Archive for the ‘theater’ Category

All the ways to get around Times Square in 1913

July 27, 2020

This is Broadway approaching Times Square in 1913. It’s hard to make out some of the store and theater signs in this postcard, but you can see the ad for the Hotel Normandie (once located on 38th Street) advertising itself as “absolutely fireproof”—a definite selling point at the time.

What strikes me most in this view is the variety of transit modes: automobiles, wagons, streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians walking, even a bicycle or motorbike—with no traffic lights or lanes yet to facilitate getting around!

[NYPL]

The Medieval granite fortress once on 14th Street

July 6, 2020

It rose like King Arthur’s castle on 14th Street: a stone citadel complete with arched entryways, crenellations on top of its towers, and what look like arrow loops from the very top, the better to rain arrows down on enemy invaders.

What was this imposing granite fortress? The Ninth Regiment 14th Street Armory, completed in 1896 just west of Sixth Avenue.

For eight decades, this rough-cut armory held court on the north side of the street—first amid department stores, the 14th Street Theatre, and residential brownstones, and then among a changed neighborhood of light manufacturing and discount houses.

This wasn’t the first armory on the site. It replaced an earlier one opened in 1863 that extended to 15th Street and was nicknamed the “Palace Garden.”

Both the older and newer armory were constructed as part of a great wave of armory-building in New York City between the Civil War and World War I. That’s when the US Army went from a “state-controlled, decentralized army of citizen soldiers” to a “federally maintained, centralized corps of professional soldiers,” wrote Nancy L.Todd in New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History.

“Armories had three basic functions: they served as military facilities, clubhouses, and public monuments,” wrote Todd. As far as a public monument, the 14th Street Armory was a spectacular expression of power and might.

You’d think such an armory would be landmarked and preserved—for its architecture or its historical backstory.

But in 1971, New York bulldozed the castle and replaced it with a new concrete armory building (above, in the 1980s). It was described as “a gross and overbearing modern drill hall,” by the AIA Guide to New York City, according to the New York Times in 1993.

By the 1990s, the new armory had outlasted its military function; it was closed in 1993. What to do with a massive masonry building on a major street that was starting to attract new residents and retail stores?

Other New York City armories no longer used by the military were turned into homeless shelters (Brooklyn’s 23rd Regiment Armory), sports complexes (Armory Track on Fort Washington Avenue), and arts centers (the Seventh Regiment/Park Avenue Armory).

New York State, which owned the building, decided to go with a mixed-use developer. Today, the site is occupied by the McBurney YMCA and topped by apartments.

[First and third images: New York State Military Images; second and fourth photos: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth photo: NYPL]

The Gilded Age social season began in November

November 11, 2019

Go back in time to the Gilded Age city. Right about now, in mid-November, the elite members of the Astor 400 were putting the finishing touches on their evening gowns, mansion ballrooms, and calling cards.

That’s because the middle of November marked the beginning of the winter social season. Starting with opening night of the Academy of Music’s opera series on East 14th Street, the next few months would be a swirl of parties the rest of us could only read about. (Newspapers covered these events the way gossip sites cover Red Carpet awards shows today.)

The festivities included the annual horse show later in the the month, debutante and Patriarchs’ balls in December, and then various balls (often costume balls) and charity events—the high point of which was Mrs. Astor’s own ball held annually at the end of January.

The winter social season ended at Lent, when fancy clothes and memories of dancing quadrilles and consuming multi-course meals until early in the morning were packed away.

Not longer after, New York society started readying themselves for the summer social season in the “cottages” of Newport, which began in July.

For more about the Gilded Age and the rise and fall of the society bigwigs who ruled the city’s social world, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: “Old Vanderbilt House,” Everett Shinn; second image: James Hazen Hyde Ball, January 1905 via Find a Grave; third image: unknown]

The most magical place in the eyes of city kids

January 30, 2017

Today’s equivalent might be an afternoon at an Imax theater, or a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar or to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.

