Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

Catching up with Studio 54, the magazine

September 13, 2021

Remember Studio 54? Remember magazines? The nightclub that defined disco debauchery in Manhattan in the late 1970s had a legendary three-year run under the founders, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell.

Reopened under new ownership in 1981, the club kept going—with the help of a 1982 specialty publication called “Studio 54: The Magazine.”

The first issue, from 1982, is a time capsule of early 1980s celebrity culture. Interviews with Peter Allen, Valerie Simpson, and a host of other stars fill the pages, along with lots of black and white shots of A-listers partying.

Studio 54 apparently stayed open as a nightclub until 1986, but the cache was gone. And the magazine? That’s a mystery. But based on the ad above, they had big plans to keep publishing!

The wooden phone booths inside a private Midtown clubhouse

August 1, 2021

This week has turned out to be themed around vintage phone booths on Ephemeral New York. First came four glass beauties still extant along West End Avenue, the last remaining outdoor booths in New York City.

Next up is another old-school telephone discovery: a row of wooden phone booths—with restored wood chairs, small tables, accordion doors, and amazingly, actual phones—along a wall inside the Harvard Club, at 27 West 44th Street.

Did these booths once have pay phones? I’m not sure; perhaps part of being a club member meant the house picked up the charges. Members today, of course, would only duck into one to hold a private cell phone conversation.

These old wood phone booths are a rare find in the contemporary city, but discovering and documenting them allows us to time travel back to a much different New York City.

Until the 1980s and 1990s, every hotel and public building, as well as most restaurants, bars, and drugstores, had at least one public telephone booth along with a bulky paper phone directory for customers, clients, and locals who didn’t have a phone of their own. (And many people didn’t, often by choice. Imagine!)

The Harvard Club itself has its own historical cred. Designed by Charles McKim and opened in 1894, the clubhouse featured a “grill room,” offices, a library, and a couple of card and billiard rooms. McKim, a Harvard man and club member who took no fee for his work, modeled the Georgian-style brick and limestone exterior to resemble those in Harvard Yard, according to the Harvard Club website.

The club was expanded and renovated over the years, sometimes to create more space but also to keep up with social changes.

In 1973, the ladies’ entrance to the club was removed and women were admitted as full members. Though some Harvard graduate programs admitted women, Harvard and its sister school, Radcliffe College, didn’t merge their admissions until 1975.

[Top and second photos: Susan Schwartz; third photo: Wikipedia]

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

Beautiful ruins of the early 1900s “Bankers’ Row” on West 56th Street

July 5, 2021

When an area in Manhattan becomes fashionable—as Fifth Avenue in the upper 50s did in the 1880s and 1890s—only people with the most elite names (think Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt) are typically able to acquire property and build their mansions there.

The gaping hole between 17 and 23 West 56th Street

But Gilded Age New York was minting many social-climbing millionaires. So the side streets off Fifth Avenue filled up with beautiful, costly, single-family townhouses designed by top architects. In many cases, these architects gave opulent facelifts and redesigns to preexisting modest brownstones, which were now out of style.

One block in particular, 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, became home to so many financiers and their families, it earned the nickname “Bankers’ Row” after the turn of the century.

30 West 56th Street, former home of investment banker Henry Seligman

And while it’s hard to imagine this block with some notably shabby exteriors and empty lots as a wealthy New Yorker’s enclave, enough of the old dowager beauties with illustrious backstories remain to prove you wrong.

One of these is Number 30 (second from left, above, and below), designed by C.P.W. Gilbert and completed in 1901 for investment banker Henry Seligman and his wife, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

“Henry and Adelaide had three children, Gladys, Rhoda and Walter,” states the LPC. “The lavish townhouse at 30 West 56th Street also housed a Scottish butler; an American valet and chauffeur; a Swedish footman, maid and laundress; two Irish cooks; and three English, Swedish, and French servants.”

The couple lived in the house until their deaths in 1933 (the year Henry died of a heart attack inside) and 1934; it was converted into apartments in 1941, per the LPC.

26 West 56th Street, once home of E. Hayward and Amelia Parsons Ferry

Number 26, currently behind scaffolding, sits two doors down from the Seligman mansion (above, center). Built in 1871, it was remodeled in 1907-1908 with a limestone facade and copper roof and “long occupied by banker E. Hayward Ferry and his wife Amelia Parsons Ferry,” according to w50s.com.

“E. Hayward Ferry was a prominent businessman who served as first vice president of Hanover Bank from 1910 to 1929,” w50s.com states. “He and his wife occupied  this house from 1908 to 1935.”

28 West 56th, in the Arts & Crafts style

Dr. Clifton Edgar is one resident of Bankers’ Row who wasn’t actually a banker. A prominent physician, Edgar had 28 West 56th Street redesigned in 1908 from its original brownstone style to an Arts and Crafts townhouse (above)—one of few examples of this architectural style in Manhattan, states Community Board 5.

Widow Edith Andrews Logan acquired her wealth from her industrialist father and horsebreeder husband, who was killed in the Spanish-American War. In 1903, she bought 17 West 56th Street and had it redesigned in the neo-Federal style, with fluted columns and Flemish bond brickwork, per the LPC.

Mrs. Logan’s townhouse, where her daughter made her society debut

Logan made good use of her stylish home: She held an “informal dinner dance” that served as the debut of one of her daughters into New York society in 1909. The next year, she hosted that daughter’s wedding reception. Long after Logan departed her house, Number 17 became a trendy restaurant called the Royal Box in the 1930s.

