Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

Painting prewar New York from the outside in

September 11, 2017

Art that captures a single moment of beauty and activity on New York’s streets is always captivating. But there’s something to be said for images that reveal something about Manhattan from a far away vantage point, showing a city not in the center but on the sidelines.

Leon Kroll, born in New York in 1884 and a contemporary of George Bellows, Robert Henri, and other social realists, gives us that sidelined city.

Kroll, who studied at the Art Students League and exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, was known for his nudes and country or seaside landscapes, and he also painted Central Park, Broadway, and other city locations.

But he also depicted New York in the early 20th century from the outside in, illustrating the city’s rhythms from across the East and Hudson Rivers.

“Queensboro Bridge,” from 1912, the painting at the top of the page, is one such example. The majesty of the relatively new bridge (only three years old here) takes center stage, but the monolithic city looms behind it.

I’m not exactly sure where Kroll was when he painted the second image, 1920’s “Manhattan Rhythms,” the second image.

He presents us with a solid, impenetrable city high above the wharves and docks of the river, a metropolis that dwarfs the men who work there.

“View of Manhattan Terminal Yards From Weehawken” (1913) puts industry and commerce on display. The train tracks may be on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, but they and the boats sending smoke into the sky work to enrich Manhattan across the water.

“Terminal Yards,” the fourth painting (also 1913) gives us another, snow-covered view.

I love that the city skyline is barely in “Manhattan From Hoboken” (1915), another painting of the metropolis from the heights of New Jersey.

The vibrant colors and web of tree branches—not to mention the thick clouds and smoke coming from boats and trains beside the river—almost obscure the Empire State Building and the rest of the cityscape.

If you’re not there in the middle of it, New York is far enough away to feel like another country.

The nautical loveliness of a Jane Street hotel

August 21, 2017

Today’s it’s The Jane, a pricey boutique hotel a stone’s throw from the well-manicured Hudson River waterfront and the tourist-friendly nightspots of the Meatpacking District.

But a century ago this red brick fortress with the lighthouse-like tower (“whose light flashes a welcome up and down the river”) was the New York headquarters of the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailor’s Home and Institute.

This benevolent organization founded in 1828 was “one of a number of 19th century religious organizations concerned with improving the social and moral welfare of seamen throughout the U.S. and abroad,” explains this 2000 Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report.

Built in 1908 on what was once a bustling stretch of docks teeming with ships, the building served as a hotel with amenities like a library, swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant, lecture hall, and chapel, “an alternative to the waterfront ‘dives’ and sailors’ boardinghouses,” states the LPC.

The place has a rich history. After the Titanic sunk in 1912, surviving crew who arrived in New York on the Carpathia lodged there.

When the YMCA built a new seamen’s home on West 20th Street, the organization dedicated itself to providing free room and board to destitute sailors.

Closed in the 1940s, the beacon that shone from the lighthouse tower forever dimmed, it changed names and hands through the 2000s as a transient hotel. (It was the Riverview in the 1990s—as seen on the old-timey hotel sign on the facade).

The rooms once designed to resemble ship cabins may go for hundreds of dollars a night now (as opposed to 25 cents a night in 1908). Yet the building’s past as a seamen’s retreat still resonates, thanks to the lovely ornaments like anchors, rope, wreaths, and the heads of sea creatures.

Think of them as homages to a city that built its fortunes on its waterfront—as well as to the men who worked its docks and ships.

[Second image: NYPL]

An Impressionist paints New York’s sand and surf

August 21, 2017

Impressionist artist Edward Henry Potthast, born in Cincinnati in 1857, never married and had no children.

[“Coney Island,” 1910]

But this devoted painter who made art his entire life (he even died in his studio overlooking Central Park) seemed to find deep delight in depicting scenes of families, especially young mothers and children, enjoying the sand and surf at the city’s seaside pleasure outposts.

[“Summer Day, Brighton Beach” date unknown]

After studying art in Europe, Potthast permanently relocated to Manhattan in the 1890s, working as an illustrator for monthly publications such as Scribner’s and Harper’s while painting and exhibiting his own work.

[“Saturday Afternoon, Rockaway Beach” 1915]

He lived and worked at the Gainsborough, a building of artists’ studios on Central Park South that opened in 1908. “After his move to New York, Potthast made scenes of people enjoying leisurely holidays at the beach and rocky harbor views his specialty,” states this biography.

[“Manhattan Beach” date unknown]

Although he painted scenes of bright sunny skies and sparkling blue water in out-of-state locales in Massachusetts and Maine, “[s]uch was his love of the beach that, when he resided in New York, he would journey out on fair days to Coney Island or Far Rockaway with his easel, paintbox, and a few panels.”

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

While Coney Island and the Rockaways have been popular with painters since these resorts began attracting massive crowds in the late 19th century, Potthast’s beach scenes don’t resemble not the tawdry Coney Island of Reginald Marsh or the foreboding Coney of Alfred Henry Maurer.

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

Instead, they show the gentle and genteel side of the city’s beaches in the 1910s—vivid with color, activity, and a dreamy innocence that makes one wish they could be instantly transported there, away from the complexities of contemporary life.

