Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

A tender painter’s mysterious death under the el

December 28, 2020

When George Benjamin Luks’ lifeless body was found in the early morning hours of October 29, 1933 under the gritty elevated train near a doorway at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, newspapers reported that this heralded artist and painter died of a heart attack.

George Benjamin Luks by William Glackens, 1899

“A passing policeman, Patrolman John Ginty of the West 47th Street Station, found him collapsed and summoned an ambulance from Flower Hospital,” stated the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in an article the next day. “The arriving physician found him dead of arterio-sclerosis [sic].”

Supposedly, Luks had left the home he shared with his wife on 28th Street around 6 a.m. and headed uptown to watch the sun rise. This story was confirmed by his brother William, a doctor at the Northern Dispensary on Christopher Street.

Luks’ take on Tammany Hall graft, 1899

“He often took long walks in the early hours,” William Luks said, per a 2015 New York Daily News article, “and it was the way he would have wished to die.”

It sounded possible, perhaps. Since he came to New York from Philadelphia in the late 1890s, Luks gained fame first as an illustrator of comics (he took over as the artist for The Yellow Kid) and political cartoons and then for his poetic street scenes, portraits, and urban landscapes.

The jazz clubs and former speakeasies of 52nd Street, 1945

Luks also gained a reputation as a straight shooter who had no love for the decision makers in the art world, someone who preferred to paint the underdogs of New York’s slums, because ​“down there people are what they are,” he said.

But the details of the death of a 66-year-old artist known to be a gutsy and “swashbuckling” (as the Eagle called him) drinker and fighter would be much more mysterious.

“Children Throwing Snowballs,” 1906

Ira Glackens, son of fellow social realist painter William Glackens and friend of Luks’, supposedly revealed the truth in a 1957 biography of his father.

Luks body was found under the elevated near Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street, as it was originally reported. But heart disease didn’t kill him: a bar fight did.

Under the Sixth Avenue El at about 53rd Street, 1939

In the biography, Ira Glackens said “[Luks] was knocked cold in a barroom brawl” according to the Daily News. This was in the waning days of Prohibition, when several speakeasies in brownstones lined 52nd Street, aka “Swing Street.”

“The illegal joint could hardly report a drunken row, so Luks—dead or nearly so—probably was carried to the spot where cops found him,” states the Daily News.

George Luks, 1910

Is the barroom death story the right one? We’ll likely never know. But it might be the story Luks himself would have preferred—a tough yet tender artist who went down swinging. He’s a favorite of this site; see more of his work here.

[First image: National Portrait Gallery; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1933; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.6064; fifth image: niceartgallery.com; sixth image: MCNY X2010.7.1.18346; seventh image: Wikipedia]

A Christmas feast at Midtown’s new Hotel Pabst

December 21, 2020

Never heard of the Hotel Pabst? You’re not alone. The nine-story tower with a steel skeleton swathed in limestone only existed from 1899 to 1902—built on the slender triangle formed by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street at Longacre Square.

Hotel Pabst in Longacre Square

Run by the Pabst Brewing Company as part of a short-term effort to acquire hotels, the elegant hostelry at the upper reaches of the city’s theater district and lobster palaces was replaced by the New York Times‘ headquarters in 1904 (and Longacre Square became Times Square).

The spicy cover of the Hotel Pabst’s Christmas menu

The Pabst didn’t last, and no one alive today would remember it. But it needs to be noted that on December 25, 1900, the hotel sure cooked up a spectacular Christmas dinner.

The eye-popping Christmas dinner menu has been preserved by the New York Public Library in their Buttolph Collection of Menus. Between the carte de jour oyster offerings to the 20-plus desserts (plum pudding! Cream puffs!) are a dozen or so courses that must have taken an army of chefs to prepare.

Many of the dishes are the typical heavy fare of a hotel menu in New York of the era: terrapin a la Maryland, quail, stuffed turkey, filet of sole, prime beef, and lamb chops.

There’s a fair number of items borrowed from French menus, which makes sense, as French cuisine was seen as the most elegant at the time.

Some of the dishes are completely foreign to contemporary American tastes, however. Cold game pie, Philadelphia squabs, and reed ducks, anyone?

One thing stands out, though: Christmas dinner at a hotel in 1900 was certainly a feast. By the time you finished your Nesselrode pudding and revived yourself with your Turkish coffee, buttons must have been popping off your clothes!

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.6427; menu: NYPL Buttolph Collection of Menus]

The former lives of a shabby Midtown brownstone

December 14, 2020

When you think of Madison Avenue in Midtown, brownstones don’t generally come to mind. But in the late 19th century, rows of these iconic chocolate-brown houses for the city’s upper classes lined this new residential district in the East 40s, north of posh Murray Hill.

