Archive for the ‘Queens’ Category

The ox head mosaic fountain hiding on First Avenue

September 28, 2020

The Queensboro Bridge is an architectural treasure, with some of its loveliest features off to the side or under the bridge approach, at least on the Manhattan side.

Two examples: the original lamppost dating back to the bridge’s opening in 1909, and the blue and white tiles on a First Avenue ramp leading to the bridge.

But there’s another little-known gem built alongside the bridge, accessible through a gate on 59th Street or from the exit of the TJ Maxx store on First Avenue.

It’s a small, park-like plaza decked out with benches, flowers, and trees—and a granite water fountain with an ox head spout and a kaleidoscopic glass mosaic of a dreamy woman rising from a pile of produce.

With a description like that, you just know this plaza and the fountain inside it must have a pretty interesting backstory.

First came the mosaic fountain, in 1919. It was conceived and funded by a woman named Evangeline Blashfield.

A feminist, writer, and intellectual, Blashfield (below left) decided to install a fountain on what was then one of the city’s largest open-air farmers markets.

She wanted the vendors (and their horses), who came over the bridge from the farmlands of Queens with their wares, to have fresh water.

In the 1910s, Blashfield “noticed that the market under the ramp at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge had only one unsightly water faucet for all of its vendors,” wrote John Tauranac in his book, Manhattan’s Little Secrets.

Blashfield, who would have been described as “strong-minded” by men and women of her era, was also a supporter of public art.

“Inspired by the beauty she saw in European cities, Mrs. Blashfield championed for changes in the urban environment, particularly the installation of public art in this country,” states the Municipal Arts Society of New York (MAS).

Blashfield’s husband happened to be an artist (and a founding member of the MAS). She served as his model for the fountain, lending her image to the allegorical figure Abundance.

“The nine-by-four-foot mosaic panel, composed of thousands of brilliant colored tesserae, depicts a regal female figure reclining on a cornucopia laden with fruits and vegetables sold in the marketplace,” explains the MAS.

The ox head and granite basin (a drinking bowl also or horses, something the city sorely needed in the still-equine-powered early 20th century) was designed by another MAS member.

Unfortunately, Evangeline didn’t live to see its completion.

She died in 1918 at age 59, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, six months before the fountain was given to the city and dedicated in her honor.

The fountain may have been a welcome addition to the farmers market. But once public art is installed, of course, it isn’t always maintained properly.

By the 1930s, the farmers market under the bridge had been cleared away in the name of progress. (Open-air markets created sanitation issues.) Until the 1970s, the space served as a warehouse for road signs and garbage trucks.

After decades of debate about what to do with the space (and the fountain that badly needed repair), the retail complex known as Bridgemarket finally opened in 1999.

“Florence D’Urso, an MAS member and compassionate philanthropist for several art restorations here and in the Vatican, provided a generous grant to restore the mosaic, Abundance, in memory of her husband Camillo who appropriately had been in the food and supermarket business,” states the MAS.

In June 2003, the restored mosaic returned to what was now known as Bridgemarket public plaza, installed once again on a granite base with its ox head fountain. (When I visited, the fountain wasn’t working, sadly.)

“Abundance, restored to its jewel colorings, once again graces the public streetscape, carrying the history of public art, public space, and food into the twenty-first century,” wrote MAS.

And Evangeline Blashfield, looking like a goddess rising out of a bounty of fruits and vegetables, towers over this former farmers market once again.

[Third image: Find a Grave]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”

What remains of Astoria’s River Crest Sanitarium

May 11, 2020

Astoria in the 19th century was a riverfront neighborhood of expansive estates and houses, as well as a country-like destination for Manhattan residents seeking open space and East River breezes.

As the century came to a close, and the estates were beginning to be carved up and replaced by industry, one pioneering doctor decided Astoria would be the right place to open his own sanitarium.

Dr. John Kindred’s River Crest Sanitarium launched in 1896. The spacious institution consisted of eight separate buildings at today’s Ditmars Boulevard and 26th Street.

Built on land once known as the Wolcott Estate, the private sanitarium advertised itself as a place for people with “mental and nervous diseases” and alcohol and drug addiction, according to Long Island City, by the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

A mental hospital and rehab facility may not sound too unusual to contemporary New Yorkers. But this kind of place was novel in the 1890s. At the time, psychology was in its infancy, and mental issues were usually viewed as more of a morals problem, not a brain disorder.

People suffering from mental illness had few options. There was always the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island—which had to eventually close after Nelly Bly exposed its horrific conditions in 1887.

Private sanitariums like River Crest filled the void, if you could afford it. While it’s unclear what it would cost to undergo “electro-therapy” or “hydro-therapy-massage,” as the postcard advertises, the place seems geared toward the wealthy.

The above ad emphasizes River Crest’s “splendid views” of the East River for “first-class patients.” The facility even had an early phone number: 36 Astoria.

Dr. Kindred had some training in psychology, though it’s unclear how effective his sanitarium was. Old newspaper articles reference patients who were there for everything from cocaine addiction to “temporary mental aberration.” Articles also note several escapes, suicides, and people committed against their will.

Long Island City states that patients were cared for at River Crest until the 1920s. Forgotten New York has it that River Crest closed in 1961, and a high school now occupies the space.

Forgotten New York also pointed out in 2009 that a ramp and two gateposts from River Crest are still at the site—apparently all that remains of a facility with a peaceful name that must have seen its share of trauma.

