Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

A famous writer recalls his boyhood on an 1850s working-class Williamsburg block

February 6, 2023

If you think Williamsburg is popular now, you should have been there in the early 1850s.

At that time, the number of residents had ballooned to 35,000, the riverfront was bustling with industry, and this Kings County town ambitiously incorporated itself into a city (before changing course and becoming part of the neighboring city of Brooklyn three years later).

During these booming years, two real estate investors teamed up to buy and develop parcels of land in the center of Williamsburg, some of it farmland. They hired a surveyor, cut a slender new road they called Fillmore Street after the sitting U.S. President, and planned to construct two rows of mostly three-story homes designed in the elegant Italianate style.

Though they sound like the kind of fine houses upper class residents would be interested in, and they were billed before they were built in a June 1852 edition of the New York Times as future “magnificent dwellings,” the houses weren’t intended for Williamsburg’s wealthy business owners.

Instead, the walkups on what was later renamed Fillmore Place were multi-tenant “flats” meant to be owned or rented by the working-class folks who came to Williamsburg to fill jobs and enjoy a lower population density than that of New York across the East River.

Who were the early residents of this brand-new enclave, which soon had gaslights installed and sewer hookups? “In the mid-19th century, most of the owners were English, Irish or German, and worked as artisans or were petty merchants,” states the Brooklyn neighborhood association WGPA. “The residents renting apartments on Fillmore Place at this time were of a similar background, usually artisans, clerks and laborers.”

Life on Fillmore Place appears to have been a step above the options available to most working-class New Yorkers.

While the buildings “were erected as multifamily dwellings and occupied by working-class tenants, their architecture has more in common with the fashionable middle- and upper-class single-family row houses of the period than with the substandard tenements that were becoming more common in the poorer sections of the city,” states the Landmarks Preservation Commission Report for what’s now known as the Fillmore Place Historic District.

Though the houses weren’t large and only one flat existed on each floor, each room likely had a window facing “either the street or a generously sized rear yard,” per the LPC report—which is more than the typical tenement offered in an era before tenement reform laws.

As a result of this apparently decent quality of life, Fillmore Place’s residents tended to stick around. Even the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, which brought in thousands of new residents and saw the tearing down of row-house neighborhoods in favor of tenements, didn’t drastically alter the fabric.

The houses along Fillmore Place, “were not directly affected by the opening of the bridge and remain perhaps the most intact enclave of buildings erected during Williamsburg’s initial period of urban. development,” states the LPC report.

More than a century later, this slightly slanted street still retains a small-scale 19th century feel. No wonder it became an official historic district in 2009. While one-block Fillmore Place is bounded by Driggs Avenue, Roebling Street, Grand Street, and Metropolitan Avenue, the historic district extends to include a row of walkups from 662 to 676 Driggs Avenue.

One of those walkups was home in the 1890s to Henry Miller—author of Tropic of Capricorn, among other novels. Though Miller only spent the first nine years of his life at 662 Driggs (below), his description of Fillmore Place, his “favorite street,” as he called it in a 1971 New York Times essay, can give you an idea of what life was like here at the tail end of the 19th century.

“The house I lived In was between North First and Metropolitan Avenue, then called North Second Street,” Miller wrote in a 1971 essay for the New York Times. “Opposite us was Dr. Kinney, the veterinarian, and on the rooftop next door to his place Mrs. Omelio kept her 20 to 30 cats. Diagonally opposite us was Fillmore Place, just one block long, which was my favorite street and which I can still see vividly if I close my eyes.”

In his 1936 short story collection Black Spring, “Miller wrote “’there were three streets—North First, Fillmore Place, and Driggs Avenue. These marked the boundaries of the known world,’” via the neighborhood website Greenpointers.

“His description of Fillmore Place in Tropic of Capricorn perfectly captures many people’s love for the historic little block: ‘[it was] the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life. It was the ideal street—for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician,’” wrote Miller, excerpted by Greenpointers.

