Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

Gowanus Bay like you’ve never seen it before

April 21, 2017

Could these two paintings really be of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay — namesake of the canal that was once a notoriously polluted mob dumping ground snaking through Red Hook and Carroll Gardens?

Hard to believe, but the waterfront — and the creek that became the canal — was once this bucolic and beautiful. The first painting, “Sunset at Gowanus Bay,” dates to 1851. It’s by an Australian painter named Henry Gritten, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

At the time Gritten painted this, Gowanus Creek was being widened and deepened, according to nyc.gov. The new Gowanus Canal, as it would be named, was supposed to attract industry and compete with New York.

In 1887, long after the canal had been built out, William Merritt Chase did his own take on Gowanus Bay.

I wish I knew where his vantage point was when he painted this beachy scene with a pier, small boats, gentle waves, and not much industry along the waterfront. The Bay looks absolutely swim-able.

All the ladies on the Central Park Mall in 1901

April 14, 2017

Completed in 1863, Bethesda Terrace was one of the first structures to go up in Central Park—and it’s also one of the most breathtaking, with its grand, intricately carved staircases connecting park visitors to the expanse of the Mall.

Of course, his may have been of no interest to post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast.

He simply may have been struck by the sight of so many women (and some kids, plus a few men) gathered at the Terrace steps, almost all in brightly colored dresses shielding themselves from the sun under parasols.

(Hat tip to Audrey for singling out this lovely mosaic-like painting.)

A final elevated train shines on Ninth Avenue

April 6, 2017

You can almost hear this elevated train grinding against the tracks as it makes its way up (or down?) Ninth Avenue.

The Ninth Avenue El (which traveled along Greenwich Street to Ninth Avenue and then to Columbus Avenue) was the city’s first elevated railroad, ferrying passengers since 1868.

Andreas Feininger captured the solitary steel beauty of the tracks as they glisten under the sun in this photo in 1940, the year the line shut down.

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

The crowds inside a 14th Street subway station

April 3, 2017

Reginald Marsh painted everything in his New York of the 1930s and 1940s: Bowery crowds, showgirls, forgotten men, Coney Island beachgoers, tugboats, panhandlers, and shoppers.

So of course he would take his sketchpad and chronicle New Yorkers using mass transit underground. In 1930 he painted “Subway, 14th Street,” showing a crowd of city residents rushing en masse to or from the train, each absorbed in his or her own world.

If only the newspaper headlines were a little easier for viewers to read!

The many lives of two Chelsea carriage houses

April 3, 2017

Certain old buildings in New York are so enchanting, they hijack your imagination. Who lived in them, you wonder as you pass by, and what stories can they tell us about their neighborhood?

This is what happens to me whenever I walk by 461 and 463 West 18th Street, just off Tenth Avenue.

These twin carriage houses were built in the 1880s, when the area known today as West Chelsea was a working-class industrial district of low-rise flats and factories.

The earliest image I could find of the twin stables dates to 1932 (above). You can see them tucked behind a corner restaurant. Cyrus Rheims, the name on a building sign on Tenth Avenue, rented and sold draft horses. Maybe the stables were built for Rheims.

Or perhaps the stables housed the horses used by the West Side Cowboys. These were the men hired to ride in front of the street-level freight trains that roared up Tenth Avenue from the 1850s to the mid-1930s, warning pedestrians out of the way (not always successfully; hundreds were killed over the years).

By 1938, when Berenice Abbott took this photo of the carriage houses for her exhibit and subsequent book Changing New York, number 463 “was attached to a corner liquor store at 130 Tenth Avenue,” the book notes in an updated index.

With curtains in the windows of number 461, it was likely a residence—maybe the man and woman on the right made it their hideaway. “These businesses, and the junk shop at number 461, served the seamen and dockworkers of the still-active West Side waterfront.”

Here’s a 1941 photo of the corner, with the two carriage houses (now painted white, along with 130 Tenth Avenue) in the center. Deliverymen unload their trucks; a tire business has taken over three tenements.

The freight trains on Tenth Avenue are gone, replaced in 1934 by elevated trains running along the new High Line. The gleaming New York of modernity, symbolized by the Empire State Building, appears far away.

By the 1970s, with industry in decline and the Hudson River waterfront all but abandoned, Tenth Avenue and 18th Street was a desolate place, judging from this 1975 photo by Edmund V. Gillon.

The shipping industry on the waterfront was gone, though the freight trains on the High Line were still running. Small businesses like Congo Tires, however, continued to hang on.

By 2000, twenty years after the High Line’s abandoned rail tracks were reclaimed by weeds, the carriage houses were looking better.

French restaurant La Lunchonette had opened on the corner in 1988, taking over the ground floor at number 463. But note the bars on the door of number 461—a holdover of a more crime-ridden West Chelsea.

