Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

Grand Central is filled with acorns and oak leaves

February 1, 2016

Even when you’re rush through Grand Central Terminal, it’s impossible not to glance up and notice its breathtaking treasures, like the beautiful light fixtures, clocks, and painted or tiled ceilings.

Acorntracks28272

But there’s a decorative theme running through the station that’s a little more subtle and easy to miss: acorns and oak leaves.

AcornswaterfountainAn acorn tops the iconic brass clock above the information booth.

Marble garlands of oak leaves and acorns decorate the original 1913 water fountains. They’re also on the ceiling, chandeliers, and staircases.

So what’s with all the harvest images?

It’s a Vanderbilt thing. The Vanderbilt heirs financed the construction of the terminal, and the family crest is all about acorns and oaks leaves.

Acornflourishcloseup

“From a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” was Grand Central builder Cornelius Vanderbilt’s motto, according to Christopher Winn’s I Never Knew That About New York.

AcornclockinterestingamericaI’m not sure if any of the Vanderbilt homes that lined Fifth Avenue in the Gilded Age also featured acorns and oaks. Those flourishes may not have gone with the decor in this chateau-style mansion, for example.

But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Newport, Rhode Island summer “cottage,” the 70-room palazzo-inspired Breakers, is also decorated with acorns—a symbol of strength and long life.

[Third photo: via newyork.com; fourth photo: via interestingamerica.com]

Magical color lights of a New York City night

January 25, 2016

Vienna-born photographer Ernst Haas turned his camera to New York City’s skyscrapers and suspension bridges, creating a kaleidoscope of blurry color in this painterly 1970 image, Lights of New York.

Lightsofnewyork

Haas started his career as a photojournalist for Life, Vogue, and other magazines. In 1962, he was celebrated with a retrospective show of his color photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Over the years he captured a postwar, midcentury New York in all its poetic, weird, magical glory.

Why Midtown has a tiny Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue

January 25, 2016

Sixandahalfavenuesignwiki“Meet me on Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

But Six-and-a-Half Avenue is a real street (inspired by Harry Potter?) tucked among the silver and gray office towers of Midtown between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

It was the Department of Transportation’s idea, apparently. In 2012, DOT officials wanted to encourage pedestrians to use the string of existing public plazas and covered passageways running almost in a straight line from 51st to 57th Streets.

So Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue, ruled by stop signs rather than traffic lights, was born—the first fractional street in the city’s grid system.

Half avenues, though, aren’t a new idea.

Sixthandahalfavegaynornyt1910

In 1910, Mayor William Gaynor floated the possibility of building a half avenue between Fifth and Sixth Avenues from Eighth Street to 59th Street, bisecting Bryant Park.

The unnamed half-avenue would help reduce traffic, said Gaynor. But like so many other ideas and proposals, it never went past the concept stage.

[Image: New York Times]

1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume

January 18, 2016

When Kate Feering Strong (below) received her invitation to Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s “fancy dress” ball, scheduled for March 26, 1883, she decided not to settle for a more traditional costume—like a Medieval princess or fairy tale character.

Katefeeringstrongcatcostume

Nope, Miss Strong went as a cat—complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties.

“The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background,” commented the New York Times.

Mrsvanderbilt'schateauThe ball was arguably the most incredible social event of the year, and it also served as kind of a housewarming for the new Fifth Avenue Vanderbilt mansion.

“The bodice is formed of rows of white cats’ heads and the head-dress was a stiffened white cat’s skin, the head over the forehead of the wearer and the tail pendant behind. A blue ribbon with ‘Puss’ inscribed upon it, which hung a bell, worn around the neck completed the dress.”

Here are some of the other outrageous and ostentatious costumes, including the battery-powered “electric light,” worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law.

Snow lions flank the New York Public Library

January 11, 2016

In December 1948, a blizzard (remember those?) covered New York in almost 20 inches of white powder. An army of more than 18,000 men shoveled and plowed the snow as it fell all night.

They must have done a good job, because incredibly, city schools were all open the next morning.

NYPL1948

But they didn’t clear away the snow from the two library lions, Patience and Fortitude, who have been guarding the main entrance of the New York Public Library since 1911.

They look lovely blanketed in snow.

1920s skyscrapers towering over Times Square

December 14, 2015

With so many skyscrapers in the city topping out with more than 70, 80, even 100 floors, the tall buildings shown in this photo of Times Square look pretty puny.

Timessquareaerial

But they impressed New Yorkers at the time, and the caption on the back of the card boasts about them. “This aerial photograph of the Times Square section of New York shows many of the skyscraper office buildings located in the heart of New York,” it reads.

