Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The coal company helped the city survive winter

December 21, 2020

Stuart Davis was a New York artist of the 20th century best known for his playful Modernist paintings filled with bright colors and geometric shapes. But early in his career, he was influenced by the Ashcan School—and he stuck with the social realist style with this 1912 piece, Consumer Coal Company.

It’s a powerful painting that invites viewers to feel the sharp snap of snow whipping around a low-rise block somewhere in New York City. (I’m guessing Lower Manhattan, see the Federal-style houses with the dormer windows.)

Forced to work in the blustery weather, the men from the coal company shovel a load into a sidewalk coal hole, where it can be transferred to the furnace to keep residents from freezing to death.

It probably wasn’t Davis’ intention when he painted this scene to provide insight into how life was lived in New York in 1912. But the painting immortalizes the role the coal companies played in New York winters—when Gotham was still largely dependent on coal-burning furnaces (not to mention horse-pulled wagons).

Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards

December 21, 2020

While looking through the website of the Museum of the City of New York last week, my eyes fixated on what I thought must be a painting: a colorful, somber scene in Little Italy in 1920—the men mostly standing against a brick storefront while women and children sifted through a basket of fresh loaves of bread on the curb.

Which of New York’s many Little Italy neighborhoods is it? Based on one of the postcard captions that mentions Mulberry Bend, this is the Little Italy of Mott and Mulberry Streets. Manhattan had others, one on Bleecker Street and another in East Harlem, which was once the the borough’s biggest Italian enclave.

But is this image, part of a collection of several separate images of life among the vendors and residents of Little Italy, actually a painting? If it is, it’s part of an unusually beautiful postcard series produced by the penny postcard company Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Rather than colorize and reprint photos, perhaps the company commissioned an artist to illustrate these scenes. It might have been worth the effort considering how popular postcards were in the early decades of the 20th century. The new medium allowed people to see brilliant images of other parts of the world in much higher quality than newspaper photos.

“The postcard was to communications at the beginning of the 20th century what the internet is to this one; it was a relatively new idea taking hold like wildfire that revolutionized communication,” states the introduction to the book New York’s Financial District in Vintage Postcards.

Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the leading postcard publishers, capturing images of New York City’s prettiest streets, tourist attractions, and ethnic neighborhoods. (The MCNY collection includes a Raphael Tuck postcard of Chinatown in 1908, among other sites.)

“Raphael Tuck & Sons is generally acknowledged as the greatest picture postcard publisher in the world,” states J.D. Weeks in the introduction to Raphael Tuck US Postcard List. “From the time they produced their first set of twelve postcards in 1899 until they ceased operations in 1962, their postcards have been among the most highly prized to collect.”

The company doesn’t exist anymore, but their postcards live on in archives like that of the MCNY. I’m not sure if these images are colorized photos or paintings they commissioned, but they are lovely and evocative—scenes of an immigrant neighborhood that’s almost entirely vanished.

[All postcards from the Collections Portal of the Museum of the City of New York. First image: X2011.34.2163; second image: X2011.34.2161; third image: X2011.34.2164; fourth image: X2011.34.2162; fifth image: X2011.34.2160; sixth image: X2011.34.2165]

A rich family’s spectacular 18th century carriage

December 14, 2020

James Beekman, a dry goods merchant who lived at Hanover Square, was one of the wealthiest men in 18th century New York City.

Beekman had cash, a prominent family name (his great-grandfather was Wilhemus Beekman, who came to New Amsterdam aboard the same ship in 1647 as Peter Stuyvesant), and a riverside country estate called Mount Pleasant (below) at today’s 51st Street and Beekman Place.

It makes sense, then, that a man so distinguished would want a distinguished carriage, so he and his family could get around Manhattan in style.

This is the stunning coach he purchased from a sea captain in the UK and had shipped to New York in 1771, according to the New-York Historical Society, which has the carriage in its collection.

“If you watch movies set in the 1700s, you might get the impression that everyone rode in carriages like this one. But painted carriages like this—with beveled glass windows and a place at the back for a footman—were rare even among the elite of the colonies,” states the New-York Historical Society, which adds that only 26 carriages like the Beekman coach existed in the city in the mid-1700s.

Of course, Beekman probably didn’t use this carriage for running errands. “[The coach was] the crown jewel in his fleet of prestigious vehicles that already included a chaise, chariot, and phaeton,” according to the New-York Historical Society. Records indicate that the coach cost £138, “with additional expenditures for painting the family arms and varnishing.”

Reserved for special events like balls and banquets, the coach may have also been used to transport a president.

Before the Revolutionary War, George Washington was friendly with James Beekman, who actively supported the American cause.

“After the disastrous Battle of Long Island and with New York under the threat of a British invasion, Washington, a regular guest of the Beekman’s, urged James to flee Manhattan with his family,” states revolutionarywarjournal.com.

