Archive for the ‘Staten Island’ Category

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

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]

Mystery ship anchors on a Greene Street building

April 18, 2016

GreenstreetbuildingDeep in NYU territory in Greenwich Village, amid century-old lofts and postwar apartments, sits a handsome brick building at 262 Greene Street.

A closer look reveals something curious: small ship anchor emblems decorate the facade, each with the letters S/SH flanking them.

These are the giveaways hinting at 262 Greene Street’s seafaring past.

The building was once an administrative office for Sailors’ Snug Harbor, an institution founded in 1801 by a sea captain named Robert Richard Randall.

Randall, who became a wealthy landowner, wanted to use his fortune to create a retirement community for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out seamen.”

Greenestreetcloseup“At the time of his death, Randall’s estate, located north and east of modern-day Washington Square, was rural,” states nycgovparks.org.

“By the time a protracted challenge to his will was settled, the land around the estate had changed dramatically, the city being developed around the area.”

“Opting instead to maximize profits on the Manhattan property, Snug Harbor’s trustees relocated the proposed site to Staten Island, buying property around the harbor in 1831.”

The Greene Street building is no longer occupied by Sailors’ Snug Harbor employees; it’s unclear if the institution still owns the property.

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In any case, ship anchors are a rare sight so far uptown and inland. These serve as hiding-in-plain-sight reminders that the city earned its riches off the backs of the sailors who came in and out of New York Harbor.

Two Brooklyn memorials to one 1960 plane crash

January 11, 2016

Newspaper headlines described a horrible scene. “Air crash rains death on city” screamed the New York Daily News on December 17, 1960.

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At 10:30 a.m. the day before, two passenger planes heading to LaGuardia collided over New York City.

A TWA airplane from Dayton, Ohio came down on Staten Island. A United DC-8 from Chicago hit the ground at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

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The final death toll of what was then the city’s worst air disaster would reach 134, including six victims in Brooklyn who were going about their day when the TWA craft plunged out of the sky.

AircrashstephenbaltzToday, Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue has long been cleaned up, though a few signs of the destruction of the crash remain. There’s no memorial at the intersection—but there are two not far away in Brooklyn.

One honors an 11-year-old boy who survived the initial crash. Stephen Baltz (left) was flying on his own to join his mom and sister in Yonkers, where they were planning to spend Christmas.

Baltz was badly burned, but he survived through the night before dying at Methodist Hospital up Seventh Avenue the next morning.

Inside the hospital’s Phillips Chapel is this understated plaque, above. “Our tribute to a brave little boy” it reads, next to the bronzed dimes and nickels Stephen had in his pocket. His parents put them in the hospital donation box after he died.

AircrashdailynewsIn Green-Wood Cemetery, a newer memorial marks the burial site of the bodies burned beyond recognition in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

“In an era before DNA identifications were possible, three caskets of ‘Fragmentary Human Remains’ were filled from the Park Slope crash site and were buried in a grave in lot 38325 that was purchased by United Airlines,” according to Green-Wood Cemetery.

Fifty years later in 2010, a granite memorial went up on the site. Inscribed on it are the names of all the victims.

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Nearby a bronze and granite stone poking out of the grass simply says, “In this grave rest unidentified remains of victims of the airplane crash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, December 16, 1960.”

[Top photo: Brooklyn Public Library/Irving I. Herzberg; third photo: New York Times; fourth photo: airliners.net/moose135photography]

Beautiful sailing ships at the South Ferry station

September 29, 2014

If you’ve ever taken the 1 train to its last, lovely, looping stop at the South Ferry/Whitehall Street station, you’ve probably seen them—15 beautiful terra cotta plaques depicting a sailing ship on the water.

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The officials in charge of building the first New York City subway line in 1904 did a lot of things right. Not only did they hire brilliant engineers and planners, but they brought in designers to create inspiring decorative features on platforms.

Ceramic plaques like these were installed in the earliest stations. Each plaque reflects something about the station’s neighborhood or history: a sloop for South Ferry, a beaver at Astor Place, a steamboat at Fulton Street.

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South Ferry’s ships might be the most magnificent of all, and it’s one of just a few stations that has a monogram panel with the station’s initials.

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.

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But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.

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Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

What New York Harbor looked like in 1905

August 5, 2013

What the harbor looked like on October 4, 1905, to be precise, with several ships pumping gray smoke into the sky.

