Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Fifth Avenue’s most insane Gilded Age mansion

August 29, 2016

On the avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony” in the late 19th century thanks to its unbroken line of ornate mansions, one house stood out as the most insanely overdone: William A. Clark’s 7-story Beaux Arts monster at 77th Street.

Williamclarkmansionwurtzbros1909

Finished in 1907 after eight years in the making, “Clark’s Folly,” as it was called, broke all records. It cost $7 million to build, featured 121 rooms, and had its own rail line for the delivery of coal.

WilliamclarkhousesideviewAmazingly, this monument to money was out of style by the time the final ornament was attached, and it only stood for 20 years.

William Clark (below, with his youngest two daughters) was a copper baron who made a fortune in mining and helped found Las Vegas.

He did a stint as senator from Montana in 1899. Forced to resign after a bribery scandal, the deep-pocketed titan who was highly disliked in Washington (even Mark Twain called him out for corruption, describing him as “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”) got himself elected again in 1901.

Meanwhile, he began building his mansion in New York. This captured the attention of city residents and the press, who estimated Clark’s worth at $150 million.

Williamclarkmansion19051906

After Clark left Washington in 1907 with his new wife (a much younger woman who used to be his ward!) and two young daughters, he took up residence in his finally finished marble palace.

WilliamclarkmansionmcnyThe amenities boggled the mind: repurposed pieces from a French chateau, oak panels from Sherwood Forest, Turkish baths, vaulted corridors lined with Gustavino tile, 11 elevators, a pipe organ, 20-plus servant rooms, and galleries for Clark’s extensive art collection.

By the time Clark and his family moved in, however, this Gilded Age “pile of granite,” as the New York Times called it, was out of fashion. Architectural critics loathed it.

How Clark felt about this is unclear, and in any case, in 1925, the 86-year-old died inside his citadel (at left, in 1927).

Williamclarkhuguette1917His art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery, and his wife and surviving daughter (her sister succumbed to meningitis in 1919) sold the mansion to an apartment house builder—then decamped for a full-floor apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue down the road.

There the two remained. Decades after his wife passed on in the 1960s, Clark’s daughter made headlines for an entirely different reason than her father did.

She is Huguette Clark (on the right side of the photo with her father and sister, about 1917), the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at the age of 104 after many years of living in Beth Israel Hospital.

Huguette Clark left a $300 million fortune, and many mysteries.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverGilded Age excess may have gone out of style by 1910. But every financial titan or old money heir staked their claim to the Millionaire’s Colony in the late 19th century, intent on building a marble castle.

See the amazing photos of this palaces in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), X2010.7.2.5452; second image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.21088; third image, via Shorpy; fourth image: MCNY/Phillip G. Bartlett, X2010.11.4911; Fifth image: Wikipedia]

A curious detective agency sign on Ninth Street

August 22, 2016

Appearing on the facade of Randall House, an apartment building at 63 East Ninth Street, is this very noir-ish and mysterious sign.

Burnsdetectiveagencysign

It’s for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. Who was William J. Burns? Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Burns started out as a Secret Service Agent and then became head of the FBI in the 1920s before founding his own detective agency.

“His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published ‘true’ crime stories based on his exploits,” states the FBI website.

It’s still a mystery why this sign is on Randall House—an otherwise ordinary residential building in Greenwich Village. As far as I know, it’s the only sign of its kind in New York City.

A robber baron gunned down in a Broadway hotel

August 15, 2016

JimfiskwikiIf ever a New Yorker could be described as an unscrupulous, gaudy vulgarian, it would be “Jubilee” James Fisk.

“He was a striking figure, tall, florid, very fat,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “His light brown hair was pomaded and carefully waved, his mustache waxed to fine points, and huge diamonds blazed on his frilled shirt front and pudgy fingers.”

Fisk was a financier, unprincipled and notorious even in a Gilded Age city that celebrated greed and showiness.

Jimfiskbroadwaycentralhotelcolor1910mcny

In 1868 he and his business partner, Jay Gould, were responsible for the Black Friday stock market crash, the result of their plan to manipulate the price of gold.

They made millions off the scheme, though, just as they profited handsomely after they joined forces with Boss Tweed to gain control over and loot the Erie Railroad.

“He never pretended to be governed by anything but expediency and self-interest,” wrote Morris. “And he conducted his life in full view of the public.”

JImfiskgrandcentralhotelThat may have been Fisk’s fatal mistake. Because when another business partner decided to kill him, he knew exactly where to find him.

That would be Edward Stokes, who entered the picture in 1869. The flashy son from a well-off New York family, Stokes convinced Fisk to invest in a deal to reopen an oil refinery in Brooklyn.

Stokes got money from Fisk—and he also ended up with Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield (below), a would-be actress who had “an exquisite figure and perfect features, large black-lashed eyes, magnificent glossy black hair,” wrote Morris.

Mansfield and Stokes were now the talk of the town; everyone, including Fisk, eventually knew about their affair.

