Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

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).


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.)


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).


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.


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.


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.

Body parts wash ashore the East Side in 1897

October 26, 2015

GuldensuppenackThe upper half of the torso and arms were found first, on June 26, 1897, by boys playing on a pier off East 11th Street.

The rest of the torso came ashore near High Bridge. The legs showed up off the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The body was that of a well-built man who had been alive just a few days before, according to the medical examiner. But who was he?

The gruesome details gripped the tabloids, which investigated the story along with the police.

Clues soon emerged, thanks to tabloid reporters bent on solving the murder—and selling more papers. The man had strangely soft hands, and his body parts were wrapped in a distinctive oil cloth with a red and gold floral pattern.

GuldensuppethornjailDetectives traced the seller of the cloth, who pointed police in the direction of a Danish midwife named Augusta Nack (above).

Workers at the Murray Hill Turkish Baths on 42nd Street identified the body as that of William Guldensuppe, a German masseur.

Guldensuppe was a tenant in a West 39th Street building owned by Nack. Apparently Nack was also living with a barber named Martin Thorn (left), and the three were involved in a love triangle.

By July, police had arrested Nack and Thorn, thanks to a confession Thorn gave to a barber friend.

According to the confession, Guldensuppe had beaten Thorn senseless after he found him in bed with Nack. So Thorn decided to kill his rival by luring him to a house in Queens.

GuldensuppenackjeffersonmarketAfter shooting him in the back of the head with Nack in the house as well, Thorn said that “we threw him into the bath-tub, and while he was breathing heavily I cut off his head with a razor, and stripped the body.”

Thorn sawed the body, put the head in plaster, and wrapped body parts in the oilcloth, then threw everything into the East River while taking the ferry back to Manhattan with Nack.

GuldensuppenacknewspaperIn December 1897, a jury found the couple guilty. On August 2, Thorn was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Nack served 10 years in prison upstate, then fell into obscurity.

This “trial of the century” earned its name not only because of the bloody details—but the way the press inserted themselves into the story and made 1897 a banner year of yellow journalism.

[Top photo: New York Times; second: LOC; third: New York World; fourth:]

Trying to cross bustling Herald Square in 1902

October 19, 2015

Pedestrians, streetcars, horse-drawn wagons, elevated trains . . . getting from one side of Sixth Avenue to the other appears to be tricky at Herald Square just after the turn of the century.


I’m not sure if it’s exactly 1902. That’s the year Macy’s, in the upper left obscured by the Saks building in the center, moved from 14th Street to Herald Square.

And it’s probably not yet 1910, when automobiles began appearing more frequently, and mustaches like the one the man in the gray suit sports were on their way out of style.

Grand Central Station like you’ve never seen it

October 5, 2015

Looking strangely out of place on 42nd Street, this is Grand Central Station (formerly Terminal) in the early 1900s, after a renovation of the original 1871 structure—which had become too small for the growing metropolis.


Grandcentralterminal1871Cornelius Vanderbilt’s red brick terminal with its towering cupolas underwent a French Renaissance remodeling, which added three stories.

In the distance is the Queensboro Bridge, built in 1909. This version of Grand Central wouldn’t last long; it would be knocked down and replaced by the current Beaux-Arts beauty by 1913.

A faded toothpaste ad reappears on 43rd Street

September 14, 2015

Ever heard of Sozodont Toothpaste? Me neither, but in 1859, it was invented by a New Jersey druggist and manufactured by a firm on Washington Street called Hall & Ruckell.


And at some point in the early 1900s, this colorful Sozodont advertisement went up on the side of a stately building on 43rd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, across from Grand Central Terminal.

Toothpastedvanderbiltave2Hidden behind another building for decades, the remarkably well preserved three-story ad finally saw the light of day again thanks to that building’s recent demolition.

Sozodont fell out of favor in the early 20th century; apparently its high alcohol content destroyed enamel and turned teeth yellow.

The ad will probably go into hiding again soon, but what a relic of the early 20th century city!

[Thanks to Rick F. for alerting ENY to this beauty.]

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal

September 7, 2015

Among the loveliness inside Grand Central Terminal—the starry-skied ceiling, the clocks, the chandeliers—are some wonderful architectural mysteries.


One that appears to have been an accident of design is the whispering gallery. It’s on the lower level outside the Oyster Bar, under beautiful original Gustavino tiles on a low domed ceiling.

Face the wall and whisper, and your words can be clearly heard on other side of the 50-foot space—thanks to the way sound waves travel across the vaulted ceiling.


No evidence exists that the whispering gallery was anything more than a “happy coincidence,” says one of the architects who helped restore Grand Central in the 1990s, states this New York Times piece.

But other sources say it must have been intentional.


Rafael Gustavino and his son designed this part of the terminal “based on architectural principles that have been used for centuries worldwide—from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India,” according to New York Curiosities.

[Second image: postcard of the Whispering Gallery before the Oyster Bar was added; New York Times]

Art Deco beauty of an East Side subway entrance

September 3, 2015

Art Deco skyscrapers stand proud like shiny monuments across the Manhattan skyline. But Art Deco subway stations? Those are harder to find.


The lucky commuters who take the E or 6 train at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street get to pass this stylized Art Deco subway entrance.

Thanks to the sleek design and surrounding buildings, it’s always the end of the Jazz Age.


The sign is right outside the General Electric Building (formerly the RCA Victor Building) a 1931 Art Deco beauty, with its decorative bursts along the facade meant to represent the awesome power of radio waves and electricity.

And that wonderful clock, with forearms that stretch time!

The go-go bar of The Odd Couple’s closing credits

August 24, 2015

Remember the opening and closing credits of The Odd Couple? Those scenes serve as a tour of gritty 1970s New York.


Felix, just kicked out of the house by his wife, rests his bags on the sidewalk in front of a blue city bus. Oscar walks into wet cement after watching a girl in a miniskirt cross the street.

And at one point, Oscar looks in the window of topless go-go bar, only to be shooed away by a cop.


Could that topless bar in 1970 be this Toasties sandwich shop on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues today?

It sure looks like it. In fact, there still is an Indian restaurant on the second floor, one that bills itself as the oldest Indian restaurant in New York City. Here’s a look at those entire closing credits.

[Hat tip to Dean at the History Author Show, which should definitely do an Odd Couple tour of New York City in an upcoming podcast.]


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