[Third image: New York Times; seventh image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

Once an 1880s public library, now a private home in the West Village

October 3, 2022

When you pass the three-story red-brick beauty at 251 West 13th Street—with its elegant arched windows and Dutch-style gabled roofline—you just know it was built for something special.

That special purpose was a noble one in Gilded Age New York. The building, near Eighth Avenue and at the end of Greenwich Avenue, served as a free public library—one of the city’s first.

The story of what became known as the Jackson Square Library began in 1879, when a teacher and other women affiliated with Grace Church formed the New York Free Circulating Library.

New York City was already home to many fine research libraries, such as the Astor Library (now the Public Theater) on Lafayette Place. But in 1879, these libraries were largely private and didn’t lend books.

“The New York Free Circulating Library was established to serve every New Yorker, especially the poor, and to allow them to not only read a wide range of literature, but bring it home and share it with their families,” states Village Preservation. 

The library in an undated photo

The original library room founded by the Grace Church group held just 500 books and was only open two hours a week. But according to Village Preservation, “the free public reading room was so popular there were often lines around the block.”

This is where a member of the Vanderbilt family comes in. George Washington Vanderbilt II, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and brother of the socially prominent W.K. Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, decided to continue his family’s tradition of philanthropy by building and stocking a free circulating library for the people of New York City.

Another undated photo, but note the remodeling of the neighboring house’s front door

“The youngest of eight children, [George Vanderbilt] was a quiet person with a strong interest in culture and the life of the mind, who had created and catalogued his own collection of books beginning at age 12,” states Village Preservation. “The growing desire for a free circulating library in New York was just the sort of worthy project that captured the bibliophile’s imagination.”

Vanderbilt tapped architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed Vanderbilt’s breathtaking North Carolina estate, Biltmore). In 1888, the Jackson Square Library, with more than 6,000 books, opened to readers.

The Adult Reading Room in the 1930s

“The walls of the library on the ground floor are tinted a robin’s egg blue, while the book shelves and other woodwork are of walnut, which sets off the bright bindings of the books,” wrote The New York Times in a preview the library’s interior. A second-floor reading room was described as “light and airy.” To become a member of the library, applicants had to be at least “twelve years of age and able to give proper reference.”

After the New York Public Library system formed in 1895, the Jackson Square Library continued to operate as a NYPL branch. By the early 1960s, the library was “decommissioned,” per Village Preservation. The Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street took over as the NYPL branch for Greenwich Village in the 1970s.

George Washington Vanderbilt II by John Singer Sargent, with book in hand

It’s hard to fathom, but after it closed, the Jackson Square Library was headed for the wrecking ball. In 1967, painter, sculptor, and performance artist Robert Delford Brown acquired it for $125,000, according to a New York Times story in 2000. That saved the former library, which had hosted notable patrons like James Baldwin, Gregory Corso, and W.H. Auden, among others.

Brown gave the building a “radical renovation,” according to the Times, and the results weren’t necessarily successful. The former library was purchased in the 1990s by TV writer and producer Tom Fontana. Intending to use it as a residence and work space, Fontana brought 251 West 13th Street back to its Gilded Age grandeur, at least on the exterior—making it a delightful sight for passersby.

[Third, fourth, and fifth photos: NYPL; sixth photo: Wikipedia, by John Singer Sargent]

A writer recalls “the beauty of it all” after a visit to 1890s Manhattan Beach

July 22, 2022

During summer in the early 1890s, a huge electric sign dominated the side of the St. Germain Hotel, at Broadway and 22nd Street. The St. Germain stood on the sliver of land that would be home to the Flatiron building less than a decade later. But at that time, nothing obstructed the ad—which faced the fashionable hotels, streetcar lines, and shopping emporiums of Madison Square.

The sign’s flashing colored lights advertised the pleasures of Manhattan Beach, one of Brooklyn’s seaside resorts created in the 1870s. “Swept by Ocean Breezes,” the ad blazed several stories in the air. A list of attractions—the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels, “Sousa’s Band,” and “Pains Fireworks”—lit up the New York night.