JimfiskjosiemansfieldMeanwhile, by 1871, Fisk’s and Stokes’ refinery deal went sour. Unless he paid him an additional $200,000, Stokes threatened to release a series of love letters between Fisk and Mansfield that presumably reveal Fisk’s shady business practices.

After some legal maneuverings, Fisk had Stokes and Mansfield indicted for extortion.

When Stokes found out about the extortion charges on January 6, 1872, he packed his pistol, went to the Grand Central Hotel—a new hotel on Broadway and West Third Street popular with Fisk’s posh and powerful crowd—and waited for Fisk, who was due to meet friends there.

“He knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so Stokes went in first and waited on the second floor landing,” states Murder by Gaslight.

Jimfiskfranklesliesweeklycover“When he heard Fisk climbing the stairs Stokes started down saying: ‘now I’ve got you.’”

Stokes fire point blank. Fisk cried out in pain, and Stokes shot again. Fisk collapsed on the staircase leading to the lobby but gave a dying declaration that Stokes was his killer.

His life ended the next morning at age 36. Stokes served four years in prison.

Fisk was the consummate Gilded Age robber baron, yet he had his admirers, many of whom paid their respects in the foyer of the Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where Fisk had his offices and his body lay in state.

JimfisklayinstateBrooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher had disparaged Fisk as “the glaring meteor, abominable in his lusts and flagrant in his violation of public decency.”

But younger New Yorkers who came of age as the Gilded Age began seemed to admire his “smartness and shrewdness,” explained Morris.

“In refusing to be bound by the traditional moral code, in declining to become the prisoner of convention and decorum, in rejecting the easy compromise of hypocrisy, Jim Fisk had shown an intrepidity that compelled their admiration,” he wrote.

Power, greed, lust, corruption—the Gilded Age was one of notorious crimes and murder trials, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available now for pre-order, lays out.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, MCNY, 1910; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: via Minneapolis Star Tribune; fifth and sixth images: covers of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 1872, NYPL]

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

WPAfire

Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

WPAposterjuveniledelinquency

Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

WPApostereliminatecrime

La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

WPArottenliving

By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

WPAinfantmortality

To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

The New Yorker who captured John Wilkes Booth

August 4, 2016

BoothdohertyphotoAfter news of President Lincoln’s assassination reached the Metropolis on April 15, the city was heavy with grief.

Plans were in the works for a two-day viewing and funeral procession that would take Lincoln’s casket from City Hall up Broadway.

Meanwhile, one city resident was scouring the Virginia countryside, leading the detail of soldiers sent to capture on-the-run assassin John Wilkes Booth.

His name was Edward P. Doherty (right). A Canadian immigrant born to Irish parents, Doherty moved to New York in 1860.

When the war between the states began, he joined the 71st New York Volunteers. He spent all four war years in the military, distinguishing himself by escaping capture during the first Battle of Bull Run and earning officer status with the 16th New York Cavalry.

Boothdohertyhome144thsttruliaYet Doherty’s most important assignment came on April 24, after South had surrendered.

Summoned to gather 25 military men on horseback, he was then told by a colonel “that he had reliable information that assassin Booth and his accomplice were somewhere between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers,” Doherty said later in a report.

He was instructed to take his men south toward Fredericksburg, Virginia, and hunt down Booth and his accomplice, David Herold.

(Herold was part of the unsuccessful plot to kill Secretary of State William Seward, a New Yorker, on the same night Lincoln was shot.)

With the help of locals, Doherty and his soldiers tracked the men to a barn on April 26. There, they tried to negotiate a surrender with a defiant and injured Booth.

Booth wouldn’t let that happen. Ultimately one of the men in Doherty’s detail set the barn on fire, and another shot Booth fatally through the neck. (Herold was brought out alive and later hanged.)

Boothdohertygrave“Chance has connected my name with a great historical event,” Doherty said in 1866.

After resigning from the Army, Doherty made his way back to New York City in 1886, snagging an appointment as Inspector of Street Pavings and living at 533 West 144th Street (above, the building on the site today).

Doherty died in 1897 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery; his gravestone makes light of his most famous military assignment.

Lincoln’s assassination was felt profoundly in New York, especially considering the ties Booth had to the city, where he had performed Shakespeare with his actor brothers only months earlier.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, delves into it the city’s grief as well as Booth’s connections to New York City.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second image: Trulia; third image: Getty Images; fourth photo: Findagrave.com]

Once again, hat tip to Dean at the History Author Show!

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.

Stlukesplacerow

Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.

Stlukesplace11to131900mcny

Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.

Stlukes15to17

St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]

Pickets and protests at a New York Woolworth’s

July 28, 2016

It all started in 1960. On February 1, four black college students sat at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina, “where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone but whites,” explains history.com.

Woolworthsharlem

They weren’t served, of course. But their sit-in sparked a movement. Thanks to national TV coverage, segregation foes showed their support by picketing Woolworth stores around the country.

WoolworthsheadlinenytThat included stores in New York City. Segregation was not legal here, of course.