[“Rockaway Beach” 1910]

Identifying an eerie drugstore in a 1927 painting

August 14, 2017

The “eerie nocturnal view” of this corner apothecary painted by Edward Hopper in 1927 is easy to get lost in.

At first glance, Silbers Pharmacy looks like an ordinary city storefront, whose bright electric lights and colorful window display on a dark night feels inviting.

Here is a place city residents can turn to for late-night prescriptions, or even for an emergency laxative (Ex-Lax was invented in 1906 and manufactured in Brooklyn, hence the Ex-Loft lofts on Atlantic Avenue).

Yet the more you look at the painting (simply titled “Drug Store”), the more ominous it becomes, strangely devoid of any sign of humanity. It’s classic Hopper, of course, an artist whose work reflects the isolation and alienation of modern urban life.

So where was Silbers Pharmacy? Hopper apparently never identified the street corner; he was known to obscure identifying details of many of the storefronts he painted, as he famously did with his late-night diner masterpiece, Nighthawks.

But it was likely near his studio on Washington Square. One guess comes from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which put forth the possibility that Silbers occupied the Waverly Place building where Three Lives & Company bookstore is today.

Three Lives’ official address is on West 10th Street. But the door to the left is 184 Waverly, just like the “184” on the Silbers sign. And hmm, doesn’t the cast-iron column outside the door looks quite similar?

[Second photo: Alamy]

Seventh Avenue as a dark, mysterious canyon

July 31, 2017

If you’ve never imagined New York as a concrete canyon, this 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott just might change your thinking.

Abbott manages to turn utilitarian 35th Street—not exactly the city’s most picturesque east-west thoroughfare—into a river carrying vehicles and pedestrians surrounded by the shadowy cliffs of buildings.

It looks like Abbott aimed her camera in the Garment District. MOMA’s caption for the photo mistakenly says this is Seventh Avenue at 35th Street, but smart Ephemeral readers pointed out that MOMA had the caption backwards.

The Gramercy mansion in a John Sloan painting

July 24, 2017

He often came across subjects for his work near Washington Square, or Union or Madison Squares.

But in 1912, after moving from Sixth Avenue to 155 East 22nd Street, John Sloan trained his outsider’s eye on Gramercy Park (fellow social realist painter George Bellows’ territory), where he painted two women tending to a baby in a carriage on a warm, lush day.

Sloan “found his subjects in his immediate surroundings; the streets he traveled and the people he encountered were immediately translated to canvas,” wrote Margarita Karasoulas on Questroyal.com.

“He typically captured New Yorkers going about their routines from the perspective of an outside observer, painting intimate scenes with a window-like viewpoint in order to focus closely and observe the subject undetected.”

I’m curious about the red brick townhouse to the right of the park. This is 1912, and it certainly could have been torn down.

But I wonder if Sloan is giving us a look at the Stuyvesant Fish House at 19 Gramercy Park South.

Built in 1845 for a Whig politician, it was expanded and redone in the 1880s for Old New York scion and railroad magnate Stuyvesant Fish and his party-loving society hostess wife, Mamie.

Sloan’s depiction doesn’t look exactly like the house, seen here in 2010. Artistic license, perhaps?

[Photo: Wikipedia]

A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]

Buffalo Bill’s wild west show thrills 1894 Brooklyn

July 17, 2017

Part circus, part vaudeville act, part patriotic celebration of a mythic American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a huge summer draw when this traveling extravaganza booked time in New York in the late 19th century.

The show first visited Erastina, a park on the north shore of Staten Island, in 1886. “The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26,” states the blog for the Museum of the City of New York.

“Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper.”

After a turn at Madison Square Garden, the show moved to Brooklyn for the summer of 1894, thrilling audiences at Ambrose Park, a 24-acre parcel of land on Third Avenue and 37th Street in today’s Sunset Park.

And while it might seem corny to New Yorkers today, this kind of spectacle was great family fun for the growing middle class of the Gilded Age, when ferries and elevated trains made day trips to Ambrose Park easier.

William Cody “truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman,” states the MCNY blog.

“His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish.”

Get a load of the map of Greater New York in the poster! Whoever drew it managed to get the Brooklyn Bridge in there, but the city seems to stop at Chambers Street. And what’s the rectangle land mass off Brooklyn?

[Second image Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1894; third photo: Green-Wood Cemetery]

Do you recognize this 1920s corner speakeasy?

July 7, 2017

Few artists depict New York’s lights and shadows like Martin Lewis. In the 1920s and 1930s, he created haunting, enchanting drypoint prints showcasing day-to-day street life—from factory workers to gangs of young boys to lone men and women exiting subways and hanging around bars.

This drypoint above, from 1929, is titled “Relics (Speakeasy Corner).” Considering that New York during Prohibition hosted an estimate 20,000 to 100,ooo speakeasies, it’s hard to know where this is.

The Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue (which has priced this drypoint at $70,000!) solves the mystery.

“The location is Charles Street and West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village which was near Lewis’ house at the time on Bedford Street,” a page on their website tells us.

Google street view shows that this corner is almost exactly the same as it was 89 years ago, except the speakeasy has been replaced by Sevilla, one of the Village’s old-school Spanish restaurants.

More Martin Lewis prints can be found here. [Print: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

July 7, 2017

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]