Not many survive today; this stretch of Madison has long been subsumed by commercial buildings. (Below, in the 1920s). But the modest brownstone at number 423, between 48th and 49th Street, is still hanging on.

Madison Avenue at 48th Street, 1925

Hiding behind scaffolding and wedged between two office towers, this ghost of the Gilded Age certainly has stories to tell.

It’s not clear when it went residential to commercial, but by the 1880s it was home to J.H. Morse’s School for Boys—a hint that the neighborhood was probably still overwhelmingly residential and populated by families.

Frank Bruns’ latest delivery wagon in 1912

What kind of school was J.H, Morse’s? It sounds very similar to the prep schools of today’s New York. Run by a Harvard grad, the school’s main purpose was to “prepare boys thoroughly for the best colleges and scientific schools,” according to a 2014 New Republic article.

423 Madison Avenue in 1940, with the vertical Longchamps sign

In the early 1900s, number 423 was a grocery run by Frank Bruns. This grocer made news as an early adapter of gasoline-powered automobile for deliveries. “In 1905 he placed in service a Peerless car fitted with a delivery body, and from his own statement secured more in the way of advertising value than otherwise, though its service was by no means unsatisfactory,” stated The Horseless Age, published in 1912.

By the 1940s, the brownstone had a new life as a Longchamps, a popular Midcentury restaurant chain with several locations around Manhattan. “Named for the race track in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the first elegant Longchamps opened in 1919, and by the 1950’s there were 10 in Manhattan, most clustered around midtown,” states the New York Times FYI column in 1998.

What kind of place was Longchamps? The restaurants typically featured Art Deco style, cooked up dishes like oxtail ragout and crabmeat a la Dewey, and was a decent place to get a drink—seen above in a 1933 Daily News photo showing fashionable New Yorkers sharing a table and enjoying cocktails.

The Longchamps at 423 Madison also had an early neon sign, which went vertically down the side of the brownstone and put a crack in the cornice. Long after the chain moved out in the 1960s (Longchamps went bankrupt by the mid-1970s, according to the Times), the sign remained; Lost City has a photo of it from 2007.

Today, the sign is gone, but the cracked cornice remains. Another local restaurant chain occupies the ground floor. The brownstone’s upper floors are apartments—it’s a residence once again.

Scaffolding keeps us from seeing it all. But you can imagine its former glory as a refined Gilded Age single-family home, likely surrounded by similar brownstones. Some of these still exist in Midtown but tend to be obscured by taller buildings, as 423 is.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: New York Times 1888; fourth image: The Horseless Age; fifth and sixth images: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh image: New York Daily News, 1933]

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

A mystery manhole cover on a Midtown block

November 30, 2020

East 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has a history. This stable block became the center of the city’s trotting activity in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, it was home to hotels, clubs, and Delmonico’s on the Fifth Avenue end.

So it follows that this distinguished street would have an unusual manhole cover on the sidewalk on the south side—one that was probably quite pretty a century ago, with glass inside the many holes arranged in a six-sided mystery shape.

Gerard Iron Works is the maker, and this is the first time I’ve seen this ironworks company’s name on a manhole cover in the city. The address is 157th Street and Gerard Avenue…which would place this manufacturer in the Bronx.

Gerard Iron Works may not have lasted long on Gerard Avenue. It looks like by 1916, the company had moved to Nassau County, per a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

A Gilded Age mansion traded for a pearl necklace

November 23, 2020

In 1905, Fifth Avenue gained a new mansion. Businessman and baseball team owner Morton F. Plant, the son of a railroad, steamship, and hotel baron, commissioned a marble and limestone showstopper at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.

When Plant moved in to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion facing 52nd Street (above and below left) with his first wife, Nellie, he should have felt satisfied with his decision to build it here.

After all, his neighbors were among the wealthiest New Yorkers, including several Vanderbilts, who occupied their own mansions across the street. (Plant bought the land from William K. Vanderbilt; previously it was the site of an orphan asylum, according to a 2019 Bloomberg article by Jack Forster.)

Within a few years, though, Plant apparently realized he’d made a mistake.

An increasing number of businesses were creeping up to his stretch of Fifth Avenue (like the St. Regis Hotel and Gotham Hotels at 55th Street), ruining the exclusive, residential vibe.

One of those new Fifth Avenue businesses was the American outpost for Cartier, the French jewelers. In 1909, Pierre Cartier launched his first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, near 56th Street, wrote Christopher Gray in The New York Times in 2001.

