Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

April 17, 2017

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

The lost ritual of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade

April 14, 2017

It started as an informal promenade in the 1870s, when New York’s most prestigious churches—like St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas, both on Fifth Avenue—began decorating their interiors with beautiful floral displays in honor of Easter.

Churchgoers dressed in their Easter Sunday best would visit different houses of worship to admire the flowers, explains author Leigh Eric Schmidt in Consumer Rites.

By the 1880s, this post-service visiting transformed into a loosely structured parade, with the fashionable and well-to-do strolling in the early afternoon on Easter Sunday up and down Fifth Avenue, from Madison Square to Central Park.

New Yorkers loved the spectacle. “Fashion bursting from its sack-cloth and adorning itself in new and beautiful garments,” the New York Times front page read on April 11, 1887, the day after Easter.

“Everybody and his cousin were on the pavement yesterday. For was it not Eastertide, Fifth Avenue’s brilliant day of days in all the length of the year?”

The Easter Parade was partly a ritual shaking off the chill of winter, but it was also the Gilded Age version of a fashion show, with Fifth Avenue sidewalks as the runways.

“The men were all in sober black save when at times the irreverent dude lit up the street with a gridiron shirt and a sonorous necktie,” the Times continued.

“But the ladies? They were as a flock of butterflies that, for a time locked within the church, had fluttered outward far and wide to try the Springtime sunlight on their glittery wings.” (You have to love that 19th century journalistic style.)

While you can’t tell from the black and white photos, these female parade-goers were decked out coats and dresses covering every color of the rainbow.

The crowds moved at a crawl all afternoon, dissipating as the temperature rose only to swell again in later in the day as the sun began to set, the Times reported.

“[As] the crowd reappeared, and hour after hour, the well dressed, motley pilgrims from all the wealthy quarters of a great city sauntered slowly along, from Delmonico’s to the Park . . .”

“[And] when night fell tailor and milliner had no cause to complain that full publicity had not been given to the long-studied creations of their fruitful hands.”

New York actually still has an official Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, and it’s open to everyone, not just the upper crust.

But it doesn’t command the attention it did until the 1940s and 1950s, when the tradition was mostly replaced—by real spring fashion shows, egg hunts, and the beloved New York tradition of long Sunday brunch.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the humble beginnings of New York’s favorite holidays.

[Top photo: LOC/Bain Collection; second photo: MCNY 90.28.51; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18452; fourth photo: LOC/Bain Collection; fifth photo: MCNY 2010.11.10601; sixth photo: LOC/Bain Collection

This mosaic in the Waldorf Astoria will be missed

February 27, 2017

waldorfpostcardWhen it opened on Park Avenue in 1931, the Waldorf Astoria was the most incredible hotel New York had ever seen: 2,200 rooms, several restaurants and ballrooms, even a private railway platform.

In a few days, this dowager hotel will close up shop for a long renovation designed to turn it into a residence of mostly condos, not by-the-night rooms.

There’s a lot that will be missed, like the Art Deco ambiance and the bronze lobby clock with a gilded Lady Liberty on top.

But perhaps the most impressive feature no one will see for a couple of years at least is the 18-foot mosaic that’s welcomed visitors since 1939.

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Titled “Wheel of Life” and made with 148,000 hand-cut marble tiles from all around the world, the mosaic depicts life from birth until death. It’s the work of French artist Louis Rigal.

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“Wheel of Life,” which is currently in the running for landmark status, isn’t your ordinary hotel lobby curiosity. It tells a story and has something to say about innocence, struggle, love and the rest of the human existence.

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Imagine all the millions of visitors who walked over it and perhaps really looked at it over the decades. See it in full on video here.

A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal

February 20, 2017

jameshazenhydeportraitNew York has always been home to young men like James Hazen Hyde.

Handsome, cultured, and—as the heir to the Equitable Life Assurance Society—incredibly rich, Hyde was one of the brash young men Gilded Age newspapers couldn’t wait to gush about, and then tear apart, at the turn of the 20th century.

A Harvard graduate who loved art and French culture, he lived in his own brownstone at Nine East 40th Street and had his clothes hand-made in Paris.

Hyde raced “four-in-hand” coaches (four-horse carriages) with his friend Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and he dated President Theodore Roosevelt’s equally social daughter Alice.

hazenballgreenjacketHyde wasn’t publicity shy; he even commissioned a French painter to do his portrait (above), which gave him a royal air and showing off his dark Lothario-like looks.

He also enjoyed a good party. In 1905, Hyde threw what could be described as the most spectacular ball of the century: “a French 18th century–themed costume party for which he would be known all of his life,” wrote Patricia Beard in After the Ball.

The ball was held at posh Fifth Avenue society haunt Sherry’s on January 31. At 10:30 p.m., 600 guests were received in a two-story ballroom transformed to look like the gardens of Versailles. Invitees “wore costumes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and jewels that had belonged to empresses,” stated Beard.

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Society writers heralded the event the next day in all the papers. “James H. Hyde Gives Splendid Costume Fete,” wrote the New York Times, printing the names of notable guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with a description of what costume they wore.

hydeballmcny93-1-19504But all the press attention from the ball led to his downfall. Though Hyde had a majority share in the Equitable company, he was to become president when he turned 30, which would happen in 1906.

Prominent board members who already wanted Hyde out of the company decided to use the publicity surrounding the ball to charge that he was “too frivolous to run a company,” explained New York History blog.

Rumors spread that he spent Equitable money to fund the ball, among other examples of sleazy business practices. Policy holders got angry, and New York State investigated.

hydeportraitsittingdownIn December 1905, with his reputation ruined (though he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing), Hyde took off for France.

He sold his Long Island estate, carriages, private rail car, and his majority share in the company his father founded and bequeathed to him.

