Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

What the bronze reliefs on 195 Broadway mean

June 11, 2018

Inspired by ancient Greece, the 27-story office tower at 195 Broadway features a marble lobby and interior classical columns.

The building, completed in 1922, also paid tribute to what qualified as modern communication at the time. This was the new headquarters for AT&T, after all, and company heads topped the tower on the Fulton Street side with a sculpture called “Genius of Telegraphy,” a 24-foot winged male figure cast in bronze holding bolts of electricity in its hand.

“Gold Boy,” as that statue was nicknamed, is no longer there. But four bronze reliefs on the facade of 195 Broadway still exist. Instead of paying tribute to modern communications, they hark back to ancient times.

The four reliefs are collectively titled “The Four Elements,” an early work by sculptor Paul Manship, who designed the Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Plaza.

Manship honored the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. According to Landmarks Preservation Committee report from 2006 (the year 195 Broadway was deemed a landmark site), the panels there today are copies of the originals.

They’re somewhat racy for the 1920s, with topless female figures. And it’s a little strange to see them outside the latest branch of trendy retailer Anthropologie, which now occupies the ground floor.

But the Art Deco touches—and the elements they celebrate—make these reliefs an inspiring break along the canyons of Lower Broadway.

[Top photo: Blue Rock Construction]

The spider in the web on a 57th street building

May 28, 2018

Owls, bats, elephants, rats, rams, horses, squirrels—there’s a Noah’s Ark of animals decorating New York’s prewar buildings and apartment houses.

But I’ve never seen anything quite as whimsical as the spider webs at 340 East 57th Street, between Second and First Avenues.

The windows and doors along the ground floor all have cast iron webs, and they’re a wonderful touch on a stretch of elegant and exclusive co-ops with kind of a staid and sedate feel.

Even better, one of webs on a utility door has a spider in it, although whoever designed it gave the predator just six legs, not eight.

But just like in real life, this spider is hiding and waiting, hanging out until prey gets stuck in his trap.

340 East 57th has another fun animal ornament higher up on the facade: sea dragons (or sea horses?). A pair of pheasants welcome tenants and guests on the lobby doors.

A memorial to the Gilded Age’s favorite architect

May 28, 2018

The curved monument to American-born architect Richard Morris Hunt sits weathered and leaf-covered at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street.

Though not a household name these days, Hunt (below right, in a portrait by John Singer Sargent) was the man who sculpted the look of the Gilded Age.

A brilliant visionary with a reputation for humility and humor, Hunt was the starchitect for high society yet also the genius behind public institutions and what’s regarded as the city’s first apartment house.

The memorial site is a fitting location; within the surrounding blocks once stood some of the spectacular buildings he designed.

Across Fifth Avenue was the Lenox Library, a private precursor to the public library system developed after the turn of the century.

(When the Lenox Library building was torn down, Henry Clay Frick built his exquisite mansion-turned-museum in its place.)

At Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, Hunt designed the mansion for Mrs. Caroline Astor and her son.

Astor left her previous, less showy mansion at 33rd Street in the 1890s, after her nephew decided to demolish his neighboring mansion and build the Hotel Waldorf.

Hunt was commissioned to build a double mansion, where Mrs. Astor and her son’s family could live in the French Renaissance splendor fashionable among the city’s wealthiest at the time.

(The Astor mansion was demolished in the 1920s, replaced by Temple Emanu-El.)

Hunt also designed “Petit Chateau” for W.K. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife, Alva, in 1883 at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

(Petit Chateau, the site of the 1883 costume ball that secured Alva Vanderbilt’s place in society, was also demolished in the 1920s.)

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was another Hunt creation.

After his death in 1895, plans for a memorial to the man who designed the Gilded Age were drawn. Daniel Chester French (he did the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) created Hunt’s monument.

The understated site features a “central bust of the architect,” states centralparknyc.org. “A semicircular portico and curved bench support decorative columns and a cornice.”

“At each end stands a female figure, allegorical statues of Architecture, and Painting, and Sculpture,” explains the site.

It’s a perfectly Gilded Age-esque monument to the man who had much influence over the way the era looked—quite elaborate and fanciful compared to our pared-down, minimalist tastes today.

[Last photo: Wikipedia]

The glory days of Julian’s 14th Street pool hall

May 21, 2018

If you spent any time east of Union Square from the 1930s to the early 1990s, you might remember Julian’s, one of the last of New York’s dark and smoky billiards halls. It ended its run on the second floor of the old Palladium building in 1991.

Ephemeral New York has celebrated Julian’s before, where (mostly) men and teenage boys shot pool and played hooky from work and life. But these noir-ish 1938 photos of Julian’s are another reason to bring it back again.

Reginald Marsh shot these images. He’s better known as an artist of the 1920s to 1940s who was drawn to the city’s seedy underbelly along the Bowery, at Times Square, and on Coney Island.

But he took a series of photos in the 1930s along 14th Street as well, capturing Depression-era New York’s grit, glamour, and many forgotten men.

A long shadowy staircase leading to the second floor entrance, the electric sign with “ladies invited” underneath, the ad for table tennis, the barber pole advertising a cut and shave to the left . . . these photos are an invitation to 1930s New York City. (Above photo, Julian’s in the 1980s).

[First and second images: MCNY: 90.36.2.30.1A; 90.36.2.30.1C. Third image: Warehouse magazine]

Shadows and light under the El in Yorkville, 1947

May 7, 2018

No one depicts New York’s shadows and light like Martin Lewis, who made numerous drypoint etchings of city streets and the people inhabiting them from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“Yorkville Night” reveals a corner under an unnamed elevated train in the postwar city. There’s darkness, but the streetcar tracks, pavement, produce stand, and station stairwells are brightly illuminated, giving us a peek into a fleeting moment in this Upper East Side neighborhood.

