Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

How an authentic Swedish cottage from 1875 ended up in Central Park

November 14, 2022

One of the wonderful things about Central Park is the enormous variety of buildings spread out among its 843 acres of pastures, hills, and woodlands.

On the northwestern end of the park, the remains of a stone fort dating to 1814 harken back to a sparsely settled Manhattan. At the southeastern end is a former arsenal-turned-office space completed in 1851. On the western side near 79th Street is a circa-1872 miniature castle with the best views in the city.

But there’s one structure almost as old as Central Park itself that’s always been a curiosity: the Swedish Cottage, near Belvedere Castle and the Shakespeare Garden on the park’s west side.

Almost all of the structures in Central Park either predate the park or were built specifically for it. So how did an authentic Swedish log cabin, one with gothic-style arched windows and a steep peaked roof, end up in New York’s premier city green space?

Its journey begins in Sweden in 1875.

“Designed by architect Magnus Isæus to serve as the Swedish Pavilion for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the building was constructed in Sweden of oiled pine and cedar, then dismantled, packed in crates, and shipped to Philadelphia, where it was erected by Swedish craftsman on the Exposition grounds,” wrote Cynthia S. Brenwall and Martin Filler in 2019’s The Central Park: Original Designs for the New York’s Greatest Treasure.

Rather than a cottage, the building was actually a Swedish schoolhouse. It was a hit at the Exhibition—an event described as the first World’s Fair ever to be held in America.

“Furnished with desks and chalkboards and staffed by Swedish teachers, the pavilion was a popular attraction that served as an example of Scandinavian building design to the American public,” stated Brenwall and Filler.

Visitors to the Exhibition enjoyed this one-room Swedish schoolhouse. That included one very distinguished visitor: Frederick Law Olmsted, a co-designer of Central Park. Apparently he was so captured by it, he paid $1500 to buy it and have it shipped to Central Park, where it was reassembled in its current location in 1877, according to New York City, by Robert Kahn. (Above image: the cottage in 1880)

Finding a use for the Swedish Cottage, as it was now called, took some time. Over the years it served as a park restroom, a nature center, and civil defense headquarters during World War II, noted Kahn.

Since 1947, it’s been the home of the Marionette Theater, with a permanent theater built inside the cottage in 1973, per centralpark.com. Though the cottage has undergone renovation over the years, this authentic pine and cedar cabin that charmed Olmsted has since entertained thousands of city kids and their families.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1880; X2010.11.1559]

The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City

November 7, 2022

In the early 1860s, William Mumler was a Boston-based silver engraver who peddled homemade medicine and dabbled in photography. He might have remained out of the public eye if something seemingly otherworldly hadn’t appeared in one of his photos.

“While taking self-portraits for practice, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration,” explained Dave Roos at History.com. Although he was the only person in the room when the shot was taken, a figure could be seen at his side, “a girl who was ‘made of light,'” stated Roos.

This self-portrait launched Mumler’s short but infamous career as a “spirit photographer,” taking photos of living people and capturing the ghosts of dead loved ones in the images—typically behind the living person or in some kind of embrace.

Anyone who claims to be a ghost photographer today would be met with raised eyebrows. But in the middle of the 19th century, a movement called Spiritualism swept across the nation. Self-proclaimed mediums promised people that they could communicate with deceased family members, offering to perform seances and convey messages from the other side (for a fee, that is).

The possibility of seeing the likeness of dead loved ones in a photo, as Mumler offered, was hard for many grieving people to resist. That was especially true during the Civil War, which claimed thousands of lives and left so many Americans in mourning.

With photography a relatively new and mysterious practice, people were even more willing to believe Mumler’s claims. “These ghostly renderings became so popular that spiritualists hailed these photographs as scientific evidence of their beliefs,” stated the Getty Museum, which owns several Mumler spirit photos. “Even Mary Todd Lincoln had her photograph taken by Mumler.” (Fourth image)

But fellow photographers became suspicious. “Manipulating images was a known part of the photographic artform and other photographers were openly experimenting with double exposures and superimposed negatives, all of which could create the effect of Mumler’s spirit photography,” wrote Roos.

