Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Strange carriages on an unpaved, unknown stretch of Seventh Avenue

October 17, 2022

There’s a lot to unravel in this postcard of Seventh Avenue around 1900. First, what stretch of Seventh are we looking at? This doesn’t look like downtown, where Seventh Avenue would be lined with a mishmash of older walkup buildings.

This Seventh Avenue doesn’t look like the section below Central Park, which at the time had transformed into a luxury apartment house district.

Could the view be of Seventh Avenue above the park in Harlem, where rapid residential development at the end of the 19th century would explain the more uniform rows of apartment buildings? It could account for the yet-to-be-paved road as well.

Then there are the unusual vehicles with just a driver’s seat and four small wheels. They’re too small to be considered carriages or coaches, and the formation of them on the road suggests a race of some kind—with crowds on the sidewalk eagerly watching.

[MCNY: x2011.34.385]

The ghost of a colonial road on the eastern side of the Chrysler Building

September 15, 2022

There’s no finer example of a New York City Art Deco skyscraper than the Chrysler Building, which gleams with strength and grace 77 stories over 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The Chrysler Building in 1931, rising above 42nd Street

This icon of Machine Age Manhattan was completed in record time between 1928 and 1930, in a race with 40 Wall Street to claim the title of New York’s tallest building. (The Empire State Building beat them both when it debuted on the skyline in 1931.)

Designed by William Van Alen for Walter Chrysler, the head of the car manufacturer, the building begins with a base and then features elegant setbacks as the slender tower rises higher and higher, finally coming to a crown and then a point, literally, with a stainless-steel needle spire that pierces the clouds.

The architectural loveliness of its exterior and interior deserve their own lengthy posts. This post is about how a slant along the Chrysler Building’s setback reflects the former presence of a primitive road traversed by colonial-era New Yorkers.

Gerald R. Wolfe points out this setback in his deeply researched book of walking tours, New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. “Around the corner on 42nd Street (best viewed from the south side of the street), it will be noted that the east wall of the Chrysler Building’s lower setback is not parallel to the north-south avenues,” wrote Wolfe.

This 1822 map shows 42nd Street and Eastern Post (Boston Post) Road as the road crosses Lexington and Third Avenues

Take a look when you’re in the neighborhood: you can see that this eastern setback was built on a rightward slant, while the other setback walls are straight.

What’s the explanation? It’s the ghost of Boston Post Road, a long-defunct thoroughfare and one of the city’s few reliable roadways in the 17th and early 18th centuries. (Boston Post Road was also called Eastern Post Road, or East Post Road—it was the thoroughfare to take if you were heading out of the city to New England.)

Plans for the trapezoid-shaped Chrysler Building

The plot of land on which Walter Chrysler planned to build his tower once bordered Boston Post Road, which predated the city street grid and ran roughly between today’s Third and Lexington Avenues, Wolfe explained. When he acquired it, the original border remained—even though the road was defunct.

With this meandering colonial road forming the parcel’s eastern boundary, Chrysler ended up with a slanted plot shaped like a trapezoid, as Sam Roberts put it in his 2019 book, A History of New York in 27 Buildings. Hence the angled setback, which reflects the angle of this de-mapped road.

Boston Post Road disappeared from city maps in the 19th century, though it’s unclear when. It was definitely gone by the Gilded Age: A New York Times article from 1881 describes it as “now obliterated and forgotten.”

Other ghosts of the Boston Post Road still exist though. One remnant is this East 49th Street courtyard, where travelers could catch the stagecoach to Boston.

In 1929, ready to wow the world

[Top photo: NYPL; third image: Map of the Common Lands; raremaps.com; fourth image: greatbuildings.com; fifth image: NYPL]

The relaxing country drive that New Yorkers like George Washington enjoyed in 1790

August 19, 2022

As magical as New York City can be, sometimes you really need to hit the road for the day and take a long drive into the country.