The electric sign hoped to lure sweltering city residents to this middle class resort, a more genteel version of Coney Island on the same Brooklyn peninsula. But it also captivated Theodore Dreiser, who was new in New York City after a stint as a journalist in the Midwest.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel, 1900

By 1900, Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, his first novel, and establish himself as a leading American author. Now, he was an anonymous observer without means, struggling to make a living writing for New York’s newspapers while living in shabby rooms in Greenwich Village.

“Walking up or down Broadway of a hot summer night, this sign was an inspiration and an invitation,” Dreiser recalled in The Color of a Great City, his collection of vignettes about life in Gotham before and after the turn of the 20th century. “I had heard as much about Atlantic City and Coney Island, but this blazing sign lifted Manhattan Beach into rivalry with fairyland.”

Theodore Dreiser, around 1900

So one Sunday, Dreiser and his brother headed to Manhattan Beach. The two took the 34th Street ferry, which brought the “seaward-moving throng” to a railroad connection in Long Island City and then to the beach.

“The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation,” he wrote. “Indeed, 34th Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows.”

“The clerk and his prettiest girl, the actress and her admirer, the actor and his playmate, brokers, small and exclusive tradesmen, men of obvious political or commercial position, their wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, all were outbound toward this much above average resort.”

At Manhattan Beach, Dreiser was awestruck. He marveled at the “great hotels, held and contained all summer long all that was best and most leisurely and pleasure-loving in New York’s great middle class of that day….”

Oriental Hotel, 1903

His attention to detail served him well when describing what the male guests wore. “I never saw so many prosperous-looking people in one place, more with better and smarter clothes, even though they were a little showy. The straw hat with its blue or striped ribbon, the flannel suit with its accompanying white shoes, light cane, the pearl-gray derby, the check suit, the diamond and pearl pin in necktie, the silk shirt. What a cool, summery, airy-fairy realm!”

The women in bathing outfits impressed him as well. “It seemed to me that the fabled days of the Greeks had returned. These were nymphs, nereids, sirens in truth. Old Triton might well have raised his head above the blue waves and sounded his spiral horn.”

Guests strolling beside the beach, 1895

When Dreiser had moved to Manhattan, he was caught off guard by the great riches of the upper classes and the deep poverty of the poor—conditions that had become more or less accepted by Gilded Age residents. He brought a sensitivity to class struggles in his writings about Manhattan Beach, as he observed the thousands of finely dressed guests enjoying dining room feasts, music pavilions, rocking chairs on the verandas, and the nightly fireworks over the beach.

“The wealth, as I saw it then, that permitted this!”

He was also struck by the resort’s flimsy beauty. “But the beauty of it all, the wonder, the airy, insubstantial, almost transparent quality of it all! Never before had I seen the sea, and here it was before me, a great, blue, rocking floor, its distant horizon dotted with white sails and the smoke of but faintly visible steamers dissolving in the clear air above them….And as dusk came on, the lights of the lighthouses, and later the glimmer of the stars above the water, added an impressive and to me melancholy quality to it all. It was so insubstantial and yet so beautiful.”

Diving into the water with the Oriental Hotel in the background, 1897

His visit to Manhattan Beach that day in the early 1890s ended. Twenty-five years later, Dreiser wrote that he went back to the site of the once-fabled resort.

“But of that old, sweet, fair, summery life not a trace,” he stated. “Gone were the great hotels, the wall, the flowers, the parklike nature of the scene. In 25 years the beautiful circular pavilion had fallen into the sea and a part of the grounds of the great Manhattan Hotel had been eaten away by winter storms….Even the great Oriental, hanging on for a few years and struggling to accommodate itself to new conditions, had been torn down.”