The Beekmans (which included Mrs. Beekman, aka Jane Ketaltas, at right, along with their 12 children) hid their valuables, including the carriage, and abandoned New York City for seven years.

After the war and Washington’s ascent to the presidency, The Beekmans lent him their carriage in 1789, states revolutionarywarjournal.com, so Washington could take it from his Cherry Street home to his inauguration at Federal Hall (below).

The New-York Historical Society, however, reports a different event. They make no mention of Washington riding in the Beekman carriage to his inaugural, but they do say he reportedly used it to get to his first congressional session.

The carriage was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1911 by Beekman’s great-grandson. Imagine traveling across the 18th century city’s muddy roads in rain and snow in such a spectacular vehicle!

[Top image: Wikipedia; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third image: posterazzi; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: painting by Ramon de Elorriaga; sixth image: Wikipedia]

 

 

 

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

How 1910s New Yorkers got their Christmas trees

November 30, 2020

News photographer George Bain spent much of his career taking photos of New Yorkers going about everyday life—and that included prepping for and celebrating Christmas.

In the captions of these 1910s photos, he didn’t explain where these trees started out before they were apparently dumped at Chambers Street, most likely, where the Erie Railroad had a ferry terminal.

They appear to be destined for the parlors of city residents (brought by a team of horses), who wouldn’t consider it Christmas without a beautiful tree to decorate and gather around.

[Photo: LOC]

Don’t forget New York’s other November holiday

November 23, 2020

It’s been a good century or so since New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this holiday—on November 25—was a major deal, marked by festive dinners, parades, and a deep appreciation of the role the city played in the Revolutionary War.

“Washington’s Grand Entry into New York, November 25, 1783,” Alphonse Bigot

Evacuation Day honors the day in 1783 when the British evacuated New York for good after occupying the city during the War.

“Evacuation Day and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City,” Edmund P. Restein

Just hours after the Red Coats left, a Union Jack flag was taken down from a flagpole at Battery Park and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. George Washington returned to Manhattan, leading the Continental Army through the city and down Broadway flanked by cheering crowds.

[Images: Wikipedia]

A thermometer and clock on a Broadway building

November 16, 2020

Sometime after the New York Sun moved into 280 Broadway between Reade and Chambers Street in 1919, it made its presence known by adding two things to the facade of this circa-1845 building: a fantastically gorgeous four-face clock and two-sided thermometer.

The Sun’s bronze clock: “It shines for all”

It makes sense for a storied publication in New York’s competitive newspaper world of the era to install these on the new headquarters’ Italianate facade.

The Sun thermometer: It was not 120 degrees outside when this photo was taken

Both the clock and the thermometer carried the Sun’s name, so it was good advertising on this busy corner north of City Hall Park. Also, as a newspaper, the Sun existed to inform—and that includes informing passersby about the time and temperature.

Long after the Sun closed up shop in 1952 and departed what became known as the Sun Building (though before that, it was A.T. Stewart’s first department store, his “Marble Palace”), the beautiful clock is still with us on the southwest corner.

The Sun building, 1917

The thermometer, on the northwest corner at Reade Street, was in its usual spot a few years ago. It was broken then, but that’s okay, I just hope it still exists.

[Third photo: New-York Historical Society]

A lovely view of Trinity Church from Wall Street

November 9, 2020

In the shadowy canyons of the Financial District are two New York City icons. Most recognizable is Trinity Church, whose 281-foot spire was the tallest structure in the city until 1890.

There’s also Federal Hall, built in 1842 on Wall Street, which has had this George Washington statue out front since 1882.

View of Trinity Church From Wall Street, undated

This view was painted by Elizabeth Weber-Fulop. Born in Budapest in 1886, she lived in Europe before moving to Charleston, South Carolina and then Tennessee.

To my knowledge, she never lived in New York. But it’s hard not to see why she was struck by what she saw one sunny, early 20th century day in Lower Manhattan.

A Midcentury artist’s muted Manhattan beauty

November 2, 2020

You’ve seen paintings of Washington Square, Greenwich Village markets, and the New York Harbor before. But through the eyes and brush of Bela de Tirefort, these and other city scenes take on a muted, Impressionist beauty.

“6th Avenue El,” 1940

I didn’t find much information about De Tirefort’s early years. Born in Austria in 1894, he made his way to New York City and became instrumental in organizing outdoor art fairs, included something called the Greenwich Village Art Fair (maybe the Washington Square Outdoor Art Fair, which got its start in 1931?).

“Bleecker Square,” 1961

He organized an art fair in Brooklyn outside Grand Army Plaza in 1932, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle seemed to get a kick out of. “Brooklyn is still the city of churches and homes—to artists,” the Eagle wrote. “Neurotic, erotic, exotic, and degenerative ‘art’ may go in Greenwich Village, but Brooklyn likes its art conservative.”

