Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

November 15, 2021

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]

A moment in time somewhere on the Bowery

November 1, 2021

An abandoned street cleaning cart. Men in hats walking alone. A streetcar traveling on dusty Belgian block pavement, an elevated train overhead, a succession of store signs and advertisements.

It’s just a glimpse in time around the turn of the century on the Bowery. But where, exactly? One of the buildings has 57 on it, suggesting 57 Bowery. That address no longer exists; it would have been near the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge.

There’s another sign that might give us a clue: the ad propped against a pole at the edge of the sidewalk. It looks like the first word is “London.” A theater with that name existed at 235 Bowery, where the New Museum is today between Stanton and Rivington Streets.

Whatever the exact address is, you can practically feel the energy and vitality—the pulse of a street now synonymous with a lowbrow kind New York life.

These ‘automobile stables’ on 75th Street might be the city’s first garages

October 25, 2021

Back in the days when New Yorkers got around town by horse and carriage, wealthy Gothamites built separate private carriage houses blocks away from their own mansions.

Inside these carriage houses (many quite lovely), broughams and phaetons were parked and horses cared for. In a small second or third floor area, a coachman and groom could live and work, making sure the carriage was ready when the owner wanted to use it.

By the turn of the century, however, the motor car hit the scene. Though some thought these “devil wagons” were just a fad, others realized they would soon replace horses and become the preferred mode of transportation for posh city residents (who were the only people who could afford a car at that time).

In 1902, a man named Edmund C. Stout was one who saw the future. That year, Stout bought five brownstone houses at 168-176 East 75th Street and converted them into what he dubbed “automobile stables,” according to a 2013 paper by Hilary Grossman from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture.

“Soon after completion, they were noted in the New York Times as the first automobile garages erected for private use in the city,” stated the Upper East Side Extension report by the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Stout gave his automobile stables an architectural makeover, adding a fourth floor, removing the stoops, and trading the out-of-fashion brownstone style for a more arts and crafts look with fanciful rustic red brickwork.

“The buildings were sold off to New Yorkers who sought a place to keep their automobile and house their chauffeur,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times column from 1988. “Each building originally had a charging station for electric automobiles.”

The automobile stables weren’t just for cars. The LPC report had this to say: “According to the New York Times, each building was initially outfitted with ‘a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.’ Other sources indicate that the upper-stories may have actually housed the private chauffeurs of the owners.”

Who were these owners? Millionaire C.G.K. Billings owned number 172, per the LPC report; Billings is best remembered as the man who arranged a black tie dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s in 1903. George F. Baker, a financier and philanthropist, owner number 168. Banker Mortimer Schiff purchased number 174.

Though the popularity of automobiles soared in the early 1900s, some of the automobile stables were converted for other uses. By 1912, number 172 was thought to have been used for an embroidery business, according to the LPC report. Numbers 172 and 176 may have been turned into residences.

Number 176 housed a physician’s office for more than a decade, from 1966 through 1979, per the LPC report, “while number 172 hosted a number of different businesses simultaneously in 1964, including an antiques store, custom dress-making store, and
artist studios.”

Today, the five former automobile stables are residential units, and only numbers 168 and 174 still have a first-story garage, the LPC report states.

A small number of Manhattanites are lucky enough to have private garages, including the owners of the house next door to this row at number 178—the rest do without or fork over big bucks to park underground.

[Fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

There’s a lot going on outside the Third Avenue Railroad Depot in this 1859 painting

October 18, 2021

Sometimes a painting has so much rich detail, it just knocks you out. That was my reaction to this magnificent scene of the Third Avenue Railroad Depot between 65th and 66th Streets, painted two years after the depot opened in 1857.

Amazingly, the painter of this “precise representation” of the depot, William H. Schenck, was also the company’s superintendent, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the work.

In 1859, this stretch of what would become the Upper East Side (near the Treadwell Farm Historic District) was mostly untouched by developers, though some wood houses are off in the distance. Street lamps stand on corners, however, and the road looks paved.

The streetcars pulled by horses follow the rails in and out of the depot. People are scattered about; some are on horseback, and one man steers a wagon full of goods. A hot air balloon sails through the sky, what’s that about?

“In addition to highlighting the contemporary popularity of the horse-drawn streetcar, Schenck also included a hot-air balloon in the sky, identified in tiny letters as the Atlantic,” the Met states. “The balloon’s owners, John Wise and John LaMountain, hoped to fly it across the Atlantic Ocean to initiate an entirely new form of transportation, but they never succeeded.”

Sadly, the Third Avenue Railroad Depot was destroyed by fire four years later.

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]

When rich New Yorkers and their horses took to Central Park’s new carriage drive

September 20, 2021

Central Park was a work in progress when Winslow Homer produced this richly detailed scene in 1860. But that didn’t stop New York’s fashionable set from coming out to the park in stylish carriages to see and be seen in a daily ritual known as the “carriage parade.”

Every afternoon between 4-5 p.m., the east side carriage drive from 59th Street to the Mall came alive, explained Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “In the continuous procession of equipages you saw everyone who counted: the aristocracy, the new smart set, the parvenus, the celebrities, the deplorably notorious.”

Perhaps Homer isn’t capturing just the carriage parade but the various ways Gotham’s wealthy and their horses used new park. Take the woman in the foreground, for example. Thanks to the carriage drive, riding was now socially acceptable for ladies, according to Morris.