Business was good for Cartier, which organized workshops in the city to meet the demand for their jewelry, states Forster. (Selling the Hope diamond in 1910 also helped from a PR standpoint, raising the jeweler’s Manhattan profile.)

But back to Plant (at right) and his mansion, which was increasingly out of character on a more commercialized Fifth Avenue. In 1914 he’d remarried a much younger woman, Maisie (above center). The two found themselves left behind as neighbors moved away and businesses replaced them. 

“By 1917, life on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street (at left, in 1900) had long since become untenable for Plant,” wrote Forster. “The ongoing encroachment of businesses, combined with the removal of virtually all the families who’d once colonized the Avenue below Central Park to new addresses north of 59th Street, had left the Plants isolated both physically and socially. Plant had already begun work, the year before, on a new and even bigger residence, on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue (below right).”  

Paying for two Fifth Avenue mansions, however, was quite costly, even for a scion of wealth. But then, Maisie caught a look at a Cartier pearl necklace. “It’s really two necklaces: a double strand of enormous, natural South Sea pearls; the smaller is a strand of 55 pearls and the larger, of 73,” wrote Forster. The necklace’s value: $1 million.

“When Maisie Plant fell in love with the natural, oriental pearl necklace, Pierre Cartier sensed an opportunity,” states a 2016 article by Business Insider. “Pierre, the savvy businessman, proposed the deal of a lifetime: He offered to trade the double-strand necklace of the rare pearls —and $100—for the Plants’ New York City home.” (The house was assessed at $925,000.)

In July 1917, an article appeared in the Real Estate Record and Guide announcing the sale of the Plant mansion on 52nd Street to Cartier for “$100 and other valuable considerations,” according to Forster. (At left, in 1975)

It’s an unusual deal, but definitely a win-win. Plant unloaded his first mansion by trading it in to Cartier for a necklace his wife desired, then moved uptown in a more luxurious house on the city’s new Millionaires’ Mile. (Cartier also absorbed the elegant residence next door at 4 East 52nd Street, the Holbrook House.)

Cartier has occupied Plant’s mansion on 52nd Street ever since. The exterior looks very much the same as it did in Plank’s day, though the interior has been altered somewhat.

I tried to get in to take a look around but the line to enter was too long; I’d forgotten it’s jewelry-buying season—when Cartier wraps the building up in a big red bow to celebrate the holidays.

But I did spot this modest plaque marking the mansion’s past as a short-lived residence built on a street destined to become a commercial corridor. 

Morton Plant died in 1918, shortly after moving into his 86th Street mansion. When Maisie passed away in 1957, the mansion was bulldozed and her pearls went to auction, where they were sold for $181,000.

Where are they today? No one knows. But a portrait of Maisie wearing them (above portrait) hangs in the Cartier store today, wrote Forster.

[Top photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.221; second photo: NYPL; third image: by Claudia Munro Kerr based on portrait by Alphonse Junger; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.4753; sixth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.366]

 

The seedier side of Broadway by a 1930s painter

October 19, 2020

Cigarette ads, a burlesque house, a struggling theater, a flea circus and freak show (likely Hubert’s Museum): If you visited 42nd Street on the west side of Broadway at Times Square in 1932, this is what you’d find.

“42nd Street West of Broadway” was painted that year by Edmund Yaghjian, an Armenian immigrant who depicted daytime scenes of the 1930s cityscape and nocturnes that showcased the Depression-era Art Deco feel of the New York at the time.

After studying and then teaching at the Art Students League, Yaghjian took a teaching job in 1942 that forced him to leave Gotham for South Carolina, according to The Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, SC.

His New York City, the city of almost 90 years ago, is on view online at Artnet.

A sidewalk relic of the Hotel Carter’s better days

September 21, 2020

The Hotel Carter has been closed for months now—for good or because of a renovation, I’m not sure.

The infamous West 43rd Street hostelry, named the dirtiest hotel in America several times by TripAdvisor and the site of numerous suicides and a few horrific murders during its 90-year history (including this one in 2007), is currently hidden from view by scaffolding.

Sticking out on the sidewalk, however, is a Hotel Carter icon I’d never noticed before: this sidewalk sign—with the Carter name spelled out in script, a signifier that this is a hotel of class and taste.

Of course, the Hotel Carter was neither of these, at least in its later incarnation. Opened in 1930 as the Hotel Dixie (complete with its own basement bus station, see the sign for it at the far right in the photo below), the place was designed for business travelers who needed to be in the Times Square area.

The owners went bankrupt not long after that; the hotel changed hands over the years. The bus depot closed in 1957, unable to compete with the new Port Authority Bus Station around the corner on Eighth Avenue.

