Archive for the ‘SoHo’ Category

The mysterious portrait artist of Spring Street

October 12, 2020

Very little is known about a 19th century New York painter named John Bradley.

He “may have” immigrated to America from Ireland in 1826, the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted. In the 1830s, he was in Staten Island, where he painted portraits of well-known Staten Islanders with last names like Totten, Cole, and Ellis.

In a New York City directory in 1836, however, John Bradley is listed as a portrait painter on Hammersly Street—today’s West Houston Street, according to the National Gallery of Art.

From 1837 to 1843, Bradley was listed at 128 Spring Street. “Bradley’s last address in New York, from 1844 to 1847, was 134 Spring Street,” states the National Gallery. After this, “nothing further has been determined of Bradley’s life or career.”

But Bradley did leave behind some of his portraits—and two, both of little girls, showcase his folk art style and rich attention to detail. They also give us an idea of what well-off little girls in New York wore in the 1840s, from their bonnets to jewelry to dresses down to their slippers.

“Little Girl in Lavender,” at top, was done in 1840. The second portrait, from 1844, is of two-year-old Emma Homan, whose father ran the first omnibuses in the city. Both works would have been painted while Bradley was on Spring Street—a desirable address in a fashionable area at the time.

John Bradley’s studio was at this corner in the 1840s.

Today at his former Spring Street addresses, no building survives that could have housed Bradley’s studio. Here’s the corner where it once was, at Greene Street, above. The mid-19th century Spring Street of small houses is long gone.

Emma Homan herself might be the last known connection to Bradley. After moving away from New York City with her family as a girl, she grew up to be botanical artist and writer, at right in an 1897 photo.

[First portrait, National Gallery of Art; second portrait: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

A mystery ghost building on Lafayette Street

February 3, 2020

Every time I walk up Lafayette Street, it catches my eye: the stark imprint of a small house or building between Spring and Prince Street at what would be number 246. (Seen here in a 2013 photo.)

Short but with a sharply outlined chimney and slightly steeped roofline, It’s like a phantom from another New York, perhaps the mid-19th century. Who lived or worked here?

Lafayette Street has a long history. The stretch south of Prince was originally part of Elm Street, which began at Chambers Street and became a tenement district as the 19th century continued. (A sliver of Elm Street still exists near the Municipal Building.)

In the early 1900s, Elm Street was extended and connected to the former Lafayette Place—an elite enclave built by John Jacob Astor in the 1830s from Astor Place to Great Jones Street. The wide new thoroughfare was renamed Lafayette Street and became much more commercial.

The street name changes complicate unsolving the mystery. But according to a 2010 report by the Soho-Cast Iron District Extension prepared by the NYC Landmarks Commission, what was once number 246 was “a brick nineteenth century” demolished in 2008 to become a “dining pavilion” for a hotel on the other side on Crosby Street.

This 1940 tax photo (and a closeup) shows what the little building looked like. Perhaps it began as a house like so many other commercial buildings did in the mid-19th century, then changed as the neighborhood went out of fashion and became rougher around the edges.

[Tax photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services)

The slight curve of the platform at Spring Street

February 3, 2020

Ever notice that the subway platform at the Spring Street 6 train station has kind of a curve?

Instead of a straight platform from end to end, it’s shaped like a slight C, so when the train cars pull in, they almost curl a bit against it.

Is it an IRT thing on the entire East Side line? In any case, it makes the station feel a little less cold and grimy—a little more bouncy.

The missing 1824 row house on Spring Street

December 23, 2019

Toward the western end of Spring Street, between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in Soho, stand two humble red-brick row houses.

Like many of the Federal-style homes that sprang up in the early 19th century, as the rapidly growing city burst beyond Canal Street, the two houses at 188 and 190 Spring Street have been altered considerably over the years.

The dormers sticking out of the peaked roofs were combined, lintels removed and replaced, and new first-floor windows added, according to the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District Designation Report from 2016.

Still, their resemblance is easy to see; they look like twin refugees of low-rise 1820s New York, when the opening of the Erie Canal turned New York into the financial and manufacturing capital of the nation.

But there was at least one more house just like them next door at 186 Spring Street, and it looks like it was literally ripped at the seams from its companions.

According to one 1857 street map, 186, 188, and 190 Spring were a trio of similar-size houses smaller than their neighbors yet reflecting the uniformity of a formerly tidy residential block.

Today, only the outline of the third house in a row of triplets is eerily visible.

So what happened to 186 Spring? The house, also altered over the years (at right in 1940), met the wrecking ball in 2012.

Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz was the owner; he sold it for $5.5 million to a buyer who promptly knocked the house down after the Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed it ineligible for landmarking, according to a 2013 post on Curbed.

(Why was it ineligible? Too many of its historic features had been wiped away, reported David W. Dunlap in a 2012 New York Times article.)

The developer apparently planned to also demolish 182-184 Spring (the 2-story building constructed in 1921 on the corner of Thompson that’s now boarded up and empty) and put up condos, to the dismay of preservation groups like the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

It’s been several years since demolition occurred and the condo project was announced, and legal problems reportedly have stalled development. The lot where 186 Spring Street once stood is empty and behind boards.

The impression of the house, including what look like two chimneys, rises above the boards and refuses to let passersby forget that it was once there.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photos 1940]

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]

The view in the 1820s from a Canal Street home

April 29, 2019

I’ve always been curious about the three-story building just north of Canal Street at 423 Broadway. In the front, it resembles a late 1800s tenement walkup, thanks in part to the flat facade and cornice.