A family takes to the sand in bathing suits armed with an umbrella

Open since the 1870s, the Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, according to heartofconeyisland.com. The Oriental Hotel, hosting guests since 1880, met the wrecking ball in 1916. Manhattan Beach the resort was over, but Manhattan Beach the neighborhood was seized by developers, who built homes and sidewalks. Manhattan Beach Park, a small beach, continues to be open to the public.

“Only the beach remained, and even that was changed with new conditions,” Dreiser wrote, explaining the newly planted trees along divided new streets, “sold to those who craved the freshness of this seaside isle.”

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, 1887, MNY111867; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY, MNY62849; seventh image: MCNY, MNY62850; eighth image: MCNY, MNY62854]

How an East Village alley was renamed for a Ukrainian poet hero

April 4, 2022

From the city’s earliest days, streets were named after local bigwigs, typically a landowner. So in 1830, when it came time to name the one-block alley between today’s East Sixth and Seventh Streets (part of an early 18th century enclave called Bowery Village), the tradition continued.

The little slip between Third and Second Avenues became Hall Street, after Harlem landowner Charles Henry Hall, who sold the property to the city in 1828, according to a New York Times piece by Michael Goldman from 1999.

Hall Street didn’t always make it onto 19th century street maps, and it was changed in 1855 to Hall Place for unknown reasons. For 148 years, as Bowery Village morphed into the Lower East Side and then broke off to become the East Village, the Hall name stuck.

Hall Street, between Seventh Street and Tompkins Market on an 1840 map

Then in 1978, Charles Henry Hall was replaced by Taras Shevchenko, and the street officially bore the name Taras Shevchenko Place. Who is Taras Shevchenko, and what prompted the name change?

Hall Place made it on the map in 1903

“Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a Ukrainian writer, painter and political activist whose novels and poems, written in Ukrainian, gave forceful expression to his countrymen’s nationalist sentiment at a time when aspects of the culture, including the language, were being suppressed by the Russian czar,” Goldman wrote.

Taras Shevchenko in 1859

Considered a hero to many Ukrainians, the name change was pushed by the Ukrainian immigrants who settled around East Seventh Street after World War II and built a community dubbed “Little Ukraine” that topped 60,000 people in the years following the war, according to Village Preservation.

The site of Tomkins Market in its Hall Street days, Taras Shevchenko Place ends at McSorley’s to the north and borders St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on one side.

It also borders a newish Cooper Union building. Back in 2001 as plans for the new building unfolded, Cooper Union wanted to “demap” Taras Shevchenko Place and create a pedestrian walkway. Thanks to community pushback, that never happened.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia]

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

This pricey co-op building was once a Lower East Side public library

July 18, 2021

New York developers have made apartment buildings out of former hospitals, police stations, schools, and churches. Now, a library branch has undergone the transformation to luxury housing.

What was once the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library has been rebranded as a Lower East Side boutique co-op called, of course, “The Library.”

Purchased by a developer in 2018 and renovated into 11 high-end units, The Library is already luring buyers, even though it doesn’t look like the co-op redo transformation is finished. But it’s not much of a surprise that many of the units have been snapped up, considering the recent reinvention of the Lower East Side as a posh area.

Imagine Rivington Street the way it was in the early 1900s as part of a very different Lower East Side.

Opened in 1906 on a crowded block between Eldridge and Allen Streets, the Rivington branch was designed by McKim, Mead, & White in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The architectural firm was responsible for great public buildings like Penn Station, but they also took on smaller projects, such as the Tompkins Square NYPL branch on East 10th Street.

The Beaux-Arts design lent a sense of elegance to a building largely patronized by poor immigrants living in the neighborhood’s surrounding shoddy tenements.

Engaged readers on the roof

The Rivington branch was one of the city’s new “Carnegie” libraries, funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie (who lived in a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion more than 100 blocks north). The main New York Public Library building was still under construction on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, set to open in 1911.

Like other neighborhood libraries, the Rivington Street branch quickly had a devoted following. Part of its popularity might be due to the open-air reading area on the roof, which proved to be a huge draw during the hot summer months, according to a 1910 New York Times article.

