Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan”

November 13, 2017

Overshadowed by social realist painters and then the abstract movement early in the 20th century, Colin Campbell Cooper never quite got his due.

But his evocative takes on New York’s streetscapes and skyline reveal a fascination with the bigness of the city’s architecture contrasted against the smaller personal stories of millions of anonymous New Yorkers.

The bigness you notice first, especially with paintings like the “Mountains of Manhattan” (top) and the “Cliffs of Manhattan” (second), which both depict the city as an awesome and mighty wonder along the lines of the Rockies or the Alps.

When Cooper contrasts the big and the small, as he does here in 1917’s “South Ferry,” he gives us a more humanistic view of Gotham.

We may not be able to read their faces, but every one of those trolley riders ans sidewalk vendors has a story.

“Chatham Square,” above, from 1919, is similar. The city’s skyscraper mountains are in the background, while the day-to-day life, its human side, is in the forefront.

Commuters wait for the elevated train to pull in, soldiers march under the tracks, and movie houses attract crowds on the sidewalk. We don’t have to be able to see them up close to know they are us.

“New York From Brooklyn” gives us a more detailed and personalized County of Kings. Meanwhile, Manhattan across the river is muted, as if it’s an impenetrable fortress.

Cooper lived in New York from 1904 to 1921. “My pictures are built on these contrasts,” he once said of the juxtaposition in many of his paintings of older, smaller-scale buildings and the modern skyscrapers dominating the skyline.

“Columbus Circle” (above), completed in 1923, illustrates this perfectly.

An old piano ad on 37th Street fading out of view

November 6, 2017

On a brick wall next door to a strangely suburban-looking Marriott Hotel is a relic of New York’s piano manufacturing days.

Squint and you can make out this fading color ad for Mathushek Pianos, founded by Frederick Mathushek, who had been building pianos in New York since 1852, according to Antique Piano Shop.

Mathushek Pianos hopped around various addresses in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when having a piano in your parlor was quite a status symbol.

For a short time, the company had a showroom or office at 37 West 37th Street, according to faded ad site 14to42.net, where New Yorkers went to buy Mathushek’s prized square uprights.

A Mathushek factory occupied the corner of Broadway and 47th Street at the turn of the century, smack in the middle of today’s Times Square. Ads for pianos can still be found in the city’s corners—like this one in downtown Brooklyn.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

The woman who didn’t want women to vote

November 6, 2017

“Why force women to vote?” read the incendiary headline in the New-York Tribune in March 1913.

The question was posed in all seriousness by Josephine Jewell Dodge (left), the leader of a group headquartered at 35 West 39th Street called the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in today’s city opposing voting rights for women—rights that were granted in New York State in November 1917, a century ago this week.

But the suffrage movement that played out in marches and parades on Fifth Avenue (like this one in 1913, below) since the late 19th century had plenty of opposition—from other women.

Dodge and the other ladies of the NAOWS were hardly throwback reactionaries.

Born in 1855, Dodge came from a prominent family; her father had been the governor of Connecticut, and she was educated at Vassar, one of the few women’s colleges of the era.

Like other privileged women of her time, she devoted herself to social reform, funding and then founding several day nurseries in tenement districts where poor young children could go if their mothers had to work.

But as suffrage gained steam in the 1910s (and drove newspapers like the Brooklyn Eagle to run reader polls, as seen below), Dodge’s activism took a different direction. She joined a state anti-suffrage group before starting the NAOWS in 1911.

Why exactly was Dodge opposed to suffrage? Her thinking was that women would have more success as social reformers if they didn’t get mixed up in the dirty world of politics.

“As social leaders, many of these women were dedicated to philanthropy and promoting reform, but they achieved their results without entering the world of politics and didn’t feel as though they were working against their own self-interest,”states a Saturday Evening Post article on antis from 2016.

She also didn’t seem to believe women had the time to fully grasp politics.

“The life of the average woman is not so ordered as to give her first hand knowledge of those things which are the essentials of sound government,” Dodge said in 1915 speech in New Jersey.

“She is worthily employed in other departments of life, and the vote will not help her fulfill her obligations therein.”

Of course, six years after the NAOWS was founded, women did get the vote in New York. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting voting rights to all U.S. women.

The NAOWS hung in there with other anti-suffrage groups, hoping to fight the amendment, to no avail. Dodge had resigned from the NAOWS by that time, according to her 1928 obituary, for unknown reasons.

The Gilded Age in New York 1870-1910 has a lot more on the suffrage movement from a New York City vantage point.

[Top photo: New-York Tribune; second photo: NYPL; third image: NAOWS/Library of Congress; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1912; fifth image: LOC]

All the ways to get to Columbus Circle in 1910

October 23, 2017

The makers of this postcard may not have realized it at the time. But they selected an image that gives contemporary viewers a glimpse at all the different transportation options available to New Yorkers in 1910.

Trolley cars would continue at least through the 1930s. Horse-drawn wagons had another decade before they were banished to quiet side streets or out of the way neighborhoods. The automobile would soon dominate city streets.

Pedestrians walk on what looks like a new sidewalk. And on the left, one of the original subway kiosks hint at the mass transit option of choice for city residents through the 20th century.

[Postcard: MCNY]

The pretty peafowl on a Madison Avenue building

October 23, 2017

The Alexander Wilson Building has been at 274 Madison Avenue since 1928, blending in with the neighboring 1920s-era gray-beige office towers in this stretch of Midtown.