“Among the best known are the Times Building, the Bush Terminal Building, recently completed Loew’s State Theatre, and the famous Hotel Astor on Broadway.”

A New York painter’s magical wintertime city

November 30, 2015

There’s no snow in the forecast just yet. But winter is right around the corner.

And even New Yorkers who have no love for cold weather concede that the city blanketed in snow, especially at twilight illuminated by streetlamps, is magical and enchanting.

Wigginsawinterseveninginny

Guy Carleton Wiggins saw something enchanting about snow too.

An Impressionist painter who was born into an artistic Brooklyn family in 1883, Wiggins created many lovely scenes of a snowy 20th century Manhattan. (Above: “A Winter’s Evening in New York”; below: “The Circle”)

Wigginsthecirclenewyorkcity

He depicted blue-gray skies above snow-dusted horses and carriages, skyscrapers and statues, and masses of pedestrians, huddled under umbrellas or tucking their chins into their necks to stay dry.

The son of painter Carleton Wiggins, Guy Wiggins studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri and found early success. His snow scenes take place at Columbus Circle, along Wall Street, on Fifth Avenue, and at other less recognizable points on the cityscape. (Below: “Brooklyn Bridge in Winter”)

Wiggins452 Wiggins' "Brooklyn Bridge in Winter"

In an interview with the Detroit News (by way of the Rehs Galleries Inc), Wiggins explained how an elevated train chugging through a blizzard outside his studio window inspired his work. (Below: “A Winter Night in New York”)

Wigginsawinternightinny

“One cold, blustering, snowy winter day (1912) I was in my New York studio trying to paint a summer landscape,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins1910“Suddenly I saw what was before me—an elevated railroad track, with a train dashing madly through the whirling blizzard-like snow that made hazy and indistinct the row of buildings on the far side of the street.”

“In a week, so to say, I was established as a painter of city winter scenes, and I found it profitable. Then suddenly I felt a revulsion against them and I stopped. . . . I couldn’t go on with winter stuff and that was all there was to it.”

[Wiggins, 1910]

From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

November 23, 2015

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).

Alvavanderbiltcostumeparty1883

She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)

Alvavanderbiltsuffrageparade1912

Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

A traffic-free Queensboro Bridge in the 1950s

November 16, 2015

It’s officially called the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and since going up in 1909, it’s had other alias, such as the 59th Street Bridge, and the Blackwell’s Island Bridge.

There was even a push to name it the Montauk Bridge (Queensboro sounded too British to some Irish New Yorkers).

queensborobridge

This spot looks close to where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton took in the view in a famous scene from 1979’s Manhattan.

A plane collides with a Macy’s Thanksgiving float

November 9, 2015

Ever since Macy’s added balloon floats to their iconic Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927, mishaps and fails have become regular occurrences.

Tomcatfloatfelix1927

Felix the Cat (above) got tangled in telephone wires that year. Popeye dumped cold rainwater that had collected on his cap onto the crowd in 1957. And poor Kermit the Frog; his head sadly deflated in 1991.

ParadefloatairplaneheadlineBut at least it’s been 83 years since a float was hit by an airplane.

This midair collision happened in 1932 over a heavily populated area of Jamaica, Queens—long after the parade had ended and the helium-filled balloons were released into the sky (the custom in the early 1930s).

Annette Gipson, 22, happened to be at the controls of a biplane with her instructor, flying at 5,000 feet.

TomcatannettegipsonAll of a sudden, the brazen “girl flyer,” as newspapers dubbed Gipson, noticed the 60-foot Tom-Cat balloon coming her way.

“She shouted, ‘I think I’ll have a piece of the neck’ to [her instructor], as she took dead aim at the cat,” reports the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin and sped toward the ground out of control.”

Afraid that the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, Gipson turned off the ignition. “Witnesses in the surrounding neighborhoods, straining their necks to look skyward, gasped as they heard the engine die and saw the plane plummeting to earth.”

Before it did, her instructor managed to take over. As the craft came within 80 feet of rooftops, he got control and was able to land at Roosevelt Field, as planned.

Tomcatfloat

Considering that she almost crash-landed in the middle of Queens, Gipson was nonplussed.

Tomcatheadline2“It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind,” she told reporters who had rushed out to Roosevelt Field to speak to her after they’d been tipped off about her collision.

Gipson went on to become a prominent “aviatrix,” as the newspapers called her, touring the country and hosting headline-grabbing women-only air races at Floyd Bennett Field.


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