Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

An Upper West Side apartment house’s facade of flowers

July 18, 2022

The 18-story brick apartment residence at 40 West 86th Street was designed by J.M. Felson, and like so many prewar buildings in New York City, it’s a study in classic, if understated, elegance.

But this seemingly staid apartment house has something that gives it a little sparkle. Spread out on the facade of the lower floors are colorful terra cotta florals. The bright green hues, the curlicues of the petals—these panels are the perfect motifs for a lush, humid New York summer.

The geometric stillness in a Precisionist painter’s view near Avenue A

July 14, 2022

Niles Spencer was a Rhode Island-born painter who moved to New York City in 1916. “The lively intellectual milieu of Greenwich Village was in its heyday, and Spencer was exposed to many of the radical theoreticians and personalities of the time, who encouraged him to begin working in new directions,” stated New York City’s Forum Gallery.

“Deeply influenced by Cézanne’s faceted explorations of landscape and still life, Spencer’s paintings began to focus on the geometry of architectural shapes and how they related to their landscape.”

The painting above, “Near Avenue A,” was completed in 1933. The scene reduces what looks like a view from the old Gas House District (where Stuyvesant Town is today) to a “spare dynamic, architectonic composition” per the Forum Gallery.

Spencer is often grouped as a Precisionist painter, a style that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. (George Copeland Ault is another Precisionist whose work can be seen here.) “Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the machine and industry as an exaltation of the dynamism of the future,” wrote the Forum Gallery.

“Near Avenue A” is at the Museum of Modern Art. It captures a scene that’s hard to recognize in the Manhattan of today—but the round gas storage tank in the background places it on the East Side of the 1930s.

Where life in New York City was lived “on the steps”

July 11, 2022

Between the cramped spaces, poor ventilation, and shadowy hallways, life inside a New York City tenement could be hard to bear, especially in warm weather. For relief, people headed to their outside steps: men buried themselves in the newspaper, women rocked babies, small kids played games. In a pre-air conditioned city, front stoops were lively places.

It’s unclear exactly where Ashcan painter George Luks captured this scene outside a rundown building. But he appropriately named the painting “On the Steps”—where much of life played out in New York’s tenement districts.

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.

The long tradition of New York City’s ice cream man

June 16, 2022

Today we have Mister Softee parked all day at playgrounds. In the 1970s, a man with an Italian Ice cart waited beside school bus stops offering small white cups of cherry, raspberry, or lemon for 10 cents. In the midcentury city, the Good Humor truck made the rounds of New York neighborhoods.

And in 1885, the ice cream man was a peddler with a wagon that looked as rundown as the streets he visited. “A summer scene in the streets of New York” the caption reads.

Almost 140 years have passed since the image was published, and the enthusiastic response from city kids after spotting an ice cream vendor hasn’t changed one bit.

[Image: NYPL Digital Collection]

A touch of Art Nouveau on a former Fifth Avenue Gilded Age mansion

June 16, 2022

When Andrew Carnegie decided to build a mansion for himself and his family on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, he told his architects to construct “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York,” according to a 1971 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The mansion, completed in 1903, did not disappoint the industrialist-turned-philanthropist. At four stories and with 64 rooms surrounded on two sides by gardens, it was certainly roomy.

And while modest and plain are in the eye of the beholder, Carnegie’s Georgian-style house displayed more modesty and restraint than many of the pompous marble and stone castles going up on Fifth Avenue at the time.

But even an elegant mansion built in the style of an English country manor is likely to be influenced by the new design trends coming out of Europe at the turn of the century. The glass and iron canopy over the front entrance, with its curvy shape and floral motifs, seems to be a nod to Art Nouveau.

Though it never made a huge splash in New York City, Art Nouveau design prevailed in many European cities in the early 1900s. Buildings, clothing, and objects were designed with graceful, flowing lines and curlicues that mimicked flower stems, petals, and other forms found in nature.

The canopy is described as “Tiffany-style” by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition. Based on early images and the 1910 postcard, above, it appears to be part of the original house Carnegie occupied until his death in 1919. (His wife resided in the home until she passed away in 1946.)

Whether the craftsman who created it was inspired by Art Nouveau or approached it with a different influence, the canopy adds a delightful touch to a Gilded Age mansion that since 1976 has been the home of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, according to The Landmarks of New York.

Very fitting that a world-class design museum occupies a mansion that inside and outside reflects such design and style.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.2869]

What a Gilded Age servant girl had to say about Coney Island

June 13, 2022

Her name was Agnes. As a teenager in Germany at the turn of the century she sought more money and opportunity. So she decided to buy a ticket for $55 with her wages as a milliner’s apprentice and sailed from Antwerp to New York City, where three of her siblings had already settled.

After a week of living in a flat on West 34th Street with her sister, she found a job again with a milliner. Her pay came to $4 per week, which she was satisfied with, but she wanted something different. “I wanted more pleasure,” she said in the 1906 book, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, which includes her story.

So she went “into the service,” as she put it: she became one of thousands of young women, often new immigrants, who worked as live-in servant girls for the upper middle class and rich in the Gilded Age.

