Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

This mosaic in the Waldorf Astoria will be missed

February 27, 2017

waldorfpostcardWhen it opened on Park Avenue in 1931, the Waldorf Astoria was the most incredible hotel New York had ever seen: 2,200 rooms, several restaurants and ballrooms, even a private railway platform.

In a few days, this dowager hotel will close up shop for a long renovation designed to turn it into a residence of mostly condos, not by-the-night rooms.

There’s a lot that will be missed, like the Art Deco ambiance and the bronze lobby clock with a gilded Lady Liberty on top.

But perhaps the most impressive feature no one will see for a couple of years at least is the 18-foot mosaic that’s welcomed visitors since 1939.

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Titled “Wheel of Life” and made with 148,000 hand-cut marble tiles from all around the world, the mosaic depicts life from birth until death. It’s the work of French artist Louis Rigal.

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“Wheel of Life,” which is currently in the running for landmark status, isn’t your ordinary hotel lobby curiosity. It tells a story and has something to say about innocence, struggle, love and the rest of the human existence.

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Imagine all the millions of visitors who walked over it and perhaps really looked at it over the decades. See it in full on video here.

A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal

February 20, 2017

jameshazenhydeportraitNew York has always been home to young men like James Hazen Hyde.

Handsome, cultured, and—as the heir to the Equitable Life Assurance Society—incredibly rich, Hyde was one of the brash young men Gilded Age newspapers couldn’t wait to gush about, and then tear apart, at the turn of the 20th century.

A Harvard graduate who loved art and French culture, he lived in his own brownstone at Nine East 40th Street and had his clothes hand-made in Paris.

Hyde raced “four-in-hand” coaches (four-horse carriages) with his friend Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and he dated President Theodore Roosevelt’s equally social daughter Alice.

hazenballgreenjacketHyde wasn’t publicity shy; he even commissioned a French painter to do his portrait (above), which gave him a royal air and showing off his dark Lothario-like looks.

He also enjoyed a good party. In 1905, Hyde threw what could be described as the most spectacular ball of the century: “a French 18th century–themed costume party for which he would be known all of his life,” wrote Patricia Beard in After the Ball.

The ball was held at posh Fifth Avenue society haunt Sherry’s on January 31. At 10:30 p.m., 600 guests were received in a two-story ballroom transformed to look like the gardens of Versailles. Invitees “wore costumes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and jewels that had belonged to empresses,” stated Beard.

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Society writers heralded the event the next day in all the papers. “James H. Hyde Gives Splendid Costume Fete,” wrote the New York Times, printing the names of notable guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with a description of what costume they wore.

hydeballmcny93-1-19504But all the press attention from the ball led to his downfall. Though Hyde had a majority share in the Equitable company, he was to become president when he turned 30, which would happen in 1906.

Prominent board members who already wanted Hyde out of the company decided to use the publicity surrounding the ball to charge that he was “too frivolous to run a company,” explained New York History blog.

Rumors spread that he spent Equitable money to fund the ball, among other examples of sleazy business practices. Policy holders got angry, and New York State investigated.

hydeportraitsittingdownIn December 1905, with his reputation ruined (though he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing), Hyde took off for France.

He sold his Long Island estate, carriages, private rail car, and his majority share in the company his father founded and bequeathed to him.

He lived in France until 1941, when he returned to New York, “still attracting attention when he walked along Fifth Avenue in his cape and spats,” wrote Beard.

He died in 1959, dapper and wealthy but in obscurity, donating much of his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverHyde’s extravagant, excessive ball and the subsequent scandal make a fitting coda for the end of the Gilded Age . . . which is explored in depth and illustrated lavishly in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Third photo: MCNY; 93.1.1.20208; fourth photo: MCNY; 93.1.19504]

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

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Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

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Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

The $20 million jewel in Grand Central Terminal

February 6, 2017

brassclockwikiSince Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, “meet me under the clock” has always meant one place: the magnificent four-faced brass timepiece on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

This iconic clock isn’t Grand Central largest or most commanding. That might be the Tiffany clock on the 42nd Street facade, the largest stained-glass Tiffany clock in the world.

But the “golden” concourse clock, as it was called in a 1954 New York Times story about the clock’s restoration, might be the most valuable, to the tune of $20 million.

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It’s not the brass that makes it so pricey. The four 24-inch wide faces are made out of opal glass.

grandcentralclocktwilightThat, as well as its history and the workmanship of the clock (built by plainly named Self-Winding Clock Company of Brooklyn!) have reportedly led appraisers from Sotheby’s and Christie’s to value it at $10-$20 million.

The clock also features an acorn on top—a symbol representing the motto of the Vanderbilt family (they built Grand Central, of course): “from a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Holdout buildings that escaped the wrecking ball

February 6, 2017

If most developers had their way, contemporary New York’s skyline would probably consist of an unbroken chain of modern monoliths reaching into the sky.

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Luckily, thanks to real estate owners who refused to sell their smaller-scale carriage houses, tenements, and humble 19th century walkups, the cityscape is filled with lovely low-rise reminders of a very different Gotham.

The slender, circa-1893 beauty (above) at 249 West End Avenue beat the wrecking ball because the widow who occupied it refused to sell—even as the four identical homes on either side of hers were demolished in the 1920s, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

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Streeteasy says that this dollhouse-like carriage house (above) at 407 Park Avenue was built in 1910. The tie shop on the ground floor is dwarfed by its Midtown neighbors.

