Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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]

Sick of Prohibition, New York holds a beer parade

July 4, 2016

Beerparademarchersio(By 1932, alcohol-loving New Yorkers had had enough.

For 12 years, Prohibition had been the law of the land, a law enforced in the city by a team of sometimes crooked prohibition cops and ignored by people who openly drank at the city’s legendary speakeasies.

So New York’s mayor, party guy and frequent speakeasy visitor James J. Walker, proposed an idea.

Beerparadefreerepublic

He wanted to stage an enormous protest parade, with participation on the part of labor activists, government officials, and regular citizens, up Fifth Avenue.

It wouldn’t be the first “wet parade” in the city. Anti-Prohibition marches were held in the 1920s as well, attracting many drys, as they were known, as well.

Beerparade1932souvenirBut what was dubbed the “We Want Beer” parade of 1932 had more support than ever.

The argument was strong: legalizing beer and other beverages would add millions in tax money to government coffers and also open up an industry that would employ thousands in Depression-era America.

On May 14, at least 100,000 marchers strode down Fifth Avenue from 80th Street, with picket signs, in costume, and cars festooned with slogans.

The marchers went west on 59th Street and back north on Central Park West, parading into the night.

BeerparadebrooklyneagleheadlineMayor Walker, dapper in his derby and suit (and about to be brought up on corruption charges before resigning as mayor), led the procession.

Other cities and towns held beer parades as well, and Coney Island had its own on Surf Avenue a month later.

(Interestingly, at noon, the marchers paused for a minute of silence in honor of Charles Lindbergh Jr., whose body was found dead in woods in New Jersey two days earlier.)

How effective was the beer parade? Hard to say. It  generated big media coverage (check out this old newsreel) and may have helped put the final nail in the coffin for Prohibition, dead and gone 19 months later.

Beerparadenydnews

[Top image: via Free Republic; second image: via i09; third image: MCNY; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline; fifth image: New York Daily News]

Wining, dining, and celebrating at Little Hungary

June 30, 2016

On a stretch of East Houston Street nicknamed “Goulash Row” for its Hungarian restaurants was a place called Little Hungary, an improbable haunt of the city’s elite and tourists in the pre-Prohibition city.

Littlehungryacozynookatlittlehungrymcny1910

Little Hungary featured “the atmosphere of Budapest, of gay nights on the Danube, of the Rhapsodies of Liszt” as well as goulash handed out as part of a free lunch with an order of glass of beer, wrote the New York Times.

Little Hungary hosted a wild and festive dinner for Teddy Roosevelt in 1905, after he won the presidency a year earlier. The Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, however, put an end to the place.

[Postcard: 1910, MCNY]

The best place for swimming in the East River

June 27, 2016

Swim in the East River? Without a wet suit, no adult would do it today, let alone allow their child to take a dip there.

eastriverswimfultonfishmarket

Yet even after the river became the dumping ground of the city’s untreated sewage, lots of people cooled off in its bracing, choppy waters.

Perhaps no group of New Yorkers relied on the river during the hot summer months more than poor tenement kids, who often faced overcrowded public swimming and bathing facilities or preferred the freedom of diving off a city pier with their pals.

Eastriverswim1910

One of those tenement kids was Alfred E. Smith (below, in 1877), future governor of 1920s New York. In his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, he reminisced about his boyhood summer days in the river.

Eastriverswimalsmith1877age4coneyisland“The East River was the place for swimming, and as early as April and as late as October the refreshing waters of the East River, free entirely at that time from pollution, offered the small boy all the joys that now come to the winter or summer bather on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote.

Smith was born in 1873 in a house on South Street. His river swimming days were in the 1870s and 1880s.

“The dressing rooms were under the dock. Bathing suits were not heard of,” stated Smith.

“In fact, it would have been dangerous to suggest them, for fear you might be accused of setting a fashion that everybody else could not follow.”

EastriverpikeslipsignThat explains not only the many photos that exist from the era of unclothed boys jumping into the river but also George Bellows’ famous 1907 painting, 42 Kids.

“The popular swimming place was the dock at the foot of Pike Street, built well into the river, and there was a rather good-natured caretaker who paid no attention to small boys seeking the pleasure and recreation of swimming in the East River.”

Pike Slip (but no dock) still exists—almost entirely in the grimy shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote Smith.

Eastriverboysswimmingatrutgersslipbain1912

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

Eastriverswim1937

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second and fourth images: 1910 and 1912, George Bain/LOC; fifth image: from 1937, via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

A Gilded Age mansion goes down in the 1960s

June 16, 2016

Wealthy clothier Isaac Vail Brokaw lived a more under-the-radar life than his fellow stupendously rich New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

Brokawmansionbain

But Brokaw did have at least one thing in common with Gilded Age titans with names like Frick, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie: he too built himself a sumptuous mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Brokaw1927mcnyBrokaw’s French Renaissance palace, modeled after a 16th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley, went up in 1887 at 1 East 79th Street.

It had all the trappings of a multimillionaire’s home from the Age of Elegance: four stories, stained glass windows, a staff of seven, even its own moat.

“Its grandiose entrance hall is of Italian marble and mosaic and huge murals line the walls,” wrote the New York Times decades after it was built.

“The ceilings are paneled in stone and wood and no two of them are alike. The library has a seven‐foot‐tall safe concealed behind a panel opened by press­ing a hidden catch in the mould­ing,” the Times continued.

Brokawmansion1960sBy 1911, three more modest mansions adjoined the chateau, built by Brokaw for his two sons and daughter.