But that didn’t stop protesters from gathering at more than 100 Woolworths across the city to urge support for the North Carolina students and call for the end of the South’s Jim Crow laws.

The New York–based Congress of Racial Equality “mounted a 30-member picket line in front of the F.W. Woolworth & Co. store at 208 West 125th Street,” (above) reported the New York Times on February 14.

Picketers continued demonstrating through the spring. On April 3, while 100 people protested outside the store, 30 young adults held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s counter on 34th Street near Seventh Avenue.

Woolworthstimessquare“The sit-down demonstrators at the Herald Square store, Negro and white, included two clergymen,” continued the Times. “They ordered no food, but sat at the counter near the 33rd Street entrance, reading newspapers and doing crossword puzzles.”

“Neither the store’s personnel nor the police tried to oust them. They soon dispersed.” More protests, like this one at a Woolworth’s in Times Square, followed.

Officially, lunch counters in the South desegregated that summer.

[Top photo: Getty Images; second and third images: New York Times]

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.

Hudsonfultoncityhall

With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.

Hudsonfultontheplaza

More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.

Hudsonfultonbridge

“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.

Hudsonfultonnavalflotilla

“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

A sign of a 1920s speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

July 18, 2016

When these walkup buildings on Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street went up in the 1830s, they may have looked more alike.

Speakeasysixthave

Over time, however, things change: facades are altered, paint goes up, and cornices are chopped (or crumble) down.

SpeakeasytalesofthejazzageBut the altered facade at number 359, the red building on the right, is drastic: the three second-story windows have been bricked in and painted over.

What did the proprietors of 359 Sixth Avenue have to hide? Booze.

This was the secret second floor (or half floor, according to one account) speakeasy called the Red Head, one of probably hundreds that popped up in Village basements and back rooms after Prohibition.

A second wooden door (below) past the front door led to the speakeasy, reported Westviewnews.org.

Launched in 1922 by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns as a way to pay their college tuition, the Red Head disguised itself as a tea house and served alcohol in teacups, according to Savoring Gotham: a Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Speakeasyredheaddoor“The Red Head became a favorite drinking spot for the ‘flaming youth’ made famous that year by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the club’s regulars, in his book of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age,” wrote Donald L. Miller in Supreme  City.

Kriendler and Berns kept their speak in business thanks to Tammany Hall protection money and a constant flow of college kids and celebrities like Dorothy Parker.

No party lasts forever. In 1925, Kriendler and Berns shut down the Red Head and opened a speakeasy called the Fronton at 88 Washington Place.

They then moved up to Midtown, settling in at 21 West 52nd Street. After Repeal it became the 21 Club, where drinks still flow to this day.

The mystery of a Tammany Hall “good fellow”

July 14, 2016

MurrayHallSmithsonianmagimageBy all accounts, Murray Hall (at left) was a typical Gilded Age politico affiliated with Tammany Hall, the city’s corrupt Democratic political machine.

Hall, who worked as a bail bondsman for Jefferson Market Police Court and lived at 453 Sixth Avenue (below) with his second wife and daughter, was captain of his election district.

He voted the party line, worked the polls on election nights, and wasn’t above securing political gigs for friends who had proven their Tammany loyalty.

Hall was was considered a “man about town,” a bon vivant who drank whiskey, smoked cigars, and played poker with the city’s bigwigs.

And during his entire 25-year Tammany career, no one had any idea that Murray Hall was actually female.

Murrayhallhousesixthavenue

“Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men,” blared the New York Times on January 19, 1901. This was shortly after Hall’s death, when his secret had finally gotten out.

Murrrayhallvotingsmithsonian“The discovery of ‘Murray Hall’s’ true sex was not made until she was cold in death and beyond the chance of suffering humiliation from exposure,” wrote the Times.

“She had been suffering a cancer in the left breast for several years, as Dr. William C. Gallagher of 302 West 12th Street, who attended her in her final illness, discovered; but she abjured medical advice for fear of disclosing her sex, and treated herself.”

Hall passed well, according to a friend, State Senator Bernard F. Martin. “Suspect he was a woman? Never,” stated Martin. “He dressed like a man and talked like a very sensible one.”

“The only thing I ever thought eccentric about him was his clothing . . . he [wore] a coat a size or two too large, but of good material. That was to conceal his form.”

MurrayHallTimesheadlineOther friends told reporters that Hall had a falsetto voice, was always smooth-shaven, and was very small in stature.

Still, his clothing, his short black bushy hair, plus his fondness for drinking in neighborhood saloons and fighting must have come off as convincingly masculine.

Most surprised of all was Hall’s 22-year-old adopted daughter, Minnie, who said she had no idea and that her mother never mentioned anything about her “foster father” being female.

So who was Hall? “Murray Hall was Mary Anderson, born circa 1840 in Govan, Scotland, an orphan who fled to Edinburgh and eventually to America, wearing her dead brother’s clothes,” wrote Smithsonianmag.com.

MurrayHallBrooklynEagle

[First image: smithsonianmag.com; second image: Google; third image: smithsonianmag.com; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle]


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