Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village

May 24, 2021

The Village has always had dive bars that attract locals and luminaries. But The Golden Swan, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, might have been the first—and the most notorious in its day.

Inside this Irish tavern dating back to at least the 1870s, writers, artists, activists, and assorted Village characters of the 1910s gathered to drink. (National prohibition was looming, after all.) While the front of the tavern may have catered to locals and Hudson Dusters gangsters, bohemians made the back room—aka, the Hell Hole—their own.

Charles Demuth was a fan of the Swan. Demuth, who gained fame as a precisionist painter, captured the mood and mannerisms of the Swan’s nightly denizens in a visceral portrait from 1919 entitled “At the Golden Swan, Sometimes Called the Hell Hole.”

Here he “depicts himself and Marcel Duchamp, the acclaimed French Dadaist, seated at the left table of the popular meeting spot for young artists and bohemians,” wrote Christie’s in 2007.

“Other patrons included the artist John Sloan, who produced an etching of the bar in 1917 (above), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who incorporated it into some of his plays, including The Iceman Cometh,” stated Christie’s. Social activist Dorothy Day, journalist John Reed, and anarchist Hippolyte Havel were part of the crowd.

Sloan, whose studio was across the street on the other side of the Sixth Avenue El, depicted O’Neill (on the upper right) in his sketch. Both works give viewers a good idea of what the Golden Swan and Hellhole looked like. But Demuth’s feels rawer; you can feel the isolation among all the people packed into the small back room of a bar together, none of them looking at the person they’re sharing their table with.

Christie’s included an excerpt about the Golden Swan from the biography O’Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb: “The Hell Hole was a representative Irish saloon. It had a sawdust covered floor, rude wooden tables, and was filled with the smell of sour beer and mingled sounds of alcoholic woe and laughter. Its barroom was entered from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street the ‘front room,’ in which women were not allowed.

“Above the doorway swung a wooden sign decorated with a tarnished gilt swan. Farther east, on Fourth Street, was the ‘family entrance,’ a glass door that gave access to a small, dank, gaslit chamber known as the ‘backroom.’ Wooden tables clustered about a smoking potbellied stove, and it was here that respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer…”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928 to make way for the subway. But at the corner today is a patch of greenery known as The Golden Swan Garden.

[Top image: Christie’s, second image: Metmuseum.org; third image: New York Post/Getty]

The “romantic reality” of midcentury Village street scenes

May 2, 2021

Can you feel it? Right now, New York has a vitality that went into a dark sleep in early 2020. People are out on the sidewalks performing the rituals of urban living; the city is emerging dynamic and alive.

What New Yorkers are feeling this spring is hard to describe—but Alfred Mira captures it perfectly in his paintings. Born in Italy in 1900, Mira made his home in Greenwich Village and supported himself as an artist.

His seemingly ordinary street scenes—like this two above of Seventh Avenue South and then a rainy Greenwich Avenue in the 1940s, or below of Washington Square Park in 1930—pulse with New York’s unique excitement and passion.

Mira’s paintings “have a rare skill in suggesting, rather than slavishly and verbosely saying,” wrote one critic reviewing an exhibit of Mira’s work in 1943 Los Angeles. “That accounts for the vibrant movement of his street scenes. The people, the buildings, the buses and passenger cars and other items in his paintings appear more real than the things themselves. They have what in fiction has been called ‘romantic reality.'”

What remains on a Hell’s Kitchen block from an 1883 painting

April 26, 2021

Louis Maurer immigrated to New York from Germany in 1851 when he was 19 years old (second image below). He first worked as a cabinetmaker in the antebellum city—but within a few years he became a painter and lithographer working for Currier & Ives and then his own lithography firm from an office on William Street.

As an artist, his subjects ranged from firefighters to racehorses. But in 1883 he painted what might be one of his few urban landscapes, “View of Forty-Third Street West of Ninth Avenue.”

Maurer didn’t have to go far to paint this Manhattan street scene. His longtime home where he lived with his wife and children (including Modernist painter Alfred Maurer) was at 404 West 43rd Street, according to his New York Times obituary from 1932. (You can see what were probably his front steps with cast iron handrails on the far right of the painting.)

Maurer would only have to look out his parlor window to capture the action: children playing in the Belgian block street, adults in the background going about their day on the sidewalk, and the man whose job it was to empty ash barrels pouring the contents of one into his horse-drawn wagon (while a black scaredy cat runs off).

What’s special about the painting is how ordinary it is—depicting what was likely an average unglamorous city block, with red brick tenements on three corners, horses and carriages traversing the streets, and the steam train sending belching smoke along Ninth Avenue.

What else is unique about this piece of visual poetry? The corner doesn’t look entirely unrecognizable now, 138 years later. (Or even a half-century later in the above photo of the same block in the 1930s.)

Sure, the Belgian blocks are now asphalt; the ash barrels have been replaced by garbage and recycling bins. It’s been decades since kids played in New York City streets, and parked cars have replaced a waiting horse and wagon. The Ninth Avenue El met its bitter end in 1940. Times Square, just a few avenues away, was sparsely settled Longacre Square, at the time the center of New York’s carriage trade.

But see the tenement building with the side entrance on the northwest corner—today it looks almost identical. And across Ninth Avenue on the northeast corner is another red-brick building looking strangely similar to the one in Maurer’s painting.

[Second Image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL]

Special offer for Ephemeral NY readers for a talk on architects McKim, Mead and White

April 17, 2021

If you’re a fan of New York City’s Gilded Age architecture—as Ephemeral New York is—then you know McKim, Mead & White.

