Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

The most tragic day of Teddy Roosevelt’s life

February 8, 2016

TRdiaryfeb14At the beginning of 1884, everything seemed to be going Theodore Roosevelt’s way.

The 25-year-old Harvard graduate, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family with deep roots in New York City, had already written an acclaimed first book, The Naval War of 1812.

He’d also been elected to the state assembly and was making a name for himself as an energetic and outspoken Republican who wouldn’t tolerate financial corruption.

His personal life was going spectacularly as well. In 1880 he had married the tall, willowy girl of his dreams, Alice Hathaway Lee (below).

Roosevelt was crazy in love with Lee and ecstatic that after a year of courtship she agreed to marry him.

AlicehathawayleefullOn a sleigh ride near her family home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, after they had become engaged, “the horse plunging to his belly in the great drifts, and the wind cutting my face like a knife,” Roosevelt gushed about his love in his diary.

“My sweet wife was just as lovable and pretty as ever; it seems hardly possible that I can kiss her and hold her in my arms; she is so pure and so innocent, and so very, very pretty,” he wrote on February 3, 1880.

“I have never done anything to deserve such good fortune.”

Roosevelt’s political career would continue to soar. He became New York’s police commissioner, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, state governor, U.S. vice president, and then, thanks to an anarchist’s bullet, the nation’s president in 1901.

But before his political career would hit the national stage, fate would cut short this personal happiness.

TRportrait1881Three years after he wrote that diary entry, on February 12, 1884, Roosevelt’s wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in Roosevelt’s parents’ home at 6 West 57th Street, where they had been staying.

But the joy of a first child was short-lived. In another room, Roosevelt’s beloved mother, Mittie (below), was dying of typhus.

Lee’s health had also turned grave. One floor above Mittie, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was battling an undiagnosed kidney disorder. Roosevelt went from room to room, but there was little he could do.

Both women died on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

In his diary that day, Roosevelt (above, in 1881) drew a large X. “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote. The two Mrs. Roosevelts, one aged 22 and the other 48, were laid to rest at a double funeral at Green-Wood cemetery.

TRmittieroosevelt3“Her baby was born and on February 14 she died in my arms,” wrote Roosevelt on February 17.

“As my mother had died in the same house, on the same day, but a few hours previously. . . . For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.”

Two years later, Roosevelt would marry childhood playmate Edith Carow and have five more children, and by all accounts a very happy family life.

[Diary page: Library of Congress]

Evel Knievel jumps across Madison Square Garden

February 8, 2016

EvelknievelmsgAnyone who was a kid in the 1970s remembers Harley-riding daredevil Evel Knievel—and the avalanche of toys and action figures that hit TV and toy stores in the wake of his popularity.

His biggest stunts took place out West. But in July 1971, he brought his act to Madison Square Garden, which was hosting something called the Auto Thrill Show.

At the Garden, Evel revved his bike, sailed off a ramp, and cleared 10 cars. It wasn’t a record; only 10 cars could fit in the space he had in the arena (viewable here via YouTube).

The New Yorker covered the jump in the July 24 issue: “The ice-cream hawkers and the guards stand in the exits, watching. The audience moves to the edge of its seats,” reported The New Yorker.

Evelknievelmadisonsquaregardennydn

“Knievel’s Harley can be heard, and then suddenly he is tearing out of the wings—a flash of white suit and gleaming white helmet—and up the ramp, and he is free; he is in the air, standing over his motorcycle, flying in a graceful arc over the ten automobiles; and he lands smoothly, halfway down the far ramp, and is almost instantly out of sight again in the wings.

“The crowd roars, screams, cheers, applauds, and then Knievel rides back into the arena, one arm raised to receive the wild adulation of the crowd. The challenge has been met one more time.”

[Second photo: Dan Farrell/New York Daily News]

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.


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