From the side and behind, it has the pitched roof and dormer windows of a Federal home, a popular design style for prosperous New Yorkers in the early 19th century. (Above and at right, in plans presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission)

(Completing the time travel feel is the 1980s-esque graffiti, but that’s a topic for another post.)

A little research helps fill in the blanks about this unusual survivor.

Number 423 was a product of the Federal era, built by a shipmaster named Benjamin Lord in 1822, according to Broadway: A History of New York City in 13 Miles.

In the ensuing years, as the city crept northward, the home was apparently altered and transformed to include a ground-floor commercial space (Below, in 1891).

Yet it stayed under the radar, a quiet underdog witnessing the transformation of the city.

In the 1880s, after Lord’s death, the home earned a mention in a court case related to his will; the house was then valued at $60,000.

And most recently, architectural plans presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017 threaten to redevelop 423 Broadway and knock down the corner building adjacent to it.

But let’s go back to the 19th century. What was Broadway at Canal Street like in the 1810s, when Lord may have begun his hunt for a place to build his house, and in the 1820s, once it was completed?

It certainly wasn’t the bustling urban corner it is today.

Broadway was in place, but Canal Street was an actual canal—built to help drain polluted Collect Pond near today’s City Hall.

This view of a tavern at Canal and Broadway dates to 1812.

Lord’s house at 423 Broadway “would have offered a view of the small bridge that carried Broadway over the canal that preceded nearby Canal Street,” wrote David W. Dunlap in the New York Times in 2003.

[Second photo: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; Fourth photo: 1891, NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 48.125.1]

A walk down the longest true alley in Manhattan

April 1, 2019

New York was never the kind of city that built alleyways behind its buildings.

As Manhattan grew in the 18th century, real estate was deemed too valuable to waste on alleys. Why not stack buildings behind each other and make more money, right?

That’s likely why new alleys were generally excluded from the Commissioners’ Plan, the 1811 street grid that mapped out the future city plan of the entire island.

Alleys that already existed on city maps were clustered downtown. Some of these still survive, like Exchange Alley, a sliver connecting Trinity Place and Broadway. There’s also Mechanics Alley, running two blocks alongside the Manhattan Bridge approach.

But one new alley was fully laid out and named six years after the street grid plan: Cortlandt Alley.

Today, this shadowy and atmospheric lane runs three blocks from Franklin Street to Canal Street, earning the title of the longest true alley in Manhattan.

“In 1817. John Jay, Peter Jay Munro, and Gordon S. Mumford laid out the alley through their property between White and Canal Streets,” states the 1992 report designating the east side of Tribeca a historic district. The men named it after Jacubus Van Cortlandt, a descendant of the landowning Dutch colonial family.

It’s hard to see it on this 1828 map, but you can just make out “Cortlandt” or “Cortlandt’s” on the slender lane between Broadway and Elm Streets.

The part of Cortlandt Alley south of White Street, “was laid out separately and is 25 feet closer to Broadway,” according to the report. “Both parts of the alley were paved in the early 1820s.”

Cortlandt Alley almost extends four blocks—if you count one-block Benson Place, which lies just to the east on Franklin Street going south to Leonard Street.

A walk down Cortlandt Alley feels like entering a portal into a much earlier New York.

Nothing survives from the post-colonial city, unfortunately. This grimy lane with garbage bags on the sidewalks is lined with turn of the 20th century dry goods warehouses that feature enormous windows, elaborate fire escapes, and impressive shutters.

Bricked over windows and doorways face the alley, too, as well as old-school graffiti. No wonder Cortlandt Alley is so popular for film shoots.

A ping pong club has a door here, as does the Mmuseumm, the smallest museum in the city and located in a converted elevator shaft. Cortlandt Alley at White Street was once home to the 1970s-era Mudd Club.

“No dwelling house shall be erected thereon fronting on Cortlandt Alley,” a real estate article from The New York Times in 1859 read. That decree apparently changed, as luxury condos opened at number six.

A lot has changed in New York since the alley came into existence 202 years ago. But you can still imagine it as it was in the early 1800s: paved with stones, surrounded by new dwellings built on the landfill covering Collect Pond, and used as a shortcut by merchants, workers, servants, sailors, immigrants, and other New Yorkers in the 19th century city.

The Spring Street station and a superhero logo

October 29, 2018

The Spring Street subway station is one of the original 28 IRT stations to open in October 1904. And like the rest, the platform is decorated with mosaic name tablets, rosettes and wreaths, and cartouches.

Every time I ride through this little station on the 6 train, I can’t help but notice that the S in the cartouche looks a lot like the S in the shield emblazoned on Superman’s chest.

Coincidence? Probably.

But just for the record, Superman first appeared with a similar-looking S shield in the 1930s, a good 30 years after the Spring Street station opened.

It wouldn’t be the first time New York City inspired a superhero’s creators. Batman’s Gotham City sure appears to bear a big resemblance to our Gotham.

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]

Santa’s dashing appearance in an 1868 candy ad

December 18, 2017

He looks a lot like the modern-day Santa Claus: red coat, whiskers, a sled pulled by reindeer. (That pipe, of course, has been erased.)

This 1868 sugar plum advertisement featuring Santa appeared five years after Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast famously reinvented the image of St. Nicholas from the “jolly old elf” in Clement Clark Moore’s poem to a grandfather-like guy in a red suit.

The US Confection Company, headquartered on West Broadway, wisely chose Santa to help shill their sugar plums—and Santa’s image has been used to sell products to children and adults ever since.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 has lots more about how New Yorkers invented the contemporary Christmas: the first public park tree lighting happened in Madison Square Park, electric lights were invented by a New Yorker, and the department stores of Ladies Mile claim the first holiday window displays.