Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

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]

A postcard shows off the pretty girls of New York

March 1, 2021

Most of New York City’s vintage postcards feature beautiful sites of the city itself—not Gotham’s beautiful women. But this turn-of-the-century postcard is a strange exception to the rule.

“Pretty girls, pretty girls everywhere, but the New York belles are claimed most fair” reads the caption, with the images of six women, none of whom I recognize but could be actresses of the era.

The inset image of Herald Square is interesting—perhaps it’s pictured because West 34th Street was part of the Theater District at the time, and it was the place to see these and other “New York belles.”

Brick and mortar phantoms of another Manhattan

February 15, 2021

Every year this site does a roundup of ghost buildings—the faded outlines of chimneys, flat or peaked roofs, windows, and staircases that were left behind after a demolition and look like apparitions of New York’s low-rise, walkup past.

They’re spooky reminders of a different city and often easy to see, like this one in Upper First Avenue, probably a four-story tenement, painted in orange. And could that be a second ghost building behind it, a little taller faded in white?

This one is another double ghost building on 44th Street toward Midtown. In red is a peaked roof building, and then one in white a story or two taller.

Here’s an unusual phantom building, looks like two chimneys and a rooftop stairwell exit. It’s on Madison Avenue at about 80th Street, soon to be shrouded forever behind a luxury apartment residence.

Some ghost buildings look like they were violently ripped from their neighbor, like this one on East 47th Street. Are we left behind with an impression of the structural elements that held the building up—or were they added after the building was demolished to help stabilize the one left behind?

Here you can see the stairways, where New Yorkers of days past walked up and down countless times.

Short and square, this one on the Upper East Side doesn’t look like much. But it was home to someone, or some business, and at one time and likely outshined its neighbors back when it was the new kid on the block a century or so ago.

A rich merchant’s wife becomes a Revolutionary War heroine

February 15, 2021

When important people visited New York City in the middle of the 18th century, they often stopped at the spectacular home of Robert and Mary Lindley Murray.

In the colonial-era city, the Murrays were a powerful couple. Robert Murray had immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family from Ireland as a boy; he worked his way up from a mill operator to a wealthy wheat and flour merchant. Mary Lindley Murray was the daughter of Quaker immigrants from Philadelphia.

Married in 1744, they moved to New York City in 1753, according to womeninhistoryblog.com. Nine years later they rented 29 acres far from the city center and built a mansion on an estate they called Inclenberg, Dutch for “beautiful hill,” seen below surrounded by trees on the Ratzer map from 1766.

“The two-story great house was located at what is today Park Avenue and 36th Street,” states womeninhistoryblog.com. “Grand Central Station stands on what was one of the estate’s cornfields.”

Eventually this neck of the woods would be renamed Murray Hill, after the couple and their 11 children; a 1926 plaque on an apartment building at that corner on Park Avenue memorializes Inclenberg (above).

But back to the 18th century city, which in 1776 became a battleground when the War for Independence broke out. Some residents were Loyalists to the British; others considered themselves Patriots and supported the Continental Army.

While Robert Murray reportedly was a Loyalist, Mary’s sympathies went with the Patriots, according to The Murrays of Murray Hill, by Charles Monaghan. And legend has it that she proved her allegiance in September 1776, when British General William Howe came ashore at Kip’s Bay to take on George Washington’s Patriot army.

While Howe and his officers was making his way through Manhattan and Patriot militiamen were retreating to Harlem Heights, Mary invited Howe and his men to her home. With her husband conveniently away, Mary and her daughters entertained their British guests for two hours with lunch and wine to stall them so the Patriots had time to get away. (Above and below images)

“After the catastrophe on Long Island, August 28, 1776, and the affair at Kip’s Bay, the Americans withdrew up the island, time for which retreat being gained, so it is claimed, through the instrumentality of Mary Lindley Murray, who entertained General Howe and his officers at luncheon on September 15, 1776, at her house at present Park Avenue and 36th Street,” wrote Hopper Striker Mott in The New York of Yesterday.

There’s another account of this story that has a slightly different take.

According to the military journal of James Thatcher, an army surgeon, the British army marching up Manhattan to catch up to the Patriots realized “there was no prospect of engaging our troops” and decided to “repair to the home of Mr. Robert Murray, a Quaker and friend of our cause; Mrs. Murray treated them with cake and wine, and they were induced to tarry two hours or more….It has since become almost a common saying among our officers, that Mrs. Murray saved this part of the American army.”

Whatever really happened, General Howe and his men apparently did stop off at the Murray mansion—and the Patriots made their way to Harlem Heights and beyond. The legend was solidified in 1903 when the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque affixed to a boulder in honor of Mary at Park Avenue and 37th Street (above).

[Top image: by the Duskhopper via Cool Chicks From History; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Ratzer Map, 1766; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: Alamy; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL]

An ode to construction workers on a 57th Street Art Deco tower

February 8, 2021

There’s a lot to love about the Fuller Building, the Art Deco-Art Nouveau beauty built in 1929 that rises 40 stories over Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

A few favorites: the black granite facade on the lower floors, geometric designs at the top of the tower, and the medallions on the lobby floor showing various buildings constructed by the Fuller Company, an early developer of steel-skeleton skyscrapers. (These included the Flatiron Building, which was called the Fuller Building when it opened in 1902—but “flatiron” stuck because of the shape of the lot it was built on.)