Here we are in 2017, and the two carriage houses are prime real estate (take a peek inside the second-floor former hay loft at number 461, courtesy of these listing photos from 2012) in a revitalized, wealthier West Chelsea—thanks in part to the new High Line Park.

La Lunchonette is gone, though. This locals favorite was a casualty of a suddenly trendy neighborhood where landlords can command the kind of sky-high rents no one who lived on West 18th Street when a freight train belched up the avenue could have ever imagined.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: Berenice Abbott, Changing New York; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: MCNY by Edmond Gillon; 2013.3.2.141; sixth photo: mrjumbo.com]

A New York artist paints the 20th century city

March 20, 2017

She may not have reached the same level of success as fellow social realist painters Robert Henri (with whom she exhibited her works at art shows) and William Merritt Chase (her teacher at the Arts Student League in the 1910s).

[“New York Street,” 1912]

But painter Theresa Bernstein did overshadow her male Ashcan school contemporaries in one way. Born in 1890 in Poland, Bernstein lived just shy of her 112th birthday—and that enabled her to paint scenes of city life in almost every decade of the 20th century.

[“In Central Park,” 1914]

A New Yorker since 1912, Bernstein spent much of her adult life living with her husband, painter William Meyerowitz, in a rent-stabilized West 74th Street studio near Central Park.

[“In the Elevated,” 1916]

Her early work reflects the people she saw going about their lives outside her window, as well as the events of the time, from European immigrants on the bow of a ship heading toward Ellis Island to Armistice Day celebrations to Suffrage meetings.

[“Brighton Beach” 1916]

Bernstein often depicted crowds too, particularly in rich, dark tones. Mothers and children were another popular theme, perhaps because Bernstein’s only child died at age 3 of pneumonia. (She reportedly doted on a niece, who grew up to be singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.)

Her Jewish identity figured into her art as well, with scenes inside New York’s synagogues in the 1910s and 1920s.

[“Baby Carriages Laundry Day,” 1923, Park Slope]

Navigating the art world as a woman proved to be challenging. “As a woman crossing the gender threshold at the beginning of the new century, Bernstein experienced the excitement of that moment but was not spared the indignity of discrimination,” states the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“Either paying a reluctant compliment or implying criticism, reviewers often described her work as having a “masculine” style.”

[“Waiting Room, Unemployment Office,” date unknown]

Her figurative style may have fallen out of favor as Abstract Expressionism took hold. But Bernstein never stopped painting, putting images of everything from postwar life to hippies in Central Park down on canvas.

Her work can be read as almost a list of milestones and movements in the 20th century—or how one woman experienced 112 years of history.

[“Saturday Morning Upper West Side,” 1940s]

Asked in a New York Times article from 1990 how she felt about being overlooked throughout her career, she replied:

“I never got frustrated, because I didn’t expect anything. I enjoyed painting the works I did. I didn’t do it for public acclaim.”

An extensive look at Bernstein’s life and work can be found here.

13 stories of Art Nouveau beauty in Manhattan

March 13, 2017

The magnificent boulevards of Prague and Vienna are resplendent with Art Nouveau building facades, lobbies, and public transit entrances.

But the sinuous lines and naturalistic curves characteristic of this artistic style never caught on in turn-of-the-century New York, where architects seemed to prefer the stately Beaux Arts or more romantic Gothic Revival fashion.

It’s this rarity of Art Nouveau in Gotham that makes the 13-story edifice at 20 Vesey Street so spectacular.

Completed in 1907, this is the former headquarters for the New York Evening Post—the precursor to today’s New York Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton.

The building is across the street from the graveyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel off Broadway, a wonderful place to look up and linger.

Architect Robert D. Kohn designed the limestone structure with three rows of wavy windows and crowned it with a copper roof.

At the 10th floor, Kohn added a playful touch for a media company: four figures meant to represent the “Four Periods of Publicity“: the spoken word, the written word, the printed word, and the newspaper.

Note the “EP” insignia decorating the iron railings that link the four figures.

The Evening Post moved out in 1930, and today 20 Vesey is known as the Garrison Building, which houses a fairly typical mix of businesses behind its European-like facade.

Art Nouveau–inspired buildings are scattered in different pockets of New York, such as this former department store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

Plans for an Art Nouveau hotel around the corner on Church Street drawn up in 1908 by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, unfortunately, never panned out.

[Third photo, 1910, MCNY x2010.7.1.887]

Elizabeth Street’s old-school meat market signs

March 6, 2017

On trendy Elizabeth Street in the Little Italy rechristened Nolita, two vintage meat store signs harken back to the days when Sicilian-owned businesses lined the streets and butchers did a good trade in live chickens and rabbits.

albanesemeatsign

Albanese Meats & Poultry looks abandoned, while Moe’s Meat Market across the street has been transformed into gallery space.

moesmeatmarket

The 1960s and 1970s-esque signs remain, just like this ghostly Italian bakery sign (over an antiques store) farther down the block.