As the photo above shows, the roof really was for dedicated reading rather than sunbathing or goofing off. “Only children or adults actually engaged in reading are permitted to stay,” the Times wrote.

So how did the library branch end up as a co-op? I’m not sure when the branch was decommissioned as a library, but at that point a church took the building over. A developer bought it from the church in May 2018, renovating the former reading rooms and adding three stories.

The “adult desk” at the Rivington Street NYPL branch

What does it cost to live in a former library, where generations of New Yorkers read, dreamed, educated themselves, and stole some time away?

It’s not cheap. The five-room penthouse is in contract for more than $4 million, according to Streeteasy. At least the engraved plaque on the front that reads “New York Public Library” is still on the facade, a reminder of the building’s original purpose.

[Second photo: NYPL. Third photo: New-York Tribune, 1906. Fifth photo: NYPL]

An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight

June 20, 2021

Louis Michel Eilshemius had the right background to become an establishment painter.

Born to a wealthy family in New Jersey in 1864, he was educated in Europe and then Cornell University. After persuading his father to let him enroll in the Art Students League and pursue painting, he returned to live at his family’s Manhattan brownstone at 118 East 57th Street.

His early work earned notoriety and was selected for exhibition at the National Academy of Design in the 1880s.

“Eilshemius’s early artistic style was rooted in lessons he gleaned from his studies abroad, specifically the landscape aesthetics of the Barbizon School and French impressionism,” states the National Gallery of Art.

New York Rooftops,” undated

In the 1890s and 1900s he traveled the world, published books of poetry and a novel, and continued to paint. But what one critic called his “outsized” ego led Eilshemius, by all accounts a loner and eccentric, to reject the contemporary art scene.

“By 1911, disconcerted by the lack of attention his paintings attracted, he had renounced his formal training and transitioned to an entirely self-conscious and seemingly self-taught style.”

That self-taught style was dreamy, romantic, and visionary. Influenced by reclusive 19th century painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, it was described as having a “sinister magic.”

“Autumn Evening, Park Avenue,” 1915

“The paintings of this time became increasingly less conventional and punctuated by an element of fantasy, depicting voluptuous nudes and moonlit landscapes,” states the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. “With whimsical flourish, Eilshemius also painted sinuous frames onto these pictures, thereby adding both dimensionality and flatness to his lyrical and romantic scenes.” 

Though he isn’t known as a New York City streetscapes painter, Eilshemius seems to have occasionally painted the city around him—creating muted, mystical scenes of Gotham’s shabbier neighborhoods in twilight and moonlight.

As Eilshamius turned away from the art world, he became more of an oddball, a “bearded, querulous, erratic man whose gaunt figure was a stock one in the galleries that never hung his work,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

East Side New York,” undated

Now he was living in the dusty family brownstone with just his brother, Henry. When he wasn’t haranguing gallery owners to buy his work, he was handing out pamphlets touting himself as an artistic genius, or writing thousands of letters to city newspapers. (The Sun printed some of them under amusing headlines, states his obituary.)

As the 20th century went on, however, Eilshemius was rediscovered by the art world. In the 1920s and 1930s he had numerous exhibits, and his talent was recognized by the critics of the era.

“At this time, his success both confounded and fueled his perceived peculiarities and erratic behavior and, injured in an automobile accident in 1932, Eilshemius became increasingly reclusive,” according to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

“New York Street at Dusk,” undated

When Henry died in 1940, Eilshemius was left ailing and impoverished in the family’s “gloomy, gaslit” brownstone. In 1941 he came down with pneumonia, but he protested going to the hospital, so doctors put him in Bellevue’s psych ward.

He died in December of that year, in debt but with the recognition he always wanted.

