Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

A Village hotel, a suicide, and a haunting painting

February 17, 2017

Since opening in 1887, the Albert Hotel on University Place and 11th Street has been a magnet for creative souls.

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Author Robert Louis Stevenson booked a room in this lovely Victorian Gothic building, receiving Augustus St. Gaudens as a guest.

albertpinkhamryderWalt Whitman and Mark Twain spent time at the Albert, as did Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s. Jackson Pollack, Robert Lowell, and folk rock bands like the Mamas & the Papas all made the hotel their home base.

But one late 19th century painter who gained notoriety for his moody landscapes and eccentric habits was so taken aback by an experience he had in the hotel’s restaurant, it inspired one of his darkest, most haunting works.

The painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (left), was a near-recluse. Totally devoted to his art, he often walked from his downtown flat to the Battery late at night to observe the effect of clouds passing over the moon.

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“But a roof, a crust of bread and an easel,” was all he needed in life, Ryder reportedly wrote.

alberthotel1907mcny93-1-1-5311Ryder’s brother was the manager of the Albert, so he often took his meals there. One evening, he talked up a waiter about an upcoming horse race, the Brooklyn Handicap, and a favored thoroughbred named Hanover.

“The day before the race I dropped into my brother’s hotel and had a little chat with this waiter, and he told me that he had saved up $500 and that he had placed every penny of it on Hanover winning the race,” Ryder recalled years later.

“The next day the race was run, and as racegoers will probably remember, Hanover came in third. I was immediately reminded that my friend the waiter had lost all his money.”

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“That dwelt on my mind, as for some reason it impressed me very much, so much that I went around to my brother’s hotel for breakfast the next morning and was shocked to find my waiter friend had shot himself the evening before.”

alberthotelfrom11thst“This fact formed a dark cloud over my mind that I could not throw off, and ‘The Race Track’ is the result.”

Subtitled “Death on a Pale Horse,” the painting was completed between 1896 and 1908.

It belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art—a work of art whose connection to a Bohemian hotel in Greenwich Village and a horse race in Brooklyn is not obvious yet runs deep.

[Fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.5311; fifth image: The Sun headline, two weeks after Ryder died in 1917]

A lurid best-seller shocks 1850s New York

February 13, 2017

hotcornkatyIt was deemed “filthy” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn preacher and moral crusader Henry Ward Beecher praised it, then quickly retracted his recommendation once he actually took a look at it.

Henry James, a young boy when it was published, was forbidden to read this “tabooed book” by his father—and of course became obsessed with getting a copy, he recalled years later.

What kind of book could stir such outrage—and become a runaway best-seller—in the New York City of 1853?

hotcorncover1853Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated, was a collection of short stories that had originally run in the New-York Tribune.

The stories chronicled the interconnected lives of several poor kids and adults living in the wretched Five Points slum in the antebellum city.

The main character was young Katy (top), a Five Points resident and “hot corn” girl—one of hundreds of vendors who stood on New York corners hawking this favorite street food of the early 19th century.

(“Hot corn, hot corn, here’s your lily-white hot corn/hot corn, all hot, just came out of the boiling pot” was a hot corn girl’s signature refrain.)

hotcornpolicebeatingThere was also “Wild Maggie,” her drunk father, a ragpicker’s daughter named Madelina, and Katy’s alcoholic mother, who lives off the pennies Katy makes selling corn.

Interspersed in the drama are lurid descriptions of the real streets of Five Points as well as the efforts on the part of the missions that had recently set up there, hoping to ease the lives of residents with charity, offers of work, and religious moralizing.

Hot Corn was such a hit that it immediately spawned three plays. P.T. Barnum staged a rendition, and another version ran at the Bowery Theatre—becoming the second most popular play in the 1850s after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another novel-turned-drama.

hotcornmancookingcornNo one was reading Hot Corn for its literary merits, of course. The tawdry yet sentimental tales of poverty, broken families, and alcoholism gave respectable book-buyers a scandalous look into slum life.

The stories milk every emotion. Omnibuses run people over, characters end up in jail or in Green-Wood Cemetery, rats run wild, and there’s at least one marriage and deathbed scene.

The message about the evils of alcohol found an audience as well. The temperance movement was gaining steam at this point in the 19th century, even in a city that centered around saloons and taverns.

hotcorndeathbedsceneDespite its massive popularity, Hot Corn disappeared from booksellers’ shelves by the end of the decade.

Consider it one in a long line of lurid dramas exposing the underbelly of New York life or the hidden world of a not-well-known subculture, from the Horatio Alger stories of the late 19th century to Rent on Broadway.