Mumler’s answer to his skeptics in Boston was to relocate to New York City. In 1869 he opened a studio at 630 Broadway, between Bleecker and Houston Streets, continuing his spirit photography business.

Unlike in Boston, however, New York officials were onto Mumler. Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall ordered an investigation and asked a city marshal to sit for a photo under a fake name.

“After the taking of the picture the negative was shown to [the city marshal], with a dim, indistinct outline of a ghostly face staring out of one corner; and he was told that the picture represented the spirit of his father-in-law,” stated an 1869 article in The Illustrated Photographer.

The marshal, however, “failed to recognize the worthy old gentleman, and emphatically declared that the picture neither represented his father-in-law, nor any of his relations, nor yet any person whom he had ever seen,” stated the publication.

Mumler went on trial for fraud later that year, with several photographers, as well as P. T. Barnum, testifying against him. In the end, he was acquitted, since the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the images were fakes.

Back in Boston, Mumler continued to work as a photographer; he passed away in 1884 at age 51. Though he is still associated with spirit photography, he eventually lent his name to a process he invented that made it possible to print photos on newspaper, stated Roos, which changed the face of journalism.

[Photos 1, 2, and 5: Getty Museum; Photo 3: Wikipedia; photo 4: Massachusetts Historical Society]

The Art Deco-style Chelsea mosaics that illustrate the needle trades

October 10, 2022

Contemporary New Yorkers don’t often hear the term “needle trades” anymore. But in the vernacular of the early 20th century, it referred to any work related to the creation of clothing—like sewing, pattern making, cloth cutting, and dressmaking.

Much of this work in the decades before World War II was done by immigrants and first generation New Yorkers in Manhattan’s Garment District, the stretch of showrooms, wholesale shops, and factories inside the towering new loft buildings built between Broadway and Ninth Avenue and 34th to 42nd Streets.

Before moving to this chunk of Midtown, the needle trades were centered in sweatshops on the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, and the work was also done piecemeal at home with little regulation or protection. A somewhat regulated Garment District was considered an improvement in progressive Gotham.

To train and supply prewar New York’s army of garment manufacturers, the city—with the help of the WPA—built an Art Deco-style vocational high school called Central High School of Needle Trades (top photo). Opened in 1940 on West 24th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, it was developed in conjunction with garment industry reps.

“This building has sixty-five shops and special rooms, ten regular classrooms and six laboratories in which will be taught all branches of tailoring, costume design, millinery design, dressmaking, shoe manufacturing, fur processing and allied subjects,” the New York Times wrote when the school opened, per The Living New Deal.

Since 1956, the school has been known as the High School of Fashion Industries. With the decline of manufacturing in what’s still called the Garment District, there’s much more of a focus on the business of fashion, per the school website.

Even so, students continue to attend class in the original Art Deco Needle Trades building. Outside the entrance are four proud mosaics illustrating different aspects of the needle trades—from sewing to measuring to threading a needle.

The work may seem primitive amid our digital age, but the mosaics are a reminder of all that used to be made in New York primarily by human hands.

The little Hell’s Kitchen synagogue where old Broadway stars once worshipped

September 23, 2022

When it was founded in 1917 by local Jewish shop owners on West 47th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the congregation was known as Ezrath Israel.

Actors who frequented the Theater District and Times Square were decidedly not welcome. In the early 20th century, they were looked down upon for their supposed loose morals and the sometimes shady venues where they plied their trade.

But in the mid-1920s, a new synagogue for this small congregation had been constructed—a beige brick building that stood out thanks to its majestic stained glass center window.