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this iconic tower sits above the entrance: two idealized and shirtless construction workers flanking a clock while standing in front of a cityscape of skyscrapers.

The sculptures, by Elie Nadelman, seem to be an ode to the men who literally constructed the Fuller Building and other mighty towers that raised New York’s skyline higher toward the heavens in the early 20th century.

It makes sense. The Fuller Company was a construction company that depended on the strength and skill of men in the building trades. Without these workers and advancements in engineering, Manhattan would have remained a low-rise metropolis topping out at six or so stories.

A snowstorm on Broadway in the Theater District

February 1, 2021

Painter John Sloan, born in Philadelphia, moved to New York City in 1904. Throughout his life he depicted scenes of city residents doing everything from dreaming on rooftops to commuting on the elevated to hanging laundry to partying on Election night.

But “The White Way,” from 1927, is the first Sloan painting I’m aware of that shows the action and activity of Broadway’s Theater District, specifically at 53rd Street. It belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states this about Sloan’s New York subjects and this work in particular:

“The bustling city streets and crowded tenements supplied the artist with stimulating new subject matter, as seen in this work, which depicts bundled-up pedestrians on a snowy evening at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-Third Street. Recalling the chilly evening in which he sketched this scene, Sloan later commented, “The realization of my surroundings had been frozen in my memory, but I feel that my suffering has been compensated for.”

A site called The Art Story has this comment: “The inspiration for this work was made from a sketch he actually drew in the freezing cold, capturing the atmosphere and energy of a spontaneous moment. While the subject of city life had been a recurring theme for Sloan, this later work celebrated the city as bright and dynamic, with less attention on the individual experience than his earlier Ashcan School paintings. The work is more observational in nature, rendered in a lighter palette and looser brushstrokes that gives it a more impressionistic feel. This represented a general shift in Sloan’s work; soon after this painting was finished, he would shift much of his attention to landscape paintings, portraits, and nudes.”

The nude statue outside Alice Vanderbilt’s window

January 25, 2021

In 1916, when the Pulitzer Fountain was completed at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, all of Grand Army Plaza dazzled.

Funded by New York World publisher Henry Pulitzer (who left 50K in his will to create it), the elegant fountain features stepped ornamental basins topped by a shell holding a bronze female figure in the center. The statue represents Pomona, the Greek goddess of abundance.

Like many allegorical female statues, Pomona doesn’t have a stitch on. Holding a basket of fruit, she’s in a slight crouching position, her front facing Central Park and her backside aimed at 58th Street.

And no one seemed to have a problem with that—except, supposedly, the very rich widow living out her days in a 137-room mansion that spanned 57th to 58th Street, and whose bedroom window had a direct view of Pomona’s nude butt.

This wasn’t just any wealthy widow. The mansion (below in 1908, behind the Plaza) was the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, aka Alice Vanderbilt. In the Gilded Age, the family- and charity-focused Alice was considered less ostentatious than her social-climbing sister-in-law, Alva Vanderbilt.

But in her day, Alice also had a full calendar of society events. This mother of seven even wore the best gown to Alva’s famous 1883 masquerade ball: an electric dress that actually lit up thanks to a portable battery pack (below).

Looking out your window and seeing a naked butt every day isn’t the worst thing. But as the story goes, it really bothered Alice.

“One is not surprised to learn that Alice Vanderbilt was indignant when the city fathers permitted the statue of the nude lady surmounting the fountain to present her backside to her bedroom,” wrote Louis Auchincloss in The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age.

In response, Alice reportedly had her bedroom moved across the mansion, so she wouldn’t be subjected to the buttocks of the naked goddess.

Alice would have been 71 when the statue began bubbling water, and she stayed in the mansion until the mid-1920s, eventually relocating to another, more manageable house at One East 67th Street.

In 1927, she sold her 58th Street mansion. A week before it was to be demolished later that year, she had the house opened to the public, “charging fifty cents’ admission to raise money for charity,” wrote Wayne Craven in Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society.

Bergdorf Goodman replaced Alice’s mansion, and the department store still occupies the site today…reportedly with no complaints from customers about Pomona’s butt.

[Third and fourth photos: Wikipedia]

A crowded workday street scene in the 1950 city

January 18, 2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania.

But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a truncated Grand Central Terminal/42nd Street and Park Avenue Viaduct?

See the image closeup here; with such rich details, it’s easy to get lost in it.

[1stdibs.com]

Old Penn Station’s women-only waiting room

January 4, 2021

The original Penn Station, opened in November 1910, had many things: a beautiful, spacious building, arcades for high-end stores, 21 tracks for arriving and departing trains…and separate waiting rooms for men and women.

Huh? I’d never come across this until I found this postcard of the women’s waiting room, via the NYPL Digital Collection. It sounds very strange to contemporary sensibilities, but apparently single-sex options for travelers existed.

“In addition to the main waiting room, there were separate waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and a smoking room off the men’s,” stated Jay Maeder in his 1999 book, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic 1898-1998.

This diagram of the original station shows the upper part of each single-sex waiting room. No word on when these were phased out, if ever, before the old station was torn down in 1963.

Interestingly, the city considered something similar around the same time as Penn Station opened: single-sex subway cars, so women didn’t have to be subjected to “brutes,” as this 1909 New York Times article about the possibility of female-only subway cars called them. That idea was ultimately abandoned.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia]