Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

The strange story of the Village’s “Raisin Street”

January 27, 2020

Never heard of “Raisin Street” in Greenwich Village?

If you lived in the nascent city of New York in the early years of the 19th century, you might have traversed it. The rise and demise of this little street has a curious backstory.

“Raisin Street” was a corruption of “Reason Street,” the name given to the one-block stretch between today’s West 11th Street and Barrow Street. At the time, the Village was a country enclave dotted with farms and small homes a few miles from the city center.

“Reason Street” honored Thomas Paine (at right), the philosopher whose 1795 treatise, The Age of Reason, criticized organized religion.

Paine, who was born in England, had a heroic reputation in the early 1790s. Before and during the Revolutionary War, he was considered a patriot because he encouraged the American colonies to fight for independence.

After moving to France and getting thrown in prison for supporting the French Revolutionaries, Paine came back to the States and spent his final years living in boardinghouse on Herring Street, soon to be renamed Bleecker Street. (Paine’s boardinghouse is the home in the center in a 1920 photo.)

Reason Street made it on an 1807 map by surveyor William Bridges (above). In the next few years, however, the name would be gone, as this 1828 map below shows.

Why the change? The Age of Reason, “an uncompromising attack on the Bible, proved to be unpopular, and did much to sully the reputation Paine had built as a patriot,” wrote Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times in 1999.

When Reason Street “became city property in 1809, it was rechristened Barrow Street in honor of the artist Thomas Barrow. Barrow, a Trinity Church vestryman, was famous for his depiction of the church in ruins after the great fire that devastated the city in 1776.”

Despite his de-mapping, Paine’s presence in Greenwich Village wasn’t completely obliterated.

Though the boardinghouse he lived in on today’s Bleecker Street was demolished in 1930, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, another house he resided in on the current Grove Street still stands.

“As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived,” according to the GVSHP blog, Off the Grid.

“Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville, took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.”

The plaque at left is affixed to the 1839 Federal-style house that replaced the home where Paine died.

The current building is the home of Marie’s Crisis—named for Paine’s The American Crisis, which urged the states to fight for freedom.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.11.220; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: TimeOutNY]

A remnant of the Drama Book Shop from 1962

December 16, 2019

Like so many other New York City specialty bookstores, the Drama Book Shop has a long history of moving around.

First established in 1916 inside the West 42nd Street offices of the New York Drama League, according to a 2017 New York Times article, the shop then moved to 47th Street, and by the late 1950s it occupied a brownstone and then a commercial building on West 52nd Street.

That’s where this relic of one of the 52nd Street stores comes in.

Thumbing through an old catalog of plays, I noticed the front cover had this Drama Book Shop decal across it—displaying not just one of the best store logos ever but also an old 2-letter postal code (used in the days before 5-number ZIP codes) and a two-letter phone exchange, JU for Judson.

(There’s nothing like coming across bits and pieces of the city’s literary glory days while browsing old books, right?)

The catalog, from the Samuel French company, dates back to 1962; twenty years later, the store hopscotched over to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street, then to 250 West 40th Street in 2001.

Forced from the 40th Street location earlier this year, the Drama Book Shop was bought by Lin-Manuel Miranda and three others Hamilton collaborators. An updated New York Times piece from last month says the new store will open on West 39th Street next spring.

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

September 9, 2019

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop

May 27, 2019

The handsome brick storefront at West Eighth Street and MacDougal Place has been occupied by countless businesses since it went up on this Greenwich Village corner in 1838.

But perhaps it’s best remembered as the home of the Eighth Street Bookshop—one of dozens of booksellers centered around Eighth Street or Fourth Avenue that made the Village a bibliophile paradise in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the Eighth Street Bookshop gained fame as a literary gathering place with close ties to the nonconformist writers of the day, whose works and lifestyle gave rise to the term ‘Beat Generation,’ states the Village Alliance.

While browsing the three floors of books (especially the extensive paperback section), it wouldn’t be uncommon to bump into one of the many writers or poets who lived in the East or West Village at the time, such as Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, or e.e. cummings (who lived a few blocks away on Patchin Place).

Of course, all great bookstores are more than literary haunts. As Publisher’s Weekly recalled in 2001, the Eighth Street Bookshop was also the center of a social scene.

“‘Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s,’ Joan Wilentz [Ted Wilentz’s wife] told PW. ‘It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other’s houses.'”

In 1965, the store relocated across the street to 17 West Eighth Street. In 1976, a fire tore through that location, and the Eighth Street Bookshop shut its doors for good in 1979.

It’s run wasn’t long, but Villagers of a certain age still remember it well.

[Top photo: Robert Otter, 1965; second photo: Katherine Knowles via ArtNerd]

The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

December 10, 2018

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

The artist and scholar gargoyles on 121st Street

November 12, 2018

Copper bay windows, grand arches, juliet balconies and a sloping roof: As university housing goes, the 8-story Bancroft Apartments are pretty fanciful.

Preeminent architect Emery Roth designed the building, which opened at 509 West 121st Street in 1910.

By 1920, it had been acquired by Columbia University’s Teachers College, just a block away in the city’s new Acropolis neighborhood, so named for the many schools in the area.

Considering that what’s now called Bancroft Hall ended up housing educators, it makes sense that the gargoyles decorating the facade are nods toward higher learning.

Behold the building’s wonderful painter and scholar (a writer perhaps, pointing to letters in a book?). I don’t think these characters represent any specific people but instead symbolize creativity, education, and imagination.

Walter Grutchfield has more on the Bancroft Apartments, including an amazing shot of an inscription on the upper wall. For more Morningside Heights gargoyles, check out these goofy gargoyle examples.

[Top photo: Columbia University]

Why a West Side park is named for an Italian poet

August 20, 2018

New York City parks and playgrounds don’t just honor the usual city founders and war heroes—they’re named for artists, singers (Diana Ross Playground, anyone?), even vaudeville comedians.

But unless you count the Shakespeare garden in Central Park, not many are named for poets.

So how did a postage stamp of green on the Upper West Side in 1921 become a monument for Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet of the Middle Ages best known for the Divine Comedy, completed in the 14th century?

It wasn’t just a concession to the growing Italian-American population in Manhattan at the time. But the growth of this immigrant group was instrumental in naming the park and erecting the bronze statue of Alighieri that still stands.

“The New York branch of the Dante Alighieri Society had intended to erect a Dante monument on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912,” states the New York City Parks Department website.

“Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso (the first Italian daily newspaper in the United States), urged subscribers to contribute towards the creation of the statue.”

Barsotti had already helped erect monuments honoring other Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi in Washington Square, Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, Giovanni Verrazano in Battery Park, and composer Giuseppe Verdi in Verdi Square—not far from the soon-to-be site of Dante Park, which was then known as Empire Park at 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue.

Money was raised, but according to NYC Parks, the sculptor didn’t finish the imposing bronze statue of a robed Alighieri wearing a garland and holding a copy of the Divine Comedy until 1921.

Another source has it that the original monument was too big and in too many pieces, so the city rejected it. Funds were again collected, and a second statue arrived in 1921—past the anniversary of Italian unification yet marking the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Whatever happened, the dedication was held that year. The statue (described as “dour and grumpy” by the AIA Guide to New York City) was officially “a gift of citizens of Italian descent.”

[Second photo: MCNY X2011.34.3603; third photo: Wikipedia]

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

The Yorkville home of a children’s book heroine

January 29, 2018

Is this beautiful Queen Anne corner townhouse at 558 East 87th Street the fictional home of Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old heroine of the beloved 1964 children’s classic Harriet the Spy?

That’s the conclusion of real-estate writers and online sleuths. The actual address of Harriet’s house is never named in the story about a city girl who spies on her neighbors and earns the ire of her friends for writing about them in her notebook.

But this impressive residence, part of a group of contiguous homes built in 1881 for “persons of moderate means,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, fits the description of the house based on the book.

With its tower and turrets, it sure looks like a place that would nurture a curious kid.

The first chapter gives readers an early clue. Harriet and her best friend, Sport, are in the “courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-Seventh Street in Manhattan,” wrote author Louise Fitzhugh.

Perhaps the courtyard is Henderson Place, the charming alley off East 86th Street, which the back of the house would face.

Harriet’s bedroom is on the third floor, the story tells us. “It was small and cozy and the bathroom was a little one which looked out over the park across the street.” Carl Schurz Park is right across the street.

Harriet attends the Gregory School, we learn. “It was on East End Avenue, a few blocks from Harriet’s house and across the street from Charles Schurz Park.”

The Chapin School is on East End Avenue and 84th Street and may have been Harriet’s school.

If this isn’t Harriet’s exact house, East End Avenue in the 80s is certainly her world. The book takes readers through Harriet’s spy route, where she stands in an alley on York Avenue to observe the Dei Santis grocery store. She also watches a man named Harrison Withers, who lives in a boarding house on 82nd Street.

Also on her route is a “duplex” on East 88th Street, where a couple who never speak to each other live.

One morning on the way to school she walks through Carl Schurz Park. “She crossed East End at the corner of 86th and walked through the park, climbing the small hill up through the early morning onto the esplanade, and finally sat, plunk on a bench, right by the river’s edge,” wrote Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh would have known the neighborhood well; she lived on East 85th Street. Like East 87th, her block was in the Henderson Place Historic District.

Number 558 was up for sale in 2016 (interior photos are still on Streeteasy) for $5 million. At the time, the New York Post noted that the house had a dumbwaiter that serves the dining room from the kitchen.

As fans of the book know, Harriet uses a dumbwaiter to spy on her rich neighbor, Mrs. Plumber.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.5744]