Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Where New Yorkers met for coffee in the 1790s

February 23, 2015

Tontine Coffee House, meeting-place of New York brokers who formed the NY Stock ExchangeIn late 18th century New York, with a revolt against tea in place and plain water mostly undrinkable, coffee’s popularity surged.

And the city’s love affair with coffee beans began.

Coffee houses soon sprang up. Unlike the cafes of today, these were more like taverns, where the city’s political and merchant elite met to exchange ideas and do business while nursing a cup of joe (and probably stronger drinks as well).

One coffee house on the bustling corner of Wall and Water Streets, the Tontine (the second building on the left, above), bore witness to some of the events and the development of the booming city.

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First, the Tontine (above on the left, in 1797) doubled as the original site of the New York Stock Exchange, with trading going on in a second-floor room from the early 1790s until 1817.

On a more gruesome note, the Tontine was where a notice was posted in 1804 informing New Yorkers about the death of Alexander Hamilton, after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

Tontine4“When a handwritten notice of Hamilton’s death went up at the Tontine Coffee House, the city was transfixed with horror,” wrote Ron Chernow, by way of the Aaron Burr Association.

Also, it was a place where deals were made on all kinds of goods . . . and that included human beings.

“As soon as a ship’s captain reached the harbor, this is where he came to register his cargo,” explains Mapping the African American Past.

“The goods coming into New York in the 1790s included coffee, tea, sugar and molasses, fine furniture, cloth, cotton, and enslaved men, women, and children.”

Slavery gradually ended in the city between 1799 and 1827.

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An Englishman who visited Tontine (up the street from Coffee House Slip, above) recalled it this way:

“[Y]ou ascend six or eight steps under a portico, into a large public room, which is the Stock Exchange of New York, where all bargains are made. . . . You can lodge and board there at a common table, and you pay ten shillings currency a day, whether you dine out or not.”

Sounds not unlike the 18th century equivalent of hanging out at a cafe today, ordering the minimum amount of coffee you can to partake in the free WiFi and comfy communal table.

Neglected subway signage from another New York

February 23, 2015

OldsubwaysignagechamberscloseupIt’s been decades since the MTA introduced the spiffy white-on-black subway station signs on platforms that clearly spell out the name of each station.

But they didn’t get rid of all the scruffy signage from decades past. Some 1970s-era examples can be found in some of the grungier corners of subterranean New York City.

Exhibit A: these long-neglected old-school signs at the Chambers Street 1, 2, and 3 train station.

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I guess someone made a half-hearted attempt to cover up the old “Chmb’rs” sign, then gave up after coating half of it in the blue paint used for the rest of the wall.

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At Astor Place, it looks like someone souvenir-hunting tore off the newer Astor Place or Cooper Union signs, revealing this unglamorous one-word sign below.

A winter view of the Depression-era East River

February 9, 2015

“New York City goes about its varied daily businesses in [John] Cunning’s painting, despite the Depression,” explains the description of this evocative view of a wintry river and city, on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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“Whether or not their offices were full of workers, the Farmer’s Trust Building, 120 Wall Street, the Bank of Manhattan, 60 Wall Tower, and the Singer Building towered proudly against the gray sky,” states the site.

“Commuters who still had jobs had come from the outer boroughs in the ferry boats shown tied up at the Manhattan docks.”

“On the Brooklyn shore, cargo ships are tied up for loading or unloading. The men in the foreground are removing snow from the roofs of a coffee warehouse on Water Street near the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Cunning, a WPA artist, completed “Manhattan Skyline” in 1934.

The Manhattan Bridge’s two lost lovely ladies

February 9, 2015

Look closely: in this 1920s postcard depicting the grand Manhattan Bridge approach from Brooklyn, you can make out two statues inside the granite pylons flanking the roadway.

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These heroic sculptures—created during the City Beautiful era, when art was meant to inspire and uplift—were known as “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.”

Installed seven years after the bridge opened in 1909 and designed by Daniel Chester French, these 12-foot lovely ladies represented the attributes of each borough.

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Impressive, right? But by the 1960s, they were gone—victims of bridge reconstruction in the age of Robert Moses and the automobile.

Luckily, Manhattan and Brooklyn didn’t end up in pieces in a Meadowlands dump, the sad fate of parts of the original Penn Station.