“A feisty rebel and a tireless iconoclast, he never painted to satisfy the fashions of his day, but only to please his own strange and sometimes nightmarish vision,” wrote David L. Shirey in the New York Times in 1978, in a piece on an exhibit of Eilshemius’ work. “It was a vision characterized by extraordinary personal insight and imagination.”

The solitary pleasures of browsing books in New York City

May 24, 2021

Is there anything more irresistible than stopping to browse the outdoor tables of castoffs and curiosities at a New York City bookstore?

It’s an activity that city residents have enjoyed probably since books became mass market products. And unlike many things New Yorkers do, this one is generally solitary.

The highest concentration of book stores would have been along Book Row, on Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and Union Square. This stretch became the bibliophile center of Manhattan in the early 1900s and continued for decades. (Above, a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1940).

New and used bookstores sprang up in this quarter-mile strip (above, Mosk’s at Astor Place in 1935), allowing literary-minded New Yorkers to spend a few minutes, a lunch hour, or an entire afternoon flipping through pages.

Of course, Book Row has pretty much vanished except for the Strand. And bookstores like these exist across Manhattan, supported by book lovers even in an era when reading generally means downloading onto a screen.

The last two bookstore images are also part of Book Row, but their names are either hard to make out or lost to history.

But even seeing the photos of books and browsers on a random city sidewalk brings on excitement. Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and see what treasures await in those outdoor shelves?

[Top image: MCNY 80.102.136; second image: MCNY 2003.25.101; third and fourth images: NYPL]

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 short life of a 1960s East Village rock venue

March 22, 2021

The unassuming building a 105 Second Avenue has a long history catering to popular entertainment.

In the 1920s, the venue served as a Yiddish Theater at a time when Second Avenue had so many similar theaters, the street was nicknamed the Jewish Rialto. By the 1940s, the space was turned into a movie palace known as the Leow’s Commodore (below in 1940).

And in the 1960s it was transformed once again for an entirely different audience: young rock fans flocking to the recently christened East Village eager to see bands like the Doors, the Allman Brothers, and other stars of the late 1960s music scene.

Named the Fillmore East by concert promoter Bill Graham and opened on March 8, 1968, it was the New York version of his San Francisco concert hall the Fillmore. With Graham at the helm, the place became legendary.

“Graham operated a tight ship, demanding nothing less than excellence from his staff and the artists who inhabited his stage,” wrote Corbin Reiff in a 2016 Rolling Stone article.

“To him, everything was about the fan experience, and he went out of his way to provide the best kind of atmosphere to take in a live performance, from the ornate, hand-rendered posters he printed up to announce the gigs…and even the barrel of free apples he left out for people departing at the end of the night.”

“As a result, the bands and artists who played the Fillmore East, as well as its San Francisco counterpart, typically went the extra mile,” continued Reiff. “For just $3, $4 or $5, you, as a ticketholder, were granted a pass to be taken to someplace truly magical.”

Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd all hit the stage. But it might have been the Doors who gave the most hypnotic performance.

In the audience for one of their shows was future star Patti Smith; Robert Mapplethorpe had worked there and gave her a free pass. She recounted the experience in her powerful memoir about their relationship amid the late 1960s and early 1970s city in Just Kids. While the audience was transfixed by Jim Morrison, she “observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness.”

“He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian,” wrote Smith, who right then realized she could do what Morrison was doing. “When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.”

For a rock venue with such a hallowed reputation, it lasted a very short time—just three years. “At the time, Mr. Graham blamed the greediness of some top rock musicians who he, said would rather play a 20,000‐seat ball like Madison Square Garden (one hour’s work, $50,000) than the 2,600‐seat Fillmore East (about four hours’ work, roughly $20, 000),” stated the New York Times on the club’s closing night, June 29, 1971.

That wasn’t the end of 105 Second Avenue’s life as a music venue. In the 1980s it was resurrected as the dance club The Saint. Today, the ground floor is—what else?—a bank branch.

[Top photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; second image: ultimateclassicrock.com; third image: Yale Joel/LIFE Magazine]