Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The luxury power center of the Gilded Age city

July 27, 2015

When the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel was set to open in 1859, it was mocked as “Eno’s Folly,” after the developer who built it.

Fifthavenuehotelpostcard

With the city’s hotel district farther south on Broadway, why would anyone pay to stay on the outskirts of the city’s center, as Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was at the time?

But after its grand opening, the Fifth Avenue Hotel became the city’s premier luxury residence and made Madison Square the focal point of post–Civil War New York.

Fifthavenuehotelreadingroom

Among the amenities: rooms with private baths and fireplaces and the first “vertical railway”—aka, elevator—ever installed in a hotel.

Presidents and kings stayed there, attended to by a staff of 400. The city’s richest men, like Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, congregated in the drawing rooms. Local politicians held court.

In 1908 it was demolished; its demise serves as a bookend of the Gilded Age. Today the building occupying this spot houses the Italian dining emporium Eataly.

[Bottom image: the hotel’s reading room, a decidedly all-male place. NYPL]

The short life of Strangers’ Hospital on Avenue D

July 20, 2015

Strangershospital2015Built in 1827, the brick building at 143-145 Avenue D, at Tenth Street, is the oldest structure in Alphabet City.

The many-times-remodeled building served first as the Dry Dock Banking House, then as a laundry, cigarette factory, clothing store, even a squat.

But for three years, from 1871 to 1874, it was the Strangers’ Hospital, an institution built by John Keyser, a manufacturer turned philanthropist who had already funded a lodging house called the Strangers’ Rest on Pearl Street.

In a benevolent-minded, Gilded Age city, he established a home “for the relief of suffering” for the “deserving sick poor.”

Strangershospitalbook

It was not intended, “for the benefit of the wealthy, who in times of sickness can command the comforts of a well-ordered home and the attendance of a skillful physician of surgeon,” said the president of the Strangers’ Hospital on opening day in February 1871.

“Nor yet for the beggar who leads a life of dissolute idleness . . . . It is intended for the succor and restoration of the deserving sick poor, and in an especial manner for that sadly numerous class of people in this great city who have seen better days.”

BereniceabbottavenueDFour stories high, the Strangers’ Hospital had space for 180 beds, plus a reading room, chapel, and mineral baths.

Keyser, however, ran into some trouble in 1873. That’s the year the city finally indicted politico Boss Tweed and his ring for a host of crimes.

Keyser was exposed as as member of the Tweed Ring; the implication was that his “philanthropy” was in fact funds from city coffers.

The Strangers’ Hospital shut its doors, and Keyser declared bankruptcy.

Off the Grid put together a wonderful 4-part series on 143-145 Avenue D’s long, fascinating history.

[Middle image: from New York and Its Institutions: 1609-1872; bottom photo: 145 Avenue D in 1937, by Berenice Abbott]

New York moms: don’t toss trash out the window

June 29, 2015

New York City has always had a complicated relationship with the garbage it produces. From the city’s earliest days, trash was dumped in the street, thrown in the rivers, or burned.

Garbageopenlettertomoms

In the 19th century, rich neighborhoods hired dependable private street cleaners. The rest of the city relied on free-roaming pigs and rag pickers.

Finally in the 1890s, a corps of sanitation men nicknamed the White Wings and led by a Civil War veteran turned “sanitary engineer” launched a war on filth—now known to be a source of many diseases.

GarbageoldtruckThe White Wings helped clean up the city. But even in the 20th century, New Yorkers were still tossing their garbage on city streets.

To help combat this, a city campaign in the 1920s and 1930s aimed its message squarely at city mothers.

This open letter above, from the archives of the New York Academy of Medicine, sums up what the Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness hoped to accomplish.

Among the committee’s other projects: switching from open garbage wagons (top left) to sealed trucks (below right), and challenging New Yorkers to reinvent a better public trash can—first prize a cool $500.

GarbagenewtruckFor more fascinating info on New York and the garbage the city produces, the New York Academy of Medicine is running a lecture series in partnership the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE Global, called Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris and Disposal.

[Photos: New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health archive]

The day McSorley’s bar finally admitted women

May 25, 2015

Mcsorleys1940s“Is woman’s place at the bars?” asked a 1937 New York Times article.

