Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

The coal company helped the city survive winter

December 21, 2020

Stuart Davis was a New York artist of the 20th century best known for his playful Modernist paintings filled with bright colors and geometric shapes. But early in his career, he was influenced by the Ashcan School—and he stuck with the social realist style with this 1912 piece, Consumer Coal Company.

It’s a powerful painting that invites viewers to feel the sharp snap of snow whipping around a low-rise block somewhere in New York City. (I’m guessing Lower Manhattan, see the Federal-style houses with the dormer windows.)

Forced to work in the blustery weather, the men from the coal company shovel a load into a sidewalk coal hole, where it can be transferred to the furnace to keep residents from freezing to death.

It probably wasn’t Davis’ intention when he painted this scene to provide insight into how life was lived in New York in 1912. But the painting immortalizes the role the coal companies played in New York winters—when Gotham was still largely dependent on coal-burning furnaces (not to mention horse-pulled wagons).

Little Italy in 1920 in six painterly postcards

December 21, 2020

While looking through the website of the Museum of the City of New York last week, my eyes fixated on what I thought must be a painting: a colorful, somber scene in Little Italy in 1920—the men mostly standing against a brick storefront while women and children sifted through a basket of fresh loaves of bread on the curb.

Which of New York’s many Little Italy neighborhoods is it? Based on one of the postcard captions that mentions Mulberry Bend, this is the Little Italy of Mott and Mulberry Streets. Manhattan had others, one on Bleecker Street and another in East Harlem, which was once the the borough’s biggest Italian enclave.

But is this image, part of a collection of several separate images of life among the vendors and residents of Little Italy, actually a painting? If it is, it’s part of an unusually beautiful postcard series produced by the penny postcard company Raphael Tuck & Sons.

Rather than colorize and reprint photos, perhaps the company commissioned an artist to illustrate these scenes. It might have been worth the effort considering how popular postcards were in the early decades of the 20th century. The new medium allowed people to see brilliant images of other parts of the world in much higher quality than newspaper photos.

“The postcard was to communications at the beginning of the 20th century what the internet is to this one; it was a relatively new idea taking hold like wildfire that revolutionized communication,” states the introduction to the book New York’s Financial District in Vintage Postcards.

Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the leading postcard publishers, capturing images of New York City’s prettiest streets, tourist attractions, and ethnic neighborhoods. (The MCNY collection includes a Raphael Tuck postcard of Chinatown in 1908, among other sites.)

“Raphael Tuck & Sons is generally acknowledged as the greatest picture postcard publisher in the world,” states J.D. Weeks in the introduction to Raphael Tuck US Postcard List. “From the time they produced their first set of twelve postcards in 1899 until they ceased operations in 1962, their postcards have been among the most highly prized to collect.”

The company doesn’t exist anymore, but their postcards live on in archives like that of the MCNY. I’m not sure if these images are colorized photos or paintings they commissioned, but they are lovely and evocative—scenes of an immigrant neighborhood that’s almost entirely vanished.

[All postcards from the Collections Portal of the Museum of the City of New York. First image: X2011.34.2163; second image: X2011.34.2161; third image: X2011.34.2164; fourth image: X2011.34.2162; fifth image: X2011.34.2160; sixth image: X2011.34.2165]

A food vendor’s Christmas on 14th Street in 1904

December 14, 2020

Ashcan school painter Everett Shinn gravitated toward New York’s underdogs: the lonely, the lost, the dreamers, and those who appear to be battered by life’s elements.

This food vendor pushing his flimsy wood cart during the holiday season appears to fall into the latter category. Painted in 1904, “Fourteenth Street at Christmas Time” gives us a blustery, snowy street crowded with Christmas tree buyers and other shoppers beside the lights from store window displays.

Our vendor, however, stands away from everyone, his body crouched to avoid the frightful weather. His cart glows with the warmth of hot food cooking…but he has no buyers.

When Christmas was in the air in 1908 New York

December 7, 2020

“Christmas in the Air” is the title of this illustration, a black and white rendering of various New Yorkers crossing paths on a city street just before the holiday.