Rechristened the Hotel Carter in 1976, the hotel became largely a welfare hotel in the 1980s, though by 1984 it was so dangerous and decrepit, the city stopped sending people there, according to a 1989 Daily News article.

The Carter began attracting travelers again in the 1990s and 2000s, many of whom left illustrious scathing reviews (and photos of their bedbug-bitten skin).

Whatever becomes of the Carter, the wonderful vertical Hotel Carter sign is currently visible through the scaffolding.

Walk by and look up at it…and then down at the logo embedded in the sidewalk. If the Carter has a date with the wrecking ball soon, at least the sidewalk sign might stick around.

[Top image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

Only one of these Gilded Age buildings still stands

September 14, 2020

Between the late 19th century and World War I, about 70 opulent (and sometimes absurdly ostentatious) mansions were built on the mile and half strip between East 59th and 90th Streets, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By World War II, many had been demolished; wealthy New Yorkers were now favoring apartment houses instead of single-family dwellings. By the 1970s, almost all of these monuments of Gilded Age money were leveled.

The view in this turn-of-the-century postcard looks up Fifth Avenue at 60th Street. It only captures a few blocks, but not one of the mansions in the postcard still stands. (I sure wish the lavish Elbridge T. Gerry Mansion, the second one in the row, was not bulldozed…it’s wild!)

But one building in the postcard is still with us today—the headquarters of the Metropolitan Club, the stately, refined building in the foreground on the right. (At left, in 1898)

Formed in 1891 with J.P. Morgan as its first president, the Metropolitan Club consisted of New York’s major male movers and shakers. They built this Stanford White-designed clubhouse in 1893.

Exclusive clubs for power brokers and titans of industry might seem a little silly to contemporary city residents. But the Gilded Age was the great era of private clubs.

Joining the Knickerbocker Club, the Metropolitan Club, or the Union Club gave elite men a place to dine, network, and rub elbows in a comfortable space away from the office. (Clubs for elite women popped up in the early 20th century as well, like the Colony Club and the Cosmopolitan Club.)

The Metropolitan Club still exists, though now women can become members. The building extends east along 60th Street, a restrained emblem of Gilded Age society on a very different millionaires’ row. (Above, another view up Fifth Avenue, 1896)

[Postcard: MCNY F2011.33.1749; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.2910; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17065]

An elegy for Lord and Taylor—and its tea rooms

August 31, 2020

After Lord & Taylor opened its new Italian Renaissance–inspired flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street in February 1914, the legendary department store continued its reputation as a retail pioneer.

The store was built with its own electricity generator and concert hall, and in 1916, the beloved holiday windows made their debut. Later, extra mirrors were added to selling floors and dressing rooms—something now totally standard for a department store—so customers had a better view of themselves and the merchandise.

But one feature Lord & Taylor installed in the new building was definitely more old school: the in-store tea room.

Tea rooms and dining areas could be found in many stores on Ladies Mile—the trapezoid shaped enclave between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets where Gilded Age women could shop, mingle, and enjoy each other’s company as they partook in the era’s consumerism. (Lord & Taylor built a magnificent store on this strip in 1870 at Broadway and 20th Street.)

As the city marched northward and department stores like Lord & Taylor relocated to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue, they brought their dining areas and tea rooms with them.

What’s so special about a department store tea room? It may sound strange to our sensibilities today, but even after the turn of the last century, women didn’t dine alone in restaurants.

The presence of a solo woman who simply wanted to rest and get a bite to eat after browsing the latest fashions might suggest she had illicit motives for being there.

And she certainly couldn’t sit at a saloon; bars were all-male preserves, and proper women didn’t drink (at least not in public).

But women shoppers needed a place to rest and refuel, especially since shopping had become something of a leisure activity, and it was one of the few activities women could do without being escorted by men.

To fill the void were confectionaries and tea rooms, some of which were inside a department store itself.

These menus from Lord & Taylor’s in-store tea room, from 1914 and 1917, can give you an idea of what (mainly) female shoppers, in groups or on their own, dined on during their shopping trips.

Much of the fare is light, and all of it non-alcoholic. Coup Julia Marlowe sound very early 1900s; she was a famous actress of the time with a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive.

The tea rooms are gone, as is the 38th Street Lord & Taylor store. This week comes news that the company—which has its roots in a humble dry goods store opened on today’s Lower East Side in 1824—is going out of business for good.

If Lord & Taylor’s time has come, we’ll have to accept it—while remembering that in big and small ways, the store helped shape shopping habits in the late 19th and early 20th city.

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]