A new rabbi also took the helm, and he “realized that he could increase the membership by welcoming actors from nearby Broadway,” wrote Joseph Berger in the New York Times in 2011. That rabbi, Bernard Birstein, reversed the previous no-performer policy, according to David Dunlop’s 2014 book, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

Drawing from all the theaters, cabarets, and nightclubs in this hopping part of Jazz Age Manhattan, the congregation attracted showbiz hopefuls as well as the already famous. Performers like Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny came to services, and Ezrath Israel became known as the Actors’ Temple.

“Some members and congregants, many of whom were born into poor, hardworking immigrant families, included Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Eddie Cantor, Burt Lahr, George Jessel, and countless other lesser-known actors, comedians, singers, playwrights, composers, musicians, writers, dancers and theatrical agents, along with sports figures like Sandy Koufax, Barney Ross, and Jake Pitler,” states the temple’s website.

Rabbi Bernard Birstein, center

Two of the Three Stooges were congregation members (Mo and Curly Howard, to be precise), and “Academy Award–winner Shelley Winters kept the High Holy Days in our sanctuary,” the website says.

One of the highlights of the congregation was an annual benefit to raise funds for the synagogue’s upkeep. On December 9, 1945, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about the “stars of stage, screen, and radio” who were scheduled to perform, including Danny Kaye, Jack Durant, and Joe E. Louis.

By the time of his death in 1959, Rabbi Birstein had boosted membership to 1,000, according to a 2002 New York Daily News article. But the number of congregants began to dwindle steadily through the decade—a trend experienced by other small synagogues in Manhattan’s unglamorous business districts, like the Garment District Synagogue and the Millinery Center Synagogue.

Today, the Actors’ Temple is still holding fundraisers and offers services for the high holidays. I’m not sure if any A-listers belong to the congregation, but members “take great pride in carrying on our Jewish show business tradition by being a place of acceptance, spirituality, creativity, and love,” per the website.

[Third image: geni.com]

This empty shell on Delancey Street was once a movie palace

September 19, 2022

It’s a forbidding warehouse of a building, with its ground floor carved up decades ago into unattractive (and since the pandemic, often empty) commercial outlets.

But a closer look at this mystery space on the corner of Delancey and Suffolk Streets offers clues about what it used to be in its glory days: the few strangely spaced windows (now filled with concrete), the Art Deco-style ribbon of ornamentation near the roofline that hints at something imaginative and exciting.

The grim fortress at 140-146 Delancey Street is the remains of Loew’s Delancey Street Theater—a vaudeville theater and then movie house opened in 1912 that was “a cornerstone of life on New York’s Lower East Side,” according to Cinema Treasures, a website that tracks defunct theaters across the U.S.

The Loew’s Delancey in 1936

The Loew’s Delancey, with about 1,700 seats, occupied the block with another legendary business: Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, per Cinema Treasures. It was one of over 40 Loews theaters in the New York area at the time, states the 2007 book Jews and American Popular Culture.

In its earliest days, the theater reportedly booked vaudeville acts and showed short films between them; a 1929 Brooklyn Eagle article notes an act that took first prize on amateur night. But by the 1930s, the Delancey was exclusively a movie house, as images of the the old-school marquee attests (My American Wife!).

Another view of that magical sign and marquee, 1939-1941

The end of the Delancey echos the end of so many popular, thriving businesses on the Lower East Side after the first half of the 20th century—with a mass exodus of people to the suburbs following World War II, then the decline of the surrounding neighborhood, explains Cinema Treasures.

By 1977, the theater was closed. Though a sign on the facade says that “corner stores and upper floors” are available for rent, the space remains empty—the interior likely gutted of any old movie house magic.

The end of the Delancey, 1978

A new theater has opened across Delancey called the Regal Essex Crossing. Too bad it lacks the enchantment of the former Delancey, with its three-story vertical sign and blazing marquee inviting the public inside to watch a “picture,” as they called it, that you could only see on the big screen.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY, 2013.3.2.2183]

The colorful mystery mosaics on a Lenox Hill block

September 15, 2022

Sometimes the most ordinary buildings hold charming surprises. Take 239 East 73rd Street, for example.

