Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

“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.

A midcentury artist’s New York from her window

May 13, 2019

Born in 1887 in Vienna, Emma Fordyce MacRae grew up in early 20th century New York—attending the private Chapin and Brearley Schools before enrolling in the Art Students League in 1911 and studying with John Sloan.

She made a name for herself as a member of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of female artists who exhibited together.

As the 20th century went on, MacRae married and moved to 888 Park Avenue. She apparently never stopped painting, keeping a studio at 12 West 69th Street, according to her New York Times obituary in 1974.

“New York From My Window” was painted between 1957 and 1962. It’s a deceptively simple work depicting a streetscape under blue skies almost empty of traffic and people.

What I want to know is, where exactly is the window she painted from, and what sliver of New York did this artist who should be better known immortalize?

The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

April 22, 2019

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The man in a concrete wall in the tenement city

April 8, 2019

Edward Hopper spent four decades chronicling the isolation of modern urban life: people unconnected to each other in a cafe, a lone person on an elevated train, and building facades almost empty of humanity.

Yet perhaps none of his paintings are as haunting as “Office in a Small City,” from 1953. Here, Hopper gives us a symbolic everyman with his shirtsleeves rolled up—sitting at a desk inside an office with windows so large it almost resembles a zoo exhibit.

He’s gazing past the tenement tops across the street, ostensibly imagining a bigger life for himself, one not confined by the low-rise cityscape he’s part of right now.

“Reprising one of his signature subjects—a solitary figure, physically and emotionally detached from his surroundings and other people—it was described by the artist’s wife as ‘the man in concrete wall,'” explains the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the painting in its collection.

Desolation and isolation on the East River in 1909

March 25, 2019

Social realist painter George Bellows completed “Bridge, Blackwell’s Island,” in 1909, which is also the year of the opening of the Queensboro Bridge, as this span over the East River was called at the time.

Like the East River waterfront, Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island) was to Bellows a place on the margin—where refuse, industry, and those who were edged out by 20th century urban life were relegated.

This look at the bridge almost devoid of people seems to say something about the desolation and isolation of the contemporary city.

Smokestacks belch, a tugboat speeds through the choppy river, a lone man not much bigger than a speck is tending to something on the dock—and four children shrouded in darkness peer across the water—perhaps contemplating the modern metropolis they’re part of.

The mysterious mosaic at 88 University Place

March 25, 2019

University Place is only seven blocks long—but this Greenwich Village street has its share of historic plaques.

One marks the Hotel Albert, the spectacular Victorian Gothic “French Flats” opened in 1887 between Tenth and Eleventh Streets that was a haven for creative types before becoming a co-op in the 1980s.

At 113 University Place is a bronze tablet dedicated to the New York State Militia’s Ninth Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. And at number 90, a sign marks the walkup building where poet Frank O’Hara lived in the 1960s.

But there’s another, more unusual marker in front of the 1900s-era loft building at 88 University Place (at left) that carries some mystery.

This one is a mosaic. “Kaliski & Gabay 88” it reads, in a funky blue and white tile typeface.

Who were Kaliski and Gabay? Fine arts auctioneers who operated their business here auctioning paintings, rare books, rugs, and other items as early as 1914; that’s the earlist reference I found of the fine auction house Arthur Kaliski and Richard Gabay founded.

The place was really rocking in the first half of the 20th century. Kaliski died in 1946 at age 63, but his Brooklyn Eagle obituary stated, “his performance every Friday and Saturday, except holidays, was regarded as a good show and drew crowds of more than 200 persons at a time” to the University Place auction house.

This 1947 newspaper ad makes note of their auctions (and a GR phone number!).

At some point around 1950, it seems the auction house shut down. Today, it’s a WeWork, and I wonder if the workers here ever think about the names they have to step past to enter the building.

[Fourth image: New York Herald, December 1922]

A city printmaker of “twilight, shadow, mystery”

March 11, 2019

Like other New York City printmakers in the 1930s, Armin Landeck’s etchings and engravings focus on the city’s dark corners and mysterious pockets.

[“Housetops, 14th Street,” 1937]

His work displays the kind of familiarity with the city one would expect from an artist who grew up peering around the early 20th century Manhattan of dimly lit bars, shadowy elevated trains, and hidden tenement roofs.

[“Pop’s Tavern.” 1934]

But he was not a New York City native. Born in Wisconsin in 1904, Landeck arrived in Gotham to study architecture at Columbia University and attend summer classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street.

[“Manhattan Vista,” 1934]

“By the time of his graduation from Columbia in 1927, he had become interested in printmaking and had bought a used press,” states the website for the National Gallery of Art. When he couldn’t find a job as an architect, he turned to printmaking.

Though he lived in Connecticut, he taught in New York and had a studio on 14th Street. Landeck spent much of his career rendering nocturnes of rooftops, stairwells, street corners, and other “secretive places amid the very public place, Manhattan,” as the New York Times put it in a 1998 article.

[“Manhattan Nocturne,” 1938]

“Like Hopper, Landeck uses the human figure sparely; he was more interested in the surroundings, and his ambience of choice obviously was urban,” stated the Times.

[“Approaching Storm,” 1937]

In a 1980 Times article, Landeck addressed the fact that often the only person in one of his prints is the viewer. “That there are no people is intentional on my part, because I look at New York in terms of theater very often,” he said.

Landeck’s work became more abstract as the 20th century continued, but no less accomplished. Still, his prints from the 1930s and 1940s might best exemplify his style. Armin was “ever the master of twilight, of shadow, and mystery,” as one 2003 book title described him.

[Prints 1, 2, and 4: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Print 3: Artnet; Print 5: Artnet]

The men who worked the Brooklyn docks in 1912

February 25, 2019

Painter George Bellows captured early 20th century New York’s lovelier moments: a blanket of bluish snow over the Battery, a girl’s enchantment with Gramercy Park, and carefree boys swimming off an East River pier.

But this social realist also cast his eye on the city’s grittier scenes. “Men of the Docks,” completed in 1912, is one of those—showing us a group of men literally pushed to the margins of Brooklyn, where they’ve gathered on a raw morning at an East River pier and face uncertainty.

These day laborers, “await jobs on the docks of Brooklyn on a grey winter morning. The towers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance,” states London’s National Gallery, where the painting hangs.