“Evening, Central Park” undated

De Tirefort comes off like a pragmatic artist in his reply to the Eagle: “We are not here to argue with the public. We are here to sell. We are guests. We do not want to offend.”

“Brooklyn Bridge,” undated

It’s not clear where de Tirefort himself lived, but Greenwich Village is a good guess. Many of his paintings focus on Washington Square Park, Bleecker Street’s Little Italy, and other Village icons. He also sold his painting directly from Washington Square, stated 1stdibs.com.

“Hansom Carriage Central Park” 1940

He tended to bathe his scenes in soft tones and thick brush strokes, presenting evocative city scenes that feel dreamlike but with decidedly Modernist touches.

“Park View, New York City” 1961

Through the 1940s and 1950s, de Tirefort exhibited his paintings in galleries and made a living as a working artist. In 1966, he moved to South Florida, where he died at age 99 in 1993, according to his obituary in the Tampa Bay Times.

“New York Harbor From the East River” 1951

“Using muted tones, strong silhouettes, and incisive textures, his paintings capture the structure of the city in the decades between the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the growth of the New York art scene,” wrote 1stdibs.com.

De Tirefort in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, 1932

De Tirefort’s work, often up for sale at auctions, commands the kind of prices you’d expect from a chronicler of Midcentury New York’s poetic moments and elusive beauty.

[Images 1-7, mutualart.com; eighth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1932]

The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony

October 19, 2020

West Village blocks don’t get any lovelier than West 11th Street (below) and Perry Street (bottom photo), two slender old streets lined with mostly well-tended brownstones and brick houses—particularly the stretch west of Seventh Avenue South.

West11thstreet

As picturesque as they are, there’s a secret hiding between these parallel blocks: Go through the horse walk between them (which is private, so you need access from a resident), and you’ll come upon a backyard garden with winding paths, places to sit, and a romantic, artsy vibe.

West11thstreetgarden

What’s the backstory? The garden and the brownstones surrounding them were christened in the early 20th century by a real-estate savvy reverend as “St. John’s Colony.”

West11thstreetgardenchurch

In the early 1900s, the reverend, John Armstrong Wade, led the church that still occupies the corner of Waverly and West 11th Streets, St. John’s in the Village.

Established in 1853, St. John’s built a church with ionic columns (below, in 1970), and the congregation grew along with the neighborhood through the 19th century.

But neighborhoods change, and what were once more middle-class, single-family brownstones were chopped into apartments, which became rundown.

With Rev. Wade at the helm, St. John’s decided to buy up some of the neighboring houses on West 11th and Perry Streets (below, in 1930), with the idea of renovating them to attract more stable residents and keep the parish from having to relocate uptown, like so many downtown churches did at the time.

West11thstreet1930nypl2

“Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony,” states the website for St. John’s.

Soon, properties on Perry Street were also purchased by St. John’s, and the development of the backyard garden was underway.

“Thus, St. John’s Colony began,” states an unidentified article from 1927, reproduced on St. John’s website. “One by one the houses were acquired. One by one under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm.”

Wset11thstreetmarycantwellbook“Fences and rubbish were cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one—a large, open space where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New York.”

In the 1950s, writer Mary Cantwell and her husband moved into 224 West 11th Street, which she recalls in her beautifully written 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

“Between West 11th and Perry Street, “and hidden from passersby, was perhaps the most secret of all the Village’s secret gardens,” wrote Cantwell. “It was very large, with two fountains, a small stone alter, private sitting areas at the rear of each basement apartment, a towering catalpa tree which in spring had a haunting, peppery scent, rose of Sharon bushes and spirea and a community of box turtles, invisible in winter and shy in summer.”

Wset11thstreetgardenfacingperry

“Once there had been peacocks, too, spreading their tails along the paved pathways,” wrote Cantwell.

In 1971, the original St. John’s church was destroyed in a fire. A new building replaced it in 1974 and still stands today (below). In the 1980s, St. John’s began selling off some of the houses of St. John’s Colony, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

Sthjohnschurch

By the mid-1990s, St. John’s wanted to “relinquish its rights and responsibilities” regarding the garden, the Times wrote, because it was costly to maintain.

Today, does St. John’s still have a stake in St. John’s Colony? I’m not sure, but the garden seems to open to the back of the church. Perhaps church leaders decided that the peace and beauty there was worth the price of upkeep.

Perrystreet

[Fourth photo: St John’s Church, 1970, MCNY 2013.3.2.1623; Fifth photo: NYPL 1930; Sixth image: “St. John’s Gardens-Greenwich Village,” 1945, by Josephine Barry/MCNY 75.43.89; seventh image: Publishers Weekly]