Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

The haunting outlines of old New York buildings

January 28, 2019

Anyone who walks the streets of the city comes across these ghosts. They’re the faded outlines of what was once a New York home or building, sometimes still with the demarcations separating rooms—as the side of an empty tenement on Third Avenue and 109th Street shows in the image below.

Knocked down or uncovered during construction, they usually reveal themselves only for months, maybe a few years, before they are quickly covered up again when a new structure is built over it.

My favorites are the edges of the kinds of buildings New York doesn’t build anymore, like this second one above, what looks like a squat, three-story walkup with a small chimney. It was once attached to the side of a larger tenement on West 96th Street near Riverside Drive.

A peaked roof (above) at Franklin Street and one-block Benson Place north of City Hall piques my interest. Was an old Dutch or Federal-style building here in the 17th or 18th centuries, when Benson Place was still a dead-end alley?

This tenement-looking outline is an unusual one (above); it’s on Lexington Avenue in the 50s. I wonder what the view from the back must have looked like, and how easy it was to see what the neighbors in other tenements were doing.

On Madison Avenue and 31st Street, an old-school tenement that blended in with its neighbors was torn down (above). It looks like it was set back a bit from the sidewalk, and it too probably had a wooden water tower on top.

I noticed this phantom outline in Tribeca several months ago (above), but I still am not sure what kind of building stood here. Something appropriately low and squat, maybe a stable? The dark smudges on the brick building that used to be its neighbor look like smoke stains from a chimney.

This last one, I believe from Greenwich Street downtown, is also a mystery. The angle of the roofline makes me think it’s a remnant of an old Manhattan structure of some kind when the city was concentrated below today’s Soho.

The butcher cart comes to the downtown slums

January 21, 2019

Gritty, virile street scenes, tender portraits of humanity, iridescent landscapes: George Luks depicted early 20th century New York with astonishing versatility.

But if there’s one Luks painting that combines all three artistic strengths, it might be The Butcher Cart, which this social realist Ashcan artist completed in 1901.

“George Luks is known for his unromanticized depictions of the slums and crowded market streets of lower Manhattan,” explains the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the painting.

“In The Butcher Cart, he portrayed a dark view of New York street life, frankly acknowledging modern technology and class stratification,” “An old-fashioned horse-drawn cart packed with butchered pigs lumbers down a slushy street, steered by a man hunched over the reins.”

This Bowery theater gave performers “the hook”

January 21, 2019

When a city policeman turned U.S. congressman named Henry Clay Miner opened Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1878, this small venue between Broome and Delancey Streets showcased a type of entertainment known as variety shows.

“Actors came on the stage to sing, dance, and do acrobatic acts and then unite to burlesque some current musical show,” wrote the New York Times in 1929.

Even for the Bowery—legendary at the time for its raucous bars, theaters, flophouses, and music halls—Miner’s drew huge merciless crowds. Customers cheered, jeered, and stomped their feet in approval as each act did their number.

“Long before the doors opened, boys with the necessary 10 cents ready in their hands were lined up,” the Times recalled.

“It mattered little whether the show pleased them or not…they could have their enjoyment by annoying the 50 cent- or 70-cent patrons in the orchestra and boxes as they drank their beer below.”

Audience participation and reaction was all part of Miner’s allure.

So in the 1890s, after variety segued into vaudeville, Miner’s came up with a genius idea to make Friday night amateur nights even rowdier: giving entertainers “the hook.”

Yep, the showbiz taunt “give ’em the hook” was invented on the Bowery.

“To get the more excruciating acts off the stage as quickly as possible, an inspired stage manager apparently lashed a stage-prop shepherd’s crook to a pole and started yanking the most scorned performers bodily from the stage in mid-performance,” stated a New York Times piece from 1997.

Naturally the audience loved it all. There was also prize money for any act that survived the hook and went on to win audience favor: five bucks and any loose change they could find on the floor.

Most of the entertainers over the years who bravely risked the hook have fallen into obscurity. Others went on to great fame—including Eddie Cantor.

In 1908, this 16-year-old wannabe performer from the Lower East Side went on stage at Miner’s. He didn’t get jeered off.

“At the end of the night, Cantor lined up on stage alongside other amateurs who had survived ‘the hook,'” wrote David Weinstein in his 2018 biography of Cantor.

“The announcer pointed to each act, while the crowd voted for the winner with noise and applause.”

Cantor won the five dollar nightly prize. Getting the hook, meanwhile, remains a metaphor no aspiring performer wants.