[Top image: Wikipedia/Greater Astoria Historical Society; second image: New York Academy of Medicine/Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fourth image: Medical Record; fifth image: Wikipedia/Greater Astoria Historical Society]

A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces

March 30, 2020

Construction workers operating a backhoe found her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit building a new apartment complex.

They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Because the body, determined to be that of an African-American woman, was so well preserved, a forensic medical examiner assumed she was a recent homicide victim.

But as Scott Warnasch, a forensic archeologist from the city medical examiner’s office, investigated what was deemed a crime scene, he noticed dozens of metal fragments in the ground.

The fragments were identified as part of an iron coffin (above ad, from the Brooklyn Eagle) that had housed the woman’s remains and kept them eerily preserved in airtight conditions…until the backhoe smashed it open, according to Live Science.

Who was this woman, and how did she die? Her burial clothes held clues, appearing to be from the 19th century. The iron coffin also helped narrow things down; these were only produced in the mid-19th century, wrote LiveScience in 2018.

And there was something else: investigators found what looked like smallpox marks on her forehead and chest. Nineteenth century New York was no stranger to smallpox outbreaks. Though a vaccine had been developed, the virus killed a quarter of its victims and left survivors pockmarked or blind, wrote The New York Times in 2003.

The disease was so feared, a Smallpox Hospital was opened on Blackwell’s Island in 1856 (above).

How the woman died became clear…but still, who was she? Tests determined she was between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in a section of Queens that had a free black community at the time, so Warnasch turned to the 1850 census.

The name Martha Peterson seemed to fit. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” Warnasch told the New York Post in 2018.

The discovery of Martha Peterson and the effort that went into identifying her was captured in a PBS show: “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.

She was given a new burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery by congregants of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights in 2011—a fitting end to the story of a resurfaced body that served as a reminder of New York’s deadly disease outbreaks of the past.

[Top image: From the preview for Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin”; second image: Brooklyn Eagle; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Brooklyn Star, 1858]

The elegant remains of an 1857 church in Queens

August 5, 2019

St. Monica’s Church, a red-brick beauty opened in 1857 with an inspiring and unusual four-story bell tower, deserved better.

Abandoned by its congregation in the 1970s and beset by vandals, this Roman Catholic church in Jamaica, Queens, “endured a heavy snowfall [that] caused the main building to collapse right after money was set aside to study the possibility of a restoration,” explained Newsday in 2002.

But this hearty church, which served the Irish immigrants who came to Jamaica in the 1830s to be railroad workers and farm laborers, managed to escape the wrecking ball.

 

Purchased by the City University of New York and already on the National Register of Historic Places, this survivor on 160th Street south of Jamaica’s LIRR station was restored to something of its original glory.

The surviving Romanesque Revival facade continues to stand, along with new steel and glass walls and a roof. The new building with the remains of the old one opened in 2009 as the York College Child and Family Center. (York is part of CUNY.)

“Built in 1856-57 for $25,000, St. Monica’s is a basilica-shaped church,” according to CUNY. “It is one of the earlier surviving examples of Early Romanesque Revival architecture in New York and one of the only Roman Catholic Churches in the city executed in this style.”

It’s not the only 19th century church with a facade that’s been incorporated into a contemporary building. This is the story of St. Ann’s in the East Village, which was transformed into an NYU dorm.

[Second photo: New-York Historical Society, 1934]

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

A glorious faded foundry sign in Long Island City

July 1, 2019

Before the Albra Metal Foundry began manufacturing aluminum and brass castings here in 1942, this red brick dowager of a building was home to a varnish factory in the 19th century.

The faded sign survives on 43rd Avenue in Long Island City, but Albra has been gone since 1978, according to faded sign aficionado Walter Grutchfield.

Today, it’s the event space known as The Foundry—a name that pays homage to Queens’ rapidly vanishing (or vanished entirely?) industrial past.

Blue and white tiles line the Queensboro Bridge

February 4, 2019

New York City’s many bridges are frequently praised for their beauty.

But The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (yep, the former mayor’s name was officially added in 2011) might be the most lovely.

The cantilever span itself is graceful and elegant, of course. But what sets the Queensboro apart might be the smaller design motifs and decoration the bridge architects insisted on before it officially opened in 1909.

Among these are the decorative lampposts at the entrance to the bridge, and vaulted, Cathedral-like ceilings lined with famous Guastavino tiles under the Manhattan-side bridge approach, the commercial space known as Bridgemarket.

Then there are the blue and white tiles built in to the facade under the bridge approach on First Avenue. They could be terra cotta; I’m not quite sure.

The circles and rectangles on each individual tile weave a spectacular pattern covering large swaths of the bridge approach.

But if you don’t look for them as you walk under the approach, you might miss out on this wonderful decorative touch that appears to exist entirely to charm pedestrians.

Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island

April 30, 2018

We know it as Roosevelt island. But until the 1920s, it was Blackwell’s Island—the two-mile spit of land in the East River.

Here, the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other institutions.

Edward Hopper’s 1928 painting, Blackwell’s Island, contrasts the cobalt blue waters of the East River (so lovely a speedboat is whizzing along) with the island’s haunting past as a broken-down dumping ground for so-called undesirables.

There’s almost no one in the painting—but you can feel the humanity emanating from those buildings.

Hopper “painted this work at the height of his powers and it exemplifies some of the best of Hopper’s style: a complex architectural composition with a full range of light and shadow, few people and the drama of the past colliding with the present in the form of historic architecture meeting modern,” says Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, which owns the painting.

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]