Archive for the ‘SoHo’ Category

The faded ad for a candy maker on Prince Street

April 5, 2021

On a walk down Prince Street at that magical time in the late afternoon when New York City’s faded ads seem to appear with some clarity, I noticed white lettering in a crack between two tenements.

“Specialists in (for?) Chocolate,” the white letters read. The rest of the ad was too blurry to make out, but the word “chocolate” looks like it’s on the last line as well.

The address of the tenement that featured the ad is 178 Prince Street, between Thompson and Sullivan. Was there a chocolatier or chocolate factory at this spot at one time?

Sure enough, the answer is yes. The company, Garnier & Fuerfile, advertised themselves in Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette in 1899 as “manufacturers and jobbers of” candy, with a factory and storeroom at 178 Prince Street.

Garnier & Fuerfile was located in what could be called a former candy manufacturing district. The Tootsie-Roll factory was nearby at 325-329 West Broadway. Heide’s licorice and jujubees were produced at 84-90 Van Dam Street. And a chocolate moulds company had its headquarters at 159 Bleecker Street.

I’m not sure when these French-sounding candy makers began occupying 178 Prince Street, nor when they left the premises. But the faded ad remains—a sweet sign to come across.

[Second image: Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette]

Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

March 22, 2021

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

February 22, 2021

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

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.