The only thing we can’t see are the faces of the people.

See more of Martin Lewis’ work here.

The view from the last shot tower in Manhattan

May 7, 2018

Nineteenth century New York was a very low-rise city.

At 281 feet, Trinity Church’s spire dominated the skies above Manhattan, with other church steeples and fire watchtowers aiming toward the heavens as well.

Shot towers were part of the skyline too. These were built to manufacture shot balls; lead was heated and then dropped through a sieve down a thin tower, and as it cooled, round pieces of ammunition formed.

In the mid-1800s, manufacturers put up shot towers on Centre Street, Water Street, Beekman Street, East 15th Street, and East 53rd Street beside the East River.

But the East 53rd Street tower held out the longest and became an early 20th century icon.

Originally built in the early 1820s as Youle’s shot tower, it was “partially destroyed by an explosion and fire,” in 1857, explains stuffnobodycaresabout.com. “It was rebuilt with imported Holland brick with walls that were seven feet thick.”

Perhaps because of its bucolic location miles from the center of the city, or maybe due to its lighthouse-like design, the 53rd Street shot tower was a frequent subject for painters and illustrators.

Landscape painter Jasper Cropsey painted it in 1845, at the top left, showing the small inlet where boats ferried people to the institutions of Blackwell’s Island.

The second illustration was done in 1831 and included this caption: “It is about four miles and a quarter from the city, and rises to the height of one hundred and fifty feet in one of the pleasantest spots on the island.”

Landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church took a stab at it in this 1846 oil painting, showing the shot tower peeking through thick trees. (And look, cows!)

The last two photos show the shot tower in 1905 and 1906, long after the cows and trees had been cleared and manufacturing took over East 53rd Street.

In 1920, Youle’s tower—almost a century old—met the wrecking ball. The New York Herald published a fitting elegy.

“What sights of municipal history it has viewed. What scenes of lovemaking it has witnessed on the nearby Kissing Bridge. What changes it has seen on Blackwell’s Island and on the island of Manhattan in its vicinity.”

“The fields which once comprised the Spring Valley Farm are now a wilderness of gas works, breweries, stone yards, and tenement houses….How these bluffs would be tended and beautified if they existed in the heart of certain European capitals is a thought that accentuates the present ugliness.”

These days we don’t have shot towers or manufacturing in the East 50s. Apartment towers loom on 53rd Street down to the river, and on the Queens side too.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.5519; fifth photo: x2010.11.5523]

This parking garage was once a silent film studio

May 7, 2018

I’ve always loved the bright neon 20th Century Garage sign at 318 East 48th Street.

But I had no idea that the garage behind the sign was once a movie studio—where famous silent screen stars churned out the comedies and melodramas early 20th century audiences couldn’t get enough of.

On the first floor was the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, opened around 1916.

Her name might not be well-known today, but Norma Talmadge (left) was an A-list actress in the teens and early 1920s.

Talmadge was a plucky young woman who often played the lead in dramas and romantic comedies; she got her start doing bit parts at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush while still a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance made her films.

 

Constance Talmadge, also a bit player at Vitagraph, was a star in her own right. She played “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and became a popular comedic actress.

Also in the same building was the Comique Film Corporation, where Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton made slapstick films like The Butcher Boy.

The thread uniting all these stars was Norma’s much older husband, Joseph Schenck—a producer who brought his different movie concerns under one roof for a brief time until 1921, according to Hollywood on the Hudson.

After that, Schenck and his stars decamped to Hollywood. New York’s brief run as the movie-making capital of the country was coming to an end.

Norma and Constance’s careers didn’t last much longer either. Once talkies hit the scene, the two were edged out and mostly retired from screen roles. Reportedly they made lots of cash from their movie days, getting a cut of the box office.

It’s been a century since the garage was a film studio—but imagine the glamour in that warehouse all those years ago!

[Fourth photo: The Real Deal]

Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island

April 30, 2018

We know it as Roosevelt island. But until the 1920s, it was Blackwell’s Island—the two-mile spit of land in the East River.

Here, the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other institutions.

Edward Hopper’s 1928 painting, Blackwell’s Island, contrasts the cobalt blue waters of the East River (so lovely a speedboat is whizzing along) with the island’s haunting past as a broken-down dumping ground for so-called undesirables.

There’s almost no one in the painting—but you can feel the humanity emanating from those buildings.

Hopper “painted this work at the height of his powers and it exemplifies some of the best of Hopper’s style: a complex architectural composition with a full range of light and shadow, few people and the drama of the past colliding with the present in the form of historic architecture meeting modern,” says Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, which owns the painting.

Emptying the ash barrels on a tenement block

April 23, 2018

It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Sidewalks in late 19th century New York were lined with ash barrels—where people dumped the ashes from their furnaces as well as rotting food and household refuse. (And very sadly, infants too.)

Similar to the sanitation workers of today who empty trash cans into hulking vehicles, the ash men came by to empty the barrel’s filthy contents into a horse-drawn cart. The ashes would then be transferred to a dump—like Queens’ infamous “Valley of Ashes” in Corona.

Louis Maurer’s painting shows what the job was like. In “View of Forty-Third Street West of Ninth Avenue,” you can practically hear the roar of rowdy kids and the Ninth Avenue El screeching overhead.

This was Longacre Square in 1883, the center of the city’s horse and carriage trade—an area that earned the nickname “Thieves Lair” for its sketchy reputation.