Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

Central Park’s Mother Goose statue tells many stories

February 1, 2021

Most of Central Park’s wonderful statues tell just one story. The Mother Goose statue, at Rumsey Playfield on the East Drive near 72nd Street, tells many.

Amid the main granite carving of a woman flying on top of a goose—complete with a pointy hat, purse, cloak, buckled shoe, and one unhappy-looking cat riding the clouds—are five bas reliefs of the most beloved Mother Goose fables.

Humpty Dumpty (below), Old King Cole, Little Jack Horner, Mother Hubbard, and Mary and her little lamb are all represented in this whimsical statue dedicated in 1938, explains NYC Parks.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the artist behind these nursery rhyme characters is Frederick George Richard Roth, a city native. Hired in the 1930s as the chief sculptor of the New York City parks department, Roth is the creator behind many other enchanting animal sculptures in Central Park.

“Roth is responsible for a number of other sculptures in the Park as well, including Balto, the Sophie Loeb Fountain, Dancing Goat, and Honey Bear,” states the Central Park Conservatory. He also made the limestone reliefs of animals in and around the Central Park Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo, according to NYC Parks.

Also close to this kid-friendly part of the park are the Hans Christian Anderson and the Ugly Duckling statue and two Alice in Wonderlands, one at East Drive and 75th Street and the other inside Levin Playground (East Drive and 77th Street), the latter created by Roth in 1936.

The entrance to Rumsey Playfield (formerly Rumsey Playground, and before that the Central Park Casino) is just beyond the Mother Goose statue. There, two granite carvings of a boy and a girl bundled up in the cold—one astride a sled, the other on a bench—guard the entrance to the field.

Were these also done by Roth? I didn’t turn up anything about the sculptor, but they’re similarly whimsical and looking ready for this week’s weather.

Art Deco poetry on a 1929 East Side high-rise

January 25, 2021

You don’t see a lot of green glazed terra cotta on New York City high-rise facades. But then 240 East 79th Street isn’t just another residential building on the Upper East Side.

This “rather plain brick building” completed in 1929 features a showstopping Art Deco entrance, “completely faced in colored glazed terra-cotta squares, with glazed terra cotta surrounds for the windows and the main entrance,” noted Anthony Robins in his book New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.

The building’s awning carries the address in a recognizable Art Deco typeface, as does the “No. 240 East 79 St” inscribed above the entrance.

Isn’t that eight-sided emblem amid all the green terra cotta unusual? Robins has this to say about it: “Above the inscription sits an octagonal piece of stone, set within a terra cotta frame and capped by a flowering form that curves out from the facade to hover protectively over it.”

“Frederick Godwin, the architect, was a great-grandson of American poet William Cullen Bryant—and his ornamental treatment here is quite poetic.”

A crowded workday street scene in the 1950 city

January 18, 2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania.

But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a truncated Grand Central Terminal/42nd Street and Park Avenue Viaduct?

See the image closeup here; with such rich details, it’s easy to get lost in it.

[1stdibs.com]

The violin over the door of a Turtle Bay mansion

January 18, 2021

Old New York City houses hold the most interesting clues—like this bas relief of an angel and horns. It sits over the doorway of 225-227 East 49th Street in Turtle Bay, a mostly brownstone block with the exception of this unusual Tudor-style building.

Now a carved up rental, it was once a single-family mansion…and the hint about its most famous occupant is inside this bas relief.

See the violin and musical notes? This is the former home of Efrem Zimbalist, the Russian-born violinist whose career spanned much of the 20th century. (If you aren’t familiar with him, you might have heard of his actor son, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., or his actress granddaughter, Stephanie Zimbalist.)

Zimbalist the musician moved into the house in 1926 with his wife, Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck. The letters under the bas relief confirm this: “Erected in the year 1926.”

Designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, “the 20-room house with its distinctive casement windows had fireplaces in almost every room, 11 bathrooms, stained glass door panels, and an Italian garden out back,” states Pamela Hanlon in her book Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“On the second floor a large music room featured dark wood floor-to-ceiling paneling, an ornately carved fireplace, and parquet floors.”

Interestingly, after Zimbalist moved out, the mansion actually served as the 17th precinct house for three years in the 1950s before the police got their own new building on East 51st Street, wrote Hanlon.

The NYPD didn’t remove the violin, and luckily, subsequent landlords have left it up as well—a tantalizing tipoff about the history of an unusual house. (At right, in 1927)

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.3278]

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]