These days, what was once Bankers’ Row is now more of a Restaurant Row. Many of the wealthy palaces of the early 1900s have long since been converted into ground-floor restaurants and chopped into apartments.

Some original modest brownstones, others lavish townhouses

Others have been demolished entirely; the block has missing buildings and lots of signs of redevelopment. But beneath the restaurant signs, grime, and scaffolding, some of the former showstoppers of Bankers’ Row are still hanging on.

[Fourth image: Google]

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

A blue morning in front of the new Penn Station

March 29, 2021

George Bellows clearly had a fascination with the construction of Penn Station. Blue Morning, from 1909, is the last of four paintings Bellow completed from 1907 to 1909 chronicling the development of this stunning transportation hub.

“Undertaken by the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White, Pennsylvania Station (more commonly known as Penn Station) was an enormously ambitious project that helped transform New York into a thriving, modern, commuter metropolis,” states the National Gallery of Art.

“The building project was of considerable interest to the public, and throughout the years that Bellows worked on these paintings, newspapers and magazines regularly reported on the station’s progress.”

“The unusual backlit composition minimizes the pit and instead focuses on the laborers working in the foreground. McKim, Mead, & White’s partially completed terminal building is visible in the distance,” according to the NGA.

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

A postcard shows off the pretty girls of New York

March 1, 2021

Most of New York City’s vintage postcards feature beautiful sites of the city itself—not Gotham’s beautiful women. But this turn-of-the-century postcard is a strange exception to the rule.

“Pretty girls, pretty girls everywhere, but the New York belles are claimed most fair” reads the caption, with the images of six women, none of whom I recognize but could be actresses of the era.

The inset image of Herald Square is interesting—perhaps it’s pictured because West 34th Street was part of the Theater District at the time, and it was the place to see these and other “New York belles.”

Brick and mortar phantoms of another Manhattan

February 15, 2021

Every year this site does a roundup of ghost buildings—the faded outlines of chimneys, flat or peaked roofs, windows, and staircases that were left behind after a demolition and look like apparitions of New York’s low-rise, walkup past.

They’re spooky reminders of a different city and often easy to see, like this one in Upper First Avenue, probably a four-story tenement, painted in orange. And could that be a second ghost building behind it, a little taller faded in white?

This one is another double ghost building on 44th Street toward Midtown. In red is a peaked roof building, and then one in white a story or two taller.

Here’s an unusual phantom building, looks like two chimneys and a rooftop stairwell exit. It’s on Madison Avenue at about 80th Street, soon to be shrouded forever behind a luxury apartment residence.

Some ghost buildings look like they were violently ripped from their neighbor, like this one on East 47th Street. Are we left behind with an impression of the structural elements that held the building up—or were they added after the building was demolished to help stabilize the one left behind?

Here you can see the stairways, where New Yorkers of days past walked up and down countless times.

Short and square, this one on the Upper East Side doesn’t look like much. But it was home to someone, or some business, and at one time and likely outshined its neighbors back when it was the new kid on the block a century or so ago.

A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine

February 15, 2021

When important people visited New York City in the middle of the 18th century, they often stopped at the spectacular home of Robert and Mary Lindley Murray.

In the colonial-era city, the Murrays were a powerful couple. Robert Murray had immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family from Ireland as a boy; he worked his way up from a mill operator to a wealthy wheat and flour merchant. Mary Lindley Murray was the daughter of Quaker immigrants from Philadelphia.

Married in 1744, they moved to New York City in 1753, according to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on the Ratzer map from 1766.

“The two-story great house was located at what is today Park Avenue and 36th Street,” states womeninhistoryblog.com. “Grand Central Station stands on what was one of the estate’s cornfields.”

Eventually this neck of the woods would be renamed Murray Hill, after the couple and their 11 children; a 1926 plaque on an apartment building at that corner on Park Avenue memorializes Inclenberg (above).

But back to the 18th century city, which in 1776 became a battleground when the War for Independence broke out. Some residents were Loyalists to the British; others considered themselves Patriots and supported the Continental Army.

While Robert Murray reportedly was a Loyalist, Mary’s sympathies went with the Patriots, according to The Murrays of Murray Hill, by Charles Monaghan. And legend has it that she proved her allegiance in September 1776, when British General William Howe came ashore at Kip’s Bay to take on George Washington’s Patriot army.

While Howe and his officers was making his way through Manhattan and Patriot militiamen were retreating to Harlem Heights, Mary invited Howe and his men to her home. With her husband conveniently away, Mary and her daughters entertained their British guests for two hours with lunch and wine to stall them so the Patriots had time to get away. (Above and below images)

“After the catastrophe on Long Island, August 28, 1776, and the affair at Kip’s Bay, the Americans withdrew up the island, time for which retreat being gained, so it is claimed, through the instrumentality of Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained General Howe and his officers at luncheon on September 15, 1776, at her house at present Park Avenue and 36th Street,” wrote Hopper Striker Mott in The New York of Yesterday.

There’s another account of this story that has a slightly different take.

According to the military journal of James Thatcher, an army surgeon, the British army marching up Manhattan to catch up to the Patriots realized “there was no prospect of engaging our troops” and decided to “repair to the home of Mr. Robert Murray, a Quaker and friend of our cause; Mrs. Murray treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more….It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army.”

Whatever really happened, General Howe and his men apparently did stop off at the Murray mansion—and the Patriots made their way to Harlem Heights and beyond. The legend was solidified in 1903 when the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque affixed to a boulder in honor of Mary at Park Avenue and 37th Street (above).

[Top image: by the Duskhopper via Cool Chicks From History; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Ratzer Map, 1766; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: Alamy; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL]