of France, where he died in 1936.

But Horton did spend some time in New York City. He studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design, left for Europe, and returned to New York for an unknown period of time in 1924, according to Cincinnati Art Galleries, Inc.

It was during his return in the mid-1920s when he likely painted “Departing the Ferry, New York,” depicting the urban landscape of Lower Manhattan and the hordes of mostly men in straw hats with obscured faces as they empty out of a commuter from the gangplank.

By the 1920s, New York had built several steel bridges crossing the East River. But ferries were still plying the waters, especially to Staten Island and New Jersey. These massive vessels delivered people to and from an office tower city that looks like a monolith. It’s tough to know where we are along New York’s waterways…perhaps Horton didn’t think the exact location mattered.

What a hot night looked like on an East Side tenement block in 1899

July 29, 2021

First of all, almost everyone is outside—on the street, the sidewalk, fire escapes. If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment without an air conditioner, you know how stifling those rooms can get, and they force you to seek relief outdoors.

The other thing is, people don’t look as miserable as you’d expect for a street scene in the summer heat. Kids are playing; groups of adults are talking. Lone men and women sit on the sidewalk or stoops and watch. Tempers don’t seem to be flaring; no one appears to be looking for a fight.

The moon is bright. What looks like an arc light in the background illuminates the street. People gather at tables by torchlight. As the caption says, it’s one of hundreds of similar scenes enacted at the same time all over the city.

[NYPL]

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street

July 25, 2021

When Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan trains.”

But some of Brace’s ideas would seem like common sense to contemporary New Yorkers. Later in the Gilded Age, Brace decided to build lodging houses and “industrial schools” in New York’s impoverished neighborhoods, places where children could learn a trade and prepare for adult life.

In an era when options for street kids often meant the almshouse or an orphan asylum, homes and schools like these could be real lifelines.

Sullivan Street Industrial School in 1893

One of these industrial schools still stands on Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets. Opened in 1892, it’s a red brick beauty with Gothic and Flemish touches (that stepped gable roof!) on a South Village block where Italian immigrants dominated in the late 19th century.

Brace ministered to street kids, but he also had famous friends. One was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park as well as the creative genius behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just an elevated train stop away on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Sullivan Street, 1893, on the same block as the school

“Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then,” wrote Brian J. Pape in WestView News.

Vaux designed the Sullivan Street school, as well as the Society’s Lodging House on Avenue B and Eighth Street, the Elizabeth Home for Girls on East 12th Street, and the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, all of which are still part of the cityscape and share the same architectural flourishes.

Sullivan Street, 1895

To fund the school, two benefactors stepped forward with the $90,000 needed: Mrs. Joseph M. White and Miss M.W. Bruce, according to an 1892 New York Times article. Supporting the Society was popular with wealthy Gilded Age families, and both women had long been involved in the Society’s efforts.

Opening day in December was captured in print. “The children, to the number of 420, girls and boys, between the ages of five and thirteen, were marshaled into the audience room under the charge of Mrs. C. Forman, principal of the school, and her nine assistant teachers,” wrote the New York Times. “They were dressed in their new suits of clothing, given to them on Monday last by Miss Bruce.”

The school and a next-door playground in 1939-1941

For decades, the Sullivan Street Industrial School served a community that became one of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhoods. Classes in woodworking, metalworking, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills were offered.

The Society didn’t beat around the bush about the rough and tumble neighborhood, however. “This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities in the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible,” the Society wrote in a 1892 report.

The school was more than just a place of learning. An 1899 report by Principal Forman explains that funds were raised from “generous friends” to distribute food and fuel, as well as hot dinners. An organization called the Odds and Ends Society “furnished many warm and comfortable garments” for the children, and mothers who were considered “deserving poor” with husbands out of work were given money to help with rent.

Today, it looks like this former lifeline is a rental building on a much more affluent Sullivan Street. At least one apartment offers up-close views of that stepped gable roofline.

[Second image: History of Child Saving in the United States; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

This pricey co-op building was once a Lower East Side public library

July 18, 2021

New York developers have made apartment buildings out of former hospitals, police stations, schools, and churches. Now, a library branch has undergone the transformation to luxury housing.