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There’s the Statue of Liberty—less than 20 years old—in the distance, and what looks like Staten Island far off on the left.

“Street types” shot by a pioneering photographer

July 1, 2013

Born into a well-to-do Staten Island family in 1866, Alice Austen found her life’s passion after her sea captain uncle brought back a camera from his travels.

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[Street Musicians, 1896]

At 10 years old, she began taking photos, and by 18 was carrying around a heavy trunk filled with equipment, chronicling social events, family gatherings, and parties.

By the 1890s she was bringing her camera to Manhattan, where she “photographed the newly arriving immigrants and older residents as they went about their business,” states the website for Staten Island’s Alice Austen House, which preserves her home and legacy.

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[Bike Messenger, 1892]

“Alice always photographed the people and places of her world as they actually appeared, giving us a beautiful visual window on 19th century America.”

She collected many of these photos in “Street Types of New York City,” an 1896 portfolio of images of peddlers, salesman, and other workers as she encountered them on city streets. She continued taking photos through her life; over 3,500 survive.

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[Hester Street Egg Stand Group, 1896]

Austen’s comfortable life imploded after the stock market crash of 1929. For the remaining decades of her life, she and her companion, Gertrude Tate, lived in poverty.

Just before her death in 1952, her work finally received notoriety, and in the decades since, her standing as a pioneering female photographer of the beautiful and rich as well as the poor and struggling has continued to grow.

Aliceaustensuspendersalesman

[Suspender Salesman; 1896]

The Alice Austen House recently ended an exhibit of her street photography. But the house continues to promote her reputation as an artist and early female photographer.

[All photos copyright Alice Austen House]

The “sloop murderer” hanged on Liberty Island

December 17, 2012

AlberthicksIn July 1860, dozens of boats jockeyed for a prime spot off Bedloe’s (now Liberty) Island.

The boats carried 10,000 New Yorkers heading to see not fireworks or another summer celebration but an execution.

The doomed man was Albert W. Hicks, a 40-year-old sailor who confessed to the gruesome murders of the skipper and two mates aboard the schooner A.E. Johnson earlier that year.

The Johnson was an oyster sloop, on its way from Spring Street to Virginia to procure a shipment of oysters. Days after departing, it was found floating 50 miles from New York without its crew, the cabin awash in blood and human hair.

AlberthickshangingharborAuthorities quickly deemed Hicks a suspect. When they picked him up for questioning in Rhode Island, he had the skipper’s watch.

So he confessed: He said he’d been drugged and shanghaied onto the sloop, then to escape he killed the crew, dumped their bodies into the Atlantic, and left in a yawl to Staten Island, making off with a few hundred dollars.

His trial captivated the city. After being convicted and sentenced to hang, he claimed he’d killed dozens of men at mining camps around the country.

That July morning he met his fate, the thousands of spectators created “a motley and strange scene,” The New York Times reported.

Alberthickshangingad“On the water, there were not less than from 10,000 to 11,000 persons present, in costumes almost as variegated as at a carnival. White shuts, red shirts, blue shirts, blue jackets, red jackets, green jackets and ever steamer, vessel and yacht, decorated with lively-colored flags, while the uproar was incessant—cries of “Down in front,” “Get out of the way,”—rising from hundreds of throats at the same time.”

At 13 minutes past 11 a.m., Hicks was hanged, the last person to be put to death for piracy in New York.

[Second photo: boats jockeying for the best view of Hicks’ hanging; ad: an ad for a trip to see the execution]

The women of John Sloan’s South Beach Bathers

July 16, 2012

Exchange the wool bathing outfits for bikinis, and female beachgoers today aren’t much different from their 1908 counterparts, as depicted in John Sloan’s 1908 painting “South Beach Bathers.”

“Sloan first visited South Beach, an amusement park on Staten Island that attracted primarily working-class clientele, on June 23, 1907,” states the web site for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“Like many of his New York–themed works, his depiction of South Beach suggests a story that begins when one person looks at another. In South Beach Bathers a woman adjusting her hat is eyed appreciatively from the side and behind by men lounging on the sand.”

“Women play several roles at once in Sloan’s art: beyond being objects of desire, they record the new independence of modern New Yorkers, while also presenting a variation on old ideals of beauty in art.”