Agnes became a nurse governess, taking care of the children of various employers. While the life of a servant girl could be harsh and lonely, Agnes reported that she was generally treated well; usually she would be one of several servants in the household. “The duties are light; I have two afternoons a week to myself and practically all the clothing I need to wear,” she said of her latest situation in a family of three young kids. “My salary is $25 a month.”

Her wealthy employers brought her along on summer trips to Newport and Long Island. But Agnes preferred Coney Island: the rides, the freedom, and most of all the dancing. Coney Island in the early 1900s was packed with dance halls that attracted poor and working-class women like herself. These shop girls, factory girls, and servant girls could get to Coney by train or boat for a day excursion and a break from the tedium of working for a living.

“I like New York,” she said. “I have a great many friends in New York and I enjoy my outings with them. We go to South Beach or North Beach or Glen Island or Rockaway or Coney Island. If we go on a boat we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.”

“I like Coney Island best of all. It is a wonderful and beautiful place. I took a German friend, a girl who had just come out, down there last week, and when we had been on the razzle-dazzle, the chute and the loop-de-loop, and down in the coal mine and all over the Bowery, and up in the tower and everywhere else, I asked her how she liked it.

Stauch’s dance hall on the Bowery at Coney Island

“She said: ‘Ach, it is just like what I see when I dream of heaven.'”

Agnes generally liked her employers. But she wished she could teach them a thing or two about having fun. “Yet I have heard some of the high people with whom I have been living say that Coney Island is not tony. The trouble is that these high people don’t know how to dance. I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.”

[Top image: MCNY x2011.34.2113; second image: MCNY x2011.34.2033; third image: Bain Collection/LOC; fourth image: eBay]

The stone and iron turtles decorating New York City

June 10, 2022

Colonial New Yorkers hunted them in estuaries and salt marshes, putting turtle soup on every restaurant menu. Contemporary city residents know them as the scaly native reptiles who occasionally pop their heads up while feasting in city waterways.

Considering the role they’ve played in Gotham’s history and their presence in the modern city, it’s no wonder that images of turtles can be found on building facades, fence posts, and the sculptures in Manhattan parks.

You would expect a neighborhood called Turtle Bay to have its fair share of ornamental turtles. The turtle above is one of several on the iron fences surrounding Turtle Bay Gardens, a posh collection of restored brownstones flanking a private garden between Second and Third Avenues and 48th to 49th Streets.

The Turtle Bay Gardens iron fence turtles are a lot more stylized than this stegosaurus-like critter, one of three lifelike bronze turtles in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on East 49th Street off Second Avenue.

Outside of Turtle Bay, turtle sculptures abound. One of my favorites is the circa-1916 turtle at the base (one of four) of the Pulitzer Fountain beside the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Its mouth serves as one of the fountain’s spouts—a nice bit of whimsy.

Farther uptown at 973 Fifth Avenue is a sculpture with a base resting on the backs of two rather round turtles. The sculpture is in the rotunda of a former Gilded Age mansion now occupied by a French-English bookstore called Albertine (operated by the French Consulate, which has long owned the mansion).

Full-size view of The Young Archer, resting on turtles

The turtles supporting the sculpture are impressive. But the sculpture itself might have more of a pedigree. Acquired by Stanford White and called The Young Archer, it’s been in the rotunda for decades and has recently been identified as a possible early work of Michelangelo, according to the Albertine website.

Looking for remnants of Paisley Place, a lost row of back houses in Chelsea

June 6, 2022

Like many downtown neighborhoods, Chelsea has its share of back houses—a second smaller house or former carriage house built behind a main home and accessed only by an often hidden alleyway.

Now imagine not just one back house but an entire row of them forming a community where a group of people lived and worked for decades, almost locked within a city block. That’s kind of the story of Paisley Place, which got it start after yellow fever hit New York City in October 1822.

With an epidemic raging, city residents fled. “The banker closed his doors; the merchant packed his goods; and churches no longer echoed words of divine truth,” stated Valentine’s Manuel of 1863. “Many hundreds of citizens abandoned their homes and accustomed occupations, that they might seek safety beyond the reach of pestilence, putting their trust in broad rivers and green fields.”

A good number of these fleeing residents relocated to the village of Greenwich, putting down roots there and transforming it into an urban part of the city within a few decades.

Southampton Road making its way through Chelsea on the John Randel survey map from 1811

One group of immigrant artisans—Scottish-born weavers who carved out a niche by supplying New York with hand-woven linens—went a little farther north. These tradesmen and their families set up a new community in today’s Chelsea off a small country lane called Southampton Road. (above map).

“A convenient nook by the side of this quiet lane was chosen by a considerable number of Scotch weavers as their place of retirement from the impending dangers,” according to Valentine’s. “They erected their modest dwellings in a row, set up their frames, spread their webs…and gave their new home the name ‘Paisley Place.'”

This 1857-1862 street map shows a row of three houses in the middle of the block marked “weavers.”

Southampton Road, which once wound its way from about West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue to West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, soon ceased to exist as Chelsea urbanized and conformed to the street grid. The houses of Paisley Place then became “buried in the heart of the block between 16th and 17th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues,” wrote the Evening World.