ManhattanstatueInstead, they were brought to the Brooklyn Museum, where they’ve guarded the entrance since 1963.

Interestingly, the attributes of each statue represent the way we view the boroughs today.

For Manhattan, that means hubris. “The pose of the figure of Manhattan typifies splendor and pride, of which the peacock at her side is the emblem,” says a 1915 article.

Brooklynstatue“The right foot of the statue rests upon a treasure-box and a winged ball in the statue’s hand suggests the City’s domination in world affairs.”

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a softer, more artistic and educational vibe.

“Beside the figure of Brooklyn stands a church and the arm of the statue rests upon a lyre, symbolizing music.”

“A Roman tablet which the figure holds on its knee indicates study, and a child at its feet reading from a book typifies the Borough’s well-filled schools.”

[Statue photos: Brooklyn Museum]

New York’s 1849 skyline seen from Union Square

February 2, 2015

The square itself looks different—it’s oval, first of all, and that’s some water spray from the new Croton fountain.

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But amazingly, the streets are instantly recognizable in this 1849 bird’s eye lithograph by Swiss immigrant printmaker John Bachmann.

There’s Broadway, with that slight bend at Grace Church (built just one year earlier), and Fourth Avenue, which still curves east at about 12th Street.

Steeples and ship masts dominate Lower Manhattan. The George Washington statue has yet to arrive in at the southeast corner of Union Square (that comes in 1856), and the theaters and music halls that made 14th Street the city’s entertainment district are a decade or so away.

The level of detail is amazing and inspiring. And look at how built up New York is compared to this same view in 1828.

The building designed to look like a punchcard

February 2, 2015

4NewYorkPlazaemporisDeep in the Financial District at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets is a 22-story brick citidel known by its mailing address, 4 New York Plaza.

Fortress-like and impenetrable at the tip of Manhatan, it’s not the loveliest building downtown by any means.

But architectural firm Carson Lundin & Shaw, which designed it in 1969 for banking giant Manufacturers Hanover Trust, was apparently inspired by the data processing tool of the era: the punchcard.

You can see the resemblance in the the small windows along the facade, irregularly placed and slot-like.

Supposedly this punchcard design won awards.

4NewYorkPlazaPanoramio

The punchcard era is long over, but 4 New York Plaza remains, surviving massive flooding and damage thanks to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Here’s a more inspiring view of 4 New York Plaza, taken by Lucia M. in 2008, with the walkups on Pearl Street lending it some of their beauty and charm.

[Top photo: Emporis]

A gruesome prank sparks the city’s weirdest riot

January 12, 2015

DoctorsriotnyhospitalIt started with a doctor’s prank from the window of New York Hospital, then at Broadway and Pearl Street.

“In the spring [of 1788], some boys were playing in the rear of the hospital, when a young surgeon, from a mere whim, showed an amputated arm to them,” wrote J.T. Headley in The Great Riots of New York, published in 1873.

One boy climbed a ladder to get a closer look. The boy became convinced that it was recently deceased mother’s arm. His response set off one of New York’s weirdest events, known as the “Doctors’ Riot.”

The horrified boy ran and told his father, a mason working on Broadway. The father rushed to his wife’s grave in Trinity Churchyard, had it opened—and saw that the body was gone.

Doctorsriograverobbers

He concluded that the surgeon had stolen his wife’s corpse, and he immediately gathered a throng of working men to storm the hospital.

Now, it wasn’t farfetched at all for the father to assume the surgeon stole the body. Students at the city’s medical schools routinely did this (or hired others they politely called “resurrectionists” to do it) in the 18th century, as it was the only way they could study anatomy.

Doctorsriotharpers1882

“The fear of [grave-robbing] was so great, that often, in the neighborhood where medical students were pursuing their studies, persons who lost friends would have a watch kept over their graves for several nights, to prevent them from being dug up,” wrote Headley.

DoctorsriotmayorduaneUsually the med students robbed the graves of outcasts, or they went to the burial grounds of the city’s black population, where there was less of a chance they would attract the attention of city officials.

But lately they’d stolen corpses of more well-off citizens, angering many in the young city.

But back to the riot. The men tore down the hospital door, and when they found fresh bodies in various states of dissection, they attacked the students. Officials quelled the mob and locked the students in jail for their own safety.