What was once the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library has been rebranded as a Lower East Side boutique co-op called, of course, “The Library.”

Purchased by a developer in 2018 and renovated into 11 high-end units, The Library is already luring buyers, even though it doesn’t look like the co-op redo transformation is finished. But it’s not much of a surprise that many of the units have been snapped up, considering the recent reinvention of the Lower East Side as a posh area.

Imagine Rivington Street the way it was in the early 1900s as part of a very different Lower East Side.

Opened in 1906 on a crowded block between Eldridge and Allen Streets, the Rivington branch was designed by McKim, Mead, & White in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The architectural firm was responsible for great public buildings like Penn Station, but they also took on smaller projects, such as the Tompkins Square NYPL branch on East 10th Street.

The Beaux-Arts design lent a sense of elegance to a building largely patronized by poor immigrants living in the neighborhood’s surrounding shoddy tenements.

Engaged readers on the roof

The Rivington branch was one of the city’s new “Carnegie” libraries, funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie (who lived in a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion more than 100 blocks north). The main New York Public Library building was still under construction on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, set to open in 1911.

Like other neighborhood libraries, the Rivington Street branch quickly had a devoted following. Part of its popularity might be due to the open-air reading area on the roof, which proved to be a huge draw during the hot summer months, according to a 1910 New York Times article.

As the photo above shows, the roof really was for dedicated reading rather than sunbathing or goofing off. “Only children or adults actually engaged in reading are permitted to stay,” the Times wrote.

So how did the library branch end up as a co-op? I’m not sure when the branch was decommissioned as a library, but at that point a church took the building over. A developer bought it from the church in May 2018, renovating the former reading rooms and adding three stories.

The “adult desk” at the Rivington Street NYPL branch

What does it cost to live in a former library, where generations of New Yorkers read, dreamed, educated themselves, and stole some time away?

It’s not cheap. The five-room penthouse is in contract for more than $4 million, according to Streeteasy. At least the engraved plaque on the front that reads “New York Public Library” is still on the facade, a reminder of the building’s original purpose.

[Second photo: NYPL. Third photo: New-York Tribune, 1906. Fifth photo: NYPL]

The anti-slavery past of a Bowery house built in the 1790s

June 14, 2021

Numbers 134 and 136 Bowery, between Broome and Grand Streets, look like they were designed to be twins.

Both houses were constructed when the Bowery was a fashionable address north of the city center. Each reflects the Federal style that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th century—with dormer windows, steep roofs, and Flemish-bond brickwork.

But 134 Bowery (on the left) has the edge when it comes to New York history. This 3-story house dates back to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest houses still extant in Manhattan. Number 136 is old by Gotham standards, but it didn’t go up until 1828, according to the Bowery Alliance.

Sources vary on who built the houses, but one or both were constructed and occupied by Samuel Delaplaine and his family. Delaplaine, a Quaker, was an outspoken member of the city’s nascent abolitionist movement.

“…may servitude abolish’d be, As well as Negro-Slavery, To make one LAND of LIBERTY!” read a manifesto Delaplaine reportedly wrote in 1793, according to The Historical Markers Database. (Below, 134-136 Bowery two doors down from the bank building on the left in 1910.)

Delaplaine’s ancestors made their wealth as merchants. “The Delaplaines were descendants of a Huguenot refugee who landed in New Amsterdam after fleeing France,” states Alice Sparberg Alexiou in her book, Devil’s Mile: the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery.

His Quaker faith may have spurred on his opposition to slavery, which was legal in New York City until 1799, when the first of a series of gradual emancipation laws were enacted. (New York state fully abolished slavery in 1827.)

In 1795, he donated the land for St. Philips Church, New York’s first black Episcopal church, notes Alexiou, which originally stood on Centre Street. He also donated plots he owned on Chrystie and Rivington Streets for a cemetery for black New Yorkers, who made up about 20 percent of the city’s population the time.

“Delaplaine was one of a group of ‘diverse, well-disposed individuals,’ as described by the Common Council, who were well-disposed to the ‘African society’ (‘free people of color’) for a Negroes’ cemetery,” Alexiou wrote.