[All illustrations all come from the text, which you can download for free via Google]

The $20 million jewel in Grand Central Terminal

February 6, 2017

brassclockwikiSince Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, “meet me under the clock” has always meant one place: the magnificent four-faced brass timepiece on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

This iconic clock isn’t Grand Central largest or most commanding. That might be the Tiffany clock on the 42nd Street facade, the largest stained-glass Tiffany clock in the world.

But the “golden” concourse clock, as it was called in a 1954 New York Times story about the clock’s restoration, might be the most valuable, to the tune of $20 million.

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It’s not the brass that makes it so pricey. The four 24-inch wide faces are made out of opal glass.

grandcentralclocktwilightThat, as well as its history and the workmanship of the clock (built by plainly named Self-Winding Clock Company of Brooklyn!) have reportedly led appraisers from Sotheby’s and Christie’s to value it at $10-$20 million.

The clock also features an acorn on top—a symbol representing the motto of the Vanderbilt family (they built Grand Central, of course): “from a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Finding beauty and poetry in a cold, snowy city

January 30, 2017

Not a fan of the chilly wet days that characterize a New York winter? Let these shimmering images from Saul Leiter of the city in the 1950s and 1960s give you a different perspective.

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Leiter, a longtime East Village resident who died in 2013 at age 89, was one of Gotham’s greatest (and mostly unheralded) street photographers, capturing the color of the mid-century metropolis in a subdued, tender glow.

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His soft-focus photos show us seemingly random, ordinary street scenes: pedestrians at a newsstand, a worker taking a break on the sidewalk, the visual poetry of people and buildings reflected in glass, around corners, and through a misty lens.

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Perhaps his most evocative photos showcase New York during wintertime. In a season when shades of gray typically mark the sky and sidewalks, Leiter’s camera manages to draw out the magnificent colors of the winter city.

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Yellow taxis, red umbrellas, and the white and red signage on a city bus contrast with snowed-in and rained-out streets.

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“I may be old-fashioned,” Leiter says in a 2014 documentary about his art and life, In No Great Hurry. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

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He found that beauty in the slush, snowfall, and puddles of New York’s anonymous streets.

A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street

January 23, 2017

elizabethbishopkingstreetIn 1944, Elizabeth Bishop, then 33 and with a published book of poems under her belt, moved into a tiny flat at 46 King Street (from which she painted this watercolor of 43 King Street, at right, across the street).

She’d already lived in various downtown apartments since graduating from Vassar in 1934, among them 16 Charles Street and 61 Perry Street.

elizabethbishopcollegeyearbook1934Unlike so many other artists and writers of her generation, Bishop (left, in her Vassar yearbook) had an uneasy relationship with the city. She spent much of her early years traveling, living in Manhattan only in short stints.

One poem in particular, “Varick Street,” published in 1947, offers a surreal glimpse of what put her off about New York.

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Try to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

elizabethbishopfactoryIn the 1940s, Varick Street—the widened extension of Seventh Avenue South, which plows through the West Village’s meandering cow path streets—was a hub of manufacturing.

Bishop seemed to view the factories (perhaps this one at left, on the corner of King and Varick) right outside her King Street window as mechanized and ominous threats to love.

The poem alludes to the unnatural, the “pale dirty light” and “mechanical moons” of the factories.

The industry and commercialism of the city’s manufacturing world appear to threaten the narrator’s love for the unnamed person sleeping in bed beside her.

Our bed shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me

Bishop’s work is not confessional, and though her poems are intimate, they tends to avoid the personal.

But one can imagine Bishop lying in bed next to her beloved, in a relationship complicated if not doomed by an industrial and commercialized city that to her doesn’t recognize love and encourages betrayal.

Here is text of the poem in full, originally published in The Nation.

[Top photo: Tibor De Nagy Gallery; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: 47-49 King Street in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, MCNY: 2013.3.2.2211]

The unusual art in the Old Chelsea post office

January 23, 2017

chelseapostofficewikiPost office branches in New York can be drab and cramped, and the vibe inside not exactly inviting.

But the Old Chelsea station on West 18th Street off of Seventh Avenue is a lovely relic.

Built in 1934, it’s wide and drafty, with carved eagles and doric columns. The facade has a colonial feel—connecting the building back to its colonial-era Old Chelsea neighborhood, when the streets were mostly farmland.

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But what to make of these cast stone panels of woodland creatures above the main entrance inside? Created by an artist named Paul Feine, perhaps they’re supposed to remind letter mailers of the way Chelsea looked before Manhattan was chopped down and paved over.

chelseapostofficeart1

I hope they stay through the post office’s renovation—reports say the USPS is selling the air rights to developers to build condos.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

A 1960s downtown rock club with an 1860s name

January 16, 2017

When the Academy of Music opened in 1854 on 14th Street near Third Avenue, it was New York’s premier opera house, an anchor of the city’s buzzing new “uptown” theater district.

academy-of-music-palladium-rock-landmarks

It was also a favorite of the city’s Old Money elite in the 1860s and 1870s, who socialized in its “shabby red and gold boxes,” as Edith Wharton put it in her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, while shutting out the New Money families they despised.

academyofmusic1870Considering what a haughty place it was in its heyday (right), it’s fitting that after the Academy was demolished in 1926, a movie-theater-turned-rock-venue opened up across the street and adopted the Academy of Music name, reported Bedford + Bowery.