This was several years after prohibition, and for the most part, drinking establishments in New York City, once for men only (respectable 19th century women wouldn’t want to enter a bar), had become coed. Some even welcomed women, or at least their business.

But one of the few taverns opposed was McSorley’s Old Ale House (above, in the 1940s), the East Seventh Street bar open since 1854 and believed to be the city’s oldest pub.

McSorleyssaturdaynight

“There are not many taverns so stoutly arrayed against the female invasion,” the Times wrote. “McSorley’s continues in the tradition that woman’s place is in the home, or, if she must take a nip occasionally, that her place is elsewhere, anywhere, but not at McSorley’s.”

This was the McSorley’s whose motto was “good ale, raw onions, and no ladies,” a place for mostly working-class men but also artists and writers.

Mcsorleyswomenprotestcorbis

In 1925, e.e. cummings wrote his famous poem with the opening line, “i was sitting in mcsorleys.”

And John Sloan’s paintings (above) depicted a warm, old-time tavern with  mahogany bar, resident cats, and men drinking pitchers of ale in cheer.

McsorleyswithwomentoastingEven in the mid-1960s, the men-only rule stood. “Once in a while, a woman will enter and get as far as the pot-bellied stove,” Harry Kirwan, the present owner, says, “but they generally leave as quickly as they came,'” stated a Times piece from 1966.

But times change. Fast forward to 1969 (photo of two women outside McSorley’s, above). A lawyer from the National Organization of Women filed a federal sex discrimination case against McSorley’s. The judge ruled that this was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1970, when Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting sex discrimination in public places, including bars.

McSorleys2015

On August 10, 1970, they opened their doors to their first female customer (above photo, from the Times). The day before, many of the old timers at the bar bid good-bye to the all-male preserve.

“Dennis Cahill, who is 83 and has been a customer for the last 62 years ‘off and on,’ said: ‘Well, I don’t care. I don’t think they’ll come in much. A decent woman wouldn’t come into a place like this,'” wrote the Times.

The fate of two brothers watching Lincoln’s funeral procession

April 13, 2015

While researching a book about Abraham Lincoln, writer Stefan Lorant uncovered this April 25, 1865 image of Lincoln’s funeral procession passing Broadway at 13th Street.

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The photo is one of many taken on that solemn afternoon. And it contains an amazing coincidence.

The building on the corner was the mansion of Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt. Peering out the second-floor window are his seven- and five-year-old grandsons, Theodore and Elliott Roosevelt.

Elliottrooseveltadult“Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” confirmed Edith Carow Roosevelt, Teddy’s widow. A childhood friend of the Roosevelt boys, she too was at the mansion that day.

We know how Teddy Roosevelt’s life unfolded: he attended Harvard, became a state assemblyman and then reform-minded city police commissioner, colonel of the Rough Riders, New York governor, vice president, and in 1901, at age 42, the youngest president in history.

TR was dynamic, combative, robust, and moralistic—a family man who found his greatest happiness in his home life with his wife and five children.

But what about Elliott?

As Teddy’s life was marked by achievement and success, Elliott’s took the opposite direction.

Anna Hall RooseveltWell-liked and amiable, Elliott (above) was supposed to be the academic and athletic star of the family.

But while Teddy went to Harvard, Elliott used his inheritance to travel, enjoy society, and drink, developing the alcoholism and drug addiction that would plague him his entire life.

In 1883, he married a beautiful socialite named Anna Hall (left). Elliott and Anna had three children, including first-born Eleanor (below).

By all accounts, Elliott was adored by Eleanor. But sickly and overwhelmed by life, he continually sought escape, and his behavior was erratic and disturbing.

ElliottandfamilykidsStints in the business and real-estate world didn’t last. By the early 1890s, his drinking was out of control. He fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant, and he spent time in a European sanitarium.

Disgusted with his brother’s behavior, TR sought to have him declared insane, so his money could be put in a trust for his children.

More misfortune fell. Anna, estranged from her husband, died of diphtheria in 1892. Son Elliott Jr. succumbed to scarlet fever in 1893.