Kingsbridge Road, part of the “14 miles round” pleasure drive

New Yorkers in 1790 could relate. Residents who were lucky enough to have leisure time as well as access to a carriage and driver could leave the city limits and venture along Manhattan Island’s few reliable north-south roads. One especially popular day-long drive was known as the “14 miles round.” (Or “14 mile round,” as some sources have it.)

The name appears to be derived from the seven miles it took to get to the countryside of Upper Manhattan, and then the seven miles back to the lower city—which barely existed beyond Canal Street at the time.

A closeup of the Bien and Johnson Map of Manhattan, showing the Bloomingdale Road and the Kingsbridge or Post Road, both part of the 14 mile round. McGowan’s Pass is on the far right.

“In 1790, the favorite drive of the New-Yorkers was the ’14 mile round,'” an 1880 New York Times article states, quoting an author of a biography of George Washington, who lived in New York City during 1789-1790, the first two years of his presidency.

“This route went over the old Boston road, on the line of Third Avenue, crossed Murray Hill nearly on a line with Lexington Avenue, and bearing westward to McGowan’s Pass, went then to the Bloomingdale region, and so down on the Hudson River side of the island.”

McGowan’s Pass is at about today’s 107th Street in Central Park. The Bloomingdale region was only accessible via Bloomingdale Road, a former native American trail laid out in 1707 from roughly today’s 23rd Street to 115th Street and Riverside Drive.

Indeed, Washington wrote in his now-published diary that he did the 14 miles round with his wife, Martha, and Martha’s two young grandchildren.

On December 12, 1789, a Saturday, President Washington made the drive: “Exercised in the coach with Mrs. Washington and the two children, (Master and Miss Custis), between breakfast and dinner—went the 14 miles round.”

On January 9, 1790, also a Saturday, Washington did it again: “Exercised with Mrs. Washington and the children in the coach the 14 miles round. In the afternoon, walked round the Battery.”

In a footnote, Washington’s Diary describes the 14-mile round a bit differently than the New York Times article, calling what became the Boston Road by its original name, Kingsbridge Road: “The route was by the old Kings-Bridge Road, which passed over Murray Hill, where Lexington Avenue now does, to McGowan’s Pass at about One Hundred and Eighth Street; then across on a line with the Harlem River to Bloomingdale, and so down on the westerly side of the island.”

Bloomingdale country lane

Kingsbridge Road, “was the main road through Manhattan during the 1700s and early 1800s, before the current street grid was implemented, and was key to transportation in the area,” stated the Central Park Conservatory. “The road originated in southern Manhattan at around today’s Madison Square and proceeded north to the King’s Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan.”

Unfortunately, Washington’s diary doesn’t go into detail about what he saw during his forays on the 14 mile round. But if he went more than once, it’s fair to assume he enjoyed the beautiful sights of bucolic Manhattan: pretty countryside, large estates, small farms, and so many possibilities for the young nation.

Washington’s coach, but whether it’s the coach he took on the 14 miles round is unknown

Bloomingdale Road has a fascinating history and plays a major role in the development of the Upper West Side. Find out more on an Ephemeral New York walking tour that delves into the backstory of Riverside Drive! A few spots are still available for Sunday, August 21 and Sunday August 28. See you there!

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia; third image: painting by Rembrandt Peale; fourth image: Eliza Greatorex, MCNY, 57.138.3]

The staircases left behind after the original Penn Station was demolished

August 12, 2022

It took five years to build Penn Station: millions of tons of granite, steel, stone, and bricks were transformed into a triumphant Beaux Arts monument to modern transportation that officially opened in 1910.

(Constructing Penn Station leveled several blocks and hundreds of tenements in the Tenderloin, but that’s another story.)

A half century later, it took three years to demolish what was now an underused, money-losing station. On October 28, 1963, small groups of protestors could not stop the team of wreckers who began jackhammering the exterior and carting away the rubble.

While the old station was going down, it was being replaced by an unlovely, utilitarian station under a new Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza office complex. If you’ve been there, you know what was lost.

