Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

July 15, 2017

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]

A Little Italy sign reveals an old phone exchange

July 10, 2017

They’re hiding in plain sight all over New York: faded ads and signs with the old-school two-letter phone prefixes phased out in the 1960s in favor of 7-digit phone numbers.

Usually they stand for something in the neighborhood, if not the neighborhood itself, such as MU for Murray Hill; RA for Ravenswood, once a separate Village in Queens but now absorbed by Astoria.

But what to make of this sign high above a restaurant on Mott Street in Little Italy, noting a BA prefix? The guide I usually consult to find out where BA is and what it means is no longer online. The elevator company could have been located anywhere in the city.

ENY has many posts on old-school prefix sightings, but no BA, unfortunately.

A Dutch sailor’s photos of the New York of 1979

July 3, 2017

In 1979, Peter van Wijk was a radio officer in the Dutch Merchant Marine. That summer, his ship docked a couple of times in New York Harbor, giving him the opportunity to visit Manhattan and wander the streets.

Like all curious newcomers to New York, he brought a camera along with him, and he took photos of iconic tourist spots like the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and Times Square.

But he also captured the seemingly ordinary street scenes that offer fleeting glimpses into the heart and soul of the late 1970s city: shoppers going in and out of mom and pop stores, musicians and vendors drawing crowds, and taxis navigating traffic-choked streets.

Thirty-eight years later, van Wijk decided to share his previously unseen images, and Ephemeral New York has the wonderful privilege of posting them.

It goes without saying that the Gotham of 1979 was a vastly different place. These days, everyone wants to live in New York; in the 1970s, residents couldn’t get out fast enough. The city’s population dipped an incredible 10 percent from 1970 to 1980, to just over 7 million.

Ed Koch had been elected mayor a year earlier on a law and order platform. The city’s nickname, Fear City (or more ironically, Fun City), was a nod to rising crime and rampant graffiti.

Cuts in city services left garbage on the streets, and shells of buildings sat empty in the South Bronx, East Village, and the Lower East Side, among other neighborhoods.

You wouldn’t know any of this from looking at these photos. The city in this collection of images is animated and colorful, with life and energy.

It’s a New York that feels almost small scale compared to the contemporary city—more a collection of neighborhoods rather than an island of cookie-cutter stores and development.

The gritty, street-smart New York of the 1970s is often hailed as a more authentic version of the city. How true that is has been up for debate lately.

These photos don’t take a side. They’re simply fascinating portals into the past that bring memories back of the city in the late 1970s, before crowded subways, a critical mass of Starbucks and Duane Reade stores, and an army of residents wearing white earbuds as they go about their day.

[All photos:copyright Peter van Wijk]

Turtle soup: the hottest dish on New York menus

July 3, 2017

In 1783, George Washington feasted on it (washed down with punch, according to later accounts) at Fraunces Tavern during his farewell banquet for Continental Army officers.

Early 19th century tavern owners took out newspaper ads letting the public know when a fresh pot would be whipped up.

And it was on the menu at New York’s biggest and best restaurants until the early 20th century, when it almost entirely disappeared from bill of fares all across the city.

What dish was such a delicacy? Green turtle soup, and New Yorkers of the 18th and 19th centuries couldn’t get enough of it.

“In 19th century New York, the only dish that could rival a juicy beefsteak or a dozen plump oysters on the half shell was turtle soup, and it’s partisans were legion,” writes William Grimes in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.

Two restaurants vied for turtle soup supremacy: the Terrapin Lunch on Ann Street and Broadway and Bayard’s, at 11-13 State Street.

Bayard’s turtle soup was recalled by an old New Yorker, Charles Haynes Haswell, in his Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, published in 1896.

“Here turtle soup was dispensed which was worthy of the animal of which it was made; not the puree of this time, which is served at some of our leading restaurants and clubs; not a thin consomme of that which might be calves’ head or veal, but bona fide turtle, with callipash, callipee, and forced-meat balls.”

It stands to reason that the first turtles and terrapins who ended up in New Yorkers’ soup bowls came from the waters around the city (like Turtle Bay, perhaps). Into the 19th century, however, they arrived here from the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean.

Why did turtle soup fall out of fashion? Maybe it had to do with the fact that turtles themselves were almost harvested to extinction, says Leslie Day in Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City.

Or perhaps it was just a food fad that lost its buzz.

