Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

A 1941 painting reveals a lost Brooklyn street

September 21, 2020

New York City has a shadow metropolis of hundreds of demapped streets—roads, avenues, and ordinary blocks that were removed from the streetscape over the centuries because they didn’t fit the encroaching street grid or were wiped out by new development.

It’s fun to find references to them in the contemporary city. A few examples: the manhole covers embossed with “Goerck Street” across Manhattan or signs for the ‘Fourth Avenue Building” on Park Avenue South.

But a striking painting by Miklos Suba, a Hungarian-born Precisionist painter who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1924, brought to my attention another demapped street in a formerly industrial swath of the borough.

“York Street/Flint Street Corner (House in Shadow)” was painted in 1941, a clean, controlled, and geometric depiction of the back of tenement and factory buildings in Brooklyn. (Top image)

York Street is still here, stretching from DUMBO to Vinegar Hill. But what happened to Flint Street, a one-and-a-half block alley under the Manhattan Bridge approach? (Second image)

The first mention I found of it is in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on street names from 1869. By the middle of the century, Flint Street seemed to have vanished without a trace.

It wasn’t a casualty of the development of Cadman Plaza, which opened in 1939. Perhaps it was demapped because of changes to the Brooklyn Bridge approach, or maybe the industrial buildings of the surrounding streets subsumed it.

[Above photo: Front Street looking toward Flint Street, 1927]

I bet Suba would know. A resident of Montague Street and later Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, Suba developing an intimate relationship with the borough he lived in until his death in 1944, capturing buildings in bold colors and devoid of people. (“Smith Street,” 1930, is another example of his work, above)

[Top image: McNay Art Museum; second image: LOC; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Whitney Museum]

Meet the “artist laureate” of the East River

September 7, 2020

The East River—its bridges, boats, and natural beauty—has inspired centuries of artists. But few have depicted the river with the richness and romanticism of Woldemar Neufeld.

[“Beekman Place Houses”]

Neufeld’s journey to New York City was marked by tragedy. Born in Southern Russia in 1909, his Mennonite family immigrated to Waterloo, Ontario, after his father was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1920 following the Russian Revolution, states the Waterloo Public Library.

[“East River in Winter”]

After establishing himself as an artist in 1933, he continued studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University. In the mid-1940s, he, his wife, and his young family moved to Manhattan.

[“Henderson Houses”]

Neufeld lived on East End Avenue, one block from the East River waterfront on the Upper East Side. Even after relocating his family home to Connecticut, he maintained his studio there for 30 years.

[“Hell Gate at Night”]

”When I moved to East End Avenue, it began a new chapter in my life,” he told the New York Times in a 1986 interview. ”For years I painted nothing but the East River. Some people down there still call me the artist laureate of the East River.”

[“John Finley Walk”]

He painted other scenes of New York as well. But his East River images (the first four in this post are linocuts, a printmaking technique using linoleum, and the fifth is a woodblock print) capture the vivid brilliance of the river and midcentury city.

Neufeld depicts the heroic workaday river, where ships belch smoke and tugboats fight through ice. He also gives us the enchantment: an illuminated bridge at night, a soft dusting of snow on riverside park trees, and the popping colors of a luxury block as seen from the river.

His style might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But these narrative prints reveal Neufeld’s (at right in 1950) love and appreciation of the stories the East River tells, as well as the energy and vitality of the city beside it.

[Top image: 1stdibs; second image: George Glazer Gallery; third image: Gregory James Gallery; fourth image: Gregory James Gallery; fifth image: Hibid.com; sixth image: Hartford Courant, 1950]

What New Yorkers wore to Coney Island in 1879

August 3, 2020

“Beach Scene,” by Samuel S. Carr, is your portal into what people looked like when they visited a pristine, boardwalk-free Coney Island in 1879.

It won’t be long before placid beach scenes like this are replaced by throngs of city residents looking for fun and adventure, and Sodom by the Sea is born.

The brick beauty of a 1902 East Side power plant

June 29, 2020

Walk along the East River Greenway on the Upper East Side—the breezy riverside path beside the FDR Drive—and you’ll pass hospital buildings, apartment residences, and parks.

But a remnant of a different New York appears as you approach 74th Street.

It’s a dirty red brick and stone fortress, a massive edifice with enormous Romanesque arched windows, the rare building that comes off as hulking and massive while also graceful and elegant.

This citadel could be a former factory or armory. But it’s actually a power plant—something of a companion to a similar power station built across Manhattan at roughly the same time on 11th Avenue and 59th Street.

Completed in 1902 and still in use today, the 74th Street coal-powered generating plant enabled elevated train steam locomotives running on Manhattan’s avenues to switch to electricity.

The debut of electric-powered el trains marked a huge shift in health and safety.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, the powerhouse enabled the transition from steam locomotives to cleaner electric trains, fundamentally improving conditions in the city,” states Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, about a 2014 New York Transit Museum exhibit focusing on the 74th Street power station.

“Before the switch, smoke, cinders, and soot from steam-powered elevated trains plagued Manhattan, blackening the air and dirtying the streets. With the opening of the Manhattan Railway Company’s 74th Street Powerhouse in 1902, those irksome steam engines soon became a thing of the past.”

I’ve passed this powerhouse several times recently, and though I didn’t know its backstory, it always looked familiar to me.

Turns out the red-brick building is in this 1934 painting of the East River, a favorite of mine. Painter Jara Henry Valenta gives us a still and solitary view of the coal boats waiting at the water’s edge, with no FDR drive in the way.

“Though the 74th Street Power Station is still in use today, it is no longer coal powered,” states the Museum of the City of New York.

“In 1959 the plant was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company and it continued to supply coal power to substations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In 1999 new boilers and gas turbine generators replaced steam ones and the station continues to contribute to the city’s electric power grid.”

MCNY’s digital collection of photos of the plant under construction is fascinating, as well as the images revealing the inside of this cavernous monument to power and energy.

[Third image: MCNY, F2012.53.270A; Fourth image, MCNY, F2012.53.308A]

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.