He lived in France until 1941, when he returned to New York, “still attracting attention when he walked along Fifth Avenue in his cape and spats,” wrote Beard.

He died in 1959, dapper and wealthy but in obscurity, donating much of his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverHyde’s extravagant, excessive ball and the subsequent scandal make a fitting coda for the end of the Gilded Age . . . which is explored in depth and illustrated lavishly in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Third photo: MCNY; 93.1.1.20208; fourth photo: MCNY; 93.1.19504]

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

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Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

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Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

The $20 million jewel in Grand Central Terminal

February 6, 2017

brassclockwikiSince Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, “meet me under the clock” has always meant one place: the magnificent four-faced brass timepiece on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

This iconic clock isn’t Grand Central largest or most commanding. That might be the Tiffany clock on the 42nd Street facade, the largest stained-glass Tiffany clock in the world.

But the “golden” concourse clock, as it was called in a 1954 New York Times story about the clock’s restoration, might be the most valuable, to the tune of $20 million.

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It’s not the brass that makes it so pricey. The four 24-inch wide faces are made out of opal glass.

grandcentralclocktwilightThat, as well as its history and the workmanship of the clock (built by plainly named Self-Winding Clock Company of Brooklyn!) have reportedly led appraisers from Sotheby’s and Christie’s to value it at $10-$20 million.

The clock also features an acorn on top—a symbol representing the motto of the Vanderbilt family (they built Grand Central, of course): “from a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Holdout buildings that escaped the wrecking ball

February 6, 2017

If most developers had their way, contemporary New York’s skyline would probably consist of an unbroken chain of modern monoliths reaching into the sky.

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Luckily, thanks to real estate owners who refused to sell their smaller-scale carriage houses, tenements, and humble 19th century walkups, the cityscape is filled with lovely low-rise reminders of a very different Gotham.

The slender, circa-1893 beauty (above) at 249 West End Avenue beat the wrecking ball because the widow who occupied it refused to sell—even as the four identical homes on either side of hers were demolished in the 1920s, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

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Streeteasy says that this dollhouse-like carriage house (above) at 407 Park Avenue was built in 1910. The tie shop on the ground floor is dwarfed by its Midtown neighbors.

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This wide, four-story yellow row house was probably the prettiest home on East 57th Street near Sutton Place when it was built. Now, it’s sandwiched between two handsome apartment towers.

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Also on East 57th Street but closer to Midtown are these two very typical 19th century tenements, nestled inside a 1960s white brick apartment house.

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This little red charmer on West Broadway looks like it comes from the 19th century. According to Streeteasy, it was actually built in 1950. That’s okay—it keeps the two modern monsters on either side of it at a nice distance apart.

Finding beauty and poetry in a cold, snowy city

January 30, 2017

Not a fan of the chilly wet days that characterize a New York winter? Let these shimmering images from Saul Leiter of the city in the 1950s and 1960s give you a different perspective.

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Leiter, a longtime East Village resident who died in 2013 at age 89, was one of Gotham’s greatest (and mostly unheralded) street photographers, capturing the color of the mid-century metropolis in a subdued, tender glow.

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His soft-focus photos show us seemingly random, ordinary street scenes: pedestrians at a newsstand, a worker taking a break on the sidewalk, the visual poetry of people and buildings reflected in glass, around corners, and through a misty lens.

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Perhaps his most evocative photos showcase New York during wintertime. In a season when shades of gray typically mark the sky and sidewalks, Leiter’s camera manages to draw out the magnificent colors of the winter city.

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Yellow taxis, red umbrellas, and the white and red signage on a city bus contrast with snowed-in and rained-out streets.

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“I may be old-fashioned,” Leiter says in a 2014 documentary about his art and life, In No Great Hurry. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

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He found that beauty in the slush, snowfall, and puddles of New York’s anonymous streets.

The brick and mortar ghosts all over Manhattan

January 16, 2017

The history of New York City is written on its walls—the walls of apartment houses and commercial buildings still standing, bearing the faded outline of those that met the bulldozer long ago.

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These phantom buildings are on every block (above, Fourth Avenue and 1oth Street), especially in today’s city with its constant renovation and rebuilding—what Walt Whitman called “knock down and pull over again spirit.”

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The roofs of these faded ghosts are often slanted and peaked—hints that a Federal-style house or stable once existed there. I’m guessing this outline on 11th Avenue in the west 20s, above, was a stable.

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Many of the outlines resemble the shells of tenements. This phantom at Rector Street, above, is likely all that remains of an anonymous tenement where generations of New Yorkers lived and raised families.

ghostbuildinglafayettestreet

The ghost building on Great Jones Street near Lafayette Street above, with what appears to be the outline of three chimneys, looks too short to be a tenement. Probably just a walk-up with a couple of flats per floor.

ghostbuilding3rdavemountsinai

The painted-white outline here on Third Avenue in Gramercy could have been a single family home, similar to the one on the left side of the photo hidden behind scaffolding.

ghostbuilding57thstreet

On West 57th Street a lonely tenement bears the remains of its neighbor, which had what looks like a central chimney or rooftop exit door.

ghostbuildingwestside

Is this the ghost of another stable or carriage house? It’s on the far West Side around 42nd Street, where the city’s last remaining working stables are.

Happy 1969 from a Diamond District drugstore

December 30, 2016

For decades, Jack May’s was a standard Manhattan neighborhood pharmacy on 48th Street in the middle of the Diamond District (PLaza 7!).

jack-mays

The store had customer service in mind when they printed up this handy calendar covering all 12 months of 1969.

Of course, it worked as a bookmark too—it was found inside a crumbling Dostoyevsky paperback. My guess is that the pharmacist was reading it between filling prescriptions.