The next day, 300 men showed up at the jail. “Bring out your doctors!” the angry crowd yelled, hurling stones and carrying muskets.

DoctorsriotnyhospitalnyplMayor James Duane brought in a militia, which killed four in the mob. They hustled doctors and students into carriages headed to the country, where they hid out until the riot blew over.

The next year, the city passed a law against grave robbing, and officials came up with another way med students could learn their trade: using the bodies of hanged criminals. Nobody seemed to complain.

[Top and bottom photos: NYPL Digital Gallery; second photo: Corbis]

Faded outlines of long-gone Manhattan buildings

January 12, 2015

Ghostbuildingwest30sSigns for long-departed stores, retaining walls no longer in use, trolley tracks peeking out from asphalt streets: New York’s past leaves its imprint everywhere.

The sides of buildings give us glimpses of the city’s history too. The faded outlines of tenements and other buildings long gone often remain, at least until new construction comes along and obscures them again.

On a lonely block in the far West 30s is this classic city walkup, with a roof on a slant–a modest place to make a home in what was once a modest neighborhood.

Ghostoutlinemercerstreet

Hebrew Union College put up this building in 1979, at Mercer and West 4th Streets, almost covering the two chimneys from the building that previously occupied the spot. A tenement perhaps?

Ghostlybuilding43rdstreet

Considering the pace of construction in a luxury-building crazed New York, these remains of a 43rd Street walkup might already be sealed out of view.

Ghostoutline86thstreet

Same with this former home—maybe a brownstone?—on 86th Street, on a stately block near Fifth Avenue.

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Also in the far West 30s near the Javits Center is this outline of a humble tenement on the side of another humble tenement, the people who once lived and worked there and their stories lost to the ages.

More faded building outlines—dormer windows too!—can be seen here.

Blue snow on the Battery in wintertime

January 5, 2015

No one paints New York City in the winter, in all of its blue and white harshness and beauty, quite like George Bellows.

Bluesnowthebatterybellows

Looking at “Blue Snow, the Battery,” from 1910, you can just feel the chill coming off New York Harbor, and how much colder it must be for the men standing in those shadows.

A crime of passion in 19th century Little Italy

December 22, 2014

MariabarbellaWhen she first arrived in New York City in 1892, Maria Barbella, 24 (at right), fit the template of a typical Italian immigrant.

She was poor, she lived with her family in Little Italy at 163 Mott Street (below), and she found work in a factory as a seamstress making $8 a week.

But her life took a turn a year later when she met another Italian immigrant, a cad named Domenico Cataldo.

On her way to work, she would pass by Domenico’s shoeshine booth at Canal Street, and the two began seeing each other romantically.

MariabarbellaitalianarticleWhat Maria didn’t know was that Domenico was already married with a family.

She also probably didn’t suspect that Domenico would drug her drink one night, then take advantage of her while she was passed out.

When she realized what had happened, she told Domenico that he had to do the honorable thing.

“He showed her a savings book with a $400 deposit and promised to marry her,” states this summary of the case.

Maria163mottst“However, he continued to put it off and led Maria on for several months. She continued to meet with him at the boarding house in the hopes that he would consent to marrying her. She was devastated when he told her that he was returning to Italy and was ending the relationship.”

By now, Maria’s family were involved, and they too insisted he set a date.

The day before Domenico was set to sail to Italy, Maria and her mother approached him at a bar on East 13th Street where he was playing cards.

His response when they brought up marriage? “Only pigs marry.”

That’s when Maria slit his throat with a straight razor. He staggered out to the street and died on Avenue A.

Mariabarbella2Her trial, which opened in July 1895, was a media sensation. Found guilty of premeditated murder, she was the first woman ever sentenced to death in Sing Sing’s relatively new electric chair, which made its debut in 1890.

But the media attention of her case, and her notoriety as the first female set to die by electrocution, brought her lots of support, with letters and telegraphs coming in from all over the world asking the state to give Maria clemency.

A new trial was granted in 1897, and this time, her lawyers came up with a novel defense: they claimed Maria couldn’t be responsible for her actions because when Domenico mentioned pigs, it set off an epileptic seizure.

Mariabarbellanyt

The defense worked; Maria was found not guilty. She reportedly married a fellow Italian immigrant in 1897 and disappeared from public life.


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