After he died, squabbling family members occupied all four Brokaw mansions. Three were eventually sold off to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers between the 1940s and early 1960s, which used them as office space.

Gilded Age chateaus with skyrocketing upkeep costs had long since gone out of favor; dozens of the more than 70 mansions constructed along Fifth Avenue in its Millionaires’ Mile heyday had been razed in favor of stately apartment houses.

BrokawmansionIEEE

In 1964, the Brokaw mansion was headed toward the same fate. But it wasn’t going down without a fight.

BrokawmansionprotestNYPAPNewspaper editorials denounced the demolition. More than 100 people (including Ed Koch, then a city councilman) attended a rally in front of the original chateau to persuade officials to protect this remnant of a fast disappearing older city.

“However, in spite of the best efforts of preservation campaigns, demolition scaffolding went up on February 5, 1965,” reports The New York Preservation Archives Project.

Brokawmansion2016The wreckers came the next day. A year later, the Brokaw mansion’s successor, a 26-story apartment co-op, was completed.

It stands today, across 79th Street from one of the last remaining Gilded Age palaces—the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, occupied by the Ukrainian Institute of America.

[Top photo: 1920s, LOC; second photo: 1927, MCNY; third photo: Getty Images, 1960s; fourth photo: 1960s, IEEE; fifth photo: The New York Preservation Archives Project]

The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.

Cannon1

On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.

Cannonfortclintonnypl

The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.

Cannon2

Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

Three centuries, four views of a Village tavern

June 13, 2016

Once a country backwater of tobacco farms, Greenwich Village owes its urbanization to lethal disease outbreaks.

Oldgrapevine1851

Residents fleeing late-1700s cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the city center moved up to Grin’wich, as it was then called. By 1840, the population had shot up fourfold.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” states the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Oldgrapevine1905

Streets, businesses, and houses followed—including a three-story clapboard roadhouse at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. Built in the 18th century as a home, it became a popular tavern by the 1820s called the Old Grapevine, for the vine that ran along the facade.

The first illustration depicts the Old Grapevine in 1851. West 11th Street looks like a rural road, thanks to the trees and paving stones.

Oldgrapevine1914

Two ash barrels are the only street furniture. The small fence at the far left surrounds the second cemetery of Shearith Israel, established here in 1805 by a synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

The Old Grapevine wasn’t just any tavern. “During the Civil War it was a popular hangout of Union officers and Confederate spies,” states the NYPL blog.

Oldgrapevine1915

“Later, when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was built the local lawyers and politicians would gather there to talk business. Artists and actors also met there. It was the ideal place to get news and information, or in the case of spies and politicians, the ideal place to spread rumors and gossip, leading to the popular phrase “heard it through the grapevine.”

[The origin of the saying might be a myth, as some comments below explain.]

The second image shows the Old Grapevine in 1905, from under the tracks of the elevated. The third image is from 1914.

The clapboard house is still standing, but 11th Street is paved and the ash barrels are gone, replaced by a Journal American newspaper box.

Oldgrapevine2016

One year later (as seen in the fourth photo), the Old Grapevine was about to be bulldozed, replaced by a six-story apartment building renting rooms for $12 a month.

A New York Times article from 1915 recalled the Grapevine wistfully: “it was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation.”

Here’s Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street today. The Old Grapevine is long gone; only the cemetery on the far left remains.

The “poet sisters” host a Gramercy literary salon

June 9, 2016

CaryaliceIf you were a writer or thinker of some renown in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, then you likely found yourself on Sunday evenings inside a small house at 53 East 20th Street.

This was the home of Alice (right) and Phoebe Cary, two siblings dubbed “strong minded” (a 19th century put-down for an independent woman) who hosted weekly Sunday salons in their Gramercy Park parlor for the city’s literary and cultural crowd.

Here, newspaper editors, authors, and some of the bohemians who had congregated at Pfaff’s on Bleecker Street came together to “meet and mingle,” according to one biography of the Carys.

“The poet sisters, as they were known, owned a wide, low, old-fashioned house on East 20th Street, near Fourth Avenue, and their informal Sunday receptions were always thronged,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York.

Caryphoebe“They had come to New York from an Ohio farm as young women, without either money or formal education, determined to support themselves by writing.”

Alice Cary wrote poems, ballads, and “little idylls of country life,” stated Morris. Phoebe composed parodies of Longfellow and “astringent verses about love that made old-fashioned readers uncomfortable.”

Considering the guest list, conversation at the Carys’ salon must have been fascinating.

Regular invitees included P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum and the curiosities inside it thrilled the city; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune; publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and other cultural leaders of the day.

Carys50east20th“On Sunday evenings, you found the Carys in their parlor, a large room decorated in red and green, furnished with many comfortable, velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs,” described Morris.

“Later, everyone would cross the hall to have tea in the square, oak-paneled library.” Except Greeley, who drank two cups of sweetened milk and water and then took off to write his Monday newspaper editorial.

The famous male guests were joined by “strong-minded” movers and shakers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

CarystreetaddressThese were women like the Carys, who pursued professional work and “asserted that women ought to think for themselves, ought to get their opinions at first hand—not because this was their right, but because it was their duty,” wrote Morris.

The Carys held their weekly salon for 15 years; both sisters, closer to each other than anyone else and just four years apart, died in 1871.

[Third photo: from MCNY, early 1900s; labeled the “Careys” home and the address is 50 East 20th Street, so it is perhaps the sisters’ home, which no longer exists]


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