Separated from his children, he wrote letters to Eleanor, who lived with her maternal grandmother on West 37th Street.

Elliottrooseveltnyt“Elliot, as his daughter Eleanor was to note later, now had ‘no wife, no children, no hope,'” according to this 1988 article.

In 1894, Elliott jumped out of the window from his house on West 102nd Street, either attempting suicide or in a delirious state.

He died in his bed on August 14, 1894, the year before Teddy would become New York’s police commissioner and be launched toward a life on the national political stage.

The final days of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

March 2, 2015

On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for committing espionage for the Soviet Union.

Rosenbergs1951trialFor the next 14 months, a flurry of appeals, pleas, and protests was hatched to try to save the lives of the husband and wife convicted spies, ages 32 and 35, both natives of the Lower East Side.

In March 1952, their lawyers filed an appeal in Federal court, claiming the conduct of the sentencing judge, Irving R. Kaufman, denied them a fair trial.

That appeal was denied, as was an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

Rosebergsdailynewsheadline“Doomed couple in Sing Sing for 18 months take news calmly,” a headline read in October 1952.

A stay of execution pushed back their scheduled March 9 date with death. Meanwhile, a clemency plea to the president was dismissed in February 1953.

Eisenhower replied that “their betrayal of United States atomic secrets to Russia could bring to death ‘many, many thousands of innocent citizens,'” wrote The New York Times in May 1953.

In May, the Supreme Court ordered the stay vacated. Electrocution was set for the week of June 15.

Religious leaders around the world cabled President Eisenhower and asked for clemency for the couple. Protesters marched in Boston, Los Angeles, and outside the White House.

Rally For The Rosenbergs

A final Supreme Court ruling, with only Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, paved the way for their deaths on June 19.

Rosenbergsdailynewsheadline2In New York that afternoon, 5,000 supporters rallied at the north end of Union Square, spilling onto East 17th Street (above).

But the execution proceeded that evening at about 8 p.m.

Julius went first. “As a clean-shaven Rosenberg neared the brown-stained oak chair he seemed to sway from side to side,” wrote the Times.

Ethel “entered the death chamber a few minutes after the body of her husband had been removed,” said the Times.

Wearing a green polka-dot dress and her hair close cropped, she kissed the cheek of a prison matron and was then strapped into the chair, a leather mask put over her face.

Rosenbergsrallygettyimages2After five shocks, she was pronounced dead.

Whether the death penalty was an appropriate punishment is still a contentious topic. Both admitted no culpability, but Soviet-era files later revealed that Julius was indeed a spy.

Ethel appears to have been implicated by her own brother, who testified against her to spare his own wife from prosecution.

[Top photo: AP; second and fourth images, NY Daily News; third and fifth photos: Getty Images]

A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

Chesterarthurhome2

And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?

January 26, 2015

The opening paragraph from a New York Times story published on May 26, 1977 sums it up well.

“In Central Park, the once-green lawn of the Sheep Meadow is wearing away, gradually becoming a dust bowl with overuse,” wrote the Times.

Centralparkgreatlawn1970s

“At the Bethesda Fountain, drugs are sold routinely, and the Duck Pond at night becomes a receptacle for beer and soda cans.”

 

Centralparkbelvaderecastle1970s

Crime, graffiti, and decay are the buzzwords of 1970s New York City. And just because Central Park was the city’s jewel didn’t mean park structures and landscapes were immune.

Just look at this image of Belvedere castle. In the 1970s, meteorologists who read data from the weather instruments there (it was the highest point in the park and a prime spot to measure temperature) were planning to move because thieves kept stealing or destroying the equipment.

Centralparkdanacenter1970s

The park had deteriorated before, just after the turn of the century, and was brought back to life by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the 1930s. But the 1970s level of decay is hard to fathom today.

Centralparkthemaine1970sThe ancient Egyptian obelisk was spray-painted in white with the words “do it.” The fountain statue of the flutist in the Conservatory Garden was missing its flute.

Above, a boathouse from the 1940s was falling apart and defaced by graffiti. The statues of the monument at Columbus Circle were missing fingers, and the base was also graffiti-covered, at left.