But on a walk past the lobby, some unusual detailing above and around the entrance catches your eye and sets the structure apart from the rest.

Wow—peafowl! Two lovely regal birds face each other on an Art Nouveau–esque frieze of leaves, grapes, and two peachicks behind them.

I’m not sure what these birds symbolize, but it’s an enchanting ode to the natural world amid Madison Avenue’s concrete sidewalks and cathedrals of commerce.

Of course, New York building facades are decorated with images to all kinds of animals, from squirrels to lions to elephants to rats.

And then there are the real peafowl—peacocks roaming around the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on West 112th Street.

One of the last remnants of the old Penn Station

October 16, 2017

Looking at old photos of Penn Station can make any New Yorker weep.

The 1963 bulldozing of this pink granite emblem of the city has been described as a “monumental act of vandalism.”

The Doric columns fronting Seventh Avenue dismantled, the Roman Baths–inspired waiting room demolished, and interior touches from handrails to ticket booths mostly carted away to landfills.

Remnants do remain, though (like the Eagle statues outside the current station), with one critical piece of Penn Station still located across 31st Street, where it sits anonymous and forlorn.

It’s the Penn Station Service Building (above), which housed the power plant that fed electricity to the train engines that navigated the tunnels to and from the city.

In the top photo of Penn Station’s exterior, you can see it behind the building, belching smoke closer to the Eighth Avenue side.

“Research by the industrial archaeologist Thomas Flagg indicates that it was also used to supply heat, light, elevator hydraulics and refrigeration for the station as well as compressed air for braking and signaling,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1989 New York Times article.

“It even incinerated the station’s garbage.” The smokestack, however, have been removed.

Constructed two years before Penn Station opened and designed by station architects McKim, Mead, and White, it has the same granite facade as Penn Station did, now gray with grime and soot in the shadow of Madison Square Garden.

It’s simple structure that’s still in use—but a ghost of its former glory. (That waiting room, sigh.)

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second and third photos: Ephemeral New York; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Getty Images]

Gilded Age extravagance at the Hotel Navarre

October 2, 2017

It was built in 1900 on Seventh Avenue and 38th Street, at the tail end of the Gilded Age, and the Hotel Navarre has all the magnificent ornamentation of the era: it’s a French Renaissance fortress of terra cotta with a delightful roof right out of a European castle.

But in New York City, neighborhoods and architectural tastes change fast. The Navarre met the wrecking ball in 1930, just three decades later.

What happened? In the teens, this stretch of Seventh Avenue north of Penn Station became a “lowly section of the city, infested with second-hand clothing shops, lumber and coal yards.”

By the 1920s it was transformed “as if by miracle, into a great business section of the city,” the New York Times wrote two years earlier.

Today we have the 44-story Art Deco Navarre Building on the site, a tribute to a short-lived hotel with a 19th century design and elegance that was out of style a generation or so later.

For more on legendary Gilded Age mansions and hotels in New York City, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

Painting prewar New York from the outside in

September 11, 2017

Art that captures a single moment of beauty and activity on New York’s streets is always captivating. But there’s something to be said for images that reveal something about Manhattan from a far away vantage point, showing a city not in the center but on the sidelines.

Leon Kroll, born in New York in 1884 and a contemporary of George Bellows, Robert Henri, and other social realists, gives us that sidelined city.

Kroll, who studied at the Art Students League and exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, was known for his nudes and country or seaside landscapes, and he also painted Central Park, Broadway, and other city locations.

But he also depicted New York in the early 20th century from the outside in, illustrating the city’s rhythms from across the East and Hudson Rivers.

“Queensboro Bridge,” from 1912, the painting at the top of the page, is one such example. The majesty of the relatively new bridge (only three years old here) takes center stage, but the monolithic city looms behind it.

I’m not exactly sure where Kroll was when he painted the second image, 1920’s “Manhattan Rhythms,” the second image.

He presents us with a solid, impenetrable city high above the wharves and docks of the river, a metropolis that dwarfs the men who work there.

“View of Manhattan Terminal Yards From Weehawken” (1913) puts industry and commerce on display. The train tracks may be on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, but they and the boats sending smoke into the sky work to enrich Manhattan across the water.

“Terminal Yards,” the fourth painting (also 1913) gives us another, snow-covered view.

I love that the city skyline is barely in “Manhattan From Hoboken” (1915), another painting of the metropolis from the heights of New Jersey.

The vibrant colors and web of tree branches—not to mention the thick clouds and smoke coming from boats and trains beside the river—almost obscure the Empire State Building and the rest of the cityscape.

If you’re not there in the middle of it, New York is far enough away to feel like another country.

Seeing an eclipse from the Empire State Building

August 19, 2017

While the city anticipates the solar eclipse due to arrive on Monday afternoon, it’s worth noting that New Yorkers have had eclipse fever before.

In 1932, hundreds of people packed the observation deck of the Empire State Building and squinted toward the sky.

“In New York City millions forgot mundane matters in contemplation of the infinite,” the New York Times wrote on September 1.

“From the East Side, where the teeming life of the tenements swarmed on fire-escapes and rooftops to witness the eclipse, to Park Avenue, where the rich eyed the sun from penthouse easy chairs, the routine of New York halted while the moon edged across the fiery brilliance of the sun’s patch and dimmed its shining splendor.”

Times Square and city parks held thousands of eclipse-watchers. And according to the Times, animals at the Bronx Zoo acted up when darkness fell.

[Photo: AP]