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But for New York City kids growing up in the antebellum 19th century, the greatest treat of all was a visit to Barnum’s American Museum.

barnummuseum1858“Sometimes my mother and father would take me to P.T. Barnum’s Museum—on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street,” wrote James Edward Kelly, who as a small child in 1860s New York recalls Barnum’s as the promise land “for all good boys and girls.”

“As I remember it, it was a large, light colored building, five stories high. It had a balcony over the first floor, and facing Broadway was an expansive banner on which was painted the latest wonder of the world, and behind it a band was constantly playing,” remembered Kelly in his memoir, Tell Me of Lincoln.

It’s not hard to see the appeal. From 1842 to 1865, Barnum’s was a menagerie (below), circus, theater, and freak show all under one heavily decorated roof.

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For 25 cents (15 cents for kids under age 10), parents and their offspring could gaze at exotic animals, view exhibits of scientific discoveries, watch historical plays, and be entertained by magicians and musicians in what was cheekily called the “Lecture Room.”

barnumannaswan“[At Barnum’s] I found the people of my fancy realized: giants, in the person of Miss Anna Haining Bates Swan (at left), eight feet high, and dwarfs, such as Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt” (below).

“Here I also saw Barnum’s white whale, and Ned the trained seal, who had an almost uncanny intelligence,” recalled Kelly.

barnumcommodorenuttBarnum’s was famous worldwide, a must-see for tourists. At its peak the museum was open almost around the clock, entertaining crowds in the millions.

“The country people, so as to get all they could for their money, used to bring their lunches and stay all day, thus filling up the building,” stated Kelly.

While kids were enthralled, many proper adults found Barnum’s appeal decidedly lowbrow, catering to the “vulgar gaze,”  as one English visitor put it in 1854.

barnumsmuseumadBarnum’s occupied “a gaudy building, denoted by huge paintings, multitudes of flags, and a very noisy band,” the visitor wrote.

“The museum contains many objects of real interest . . . intermingled with a great deal that is spurious and contemptible.”

The museum burned down in 1865 in a spectacular fire that killed many of the animals. Though Barnum rebuilt it in farther north on Broadway, the operation ceased in 1868.

But Barnum’s remained alive in the imaginations of kids like Kelly, who remembered the excitement of watching a show in the lecture room (below).

“Then came the delicious moments of suspense, when the audience waited for wonders that were behind the curtain….”

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“Then with a crash from the band, the curtain rolled up and we soon got goose flesh over the blood-curdling play, unsurpassed by any in the Old Bowery Theatre.”

[Images: NYPL]

Times Square before it became Times Square

December 27, 2016

Here’s a look at Times Square in 1900, seven years before the neighborhood became famous for the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop—and in fact, before it was even called Times Square.

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At the time, the nexus of avenues that would soon be dubbed the Crossroads of the World was known as Longacre Square, the sleepy center of the city’s carriage industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, New York’s theater district had edged up against the area—see the burlesque house on the left. In four years, the New York Times would relocate to that spot in the center of the card.

And starting in 1907, New Year’s Eve in New York would never be the same.

[Photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17932]

A Village eccentric’s popular 1920s speakeasy

June 23, 2016

BarneyGallant1920s1930smetBarney Gallant (standing, at right) was many things.

He was a Latvian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1903; Eugene O’Neill’s first New York City roommate, sharing a rundown Sixth Avenue flat with the playwright for $3 a week; and manager of the Greenwich Village Inn in Sheridan Square (below left).

He was also a colorful rebel so convinced that Prohibition was idiotic, he became the first New Yorker ever prosecuted under the Volstead Act in 1919 when his waiters served booze to undercover cops (he spent 30 days in the Tombs for this misdeed).

After his stint behind bars, Gallant—now a hero and celebrity—decided he would keep serving liquor, but only to customers in the know.

BarneygallantgreenwichvillageinnSo he opened his speakeasy, Club Gallant, in 1922 at 40 Washington Square South.

