Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

September 9, 2019

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

The 9/11 memorial soaring over Third Avenue

September 9, 2019

“The Braves of 9/11” appeared on Third Avenue off East 49th Street last year, joining these and other memorial murals on New York City streets.

But artist Eduardo Kobra said this last year after his seven-story mural was unveiled, via Time Out New York: “The image contains details that allude to the historical episode. On the helmet, I wrote the numbers 343. This is a reference to the number of firefighters killed that day.”

“There is also a representation of the Twin Towers, and the flag of the United States. The stars represent all the lives that were lost in the tragedy—which left nearly 3,000 dead. Lastly, the colors have one goal: To pass on a message of life, of a restart, of reconstruction.”

A Village painter’s dynamic 1930s street scene

September 2, 2019

You can practically feel the energy and vitality in painter Alfred S. Mira’s depiction of the daily rhythms of a New York street.

Shops are open, trucks make deliveries, a couple crosses the street, a mother pushes a baby carriage, a father walks with his daughter while a woman walks her dog, and presumably the next day and every day after that, this corner hummed with the same life and dynamism.

But what colorful tenement corner are we on in the the New York of the 1930s or 1940s? (The date of the painting isn’t clear.)

Born in Italy, Mira called Greenwich Village home and tended to paint gritty to enchanting street scenes from his neighborhood.

Though this painting is titled “Greenwich Village New York” by Questroyal Fine Art LLC, a 1943 Los Angeles Times article covering an exhibit of Mira’s in LA printed the painting and called it “Greenwich Ave. and 11th Street.”

Alienation and isolation near Washington Square

August 12, 2019

In 1925, Edward Hopper likely went up to the roof of his studio at 3 Washington Square North to complete this painting of the top two stories of an old building.

He ultimately titled it “Skyline, Near Washington Square.”

“The brownstone’s facade is encrusted with Victorian cornices, brackets, arched and square window moulds picked out with heavy shadows,” wrote Gerry Souter in his book, Edward Hopper. “The sides are whitewashed brick seared with sunlight.”

The building is like a dowager of another era, pretty in its day but now isolated, alienated, and stripped of its humanity in the modern urban cityscape.

Or maybe the building is Edward Hopper? Apparently this painting with its “gangly skyscraper” was originally titled “Self-Portrait,” according to Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.

Which “East River Park” is in this 1902 painting?

August 5, 2019

When William Glackens painted “East River Park” in 1902—contrasting the serenity of a city green space with the noisy industrial riverfront—the park that currently stretches along the riverfront called East River Park had yet to be created.

So what East River park did he depict here? Perhaps Corlears Hook Park, at the bend where Manhattan tucks under itself between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges?

This was certainly a smoggy, ship-choked channel at the turn of the last century. The city purchased land here in the 1880s for the creation of a park, completed in 1905.

Neighboring East River Park didn’t exist until the 1930s, and according to the Brooklyn Museum, which owns the painting, a label on it indicates that the Brooklyn waterfront is depicted.

Or maybe his “East River Park” (closeup of the women and girl above) was farther upriver in Yorkville at today’s Carl Schurz Park—with a view of the factories and ship traffic of Hell Gate and Queens?

“The southern portion of the park was set aside by the City as East River Park in 1876,” according to NYC Parks. “The former Gracie estate was added in 1891 and a new landscape design by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons was completed in 1902.”

Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?

July 22, 2019

This is the story of an 1889 painting, a mysterious stone wall, and a religious institution that occupied part of today’s Central Park in the mid-19th century—before the park was even in the planning stages.

It starts with Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. He was dubbed the “artistic interpreter” of Central Park and Prospect Park in an 1891 Harper’s Weekly article, owing to his many evocative landscapes of these and other city green spaces.

One Chase painting that stands out as darker and more mysterious than most of his park landscapes is this one (above) from 1889, “In the Park (a By-Path).”

A child under a watchful nanny wanders away from a park bench and follows a stone wall, “one of those sections of rough rock-work which give character to the many nooks and corners of the Park at the same time that they serve a useful end,” wrote Charles De Key in Harper’s Weekly.

Where was—or currently is—this “rough rock-work,” and what was its useful end?

According to various sources, this impressive stone wall is what remained of a convent and school called the Academy of Mount St. Vincent (above in 1861), the first institute of higher learning for women in New York.

Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent had the misfortune of setting up shop East of Fifth Avenue at about today’s 105th Street, in what would become Central Park a decade later.

The school relocated in the 1850s to Riverdale, where it continues its educational mission today. The college buildings left behind in the park burned down in 1881.

That rough rock wall, apparently a retaining wall from one of the original buildings, still stands behind the Conservatory Garden not far from a stone that marks the former site of the college (above left).

I went looking for the wall in this hilly, rocky section of Central Park. The mosquitos and thick brush kept me from finding it.

Luckily some other intrepid New Yorkers did locate it, like Michael Minn, whose 2007 photograph of the retaining wall is above. It doesn’t look exactly like the wall in Chase’s painting—artistic license, or the effects of time?

The folks from Untapped Cities also have a photo of the wall from 2017.

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: Copyright © Michael Minn]

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

The pretty country house on a 75th Street estate

June 10, 2019

Today’s 75th Street and Third Avenue is an unbroken stretch of postwar apartment houses and turn of the century tenements.


Now imagine this intersection 150 years ago—when it was the site of a three-story, clapboard-windowed country house surrounded by a wooden picket fence and acres of green grass and trees.

This was the Grenseback Estate, and an 1866 illustration (at top) from Valentine’s Manual captured the pretty scene that resembles something out of the antebellum South.

(At left, a 1935 painting of the estate house by Helen Miller from the National Gallery of Art—perhaps painted from the 1866 image?)

Who were the Grensebacks, and how did they come to own such a spectacular estate? That’s something of a mystery.

Books and newspapers from 19th century New York City mention members of the family and refer to the estate, which was apparently near “two separate Schermerhorn houses” situated “near the East River and about four miles from the City Hall.”

The Riker house, the estate home of another old New York family, was also close, as was Mount Pleasant, the Beekman family mansion on 50th Street and today’s Beekman Place.

These large homes amid the fields and forests of primeval Manhattan almost entirely vanished by the turn of the century. But how lovely it must have been in the 1800s to enjoy clean fresh air away from the city center!

[First image: NYPL; second image, National Gallery of Art]

The hidden sundial in a Central Park sculpture

June 3, 2019

Central Park has an astounding 9,000 or so benches arranged throughout the park.

But there’s one unique marble bench on the East Side of the park that has something no other bench can lay claim to.

It’s a sundial—and it’s hidden behind a tiny sculpture of a female figure on Waldo Hutchins Bench, just inside Inventor’s Gate at East 72nd Street.

The sculpture is the work of Paul Manship, who created the Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center along with several whose whimsical bronze animals also found in Central Park.

Who was Waldo? He was a founder of the park in the 19th century and also sat on the Parks Department board. The bench was built in 1932, according to a 1997 New York Times piece and was paid for by Hutchins’ son.

The sundial isn’t the only celestial feature of this bench. (It’s also not the only sundial in Central Park; there’s one in the Shakespeare Garden closer to the West Side.)

“Three arcs inscribed in the semicircular area in front of the bench coincide with its shadow lines at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes,” the Times states.

The bench also has some words of wisdom inscribed in it in Latin. ”Alteri Vivas Oportet si Vis Tibi Vivere” translates into ”One must live for another if he wishes to live for himself,” according to the Times.

The sundial itself also offers advice. ”Ne Diruatur Fuga Temporum,” or ”Let it not be destroyed by the passage of time.” Words to ponder on your next stroll through the park.