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This wide, four-story yellow row house was probably the prettiest home on East 57th Street near Sutton Place when it was built. Now, it’s sandwiched between two handsome apartment towers.

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Also on East 57th Street but closer to Midtown are these two very typical 19th century tenements, nestled inside a 1960s white brick apartment house.

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This little red charmer on West Broadway looks like it comes from the 19th century. According to Streeteasy, it was actually built in 1950. That’s okay—it keeps the two modern monsters on either side of it at a nice distance apart.

Finding beauty and poetry in a cold, snowy city

January 30, 2017

Not a fan of the chilly wet days that characterize a New York winter? Let these shimmering images from Saul Leiter of the city in the 1950s and 1960s give you a different perspective.

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Leiter, a longtime East Village resident who died in 2013 at age 89, was one of Gotham’s greatest (and mostly unheralded) street photographers, capturing the color of the mid-century metropolis in a subdued, tender glow.

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His soft-focus photos show us seemingly random, ordinary street scenes: pedestrians at a newsstand, a worker taking a break on the sidewalk, the visual poetry of people and buildings reflected in glass, around corners, and through a misty lens.

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Perhaps his most evocative photos showcase New York during wintertime. In a season when shades of gray typically mark the sky and sidewalks, Leiter’s camera manages to draw out the magnificent colors of the winter city.

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Yellow taxis, red umbrellas, and the white and red signage on a city bus contrast with snowed-in and rained-out streets.

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“I may be old-fashioned,” Leiter says in a 2014 documentary about his art and life, In No Great Hurry. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

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He found that beauty in the slush, snowfall, and puddles of New York’s anonymous streets.

The brick and mortar ghosts all over Manhattan

January 16, 2017

The history of New York City is written on its walls—the walls of apartment houses and commercial buildings still standing, bearing the faded outline of those that met the bulldozer long ago.

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These phantom buildings are on every block (above, Fourth Avenue and 1oth Street), especially in today’s city with its constant renovation and rebuilding—what Walt Whitman called “knock down and pull over again spirit.”

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The roofs of these faded ghosts are often slanted and peaked—hints that a Federal-style house or stable once existed there. I’m guessing this outline on 11th Avenue in the west 20s, above, was a stable.

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Many of the outlines resemble the shells of tenements. This phantom at Rector Street, above, is likely all that remains of an anonymous tenement where generations of New Yorkers lived and raised families.

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The ghost building on Great Jones Street near Lafayette Street above, with what appears to be the outline of three chimneys, looks too short to be a tenement. Probably just a walk-up with a couple of flats per floor.

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The painted-white outline here on Third Avenue in Gramercy could have been a single family home, similar to the one on the left side of the photo hidden behind scaffolding.

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On West 57th Street a lonely tenement bears the remains of its neighbor, which had what looks like a central chimney or rooftop exit door.

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Is this the ghost of another stable or carriage house? It’s on the far West Side around 42nd Street, where the city’s last remaining working stables are.

Happy 1969 from a Diamond District drugstore

December 30, 2016

For decades, Jack May’s was a standard Manhattan neighborhood pharmacy on 48th Street in the middle of the Diamond District (PLaza 7!).

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The store had customer service in mind when they printed up this handy calendar covering all 12 months of 1969.

Of course, it worked as a bookmark too—it was found inside a crumbling Dostoyevsky paperback. My guess is that the pharmacist was reading it between filling prescriptions.

Why 1970s New York was nicknamed “Fun City”

December 30, 2016

New York City has had some colorful nicknames over the years—from Gotham and the Empire City in the 19th century to the Big Apple in the 1920s jazz era.

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But the “Fun City” moniker of the 1960s and 1970s?

The term was supposed to be a joke, a take on a phrase used by Mayor John Lindsay during a 1966 interview with sports journalist Dick Schaap, who was then a metro columnist with the New York Herald Tribune.

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“Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor,” wrote the New York Times in Schaap’s obituary in 2001, recounting how the nickname was coined.

funcityplaybill1972Lindsay responded, “I still think it’s a fun city.”

Schaap put the term in his column, using it “as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city,” stated the Times.

The phrase caught on with New Yorkers, who were unimpressed with the new mayor’s upbeat tone in a metropolis that over the next four years would endure a sanitation strike, a teacher walkout, a crippling blackout, and increasing financial distress.

Soon, the nickname was emblazoned on Times Square strip club marquees, city bus ads, and even on Broadway, where a short-lived play starring Joan Rivers debuted in 1972 (and closed a week later).

The term has mostly disappeared today—though a few critics dubbed Mayor Bloomberg’s New York of the early 2000s the “no-fun city.”

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But we still have Fun City Tattooing on St. Marks Place near Avenue A, going strong since the height of the Fun City era in 1976!

[Second photo: Fun City Peep Shows circa 1988: Michael Horsley/Flickr; third photo: playbill.com; fourth photo: unknown source]

Times Square before it became Times Square

December 27, 2016

Here’s a look at Times Square in 1900, seven years before the neighborhood became famous for the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop—and in fact, before it was even called Times Square.

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At the time, the nexus of avenues that would soon be dubbed the Crossroads of the World was known as Longacre Square, the sleepy center of the city’s carriage industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, New York’s theater district had edged up against the area—see the burlesque house on the left. In four years, the New York Times would relocate to that spot in the center of the card.

And starting in 1907, New Year’s Eve in New York would never be the same.

[Photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17932]