It was a hit, attracting “youngsters with strange stirrings in their  breasts, who had come from remote villages on the prairie; women of social position and money who wanted to do things . . . businessmen who had made quick money and wanted to breathe the faintly naughty atmosphere in safety, and ordinary people who got thirsty now and then and wanted to sit down and have a drink,” stated Stanley Walker in 1933’s The Night Club Era.

BarneygallantwashsquarenorthClub Gallant moved to Edgar Allan Poe’s old digs at 85 West Third Street. Gallant then decamped to 19 Washington Square North (right), where he opened his ritzy speakeasy Speako de Luxe (below).

The key to his success, besides his eccentric personality and reputation for having more friends than party-loving mayor Jimmy Walker?

He made his speakeasies exclusive, and he asked customers to adhere to some rules. (Rule 10: “Please do not offer to escort the cloakroom girl home. . . . “)

After Repeal in 1933, the “mayor of Greenwich Village,” as he was dubbed by the press, opened a restaurant at 86 University Place.

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He wrote an article for Cosmopolitan in 1946 called “The Vanishing Village” and worked on his memoirs in the 1960s, supposedly.

What stories he must have had to tell! He died in a Miami retirement home in 1968.

[Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alamy]

Faded outlines of an infamous Flatiron love nest

November 16, 2015

Stanford White was one of New York’s great architects. He was also a notorious womanizer known for seducing teenage girls, preferably showgirls.

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To facilitate this, the married White kept a secret apartment at 22 West 24th Street, just off Madison Square Park. From the outside, it was plain and unspectacular.

StanfordwhitephotoInside, however, was a seducer’s love nest, complete with mirrored walls, velvet couches, colored lights, a four-poster bed, and of course, a red velvet swing.

It was the same swing he pushed 16-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit in, not long before he lowered her defenses with champagne and raped her in 1901.

Nesbit wasn’t the only girl he took to 22 West 24th Street. But she was the only one who ended up telling the world about what happened there, after she took the stand during a murder trial that had the entire city’s attention.

Five years after White assaulted her, Nesbit’s new husband, Harry Thaw, took out a pistol and shot and killed White in the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden.

Thaw was unstable, wildly jealous of White, and obsessed with avenging his wife’s honor.

Evelynesbit1901At Thaw’s trial in 1907, Nesbit recalled the events of the night White raped her and what the inside of his multi-level seduction lair was like.

[As a reader points out below, Nesbit’s take has to be looked at through a gimlet eye. She had her own interests (and reputation) to protect, and White was not around to counter her testimony. But here is her story.]

The first time she visited, she was with a girlfriend; White and another man convinced the two girls to get in the swing, and they pushed them from behind.

“Their toes struck the crisp paper covering of a great Japanese fan swung from the ceiling, ripping the fan to tatters,” wrote the New York Times in an article chronicling the trial.

The second time, with her mother out of town, White invited Nesbit to a party he said he was having at 24th Street. When she arrived, she was the only one there.

EvelynnesbitnytimesWhite “asked her to let him show her his antiques and beautiful things, and disclosed a narrow stairway leading from the studio upward,” stated the Times.

“She followed him to a room in which there was a piano and many objects of art. She thrummed the piano for a moment, then White bade her to go into the next room with him.”

“The room was chintz covered. It was a bedroom, and there was a table and chair beside the bed in it.”

Evelynnesbit22west24thstphoto2007White poured her a glass of champagne and made her drink it, she told the court. Then, “there was the sound of thumping in her head, she said, and the chintz bedroom began to whirl about.”

Next thing she knew, she woke up in the bed surrounded by mirrors. She screamed and went home, and the next day, White “praised her beauty and her youth, told her how he liked girls, and said he would do a great many things for her,” wrote the Times.

After two trials, Thaw got off on an insanity defense. White’s former love nest on 24th Street fell into disrepair and collapsed in 2007 (right). All that remains is its faded outline.

[Bottom photo: Don Hogan Charles/New York Times]

Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

Hoffbauerarainynewyorkstreet

He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

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The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

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The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.