Delaplaine’s descendants were also active in the abolitionist movement, which became stronger in antebellum New York. “Booksellers and circulating libraries published and distributed anti-slavery literature in these buildings, which also served as boarding houses and possible fugitive-slave safe houses in the 1830s to the 1860s,” states the Bowery Alliance.

After the Civil War, 134 Bowery became one of the first YMCAs located on the Bowery. “Partnering with the New York Mission Society, a reading room and the Carmel Chapel were opened, and food, lodgings, and baths were provided to ‘all persons, without respect to country, creed, color, sex, or age,” per the Alliance.

While both houses have long had commercial tenants on the ground floor, their link to abolition can hopefully save them from the wrecking ball.

“The historic houses at 134-136 Bowery are now documented to be significantly associated with the anti-slavery movement beginning at the end of the 18th century,” wrote Mitchell Grubler at Place Matters. “They meet the established qualifications to be deemed of most important historic value through documented connections.”

[Third image: Library of Congress]

The body of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War comes to City Hall

May 31, 2021

The metal coffin reached Jersey City by train at half past three o’clock on May 31, 1861. It was loaded into a hearse and onto a ferry, and when it arrived in Manhattan it was brought to a parlor inside Astor House—at the time New York’s most luxurious hotel, on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

For several hours there, the coffin lay under a large draped American flag. Family, friends, and National Guardsmen mourned the man inside it, whose “pallid features,” as the The Sun described them the next day, could be seen through a piece of oval glass.

“Few would have recognized in the ghastly features the gallant commander once so full of life and intelligent,” the newspaper wrote.

At 10 pm, the coffin went back in the hearse for the short trip to City Hall, where flags stood at half-mast and black and white crepe hung over the entrance. “Here an immense crowd had assembled on the steps and in front of the building, awaiting the funeral cortege,” wrote The Sun.

Politicians, such as mayor Fernando Wood, paid their respects. Soon the public was allowed to enter, and over the next few hours 10,000 New Yorkers passed by the coffin that contained Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, 24, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

“Remember Ellsworth” was a popular rallying cry among Union supporters during the War Between the States. Today, Col. Ellsworth, who commanded a funeral cortege similar to that of Abraham Lincoln’s four years later, has largely been forgotten. Who was he, and why did the death of this young lawyer from upstate earn such an elaborate farewell in New York City?

Part of it had to do with his status as a dashing young law clerk and National Guard Cadet who took a job in the Springfield, Illinois office of future President Lincoln. “The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him,” stated Smithsonian magazine.

Ellsworth also had a deep interest in military science. When President Lincoln put out the call for Union troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War, he responded by “raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops,” according to the NPS.

The 11th New York Volunteers were also known as the First Fire Zouaves, since many members of this unit—with their distinctive flashy uniforms and billowy pants—were recruited from New York’s volunteer fire departments.

In May 1861, Ellsworth returned to Washington with his Fire Zouaves. On May 24, the unit went to Alexandria, Virginia to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flying from the roof of a hotel called Marshall House, which could be seen from the White House roof 10 miles away.

The next day, “Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest,” wrote the NPS.

Jackson, a “zealous defender of slavery,” Smithsonian magazine stated, was then shot to death by one of the fire zouaves, Cpl. Francis Brownell.

The death of Col. Ellsworth so shook President Lincoln, he reportedly said, according to a PBS.org article on Ellsworth, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” Before Col. Ellsworth’s body came New York’s City Hall, Lincoln had it lay in state at the White House.

Col. Ellsworth became something of a folk hero, his image and actions reproduced in lithographs and sheet music. His story stuck in New York City’s memory through the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, an Ellsworth memorial was dedicated in Greenwich Village: It’s the flagpole at Christopher Park, the triangle across from Sheridan Square. (Above, a marker on the flag pole.)

[First image: Billy Hathom/Wikipedia photo of a portrait; second image: whitehousehistory.org; third image: Currier & Ives lithograph/Wikipedia; fourth image: Musicology for Everyone; fifth image: Corbis via Smithsonian magazine; sixth image: The Historical Marker Database]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]