[Top photo: Saveur magazine; second image: Evening Post, 1807; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post, 1812]

All that’s left of a Pearl Street Chinese restaurant

June 26, 2017

Thousands of restaurants have come and gone in New York over the years, and this is one of them: Pearl de Orient, an interestingly named but otherwise ordinary sounding Chinese restaurant in the Financial District.

Aside from an ad in New York from 1993, I couldn’t find a trace of the place. The corner of Pearl Street and Maiden Lane looks like it’s been renovated and modernized since then.

All that’s left of Pearl de Orient is this matchbook. Remember restaurant matchbooks?

This rundown building was once a posh mansion

June 26, 2017

If you stood outside 67 Greenwich Street, you’d never think this shell of a building was anything special: just another decrepit 19th century walkup in Lower Manhattan, now part of a construction site.

Yet behind the scaffolding and broken windows lies the ruins of a Federal–style mansion built from 1809 to 1810—making it one of the city’s oldest houses, even predating the New York City street grid of 1811.

67 Greenwich Street, with its splayed stone lintels and fashionable bowed facade seen on the Trinity Street side of the mansion (below), was built by Robert Dickey, a prominent merchant who amassed his fortune trading tea, coffee, rice, and spices in China, India, and Europe.

A man of such wealth would be expected to live in a grand home on the city’s poshest street. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Greenwich Street was the “Millionaire’s Row” of the era.

Imagine what it must have been like then: an elegant thoroughfare hugging the shoreline of Manhattan, lined with new Federal–style homes occupied by families with last names like Livingston and Roosevelt.

In 1809, “two 3-story houses were under construction” on Greenwich Street, along with two stables and coach house and storehouse on Lumber Street (renamed Trinity Place in 1843), “separated from the houses by courtyards,” says the Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Dickey, his wife Anne (above left), and his family (the Dickeys reportedly had 10 kids) moved into the larger one. They lived there until 1820.

At that time, Dickey’s fortunes took a dive, and he was forced to sell. In 1823, the house was purchased by Peter Schermerhorn, a ship chandler and builder.

The Schermerhorns were of course an old Dutch colonial family; they built the counting houses of Schermerhorn Row at today’s South Street Seaport.

After the 1820s, Greenwich Street was no longer the richest residential area in New York. As the decades passed, what is now called the Robert and Anne Dickey Mansion went through a variety of uses.

It was leased to socially prominent families, took a turn as the French consulate, then became a boardinghouse, ship ticket office.

Like so many New York homes, it even spent time as a house of “ill-fame”—aka a brothel “of the lowest character,” as this frothy New York Times article from 1871 reports.

Incredibly, 67 Greenwich Street remained in the Schermerhorn family until 1919. A fourth floor had been added by then, and most of the remaining Federal–style houses built on Greenwich Street were demolished to make way for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, according to the LPC report.

Somehow the Dickey mansion survived the 19th century commercialization of the Lower West Side, the construction of elevated rail lines on Greenwich Avenue and Trinity Place, the building of the tunnel, and then the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan in the late 20th century.

Why is 67 Greenwich behind scaffolding today? It’s slated to be incorporated into this project, which calls for a 35-story tower to cantilever over what remains of the 217-year-old mansion.

[Second image: Evening Post, 1823; fourth image: Anne Brown Dickey by John Wesley Jarvis, Metropolitan Museum of Art; fifth image: 1940, Library of Congress via LPC report; sixth image: 1965, John Barrington Bayley via LPC report; seventh image: Department of Records Tax Photo 1980s]

The most beautiful old warehouse is in Tribeca

June 12, 2017

Gables, turrets, arched windows, weather vanes: what can you say about this spectacular former warehouse building but wow?

Built in 1891 on Watts and Washington Streets for the Fleming Smith company (see the monogrammed initials in the close-up below), it’s a jaw-dropping Romanesque Revival beauty with neo-Flemish touches—a style popular at the end of the 19th century, as the city looked back on its Dutch colonial roots.

Once a neighborhood of warehouses, the grocery trade, and food processors, Tribeca got its new name in the mid-1970s, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, when New Yorkers began moving into the area’s colossal lofts and warehouses.

The Fleming Smith warehouse was the first in Tribeca to be turned into a residence. Got $3 million? You might be able to score one of the building’s co-ops. Take a peek at recent listings.

