Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

An 1897 building and a changing West 57th Street

June 1, 2020

When Lee’s Art Shop closed in 2016, New Yorkers lost an interesting and unusual place to buy art supplies and crafts.

What was also lost? An excuse to visit interesting and unusual 220 West 57th Street.

Lee’s occupied the four-story building since 1975. Completed in 1897, the building reflects the rise and fall of this stretch of 57th Street as both a cultural hub and a point along Manhattan’s “Automobile Row.”

It’s not easy to recognize now, as 57th Street is undergoing luxurification with new offices and residential towers. But in the late 19th century, the street first took shape as an artistic center.

Early apartment residences that catered to artists and musicians went up, such as The Osborne across the street.

Studio buildings were also built, joined by the Art Student League (also across the street), Carnegie Hall (a half-block east), and numerous galleries and music showrooms.

So it made sense when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which included architects, decided to build their headquarters in the late 1890s on West 57th Street, a budding center of the arts and creativity.

The ASCE clubhouse, complete with reading rooms, a library, and an auditorium, opened its doors in November 1897. (Above left, in 1897, and at right, in 1903.) Reviews lauded the building as interesting, artistic, and harmonious.

One reviewer called it “a beautiful example of French Renaissance in Indiana limestone richly carved,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission report in 2008.

In 1917, after an annex had been added, the ASCE moved to West 39th Street and began leasing 220 West 57th Street.

The businesses that rented and altered the space in 1918 were also a reflection of the industry that encompassed Broadway and West 57th Street: cars.

Early in the century, Broadway between roughly Times Square and West 66th Street was the city’s “automobile row.”

“By 1910, there were dozens of automobile-related businesses, including many small automobile or body manufacturers, lining Broadway particularly between West 48th Street and Columbus Circle,” stated the LPC report.

Ajax Rubber Company, which made tires, moved into 220. The ground floor was renovated with big showroom windows, and then the ground floor was subleased to Stearns-Knight Automobiles, a luxury car maker based in Cleveland.

Automobile Row lasted into the 1980s. But by the late 1920s, 220 West 57th changed hands again.

It became a Schrafft’s, the casual lunchroom-restaurant chain with franchises all over the city (and such a storied New York business in the 1940s and 1950s, it even made it into a J.D. Salinger story).

Schrafft’s served its much-loved sandwiches, ice cream, and even alcohol (after Prohibition was lifted) for almost 50 years here, catering to shoppers and theater-goers until the chain’s better days had passed and stores shut down in the 1970s.

Lee’s took the space in 1975, later expanding to all four floors. Remnants of the previous tenants remained, according to Christopher Gray, who visited the space in 2000.

“But all around there are tattered fragments of the 1897 building: delicate plaster friezes of floral ornament, wooden trim and gilt decoration,” wrote Gray in The New York Times. “And a Schrafft’s devotee could recognize the restaurant’s 1928 brass and iron staircase, and the marble trim around the second-floor elevator.”

Twenty years after Gray’s visit, Lee’s is gone, and the building sits empty. What’s to become of the delicate limestone structure designed to fit into West 57th’s artistic and then automobile ethos? There’s been talk of new development, but it remains to be seen.

[Third image: American Architect and Building News via Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; fourth image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; sixth image: Alamy; seventh image: LOC]

A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem

April 20, 2020

Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many residents were infected.

Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in “TB Harlem,” from 1940.

“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its collection.

Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by removing a rib.

“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental,” continues the NMWA. “While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.”

When Lenny Bruce hit the stage at Carnegie Hall

February 24, 2020

Fifty-nine years ago in February 1961, thousands of avid fans trudged through 20 inches of snow to Carnegie Hall to see comedian Lenny Bruce—in a show that was recorded and released in a three-record set, The Carnegie Hall Concert.

This famous show, “was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career….The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age,” wrote Albert Goldman in the subsequent LP’s liner notes.

The Carnegie Hall concert was one of this Long Island native’s most iconic New York City moments, perhaps only surpassed by his arrest at Cafe au Go Go on Bleecker Street in 1964 on charges that “his nightclub act was obscene,” reported the New York Times.

Bruce had already been arrested in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago, thanks to this “sick comedian’s” profanity-laced act.

He went on trial in Manhattan Criminal Court and was found guilty…only to be pardoned by New York State in 2003, which was 37 years after his death by speedball.

Bruce’s voice and style inspired a generation of comics. But would a so-called indecent, free-form comic like Bruce be seen as a free speech icon if he was making the rounds of clubs today?

[Top photo: YouTube; second photo: Wikipedia]

Who is taking the steam ferry to Brooklyn in 1836

February 10, 2020

This was how you crossed the East River in the 1830s: by a steam-powered ferry sporting an American flag and a belching smokestack. Perhaps you’d be accompanied by some horses, one attached to a covered wagon.

That’s what this hand-colored 1836 engraving from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by G.K. Richardson after William Henry Bartlett, tells us. It’s simply titled, “The Ferry at Brooklyn, New York.”

You might take this river crossing all in stride and not demonstrate any excitement about it, as the ladies talking in a circle on the left side of the ferry seem to be doing. Or the ferry ride might thrill you or make you ponder things, as you rest against the railing like the figures on the right.

Go to the Smithsonian site via the link above and use the zoom button to really see the ferry riders.

An East Side apartment house’s Medieval touches

January 6, 2020

If the Cloisters is your kind of art museum, then the eight-story building at 40 East 62nd Street is probably your kind of apartment house.