Miner’s Theatre burned down in 1929, just as vaudeville was ending its run as America’s favorite lowbrow entertainment…and the sin-and-spectacle Bowery was becoming the city’s 20th century skid row.

[Top image: “Bowery at Night” by William Louis Sonntag, 1895; second image: MCNY 43.316.64; third image of H.C. Miner, NYPL; fourth image: tvtropes.org; fifth image: Evening World, 1912; sixth image: Eddie Cantor; seventh image: New York Times, 1909]

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York

December 17, 2018

New York’s love of tea began in the 17th century, when the Dutch imported it to the colony.

By the time the British took over, tea-drinking had become an ingrained social custom, especially for ladies, according to New York City: A Food Biography.

There was one problem though: finding fresh, clean water for brewing the tea.

In the 18th century, residents got their drinking water from “wooden pumps set commonly at street corners, at intervals of about four blocks,” wrote Charles Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York.

The pumps drew water from underground springs, but what came out tended to be distasteful and brackish. (It’s part of the reason people in the colonial city also developed a taste for beer, Madeira wine, and spirits.)

Luckily for the ten thousand or so city residents at the time, a couple of the street corner pumps actually produced high-quality, refreshing water.

These special pumps became known as “tea water pumps” because the water that came out of them made high-quality tea.

Perhaps the most famous tea water pump was at Chatham and Roosevelt Streets.

Here “stood the celebrated Tea Water Pump, of which it was alleged by the housekeepers who drew from it, that it made better tea than any other water; it was supplied by a spring from the hill of sand leading up to the juncture of Harmon Street (East Broadway) and the Bowery,” wrote Haswell.

Another legendary tea water pump was in today’s Nolita/Chinatown area, according to one tea website.

“Sometime during the first half of the 1700s, a spring of fresh water between Baxter and Mulberry Streets began to attract popular attention,” states the site.

Yet another was found on the West Side, either at Bethune Street or 10th Avenue and 14th Street, depending on the source. This one was “owned by a Mr. Knapp, who distributed its products from carts at 2 cents a pail,” stated Haswell.

Selling the tea water from these choice street corner pumps by wagon via “tea water men” became big business, as seen in the above painting depicting an 18th century residential street.

“Tea water! Tea water! Come out and get your tea water!” was the cry heard on the street by the vendor, according to the 1935 guide All About Tea.

By 1774, an estimated 3,000 households bought their water this way, according to New York City: a Food Biography.

At the turn of the 19th century, though, even the tea water pump wells were becoming polluted, especially those closest to Collect Pond, now a stinking cesspool polluted by industry.

New York’s love of tea wasn’t going to taper off; tea gardens had even opened up with views of the Hudson for refined ladies and gentlemen. Clearly, a new source of reliably fresh water would be necessary.

These New-York Historical Society images dated 1898 show children posing by old wooden corner street pumps, at left on Trinity Place and on the right on Edgar Street.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Metmuseum.org; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society]

The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

December 10, 2018

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

The remains of a defunct downtown subway exit

December 10, 2018

When Fulton Center opened in 2014, city officials heralded this massive transit hub as a superstation uniting 12 subway lines with a connection to PATH service.

But the extra convenience when it comes to transferring between lines cost New York some of its lovely early subway architecture.

Case in point is this stylized subway exit on the downtown East Side IRT platform.

 

Bronze and with slender ionic columns, this exit once lead to stairs and no leads nowhere. The second photo shows the exit in 2011, as the station was undergoing construction; the turnstiles weren’t pretty, but one could still leave the platform here and get a feel for what the station was like decades ago.

Now, the exit remains—but its passageway is sealed forever.

The remnant of the exit isn’t even accessible as an artifact to look closely at or even touch while you’re waiting for your 4 or 5 train, thanks to the escalator blocking it off.

Where did subway riders who disembarked here and took this exit to the street end up?

Thanks to the exhaustive New York City subway archive at nycsubway.org, it appears to have once taken riders to 195 Broadway, the former AT&T Building. Number 195 is directly across the street from Fulton Place and is noted for its Doric columns.

[Third photo: nycsubway.org, 1999]

Waiting for a train at a dazzling subway station

December 3, 2018

Vaulted ceilings, pendant lighting, mosaic tiles, colored glass that let in natural light—these are some of the spectacular features of the City Hall IRT station, opened in October 1904 and the southernmost station on the original IRT route.

Unfortunately all of this beauty has been shut off to passengers since 1945—when the station was deemed redundant because the Brooklyn Bridge station so close. Also, it just didn’t accommodate the longer trains necessary to carry the vast numbers of city commuters.