“The fashionable hour for equestriennes was before breakfast,” he wrote. “You could see them elegantly togged out in silk hat draped with a flying veil, tight buttoned bodice and flowing skirts….A lady riding alone was invariably attended by a liveried groom or a riding master.”

Men in positions of power indulged in the trotting fad, riding expensive fast horses to Harlem Lane and back to the park. “When General Grant visited the city at the end of the Civil War, one of his first requests was to be taken out to Harlem Lane,” stated Morris. “He shared New York’s passion for trotters, and agreed that ‘the road’ of a late afternoon was one of the most thrilling sights in the country.”

[Lithograph: up for auction at Invaluable]

The 18th century farm lane preserved in a Riverside Drive courtyard

August 30, 2021

The mostly unbroken line of elegant apartment buildings along Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side appear from afar like early 20th century residential fortresses.

But look closely past the black iron fence at one building on the corner of 92nd Street. You’ll catch a glimpse of a sliver of colonial-era Manhattan that isn’t on modern-day maps and doesn’t adhere to the circa-1811 street grid.

The 7-story residence is 194 Riverside Drive (below), completed in 1902 and designed by Ralph Samuel Townsend, an architect who lived on 102nd Street and designed buildings all over the city—including the richly detailed Kenilworth on Central Park West.

“The wide alleyway on the south side of the building is the remnant of a path or lane that once led from the old Bloomingdale road (slightly off line with Broadway) to Twelfth Avenue,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in their 1989 report designating this stretch of Riverside Drive a historical district.

The unnamed lane, which runs on the north side of 190 Riverside next door, “separated the farms of Brouckholst Livingston to the south and R.L. Schieffelin to the north.”

These farms and others were part of the village of Bloomingdale (image above), a once rural swatch of today’s Upper West Side that served as farmland, then the site of estates and institutions, and by the late 19th century was absorbed into the larger city.

An 1890s map of the neighborhood (below, click the link to zoom in) shows us exactly where this farm lane once ran.

Between 91st and 92nd Streets, you can see faintly outlined blue lines going from the river to the former Bloomingdale Road—which opened in 1703 and offered access to and from the rest of Manhattan to this beautiful part of Gotham. (Bloomingdale came from the Dutch Bloemendaal, which meant “valley of flowers.”)

Today, the lane would extend from the courtyard on the south side of 194 Riverside Drive, through the backyards of row houses past West End Avenue. Google maps allows us to trace the path, and then imagine the colonial-era farmers and estate owners who traversed it centuries ago.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL; fourth image: LOC]

A tenement sign high up at the corner of First Street and First Avenue

July 19, 2021

The corner of First Street and First Avenue is roughly the borderline of the East Village. And what better than an old-school address sign like this one affixed to a handsome brick building to welcome you to the neighborhood as you leave the Lower East Side behind?

These early 20th century address markers can be found on many tenement corners throughout New York City. In some cases, they may have served to let elevated train riders know exactly where they were passing.

Or perhaps these signs—sometimes raised and embossed, other times carved into the building—simply let pedestrians know where they stood in an era when reliable street signs had not yet arrived to ever corner in poor neighborhoods.

The story of the twin former horse stables of Great Jones Street

July 5, 2021

If you walk down Great Jones Street between Lafayette and the Bowery, you’ll come across these handsome Italianate-style red buildings with almost identical black cornices.

Built by separate developers in 1871, the sign in the center of each cornice indicates that both buildings were used as stables. Like so many other former stables throughout New York, they were converted to residences with ground floor commercial space once automobiles replaced equines in the early 1900s.

True, both of these buildings originally did house horses. But while the sign on the cornice of one is authentic, the signage on the other was only put up in the 1970s.

The Great Jones Street stables in 2011, without scaffolding

Let’s start with Number 33, on the left. The slightly damaged letters on the cornice read “Beinecke & Co’s Stables.”

Who was Beinecke? Johann Bernhard Georg Beinecke immigrated from Germany at arrived at Castle Garden in 1865, according to the website Immigrant Entrepreneurship.

His is a rags to riches story. “Bernhard signed on as a wagon driver for a meat concern; within a few short years he bought the company and appropriately renamed it Beinecke & Company,” the website continues. Later, he branched out into banking and the hotel business, buying the original Plaza Hotel and other luxury hotels.

From 1890 into the 20th century, the horses that pulled the delivery wagons for the Beinecke meat company were stabled here, states the Landmark Preservation Commission’s NoHo Historic District Extension Report.

And what about Number 31 on the right? This building was originally the home of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, and the LPC Report says the Underwriters board moved its Fire Patrol No. 2 here from 1873 to 1907. (At the time, of course, a fire patrol needed fire horses.)

“Following the departure of the Fire Patrol, the building was converted to other uses,” states the LPC report. One of those was home base for the Joseph Scott Trucking Company. This business established itself at 59 Great Jones Street in 1966 before relocating to Number 31 in the 1970, and then moved a third time to Number 33 until 1997, according to Walter Grutchfield.

Numbers 33 and 31 in 1980, by Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY

At some point, the trucking company added their own signage—copying the late 19th century look of Beinecke & Sons. “This is a modern cornice/pediment inscription meant to immulate its neighbor at 33 Great Jones Street,” Grutchfield writes.

Two 19th century former stables, but only one authentic stable sign.

[Second photo: Wikipedia; fifth photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY 2013.3.2.1790]