Built in 1911—right about when this block between Park and Madison Avenues was transitioning from a stretch of single-family homes and horse stables—it takes its cues from a Medieval castle.

“Designed by Albert J. Bodker, it is a startling work, a Medieval-style tapestry of brick and glazed terra cotta, with an ebulliently ornamental parapet and vertical bays of windows to light the parlors,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times piece.

Fierce griffins, foliage, a pointed-arch entrance, battlements, and shields make the building seem like it belongs in Middle Ages, according to the Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report from 1981.

The interior of the building I can’t speak to. But the apartments were meant for the wealthy, as this 1915 ad shows.

Seven rooms, three bathrooms, extra servants rooms, lots of light—nice, right?

Amenities like these on an elegant block would appeal to New York’s elite—like Henry Hardenburgh, architect behind the Dakota and the Plaza, who made his home here, according to the AIA Guide to New York City.

[Ad: New York Times, September 1915]

A remnant of the Drama Book Shop from 1962

December 16, 2019

Like so many other New York City specialty bookstores, the Drama Book Shop has a long history of moving around.

First established in 1916 inside the West 42nd Street offices of the New York Drama League, according to a 2017 New York Times article, the shop then moved to 47th Street, and by the late 1950s it occupied a brownstone and then a commercial building on West 52nd Street.

That’s where this relic of one of the 52nd Street stores comes in.

Thumbing through an old catalog of plays, I noticed the front cover had this Drama Book Shop decal across it—displaying not just one of the best store logos ever but also an old 2-letter postal code (used in the days before 5-number ZIP codes) and a two-letter phone exchange, JU for Judson.

(There’s nothing like coming across bits and pieces of the city’s literary glory days while browsing old books, right?)

The catalog, from the Samuel French company, dates back to 1962; twenty years later, the store hopscotched over to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street, then to 250 West 40th Street in 2001.

Forced from the 40th Street location earlier this year, the Drama Book Shop was bought by Lin-Manuel Miranda and three others Hamilton collaborators. An updated New York Times piece from last month says the new store will open on West 39th Street next spring.

7 mystery photos of downtown New York in 1968

November 4, 2019

For a couple of months in 1968, one New Yorker walked around the East and West Villages, aiming a camera loaded with black and white film at the people and buildings encountered on the street.

This New Yorker captured scenes that would be familiar to city residents today. Above is Sixth Avenue looking south toward Jefferson Market, a year after it became a library branch (but before six years before the fortress-like Women’s House of Detention behind it was demolished).

Here’s Gem Spa at Second Avenue (are those Belgian paving blocks on the street?) and St. Mark’s Place. Apparently in 1968 it was Gems Spa.

I’m not sure what block this is, taken from a roof or terrace across the street; I think it’s LaGuardia Place, without the community gardens on the east side of the street, which didn’t come until the 1970s.

Is that a volleyball net in Washington Square Park? It’s set up in the southern end of the park, with Judson Memorial Church and its iconic bell tower in the background.

Back in the East Village again looking down St. Mark’s Place, with the St. Mark’s Theater marquee advertising a Bette Davis film (it was a second-run house at the time).

The park benches at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue are still popular—but you don’t see men in hats and overcoats like this anymore. These folks are old-school East Villagers, and their younger neighbors are hanging out by the church fence near the Biafra sign.

Below, a sidewalk artist displays his work, though it’s hard to know where we are. Soho barely existed at the time; perhaps it’s part of the Greenwich Village art show?

Since most of the images here are easily identifiable, what’s the mystery? That would be who it was who decided to shoot some film of random ordinary street scenes and hang onto the photos for the next 50 or so years. I don’t have an answer…but I know the photographer stashed them in a drawer and basically forgot about them.

[All photos © Ephemeral New York]

An elegy for New York’s 1990s Gen X rock clubs

November 4, 2019

What were you doing during the last week of March 1992?

If you were a music-loving Gen-Xer, you might have been going through the latest Village Voice (yes, the print version that you actually paid for), scanning the ads to see which bands were playing any of the dozens of rock clubs scattered around Manhattan.

Almost all of these venues are gone; the bands that played there also almost all defunct, too.

Roseland, which hosted the Sugarcubes (“the coolest band in the world” according to Rolling Stone in 1988) and a bunch of other 1990s alternative bands, bit the dust in 2014.

CBGB had Toshi Reagon and Smashing Orange on their lineup this early spring week. Mission, in the East Village between A and B, drew more of a hardcore crowd, and women got in free with the ad above.

McGovern’s, on Spring Street, “used to be a great old dive,” according to the late great Lost City blog. Today it’s still a music club, Paul’s Casablanca.

Finally, what would 1990s New York be without the Knitting Factory? This ad is from the original location on East Houston Street, before the music and spoken word venue decamped to Tribeca and then relocated to Williamsburg, where it is today.

Look, indie favorite Luna appeared on April 3!

A 1930s artist’s claustrophobic New York Harbor

October 21, 2019

George Grosz made a name for himself drawing and painting caricatures of life in his native Germany during the postwar Weimar era.

But this Expressionist painter who helped lead the Dada movement left Germany in 1932 and relocated to New York City, turning his cynical eye on his adopted home city.

“New York Harbor,” from 1936, is his take on Depression-era Gotham. The colors are cool and the brush strokes thick, giving New York a tough, chaotic feel.

Grosz is like the gulls flying over the harbor. He’s observing this modern city of industry and power, a place that’s so consumed by progress it doesn’t have room for humanity…notice the total absence of people.

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]