One of the park’s lovely 19th century bridges is closed in this photo, a danger sign posted before it.

Centralparkbridge1970snytFinally in 1980, after studies were funded to help figure out how to save the park, an administrator was appointed. And two park advocacy groups combined to become the Central Park Conservatory, a “board of guardians” to help restore the park to its former glory.

[Photos: the Central Park Conservatory; New York Times]

A gruesome prank sparks the city’s weirdest riot

January 12, 2015

DoctorsriotnyhospitalIt started with a doctor’s prank from the window of New York Hospital, then at Broadway and Pearl Street.

“In the spring [of 1788], some boys were playing in the rear of the hospital, when a young surgeon, from a mere whim, showed an amputated arm to them,” wrote J.T. Headley in The Great Riots of New York, published in 1873.

One boy climbed a ladder to get a closer look. The boy became convinced that it was recently deceased mother’s arm. His response set off one of New York’s weirdest events, known as the “Doctors’ Riot.”

The horrified boy ran and told his father, a mason working on Broadway. The father rushed to his wife’s grave in Trinity Churchyard, had it opened—and saw that the body was gone.

Doctorsriograverobbers

He concluded that the surgeon had stolen his wife’s corpse, and he immediately gathered a throng of working men to storm the hospital.

Now, it wasn’t farfetched at all for the father to assume the surgeon stole the body. Students at the city’s medical schools routinely did this (or hired others they politely called “resurrectionists” to do it) in the 18th century, as it was the only way they could study anatomy.

Doctorsriotharpers1882

“The fear of [grave-robbing] was so great, that often, in the neighborhood where medical students were pursuing their studies, persons who lost friends would have a watch kept over their graves for several nights, to prevent them from being dug up,” wrote Headley.

DoctorsriotmayorduaneUsually the med students robbed the graves of outcasts, or they went to the burial grounds of the city’s black population, where there was less of a chance they would attract the attention of city officials.

But lately they’d stolen corpses of more well-off citizens, angering many in the young city.

But back to the riot. The men tore down the hospital door, and when they found fresh bodies in various states of dissection, they attacked the students. Officials quelled the mob and locked the students in jail for their own safety.

The next day, 300 men showed up at the jail. “Bring out your doctors!” the angry crowd yelled, hurling stones and carrying muskets.

DoctorsriotnyhospitalnyplMayor James Duane brought in a militia, which killed four in the mob. They hustled doctors and students into carriages headed to the country, where they hid out until the riot blew over.

The next year, the city passed a law against grave robbing, and officials came up with another way med students could learn their trade: using the bodies of hanged criminals. Nobody seemed to complain.

[Top and bottom photos: NYPL Digital Gallery; second photo: Corbis]

A 30th Street memorial to a martyred president

November 27, 2014

LincolnplaquecornersignNinth Avenue at 30th Street is a noisy corner, thanks to recent High Line–inspired construction and idling tunnel traffic.

But on the facade of the hulking Morgan Postal Facility on the southwest corner is a little piece of history, a hard-to-see plaque that traces the trail of a martyred president.

The plaque marks the spot as the former site of the Hudson Railroad Depot, where Abraham Lincoln arrived when he visited the city in February 1861 en route to his inauguration as president.

Lincolnplaque2It was also the place of his final departure from New York, on April 25, 1865.

That’s when Lincoln’s casket was lifted into the special car of what was termed his funeral train. This followed 24 hours of public viewing of his open casket at City Hall, and then a solemn funeral procession up Broadway to Union Square.

The day before, on April 24, Lincoln’s body arrived in New York via a ferry from New Jersey to Desbrosses Street.

A crowd of thousands greeted his casket as it was loaded onto a horse-drawn carriage to City Hall.

The next day, as this illustration shows, another crowd sent his casket off by rail, where it would travel to Albany, then cities in Ohio and Indiana before stopping in Chicago and finally Springfield, Illinois for burial.

HRrailroaddepotillustration

Perhaps this is how the Lincoln Tunnel was named, thanks to its proximity to the depot torn down in 1931? A quick check of Lincoln Tunnel historical sites doesn’t mention anything about it though.


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