Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

The modest 1924 beginning of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade

November 22, 2021

New Yorkers know what to expect from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: towering balloon characters, marching bands, elaborate floats, and Santa Claus waving from his sleigh as the procession inches from Central Park West and 77th Street to Macy’s iconic Herald Square store.

It’s a beloved holiday tradition, but it’s notably different than the much more humble inaugural parade Macy’s held in 1924.

For starters, though the first parade was held on November 27—which was Thanksgiving Day in 1924—Macy’s called it a Christmas Parade. Store employees apparently came up with the idea.

“Earlier that year, a group of Macy’s employees who were largely first-generation immigrants had asked the company to put on a parade to celebrate two things: The upcoming Christmas season, and the pride they felt in their new country,” according to Better Homes & Gardens.

Macy’s corporate leaders may have liked the idea for another reason. “Macy’s hoped its ‘Christmas Parade’ would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast,” wrote history.com.

The first parade took a much longer route, starting at Convent Avenue and 145th Street and making its way to the flagship Macy’s on 34th Street. Opened in 1902 after Macy’s long reign on the 14th Street end of Ladies Mile, the massive shopping mecca was a mere 22 years old at the time.

Macy’s took out newspaper ads to let New York know about the parade, promising a “marathon of mirth,” per history.com. That tagline was often used to advertise vaudeville shows, and indeed, the first parade had something of a vaudeville-like feel. (Below, the small ad the Brooklyn Eagle ran announcing the upcoming parade.)

“While the parade route may not have extended over 26 miles, its 6-mile length certainly made for a long hike for those marching from Harlem to Herald Square,” the site continued. “The spectators who stood four and five people deep, however, could watch it all in just a matter of minutes since the modest street pageant stretched the length of only two city blocks.”

What about the entertainment? The parade had no balloon floats yet, but three floats pulled by horses were themed around Mother Goose characters, such as Little Miss Muffet (second photo). Macy’s employees also dressed up as clowns, cowboys, princesses, and knights, lending the parade a circus-like, stage show aura.

Animals were also featured, conveniently borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. “Live animals including camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys were part of the parade that inaugural year,” stated a 2011 New York Daily News piece.

While Santa Claus was at the rear of the parade, he didn’t disappear once the procession ended on 34th Street. “By noontime, the parade finally arrived at its end in front of Macy’s Herald Square store where 10,000 people cheered Santa as he descended from his sleigh,” wrote history.com.

Once he emerged from his sleigh, the site explained that Santa “scaled a ladder and sat on a gold throne mounted on top of the marquee above the store’s new 34th Street entrance near Seventh Avenue.”

Though the parade wasn’t widely covered the next day in the papers (above, a grainy photo from the Daily News of the parade on Broadway), it was a smashing success. Macy’s was so pleased, they vowed to do it again on Thanksgiving 1925.

In the 1920s it became an annual event, but not without big changes. The zoo animals were replaced by balloon floats (above, in 1926) and then actual balloon characters as we know them today. Felix the Cat was the first one, in 1927; unfortunately Felix collided with an electrical wire in New Jersey in 1931 and was no more.

The parade route was shortened, the crowds got huge, balloons were no longer released into the air after the parade ended, and the first TV broadcast in 1947 turned it into a national celebration marking the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

[Top photo: Macy’s via bhg.com; second and third photos: Macy’s; fourth image: newspapers.com; fourth and fifth images: newspapers.com; sixth and seventh images: Macy’s]

The understated war memorials inside a private Central Park South club

November 8, 2021

The New York Athletic Cub on Central Park South might sound like a strange place to honor Veterans Day. But if the doormen let you take a look around this “Italian Renaissance Palazzo style” club founded in 1868, wander through the cavernous lobby.

On the right amid the club chairs and lounge areas is an entire wall with a plaque dedicated to the New York Athletic Club members who served in World War II. Within the plaque is a list of men who make up their “honored dead.”

World War II isn’t the only war worthy of a memorial. Besides the WWII wall are smaller plaques honoring those who died in Korea and Vietnam.

To my knowledge, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t have their own monuments inside the building—which opened in 1930 at Seventh Avenue on the former site of the magnificent circa-1880s Navarro Flats, one of the city’s most spectacular apartment complexes.

But there is a plaque commemorating the event that started those wars, listing the names of club members who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

From brownstones to business: 3 centuries on a West 57th Street block

November 7, 2021

New York City developers went on a brownstone-building frenzy from the 1860s and 1880s. Block upon uptown block began teeming with these iconic row houses that first symbolized luxury but eventually were derided for their mud-brown monotony.

West 57th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenue was one such brownstone block. Here it is around 1890, about the time when this fashionable stretch south of Central Park was home to wealthy residents with names like Roosevelt, Auchincloss, and Sloane, according to Edward B. Watson in New York Then and Now.

Interrupting the low-rise block are church spires. “The church with the tall spire between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is the Calvary Baptist Church, built in 1883,” wrote Watson. Beyond the Sixth Avenue El is the 11-story Osborn apartment building, constructed in 1885, and the faint spire of the wonderfully named Church of the Strangers.

What’s not in the photo on the right at the corner of Fifth Avenue extending all the way to 58th Street is the Alice Vanderbilt mansion—where the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II lived until the 137-room Gilded Age relic was torn down in 1927 (above, in 1894, with brownstones looming on the left).

Fast forward 85 years to the 1970s. In the 1975 photo of the same block (below), West 57th’s days as a stylish residential enclave were mostly over.

Brownstones were bulldozed in favor of tall commercial buildings, including the curved reflective glass tower at Number 9 (completed in 1973, per Watson). The Sixth Avenue El is just a memory.

And though luxury residences like the Osborn survived (visible at the way far left, I believe, if you really squint), few brownstones made it. One in the photo to the right of the reflective glass tower is 7 West 57th Street. This is the former home of financier and philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn, according to Watson, though the facade has undergone a redesign.

Lewisohn might best be remembered as the man who funded CUNY’s Lewisohn Stadium between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues from 136th to 138th Streets, which met the bulldozer in 1973.

Here’s the same stretch of West 57th Street today, with traffic, glassy towers, and many empty spaces where brownstones and other lower-rise buildings used to be.

Bergorf-Goodman has long since taken the place of the Vanderbilt mansion at the corner of Fifth, Lewisohn’s home is either swathed in black glass or gone altogether, and supertall luxury condos stretch higher than the ambitious builders of the Osborn could have imagined.

[Top photo: New York Then and Now; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: Edmund V. Gillon, Jr/New York Then and Now]

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]