Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

Park Avenue’s terra cotta tapestry of grotesques

January 15, 2018

Sometimes you come across an apartment building with a facade that takes your breath away.

That was my experience recently on a walk past 898 Park Avenue. This 14-story Romanesque beauty on the corner of East 79th Street finished in 1924 is a medley of terra cotta detailing, figures, and faces.

The design is described as “Tuscan-style terra cotta ornamentation” by Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan. It’s also been called “Lombardy Romanesque” or “Tuscan Tapestry,” Alpern says.

Whatever the style is called, it’s delightful, as Alpert also points out. The facade belies the reputation Park Avenue has as a stretch of New York with staid, fortress-like residences.

There’s a playfulness at 898 Park. The cerulean and tan arches on the second story contain bas relief images of men sleeping, eating, and what appears to be inventing. (Newyorkitecture.com has closeups.)

And the grotesques affixed to the ground floor arched entryway—they have disturbingly weary faces. But then again, they have been watching passersby for 94 years.

[Top photo: Streeteasy.com]

The Flatiron Building rises in the rain and fog

January 8, 2018

Jessie Tarbox Beals captured this image of a wet winter day in Madison Square, with cars stacked up on the side of the park on the left and the Worth monument and Flatiron building (a mere 18 years old!) on the right.

Tarbox Beals is best known as a pioneering female photographer who won fame for her intimate images of Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s—only to struggle to make a living after the Depression and dying penniless at Bellevue in 1942.

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

Medieval men on a 1920s Park Avenue building

December 18, 2017

If you’re an admirer of New York’s many elegant prewar apartment houses, then you probably know Alex and Leo Bing, the two brothers responsible for these stately buildings with Art Deco touches.

The Bing & Bing pedigree is always mentioned in real estate ads. But the brothers themselves—progressive-minded lawyers who also devoted themselves philanthropy and to affordable public housing—have largely been forgotten.

There is one whimsical tribute to these two brothers who had so much influence on the cityscape, however; it’s on the facade of a residence they built at 1000 Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth reportedly based the two Medieval figures flanking the entrance to this luxury coop after the Bing Brothers, who hired Roth to design the spacious, airy apartments in so many of their buildings.

Maybe the Bings appreciated the arts like the Medici family of the Renaissance? Inside joke? I don’t think Roth ever explained, but he decorated the third-floor of the facade with lots of fanciful Medieval figures.

[Second photo: Douglas Elliman Real Estate]

The owls that adorn New York school buildings

December 4, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a progressive-minded New York embarked on a great mission to construct school buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of school buildings C.B.J. Snyder, hundreds of schools went up in neighborhoods all across the newly consolidated city.

Snyder thought of schools as civic monuments, and he designed them so they maximized sunlight and ventilation and inspired kids to learn.

I don’t know if these were part of Snyder’s plans, but so many of the schools built around this time feature owls on the facade—classical symbols of knowledge and wisdom, like this owl outside an elementary school in the East Village, the former PS 61.

Owls can be found adorning all kinds of city buildings, not just schools. Some owls even reside in city parks.

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]

What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley

November 27, 2017

Theatre Alley doesn’t look like much today.

Construction gear blocks the narrow roadway, and the street sign marking this one-block stretch between Ann and Beekman Streets besides Park Row has disappeared.

But imagine it in the early 19th century, with actors and theater professionals hanging around before a show and carriages lining up to pick up theatergoers after the curtain call.

That’s when Theatre Alley was the center of the city’s small but popular—and very rowdy—Theater District.

The most celebrated playhouse was the Park Theatre, built in 1798. Theatre Alley ran along the Park’s back entrance—or “stage entrance” as The New York Times called it in a 1947 article.

The Park was “designed by several of the French architects who flocked to America after the French Revolution, suggesting that the theater, always popular, had also become prestigious,” wrote Howard Kissel in New York Theater Walks.

It wasn’t the city’s first theater. The New Theatre on Nassau Street and the John Street Theatre opened in the mid-18th century near the site of the Park.

They catered to rowdy audiences who cheered the dramas, farces, and musical comedies—when they weren’t calling out to the actors and consorting with prostitutes in the back rows.

But the Park aimed for a more genteel crowd. Styled like a London playhouse, it featured seating for 2,000 “and contained curved benches in the pit and three tiers of boxes and galleries,” stated The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre.

The Park hosted the top actors of the era, from Edmund Kean to Junius Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Fanny Kemble, a popular actress who made her stage debut there in 1832.

Of course, the Park’s stab at respectability didn’t exactly work out; New York working-class audiences were particularly unruly theater patrons. Audience members routinely talked through performances and tossed apples and nuts at those seated below them.