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

Saluting the last veteran of the War of 1812

May 25, 2017

Hiram Cronk lived a humble life.

Born in 1800 in upstate New York, he became a shoemaker, married in 1825, had seven kids, and spent his life living on a farm in Oneida County, near Syracuse.

But when he died at the age of 105 in 1905, he was treated like a hero. New York City hosted a state funeral in his honor, joined by politicians and military units and watched by thousands of city residents who thronged the streets in appreciation.

Like a dignitary, his body lay in state in City Hall before Cronk was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

So what did Cronk do to land all of this honor and attention? He survived.

Cronk was the last known veteran who fought in the War of 1812. He enlisted at the age of 14 with his father and brothers and served as a private at a naval station in Sackets Harbor off Lake Ontario, according to the New-York Tribune.

His military career wasn’t necessarily distinguished. But Cronk was heralded as a symbol.

In the Gilded Age city, people were still dealing with the aftershocks of the Civil War as well as rapid progress and waves of European immigration. As a result, nostalgia for older wars like the War of 1812 took hold.

“Cronk and other survivors and artifacts of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War became objects of great national fascination and enshrinement,” states the National Park Service. “Cronk’s mere existence created for many a tangible connection to simpler times and great patriotism.”

Cronk himself didn’t seem to have any connection to New York City. But the city has its War of 1812 remnants, some of which still exist today (even though New York was never attacked).

[Video: Library of Congress; third image: Brooklyn Eagle via Tapeshare.com]

A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903

May 22, 2017

New York has had its share of gruesome murders. But this case, kicked off early one morning in April 1903 after a scrub woman discovered a man’s body, was especially disturbing.

The corpse—riddled with 18 stab wounds on the neck and a clean cut across the throat—was found stuffed in a wooden sugar barrel (below) that had been left on East 11th Street near Avenue D.

“He was evidently a foreigner—a Greek or Armenian or Italian, and about 35 years old,” stated the New York Times the next day.

The Times article noted the dead man’s manicured nails and “good garments,” indicating that he was probably fairly prosperous.

It didn’t take long for the police to conclude this was likely a mafia hit.

Detectives went door to door in the “Italian Quarter,” as the Times called the Little Italy neighborhood centered below East Houston Street, asking people to visit a station house and try to identify the man’s face (below). No one could.

Even without an identity, police made quick progress on the case.

Three Secret Service agents in New York City who were surveilling a counterfeiting ring swore they saw the dead man in a butcher’s shop on Stanton Street the night before the barrel was found.

Police arrested eight men who had also been in the butcher’s shop with the man. All were Sicilians armed with revolvers and daggers and suspected counterfeiters, the Times wrote in a second article.

The leader of the counterfeiting group was Giuseppe Morello, an early gangster who used Black Hand extortion to terrorize Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

The sugar barrel itself helped cops figure out where the murder was committed. The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street (as it is today, right; in 1903, below).

Morello—known as the “Clutch Hand” for his deformed right hand with only one finger (below)—lived in the tenement above the shop.

While the arrested men were held at Jefferson Market courthouse, the dead man was ID’d, thanks to detective work by Joseph Petrosino, one of the few Italian Americans on the NYPD at the time and an early investigator of Black Hand extortion techniques and the Mafia.

Benedetto Mondania was the man in the barrel. Why he was murdered so brutally wasn’t entirely clear.

“Some say he was a member of the [Morello] gang who wanted out of his lifetime membership, while others say he was the closest relative of a gang member suspected of turning informer,” wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the city went about charging some of the men with murder and preparing for a trial, which proved to be difficult considering the power the arrested men had in Italian neighborhoods.

“There was a forced collection across New York’s Italian communities to pay for the gang’s defense and bail costs,” according to gangrule.com. “Most of the people subpoenaed to be on the jury began to make excuses when they learned of the nature of the trial.”

In the end, the case fell apart because the district attorney’s office didn’t think there was enough evidence or willing witnesses to win a conviction.

It wasn’t the last New York heard from Morello. He was convicted of counterfeiting in 1909 and got 20 years in prison—then was killed in a mafia crime war in 1930.

His crime gang (which evolved into the Genovese family) pioneered the barrel murder style of execution, and Mondania certainly wouldn’t be the last dead man found stuffed into one on New York’s streets.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the Gilded Age city’s most notorious murders.

[Second and third images: the Evening World; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: the Evening World]