Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

One of the last remnants of the old Penn Station

October 16, 2017

Looking at old photos of Penn Station can make any New Yorker weep.

The 1963 bulldozing of this pink granite emblem of the city has been described as a “monumental act of vandalism.”

The Doric columns fronting Seventh Avenue dismantled, the Roman Baths–inspired waiting room demolished, and interior touches from handrails to ticket booths mostly carted away to landfills.

Remnants do remain, though (like the Eagle statues outside the current station), with one critical piece of Penn Station still located across 31st Street, where it sits anonymous and forlorn.

It’s the Penn Station Service Building (above), which housed the power plant that fed electricity to the train engines that navigated the tunnels to and from the city.

In the top photo of Penn Station’s exterior, you can see it behind the building, belching smoke closer to the Eighth Avenue side.

“Research by the industrial archaeologist Thomas Flagg indicates that it was also used to supply heat, light, elevator hydraulics and refrigeration for the station as well as compressed air for braking and signaling,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1989 New York Times article.

“It even incinerated the station’s garbage.” The smokestack, however, have been removed.

Constructed two years before Penn Station opened and designed by station architects McKim, Mead, and White, it has the same granite facade as Penn Station did, now gray with grime and soot in the shadow of Madison Square Garden.

It’s simple structure that’s still in use—but a ghost of its former glory. (That waiting room, sigh.)

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second and third photos: Ephemeral New York; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Getty Images]

A view of New York’s oldest and loveliest bridge

October 9, 2017

The Brooklyn Bridge is a beauty, yes, but for architectural grace and historical enchantment (and as a place for long late-night walks, as Edgar Allan Poe discovered), you just can’t beat High Bridge—the 1848 span built to bring city residents fresh water from the Croton Reservoir upstate.

Standing 84 feet above the Harlem River, the High Bridge’s 15 arches were an elegant sight for people on ships below or on the Bronx or Manhattan side above.

A pedestrian walkway was added in the 1860s—and it’s open again after being closed to the public for 40 years.

Skyscrapers are the “Soul of the Soulless City”

October 9, 2017

We’re used to artists coming to New York and being inspired. That’s not exactly the case with Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.

Nevinson was a celebrated British painter and lithographer noted for his landscapes and depictions of soldiers during World War I.

In 1919, he made his first trip to New York, where his war prints were on display to great acclaim. “He was immediately impressed by the city’s architecture, declaring to one New York journalist that the city was ‘built for me,'” states the Tate in the UK.

Back in London, Nevinson painted the futuristic work at the top of the page, which he titled “New York – An Abstraction.”

But when his second exhibit in Manhattan later that year didn’t get the same positive reception as his first, the experience “may have accelerated Nevinson’s disaffection with the city,” according to the Tate.

In 1925, when “New York – An Abstraction” went on display in London, it had a new, harsh title: “The Soul of a Soulless City.”

Nevinson painted other images of New York, like the more traditional river view of “New York, Night” (1920). But none had quite the “hard, metallic, unhuman” feel as “the  Soul of the Soulless City,” as one critic described it.

The Ninth Avenue El curving by Morningside Park

September 18, 2017

These are the tracks of the Ninth Avenue Elevated making an S curve beside Morningside Park—which is what this 1908 postcards says.

To my eyes, it’s difficult to recognize the park of 2017, which is one of the city’s least appreciated but most beautiful. (The bear and fawn statue, the rock formations, the turtles….sigh.)

Here’s a photo very similar to the image in the postcard. RIP Ninth Avenue El, which ceased operation in 1940.

This alley was once an exclusive New York street

September 18, 2017

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

Central Park’s sensational 1865 balloon wedding

September 11, 2017

New York in the 19th century had its headline-grabbing nuptials—from the “fairy wedding” of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in 1863 to the doomed union between Consuelo Vanderbilt (daughter of society wannabe Ava) and the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.

But for excitement and novelty, it’s hard to top the ceremony pulled off by one couple months after the end of the Civil War.

“For some days now the curiosity-loving portion of the New-York public have been all agog with the latest sensation—a projected marriage in a balloon,” wrote the New York Times on November 9, 1865.

There was something “peculiarly novel, not to say ridiculous, in the idea of a wedding taking place amid the clouds, with all mundane witnesses shut out by fleecy vapors, and the epithalamium sung by the rattling cordage of the aerial ship,” the reporter wrote.