Then there was the spitting. British writer Frances Trollope visited and recalled in her published 1832 travel diary the “yet unrazored lips” she saw were “polluted with the grim tinge of the hateful tobacco, and heard, without ceasing, the incessant spitting, which of course is its consequence.”

Theatre Alley long outlived its namesake. The Park burned down in 1820, then was rebuilt in 1821. It went up in flames again in 1848. By then, the Theater District had long departed Park Row.

New York’s theater scene followed the growth of the city northward, centering around Astor Place in the 1840s before relocating to 14th Street and inching up Broadway to Longacre Square by the turn of the century.

There’s another theatre alley now: Shubert Alley, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 44th Street. The original Theatre Alley is now a small footnote in New York’s glorious theater history.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the enormous popularity of the city’s theaters.

[Map: 1913 City of New York Independence Day Celebration Guide; third image: MCNY x2011.38.15; fourth and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections]

A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan”

November 13, 2017

Overshadowed by social realist painters and then the abstract movement early in the 20th century, Colin Campbell Cooper never quite got his due.

But his evocative takes on New York’s streetscapes and skyline reveal a fascination with the bigness of the city’s architecture contrasted against the smaller personal stories of millions of anonymous New Yorkers.

The bigness you notice first, especially with paintings like the “Mountains of Manhattan” (top) and the “Cliffs of Manhattan” (second), which both depict the city as an awesome and mighty wonder along the lines of the Rockies or the Alps.

When Cooper contrasts the big and the small, as he does here in 1917’s “South Ferry,” he gives us a more humanistic view of Gotham.

We may not be able to read their faces, but every one of those trolley riders ans sidewalk vendors has a story.

“Chatham Square,” above, from 1919, is similar. The city’s skyscraper mountains are in the background, while the day-to-day life, its human side, is in the forefront.

Commuters wait for the elevated train to pull in, soldiers march under the tracks, and movie houses attract crowds on the sidewalk. We don’t have to be able to see them up close to know they are us.

“New York From Brooklyn” gives us a more detailed and personalized County of Kings. Meanwhile, Manhattan across the river is muted, as if it’s an impenetrable fortress.

Cooper lived in New York from 1904 to 1921. “My pictures are built on these contrasts,” he once said of the juxtaposition in many of his paintings of older, smaller-scale buildings and the modern skyscrapers dominating the skyline.

“Columbus Circle” (above), completed in 1923, illustrates this perfectly.

An old piano ad on 37th Street fading out of view

November 6, 2017

On a brick wall next door to a strangely suburban-looking Marriott Hotel is a relic of New York’s piano manufacturing days.

Squint and you can make out this fading color ad for Mathushek Pianos, founded by Frederick Mathushek, who had been building pianos in New York since 1852, according to Antique Piano Shop.

Mathushek Pianos hopped around various addresses in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when having a piano in your parlor was quite a status symbol.

For a short time, the company had a showroom or office at 37 West 37th Street, according to faded ad site 14to42.net, where New Yorkers went to buy Mathushek’s prized square uprights.

A Mathushek factory occupied the corner of Broadway and 47th Street at the turn of the century, smack in the middle of today’s Times Square. Ads for pianos can still be found in the city’s corners—like this one in downtown Brooklyn.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

The somber “Angel of Death” in Prospect Park

November 6, 2017

New York doesn’t lack for doughboy statues—a testament to the sacrifices made in the city while fighting World War I.

But the doughboy statue in a Prospect Park, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” for the somber, haunting angel beside the soldier, might be the most powerful war memorial in the city.

It’s at the southern end of the park near Parkside and Ocean Avenues, surrounded by a granite and bronze honor roll commemorating the 2,800 men and women from Brooklyn who died during the Great War.

In the center is our doughboy—rifle in hand, a bandage around his head—accompanied by a very Victorian-looking shrouded angel who appears to guide him into the afterlife.

“What makes this sculpture unique from other “pensive” Doughboy motifs is the angel behind him, either speaking or wrapping her protective wings around him to whisk him off,” writes Kevin C. Fitzpatrick in World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to The Great War.

“Her wings come over his head, and it appears he’s bent his head to hear her.”

Designed by Arthur D. Pickering and sculpted by Augustus Lukeman (he did the Straus Memorial on the Upper West Side), the Angel of Death honor roll was unveiled in 1921.

An estimated 35,000 Brooklynites attended the unveiling, and the ceremony was preceded by a march to the park of Gold Star mothers, Catholic priests, and hundred of Civil War veterans, says Fitzpatrick, all paying their respects to Brooklyn’s war dead.

[Photos Ephemeral New York]