James Montgomery Flagg, a prolific illustrator in the early 20th century (he came up with the Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster), captures different scenarios: men carry packages for the women they are with, a boy in a uniform looks happily at a dollar in front of a well-dressed couple, and a thin man who might have been called a tramp at the time holds out his hand in front of a woman ringing a bell.

The mix of people and feel of these vignettes are from 1908, but they’re really timeless New York street scenes, right?

[Image: MCNY 62.40.16]

Looking for a Berenice Abbott bar on 56th Street

November 30, 2020

Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and have a drink at Billie’s Bar? 

The hand-carved bar, antique fixtures, brass handles, tiled floor, and simple, red-checked tablecloths evoke the Gilded Age.

Which makes sense, as the bar first opened in either 1871 or 1880 (depending on the source) by a Michael Condron at 1020 First Avenue, at 56th Street.

Billysbarmen

This remarkably preserved late 19th century-style saloon was captured by Berenice Abbott in four photos she took in 1936—when Billie’s grandson, William Condron, Jr., was running the place.

It looks like a true neighborhood joint, and perhaps the only change from the Gilded Age to the Depression is that women are allowed in (definitely a no-no in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Visit First Avenue and 56th Street today, of course, and you won’t find Billie’s. Nor is there a clear paper trail explaining what happened to this bar and restaurant worthy of Abbott’s artistic eye.

The story of Billie’s is the story of a neighborhood, you could say. Changing New York, the book containing Abbott’s WPA-era New York City photos, states that Billie’s “stood at the corner of a block dominated by the abandoned buildings of Peter Doelger’s Brewery, which before Prohibition had kept Billie’s and many similar well stocked.”

Billie’s patrons were “recent immigrants who lived in nearby tenements and worked in the factories and slaughterhouses along the East River.”

Billy’s, not Billie’s, in a 1940 city directory

Tracking the story of Billie’s means accepting that Abbott may have gotten the name of the bar wrong. City directories note that “Billy’s Bar” was at 1020 First Avenue. (Not to be confused with another Victorian-era saloon, Bill’s Gay Nineties, long at 57 East 54th Street until it was transformed into the more upscale Bill’s Townhouse.)

Newspapers called it “Billy’s” as well. A New York Daily News article in 1967 noted that “Billy’s Gaslight Bar” was being forced to move from its First Avenue and 56th Street location because the original spot was marked for demolition. (A 1960s-style block-long high rise occupies the site now.)

Billy’s/Billie’s stove, by Berenice Abbott

“Reconstruction has begun on Billy’s Gaslight Bar, a landmark at 56th Street and First Avenue for 96 years,” the Daily News noted later that year. “The new location will be 52nd Street and First Avenue.”

So Billy’s moved down the street, a milestone covered by Craig Claiborne in the New York Times.

From the Daily News, 1967

“The wrecker’s ball wrecked Billy’s, the wonderful Sutton Place landmark, in 1966, and now it has reopened at a new location with many of the sentimentally remembered trappings intact,” wrote Claiborne.

“The present establishment seems smaller, cleaner, more polished, more civilized, lower-ceilinged, less personal. In the move, Billy’s has lost a good deal of its patina and original charm, but it is still worthwhile and tables are at a premium.”

So how long did Billy’s (or Billie’s) hang on at the 52nd Street site? I wish I knew, but the trail goes cold.

Perhaps the bar outlived its era. The East 50s along First Avenue transformed from a neighborhood of low-rise tenements to a stretch of mid-rise buildings and apartment towers, with some of the old walkups interspersed within each block. A handful are empty, supposedly awaiting that wrecker’s ball.

But earlier this year, I was tipped off by another New York City history fan that even though Billy’s the saloon is gone, its hand-carved wood bar might still be with us.

Reportedly, the French restaurant Jubilee, which has occupied a site on First Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street since 2012, just might be using Billy’s bar in their own (very atmospheric and homey) establishment.

I couldn’t find anyone there who could confirm this, but the photos of the bar at Jubilee look eerily similar, no?

[Top three images: Berenice Abbott, 1936; Fourth image: Baybottles.com; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Berenice Abbott, 1936; seventh image: New York Daily News 1967]

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]