But the newspaper covered the wedding anyway, which took place in a hot-air balloon with a wicker car that seated six. It was built by scientist and inventor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had been in charge of the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War and dreamed of making a transatlantic flight via balloon.

The whole thing was the idea of the groom, a geologist named John Boynton (above left), according to the Times. Lowe made all the arrangements for lift-off, which took place at Sixth Avenue and 59th Street. (Top photo)

“The neighboring rocks and houses were covered with impatient spectators . . . all desirous of catching a glimpse of the wedding party as they soared above their heads.”

The weather was fair and calm, and lift-off scheduled for 2 p.m. Other New York papers wrote it up as well with the same sour tone. “The bridegroom was a fat old widower of 50, his bride [Mary Jenkins] a lady of 25,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“The marriage ceremony was not performed up in air, the officiating clergyman objected to venture in the flesh so near heaven. The marriage was done on terra firma [at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, performed by future Brooklyn-based preacher T.D. Talmage], only the marriage contract was to be signed mid-air.”

After the bride and groom and their wedding party arrived and took their seats in the wicker basket, “the balloon ascended from Central Park, in the presence of a group of gaping idlers, who amused themselves with making vulgar remarks at the expense of the bride and groom.”

The Times described it this way. “The balloon rose, glided upward beautifully, and as the sea-breeze caught its silken sides the aerial craft bounded up almost instantly to a height of some thousand feet, when it again drifted, sailing slowly over the Central Park toward High Bridge.”

An hour and a half later, the balloon touched down safely in Westchester.

Apparently Lowe built an amphitheater at the lift-off site in Central Park and offered balloon rides to the public—until this particular balloon, named the United States, was destroyed by a tornado in 1866.

The Gilded Age was an era of excessive money—and crazy-sensational fads. Find out more in New York in the Gilded Age, 1870-1910.

[Top: NYPL; second: Harper’s Weekly; third: Getty images/Harper’s Weekly; fourth: New York Times; fifth: Getty Images/Harper’s Weekly; sixth: New York Times]

Your ticket to cross the new Williamsburg Bridge

August 28, 2017

Before coin tokens came into use, passengers riding the New York City subway in its early days needed a paper ticket.

And apparently a paper ticket also allowed you to take a trolley across the Williamsburgh (note the h!) Bridge after it opened in 1903.

This ticket comes from the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal. The caption reads: “Good for one passage over Williamsburgh Bridge on local bridge cars only. Three rides 5 cents.”

That’s a bargain; when the subway opened in 1904, a ride ran you a nickel.

What a subway payphone looked like in 1932

August 21, 2017

Remember subway payphones? If any still exist today, I can’t imagine they get much use—or that they actually work. Back before mobile phones, of course, they served their purpose.

The first public telephones appeared in New York City subway stations in 1911, according to Time magazine. What that contraption looked like I wish I knew.

But you can get something of an idea of it by looking at this 1932 photo of a payphone inside something of a phone booth at the former IND station on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.

[Photo: MCNY X2010.7.2.5359]

New York’s hustle and bustle down at Park Row

August 7, 2017

Here is Park Row at the turn of the century. Why the crowds, which the caption on the back of the postcard says numbers 50,000 commuters, workers, and idlers every day? Think of all the worlds that collide at this juncture.

The statue of Ben Franklin, with its Victorian lampposts, is a nod to New York’s printing and publishing industry, still centered here at Printing House Square.

A treeless City Hall Park is mostly out of view on the left. But centered on the northern end are government buildings, courts, and City Hall, which employ politicians and big staffs that serve them.

Factor in the transit hub known then as the Park Row Terminal, which ferried people across the Brooklyn Bridge so they can pick up streetcars on either side and continue on their way.

And of course, at this time Park Row is still the center of the newspaper trade.

See the delivery wagons lined up in front of various newspaper buildings, ready to bring the latest edition of the news of the world to the city. (Here they are in a closer view from a black and white photo.)

[Photo: Teamster.org]

Seventh Avenue as a dark, mysterious canyon

July 31, 2017

If you’ve never imagined New York as a concrete canyon, this 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott just might change your thinking.

Abbott manages to turn utilitarian 35th Street—not exactly the city’s most picturesque east-west thoroughfare—into a river carrying vehicles and pedestrians surrounded by the shadowy cliffs of buildings.

It looks like Abbott aimed her camera in the Garment District. MOMA’s caption for the photo mistakenly says this is Seventh Avenue at 35th Street, but smart Ephemeral readers pointed out that MOMA had the caption backwards.