But amazingly, bits of the original Penn Station have survived all these years, hiding in plain site below the main level. Where can you find them? Head to the LIRR sub-level of the station and look at the staircases.

On some of the tracks, you’ll see brass and wrought-iron staircase railings. Compare the staircase images: in the above black and white photo, taken by Berenice Abbott in 1935, you can see the same wrought-iron design—kind of an X in a square—in the railings of the staircases today.

I’m not sure the brass handrail is original, but the ironwork looks a little too fanciful to be part of the 1960s Penn Station—which I can’t recall having a single architectural flourish or design touch of any kind.

The staircases aren’t the only relics of the old Penn Station that managed to survive the bulldozer. A wall of beveled glass panes with iron detailing remains inside the station close to the Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street entrance.

Cut off by construction, the wall separates a waiting room from the rest of the station.

And outside on 31st Street is a curious structure known as the Penn Station Service Building. Completed two years before the station opened, this was the power center for Penn Station, supplying electricity for train engines as well as heat, refrigeration, elevator hydraulics, and compressed air.

It’s the staircase railings, however, that feel the most compelling. Imagine the rush of adrenaline millions of passengers experienced as they descended those staircases to their awaiting trains—and then on to their destinations!

[Second image: MCNY, 89.2.3.152]

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

This 1905 power plant is one of the West Side’s most beautiful buildings

July 11, 2022

With construction of the city’s first subway system underway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company needed to build a massive generating plant that would create enough electricity to run the new lines.

Industrial buildings aren’t always designed with beauty in mind. But this was the early 1900s, the era of the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful held that urban buildings should be architecturally inspiring and promote civic pride rather than be plain and utilitarian.

So while a team of pioneering engineers designed the interior workings of the building, IRT officials gave the responsibility of the exterior to Stanford White—the celebrated (and scandalous) architect whose brilliant artistic and architectural aesthetic was on display all over New York, from the Washington Square Arch to Madison Square Garden to numerous mansions, among other noteworthy structures.

White’s creation, known as the IRT Powerhouse, was completed in 1905. Spanning the entire block from 11th to 12th Avenue at the far western end of 59th Street, it epitomized the City Beautiful movement and looked more like a museum or concert hall than a coal-fed power plant.

Its location gives it away as an industrial structure. The Powerhouse opened at the nexus of two rough-edged tenement enclaves, Hell’s Kitchen to the south and the former San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north. The area was open and gritty, blocks away from the cattle pens and abattoirs of the West Side stockyards but with access to the river.

“Executed in the Beaux-Arts style and drawing upon Renaissance prototypes, it is the embodiment of the aesthetic ideas of the City Beautiful movement, which held that public improvements could beautify American industrial cities,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017.

“White’s design masterfully concealed the boiler house and generating station with elegant, unified façades cloaked in Milford granite, Roman brick and creamy terra cotta with neoclassical ornament.”

Sketch of the completed IRT Powerhouse, 1904

Christopher Gray, writing in the New York Times in 1991, had this to say: “Giant arched windows march down each side, separated by huge pilasters and topped by an attic story and, originally, an elaborate projecting cornice. Some of the detailing is patterned after electrical designs but most is like a stylebook of classical patterns: delicate wreaths, sharp palmette leaves, swags and the like—an esthetic anomaly in this industrial area.”

This commemoration of industrial might and power has undergone some changes in the ensuing years. The cornice was stripped, and only one of the original smokestacks survives. In the last decade or so, the formerly gritty neighborhood has become the site of modern apartment towers that offer a cool contrast to the warmth of the power plant’s brick and terra cotta.

When the IRT went under three decades after launching the first subway lines, the city took the plant. “The city took possession of the building in the early 1930’s when it bought the IRT lines, and Con Ed bought the station from the city in 1957,” stated Michael Pollak in the New York Times‘ FYI column in 2006.

