Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

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.

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.