Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.

The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street

July 9, 2018

Turtle Bay is one of the most enchantingly named neighborhoods in Manhattan.

But did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East River?

Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay?

The truth is lost to the ages. But turtles are what inspired the designers of this iron fence along East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

The fence keeps the riffraff away from these elegant townhouses, which are part of Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century brownstones lining East 48th Street and East 49th Street that were restored in the 1920s.

The 20 houses are connected in the back by a shared secret garden modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome between East 48th and East 49th Streets (below in 1920).

These exclusive residences gave Turtle Bay cachet, and they become home to privacy-seeking celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.

Most of us will never get a personal glimpse inside one of these beauties or the hidden garden. (Though real estate listings offer a peek inside the restored homes.)

But we can walk down East 49th Street and get a kick out of the turtle-adorned fence posts, which pay homage to the aquatic creatures the neighborhood may or may not be named for.

[Third and fourth images: Library of Congress]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

Dreaming on the elevated tracks at 47th Street

July 2, 2018

New York is a city of dreamers. But I wonder what the girl in John J. Soble’s 1936 painting is thinking about.

We see her on the edge of what looks like a tenement roof, staring out onto the (soon to be demolished) Sixth Avenue elevated tracks and to Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and beyond.

Her leg is kicked up in a youthful pose, while the woman holding the chair behind her seems older. A train is coming down the tracks as laundry hangs from a roof in the distance. She might be a neighborhood girl, but big city dreams beckon.

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

Excavating Penn Station by fire and lamp light

June 25, 2018

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of the demolition of the original Penn Station from 1963.

Much more inspiring, however, is this painting, which chronicles the building of the Beaux Arts station in 1908. Construction hasn’t begun yet; social realist painter George Bellows gives us the excavation of the land where Penn Station will eventually rise and open in 1910.

There’s magic here—thanks to the lamps ringing the excavation site and tenements across the street. Slightly eerie is the orange glow of a fire deep in the pit and images of nearby figures keeping watch over things, perhaps.

Bellows must have had a fascination with the building of Penn Station, as he painted this daytime image as well.

A memorial to the Gilded Age’s favorite architect

May 28, 2018

The curved monument to American-born architect Richard Morris Hunt sits weathered and leaf-covered at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street.

Though not a household name these days, Hunt (below right, in a portrait by John Singer Sargent) was the man who sculpted the look of the Gilded Age.

A brilliant visionary with a reputation for humility and humor, Hunt was the starchitect for high society yet also the genius behind public institutions and what’s regarded as the city’s first apartment house.

The memorial site is a fitting location; within the surrounding blocks once stood some of the spectacular buildings he designed.

Across Fifth Avenue was the Lenox Library, a private precursor to the public library system developed after the turn of the century.

(When the Lenox Library building was torn down, Henry Clay Frick built his exquisite mansion-turned-museum in its place.)

At Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, Hunt designed the mansion for Mrs. Caroline Astor and her son.

Astor left her previous, less showy mansion at 33rd Street in the 1890s, after her nephew decided to demolish his neighboring mansion and build the Hotel Waldorf.

Hunt was commissioned to build a double mansion, where Mrs. Astor and her son’s family could live in the French Renaissance splendor fashionable among the city’s wealthiest at the time.

(The Astor mansion was demolished in the 1920s, replaced by Temple Emanu-El.)

Hunt also designed “Petit Chateau” for W.K. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife, Alva, in 1883 at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

(Petit Chateau, the site of the 1883 costume ball that secured Alva Vanderbilt’s place in society, was also demolished in the 1920s.)

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was another Hunt creation.

After his death in 1895, plans for a memorial to the man who designed the Gilded Age were drawn. Daniel Chester French (he did the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) created Hunt’s monument.

The understated site features a “central bust of the architect,” states centralparknyc.org. “A semicircular portico and curved bench support decorative columns and a cornice.”

“At each end stands a female figure, allegorical statues of Architecture, and Painting, and Sculpture,” explains the site.

It’s a perfectly Gilded Age-esque monument to the man who had much influence over the way the era looked—quite elaborate and fanciful compared to our pared-down, minimalist tastes today.

[Last photo: Wikipedia]

Everyone ate at Jack Dempsey’s in Times Square

May 21, 2018

He wasn’t just a champion heavyweight but a cultural icon of the 1920s and 1930s.

So what does a cultural icon do after his days in the ring are over? Open what today’s critics might consider a celebrity theme restaurant in the busiest part of the city, of course.

Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, as it was officially called, opened its doors in 1935 on 49th Street, across the street from the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

In the restaurant’s early years, Dempsey was known to hold court at a table, a legendary figure greeting customers and glad-handling guests.

“The former heavyweight champion was a gallant hose,” The New York Times wrote a day after opening night. “He was everywhere, from the furthest corner of the glowing main dining room to the edge of the soft red carpet near the entrance.”

Pinned to the lapel of his morning coat was “a kewpie doll. That, it was confidentially explained, symbolized the new venture.”

Times Square changed and the restaurant moved to the Brill Building, and eventually Dempsey’s attracted dwindling crowds. “During its waning years, Mr. Dempsey was a fixture in the corner booth, where he usually sat with his back to the window, greeting customers,” wrote the Times in 2000.

In 1974, the restaurant closed after a lease dispute, its memorabilia lining the walls packed up—but not before an appearance in the first Godfather movie.

Dempsey died in 1983, and today the corner where he held court in his original restaurant on 49th Street is now named for him.

[Third photo: MCNY x2011.34.3827; fourth photo: Wikipedia; fifth image: MCNY 97.146.164]

A winter twilight in the snow on 57th Street

February 12, 2018

This is 57th Street in 1902, painted by Robert Henri, whose Ashcan School work depicted a moody New York in all of its grit and glory.

Could the cross street with the elevated train be Sixth Avenue? It would have been close to the Art Students League, where Henri taught.

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.