The elegant structures designed by this firm of famed architects helped bring the 19th century city into the modern era—from East Side mansions (like the Villard Houses, above) to Broadway office buildings, the original Penn Station (below), the marble arch of Washington Square, and Brooklyn’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. The buildings of their later years are all around us. But what about how they got their start?

Landmark West! will be hosting a Zoom talk about McKim, Mead & White’s early years on Thursday, April 29 from 6 pm to 7:15 pm. Ephemeral New York readers can sign up for the talk at a 50% discount—from $20 to $10. The talk will be led by Mosette Broderick, architectural historian and author of triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White. Find out more about the talk here. If you decide to reserve space, just put  “Ephem” in the coupon code. 

The 1911 New York fire that changed history

March 15, 2021

On the eighth floor of a women’s garment factory steps from Washington Square Park, a fire broke out in a wood bin filled with fabric scraps. It was about 4 pm on a Saturday, and the workday should have been ending.

Instead, the blaze grew, reaching the ninth and tenth floors of the factory. When workers tried to escape, they encountered locked doors. One fire escape collapsed to the ground under the weight of desperate employees.

Many of those trapped in the upper floors jumped to the sidewalk in front of horrified onlookers, others burned in the flames because firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows. A total of 146 workers were killed in the fire of March 25, 1911—mostly young female immigrants.

As tragic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was, the terrible toll had a profound effect in New York City—leading to stricter workplace safety laws and harsher legislation protecting workers. These new mandates had strong support from an outraged public, whose horror was reflected in piercing illustrations that appeared in newspapers for weeks.

This one above is by John Sloan, published in The Call. The illustrator of the second image is unknown, but that sure looks like the Asch Building, where the Triangle fire occurred.

Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery

March 15, 2021

After spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of fashion.

In New York, Abbott “was unable to secure space at galleries, have her work shown at museums, or continue the working relationships she had forged with a number of magazine publications,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lucky for Abbott—and for fans of her unromanticized images that speak for themselves—the Federal Art Project came calling. In 1935, it gave her the means to photograph the streets, buildings, and people of New York City. More than 300 resulting images were collected in Changing New York, published in 1939.

Though Abbott aimed her camera all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, she was especially drawn to the Lower East Side, specifically the Bowery. At the time, the Bowery was a “Victorian entertainment district turned skid row, which she likened to ‘wandering through hell,'” according to the text of a 1997 edition of the book by the Museum of the City of New York.

Retracing Abbott’s steps through the Bowery, as documented in Changing New York, is possible today because she kept track of the addresses of the three storefronts she captured.

The top photo, at 103 Bowery, might be one of Abbott’s most famous New York images. This “hash house,” as the Blossom Restaurant was known per the MCNY’s Changing New York, occupied the ground floor while Jimmy the Barber worked out of the basement. The two men in the shot have the harsh expressions expected of men who catered to Bowery bums.

Below it is the storefront today. It’s still a food establishment, but the space has been remodeled. The aura of danger and depression are gone.

The striking storefront—and colorful claims designed to lure men of few means—of the Tri-Boro Barber School (“world’s most up-to-date system”) probably appealed to Abbott. The school was at 264 Bowery, which was lined with barber shops at the time, states the MCNY’s updated Changing New York: “Upon completion of a 10-week course, a student was a ‘full-fledged professional barber’ and could find a job at a starting union wage of $22.50 per week.” Below it is 264 Bowery now, with its similar doorway but ghostly, empty space.

This hardware store at 316-318 Bowery has the crammed feel of a dollar store, proving that the tradition of an overload of seasonal merchandise and lots of sale signs lives on in 21st century New York. “Hardware emporiums, catering to tradesmen from all over the city and day laborers who lived nearby, flourished on the Bowery,” states the MCNY’s Changing New York. The storefront today appears to be another COVID casualty.

Would Abbott be as drawn to the Bowery of 2021 as she was to the Bowery of the 1930s (above, under the elevated at Division Street and Bowery)?

Probably not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many other Manhattan streets of the 21st century—lacking the signs of desperate humanity Abbott was attracted to.

[Top photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History; third photo: Artnet; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MutualArt]

A postcard shows off the pretty girls of New York

March 1, 2021

Most of New York City’s vintage postcards feature beautiful sites of the city itself—not Gotham’s beautiful women. But this turn-of-the-century postcard is a strange exception to the rule.

“Pretty girls, pretty girls everywhere, but the New York belles are claimed most fair” reads the caption, with the images of six women, none of whom I recognize but could be actresses of the era.

The inset image of Herald Square is interesting—perhaps it’s pictured because West 34th Street was part of the Theater District at the time, and it was the place to see these and other “New York belles.”

Greenwich Village from John Sloan’s rear window

February 22, 2021

After John Sloan and his wife left Philadelphia and relocated to New York City in 1904, the couple lived first in Chelsea and then in various places in Greenwich Village, where Sloan also took a studio at Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street to create art that found “beauty in commonplace things and people,” as he once said, per the Whitney Museum.

From one of those Village apartments or out his studio window, Sloan had a view of the shared rear yards of his tenement neighbors on West Fourth Street. “Backyards, Greenwich Village,” from 1914, was born out of that view.

“Here, a private scene of two children building a snowman in a backyard, with a pair of cats and another child watching them from a window above, brings dignity and romance to lives that would otherwise go unnoticed,” states the Whitney.

It’s hardly the only Sloan painting that featured cats—this Ashcan School founder memorialized a few of the dozen cats living at McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in “McSorley’s Cats,” from 1928.

A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]