More name borrowing: The rock version of the Academy of Music became the Palladium in the 1970s (with Julian Billiard Academy on the second floor). Today, the site is occupied by NYU’s Palladium dormitory.

[Photo: Harold C. Black of Teenage Lust via rockcellarmagazine.com]

Cornelia Street has barely changed in a century

January 9, 2017

Okay, Cornelia Street today is a little different—the Sixth Avenue El no longer rattles by and casts a dark shadow over the northern end of the street.

corneliastreetjohnsloan1920

But otherwise, doesn’t this one-block lane, tucked between West Fourth and Bleecker Streets, still look the same as it does in this John Sloan painting from 1920?

Sloan had a studio in the Flatiron-style tower in the center, officially called the Varitype Building. He often painted Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street—like this scene of three women drying their hair on a Cornelia Street rooftop.

The beauty and magic of New York City on skates

January 5, 2017

What is it about skating that captivated so many New York City illustrators and painters during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

[Below, “Skating in Central Park,” 1910]

glackensskatingincentralpark1910

It could be the challenge of capturing the motions of skating, the gliding or rolling skaters do, kind of an unchoreographed dance even the clumsiest person can master.

Or perhaps in the case of ice skating, artists can’t resist the glorious winter colors that frame New York’s frozen ponds and lakes.

[“Skaters, Central Park,” 1912]

glackensiceskatingcentralpark

Skating might also have been seen as a little risque. During the Gilded Age, ice skating was one of the few social activities men and women could do together without upsetting the boundaries of the era’s gender-specific spheres.

[“Roller Skating Rink,” 1906]

glackensrollerrink1906

Ashcan School artist William Glackens painted these three images of New Yorkers on skates. He may have simply enjoyed depicting spirited scenes of day-to-day life in the city where he lived and worked (his studio was on Ninth Street off Fifth Avenue).

The roller skating rink painting, however, stems from an actual trip to a city rink Glackens made with Robert Henri and other Ashcan painters.

“The hilarious evening, in which Glackens was the first to fall, encapsulates the artist’s fascination with the modern city and its popular attractions,” wrote the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has this work in its collection.

Who passed through Ellis Island a century ago

January 2, 2017

ellisislanddutchwomenOn January 1, 1892, seven hundred immigrants from three ships waited in New York Harbor to board barges that would take them to Ellis Island.

These newcomers were the first to be processed at the brand-new, federal government-run facility, where a total of 12 million immigrants over 62 years were registered and then given medical and legal checks before being allowed onto the mainland.

(This was only for third-class passengers, of course—those in first and second class were given a quick inspection on the ship, then allowed to proceed to New York City.)

ellisislandgreeksoliderAfter arriving at Ellis Island, immigrants spent an average of two to five hours before getting the go-ahead to embark on a new life in the United States.

Two percent, however, were turned back across the pond for a variety of reasons: bad health, mental issues, anti-American sentiment.

Capturing the faces of many of these new arrivals in their native dress was chief registry clerk Augustus Sherman, who was also an amateur photographer.

Sherman took about 250 photos of people he encountered between 1905 and the 1920s.

ellisislandromanianshepherd“The people in the photographs were most likely detainees who were waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island,” stated The Public Domain Review.

Sherman took the photos for his own enjoyment. “Augustus Sherman was fascinated by where the immigrants were coming from and their traditional clothing,” states the National Park Service.

“He usually photographed immigrants that were detained briefly and used mostly dull backgrounds so the immigrants themselves were the main focus.”

ellisislanditalianwoman“Though originally taken for his own personal study, Sherman’s work appeared in the public eye as illustrations for publications with titles such as ‘Alien or American,’ and hung on the walls of the custom offices as cautionary or exemplary models of the new American species,” explained a summary of a book that collected Sherman’s Ellis Islands photos.

Regardless of how they were used a century ago, these photos are incredible portraits of what some of the people who made it to Ellis Island looked like.

ellisislandhinduboy

Dressed in folk outfits from their native countries, they have unsmiling yet hopeful faces.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFor more about what it was like to arrive in New York City as an immigrant in the 19th and early 20th centuries—first at Castle Garden, then at Ellis Island—check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Countries of origin: 1. The Netherlands; 2. Greece; 3. Romania; 4. Italy; 5. “Hindu” is how the boy is described]