Instead of electricity, the power plant now creates steam for Manhattan buildings. It’s also an official landmark as of 2017, “a monument to the engineers and architects who planned and built New York City’s first successful subway system,” per the LPC.

[Fourth image: Wikipedia]

5 wildly different sign styles outside New York’s subway entrances

June 20, 2022

The New York City subway system has 472 stations, according to the MTA. Some of these stations made up the original IRT line that debuted in October 1904; others opened in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and beyond (looking at you, Second Avenue Q train).

190th Street/Fort Tryon Park

The nice thing about a subway system constructed in different decades is that there’s no one uniform subway sign above ground outside station entrances. The wide range of sign styles reflects the era the station opened and/or the feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Each has a different magic.

Fifth Avenue/59th Street

At the 190th Street IND station at Fort Tryon Park is this subway sign (top photo), with what looks like hand-cut lettering. The station opened in 1911, and I don’t know when the sign appeared. But it’s certainly a vintage beauty in an exceedingly beautiful section of Upper Manhattan.

Lexington Avenue/51st Street

These twin lantern-like subway signs outside Central Park give off a more old-timey vibe. You can find them at the Fifth Avenue and 59th Street N/R station. When illuminated at night, they’re enchanting.

Downtown Brooklyn

The Jazz Age comes alive thanks to this subway signage at the 6 train station on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street (third image). The chrome and lettering seem very Art Deco—as does the building beside it, the former RCA Building/General Electric Building, built between 1929-1931.

The subway signs lit up in green in Downtown Brooklyn look like they’re giving off radiation! It’s all part of the sleek, unusual design that feels very 1930s or 1940s to me.

The last photo features a more elegant, business-like sign design, perhaps from Lower Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn again. It’s the only one that doesn’t appear to be a lamp, though it’s possible it might light up when the skies darken. Sharp-eyed ENY readers identified the location at One Hanson Place, the address of the circa-1929 former Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.

This Riverside Drive traffic signal looks like a relic from another era

June 16, 2022

The plastic covering is cracked, electrical wires are loose, and the sad pole this traffic signal is affixed to is crudely cemented to the pavement.

Clearly this two-red-light signal isn’t in good shape. But the more curious thing is how old-fashioned it looks. Could this seemingly forgotten piece of DOT infrastructure at the end of 93rd Street at Riverside Drive be the oldest traffic signal left in Manhattan?

Dating this light has been difficult. New York City didn’t get its first traffic signal until 1920—powered by a police officer sitting in a tall tower at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. (See the stylish postcard below.)

Later that decade, many major avenues had traffic lights as we know them today, but they only flashed red or green, according to Christopher Gray in a 2014 New York Times article.

Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in the 1920s, via Transpress NZ

I’ve seen a similar red light at dead ends; see the image of Sutton Square at 57th Street below. But that one has the lights arranged vertically, not horizontally. It’s also in much better shape—or at least it was when the photo was taken in 2019.

If the Riverside Drive traffic signal proves to be a relic of another New York, perhaps the DOT could call out its historical significance by spiffing it up—it should look as proud as the circa-1915 bronze Joan of Arc statue behind it.

A two-light traffic signal at the end of Sutton Square

See more relics on Riverside Drive, plus Gilded Age mansions and monuments, on Ephemeral New York’s Riverside Drive walking tour this Sunday, June 19 at 1 pm!

[Third image: Transpress NZ]

The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

June 10, 2022

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

A painter’s mystery scene on the Sixth Avenue elevated after midnight

May 19, 2022

Elevated trains were the fastest mode of mass transit in the late 19th century. Lurching and groaning high above the sidewalks along almost all of New York’s avenues, they whisked people to work, to school, to the theater, to Central Park, to department store shopping—all for a nickel per ride.

At night, the elevated invited intrigue. Everett Shinn, former newspaper illustrator best known as a member of the Ashcan School of social realism painting, captures a moment at one end of a poorly lit all-male car in his 1899 work, “Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight.”