It’s a well-kept but unremarkable tenement-style walkup, similar to so many that line the low-rise pockets of the Upper East Side’s Lenox Hill neighborhood.

But someone over the years with a playful sensibility decided to liven up the nondescript facade with a couple of colorful mosaics: one of an owl, the other of a rooster.

A yearning for country life? A whimsical representation of daytime and night? Perhaps the reason for the mosaics is lost to the ages. But they remain on the streetscape, delighting sharp-eyed passersby.

All the different business districts of Manhattan, according to a 1939 magazine

August 29, 2022

The center of finance is still firmly in Lower Manhattan, and the Theater District continues to surround Broadway in the West 40s.

But these two commercial districts are all that remain in 2022 of the many business and industry centers that used to thrive in different sections of Manhattan. The commercial districts and map were outlined in a July 1939 issue of Fortune, published to coincide with the World’s Fair that summer in New York City.

Fresh fish is still an industry in today’s New York. But the wholesale markets are no longer centered at South Street; a new Fulton Fish Market was relocated to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005. I’m sure you can still find fresh produce on what was once called the Lower West Side, but today’s Tribeca is no longer the produce market neighborhood it used to be.

Selling fish on South Street, photographed by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune

The Flower District, on Sixth Avenue in the West 20s, still has a few holdout wholesalers. Garments continue to be manufactured in the Garment District, but the output is nothing like it was in the 1930s, when this area from Sixth to Ninth Avenues between 34th and 40th Streets was home to the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world, per the Gotham Center for New York City History.

A nursery in the Flower District, by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune magazine

Automobile showrooms have long left West 57th Street near Columbus Circle. The arrow that says “meat” pointing to Midtown East (where the United Nations headquarters is today) referred to the former Abattoir Center—one of two slaughterhouse districts designated by the city in 1898, according to Tudor City Confidential. (The other slaughterhouse district was on West 14th Street.)

The East Side Abattoir Center, by Alexander Alland for Fortune magazine

A leather district on the Lower East Side? That’s news to me. “Art” and “style” just below Central Park seem to refer to the luxury department stores and fashion boutiques, as well as the art galleries and art-related showrooms, on 57th-59th Streets.

[Images: Fortune, July 1939]

The magnificent iron window railings on an 1850s Murray Hill mansion

August 19, 2022

There’s a lot to love about the aristocratic brownstone mansion at 231 Madison Avenue, at the southeast corner of 37th Street.

Built as one of three freestanding mansions between 1852-1853 by members of the copper-baron Phelps family just as Murray Hill was transitioning from countryside to a posh urban neighborhood, the house was enlarged in the 1880s—then purchased by J.P. Morgan in 1904 as a 45-room family home for his son and business partner, Jack.

A study in harmony and symmetry, the mansion possesses the kind of elegant restraint of many Murray Hill townhouses. But one decorative element delights me every time I walk by: the wrought-iron balustrades on each of the full-length front windows flanking the entrance.

A collection of vines, florals, and curlicues, each balustrade adds a little Art Nouveau-inspired whimsy to the block, home to the Morgan Library & Museum. (J.P. Morgan’s own mansion was on the northeast corner, bulldozed in 1928. Today, number 231 is owned by the museum.)

Unsurprisingly, the balustrades were not part of the original antebellum mansion when early Phelps family members made it their home. They’re a product of either the 1888 renovation, or the “modest” exterior work Morgan commissioned shortly after buying the house, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) 2002 historic designation report.

The LPC report notes that 231 Madison Avenue “was a house that harmonized with the home of the elder Morgans and evoked comfortable prosperity rather than wealthy ostentation.” The balustrades also match the wrought-iron fence, as seen below.

The window railings are as beautiful as the one on the front window of the William and Clara Baumgarten House, a Beaux-Arts row house on Riverside Drive and 101st Street. Berenice Abbott captured a 1937 image of the windows while photographing the stoop—as lovely now as they appear then!

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.