Through the decades, the weavers carried out their trade. Paisley Place consisted of “a double row of rear wooden houses entered by alleys at 115-117 West 16th Street and 112-114 West 17th Street,” per The Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1905.

A similar map also from 1857-1862 marks another back house with “weaver”

More is known about their houses than the weavers themselves. “The little colony mingled only slightly with the scores of other nationalities of early New York,” stated another Evening World piece.

By the 1860s, the weavers became something of a curiosity, the subject of newspaper articles and magazine sketches. After 1900 the people of Paisley Place were gone; they either died or moved on when their hand-weaving skills were no longer needed in the era of industrialization.

Their homes hidden inside a modern city block held on a little longer. “The Scotch weavers are gone, but the houses which they built still hold their long accustomed place on the line of the vanished Southampton Road,” stated a Brooklyn Standard Union article from 1902.

17th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

The writer of the Standard Union article noted that two remaining wooden houses had a “quaint picturesqueness [that] was of a sort to warm the heart of the antiquarian.”

Today, 17th Street doesn’t seem to carry any traces of this former community, and no remnants remain of the wood houses that would be in the middle of this tightly packed block. This antiquarian, however, wishes that something of their lives was left behind.

[Top image: Valentine’s Manual, NYPL; second image: John Randel survey map; third and fourth images: NYPL]

The visionary artist with his own museum in a Riverside Drive Art Deco masterpiece

May 16, 2022

St. Petersburg-born Nicolas Roerich was many things: an archeologist, philosopher, emigre due to the Russian Revolution, and Nobel Prize nominee many times over.

Nicholas Roerich

But it was his talent as a painter of colorful natural and mystical scenes that brought him to the United States in 1920, when a national tour of 400 of his works launched at the Kingore Gallery in New York City in December of that year.

After the tour and between treks to the Himalayas and India, the charismatic Roerich took up residence in 1920s Manhattan, working out of a 19th century mansion at 310 Riverside Drive, at 103rd Street. With financial help from a Wall Street moneyman and patron named Louis Horch, he founded the Master Institute of United Arts, a school that offered lectures by top painters like George Bellows.

The Master Apartments, Riverside Drive

The mansion also housed his own personal museum, where fans could buy copies of his art and writings and debate the merits of his talent. “Talk to his disciples and one encounters almost incoherent adoration,” wrote the Brooklyn Times Union in 1929. “That seems to be the precise word for it. Adoration. Artists are divided in their opinion of his talent.”

Roerich the artist and mystic fascinated Jazz Age New York, and his interest in Eastern philosophies found an eager audience. So when Horch proposed the idea of demolishing the old mansion and building a modern apartment tower on still fashionable Riverside Drive that would devote its lower floors to Roerich’s school, studio, and museum, the two men struck a deal.

The Master Apartments, soon after the building was completed

The Master Apartments, also known as the Master Building, (above) made its debut in 1929. It was the tallest building on Riverside Drive, which was transforming from a street of single-family and row house mansions to an avenue of elegant and more restrained apartment houses.

This 29-floor Art Deco masterpiece was designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett, who himself belonged to the Roerich Society. With more than 300 income-generating apartments plus a theater, “the building’s distinctive Art Deco detailing, terraced setbacks, and stupa are easily identified from Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway,” states the building’s own website. “Its corner windows are reputed to be the first in Manhattan.”

“Guests From Overseas,” 1901

According to Anthony Robbins in New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture, the Master Apartments “rise to a single, tapered pinnacle, more like a Midtown skyscraper…. [Corbett’s] design relies on geometric patterns, angles, and colors.”

After Wall Street collapsed in 1929, however, fortunes quickly changed for Roerich and his Art Deco tower. “Roerich’s star in America plummeted,” wrote John Strausbaugh in the Observer in 2014. “The Master Building was hit hard by the Depression and went into receivership. Horch renounced Roerich and sued for $200,000 in unpaid loans. The IRS went after Roerich for tax fraud. By 1938 Horch had control of the skyscraper, shoved Roerich’s paintings in the basement and ousted his followers.”

The Roerich Museum was then replaced by the Riverside Museum, which was devoted to contemporary art until the 1970s, when the collection was absorbed by Brandeis University. A new space for Roerich’s artwork was found in 1949 in a brownstone at 319 West 107th Street. Roerich passed away in 1947, but the Nicholas Roerich Museum still exhibits his works today and may be the only museum in New York devoted to one artist.

The Master Apartments went co-op in 1988. The many studio apartments have been combined into larger units, the lobby has been restored, and it remains the tallest building with the most recognizable Art Deco design touches on Riverside Drive.

Cornerstone, with the R and M

Two remnants of its earlier incarnations remain: a cornerstone bearing the initials R and M (for Roerich Museum, it seems) and the words “Riverside Museum” in small letters above the entrance.

Come see the Master Apartments and other mansions and monuments on Ephemeral New York’s Riverside Drive walking tour June 5 and June 19!

[Third photo: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.348]