Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

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.”

City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’

May 2, 2022

New York used to really celebrate itself. On the opening day of the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883, fireworks blazed the skies, and a flotilla of ships sailed triumphantly on the East River. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held amid a day of festivities.

And in 1900, city officials were apparently so excited by the idea of the new subway, they couldn’t wait until the system was up and running to throw a party.

So a celebration open to the public dubbed “tunnel day” was scheduled to mark the start of the digging of the first tunnel and the beginning of underground rapid transit.

Tunnel Day happened on March 24, 1900, and City Hall was decked out with flags, banners, and bunting. Makes sense: City Hall was the focal point for city politicians and other bigwigs, but it was also the site of the groundbreaking of the first station—the “crown jewel” City Hall IRT station.

City Hall Park was also decorated to the hilt. “They are the finest seen in years,” wrote the Evening World the day before Tunnel Day. “The park has become an aerial maze of bright colors. Flags flutter from the treetops and branches.”

Thousands of people watched from the sidewalks of Broadway and Park Row rooftops, 1,000 policemen kept crowds under control, bands played, and officials gave speeches. Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck turned “the first spadeful of earth” with a silver spade, the World noted on March 25. (Crowds tried to grab some of that dirt as souvenirs, alarming the police.)

Tunnel Day was a grand display of pride and progress at a time when the city was on the upswing—in population, land mass, and financial and cultural power. Four years later in October 1904, an even more massive celebration commemorated the opening of the first leg of the New York City subway.

City Hall was covered in flags and bunting once again…but the tradition seems to have died out. I can’t recall a recent event that brought out so many flags and banners.

[Top image: MCNY, X2010.11.584; second image: Evening World; third image: NYPL]

A painter’s dazzling mosaic of energy and color in 1901 Madison Square

April 28, 2022

Painter Maurice Prendergast has been described as a “post-Impressionist.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but he has a unique, early 1900s style that turns city spaces into dazzling mosaics and perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic vitality of New York’s streets and parks.

The painting above, “Madison Square,” is from 1901 and is part of the collection at the Whitney Museum.

I can’t make out the words in the sign below “Buffalo NY,” but I can feel the women and girls and drivers and strollers, all out for a day in a park that was much more elite a generation earlier but has been ceded to the masses. Judging by all the umbrellas shielding female faces, the sun must be quite warm.

Prendergast seemed to like scenes of leisure and play, like these—also in New York City parks.

The mysterious faded house outline on the side of a Chelsea tenement

April 25, 2022

In the under-construction contemporary city, you see them all the time—the faint outlines of roof lines, chimneys, windows, and staircases. They’re the phantom buildings of another New York, fascinating palimpsests from bulldozed edifices of Gotham’s past.

150 Ninth Avenue, with the phantom remains of 148 Ninth Avenue on its side

This site is a big fan of these ghost outlines and features them regularly. But recently I came across one in Chelsea with the steel beams and concrete floors of a new structure creeping up to subsume it.

So before the faded outline disappeared from sight behind a new luxury condo or co-op, I tried to delve into the backstory of what was once 148 Ninth Avenue, at 19th Street.

Examples of circa-1820s Federal-Style houses still extant on Harrison Street

Because of what looks like a steep peaked roofline going down the back—and also partly in the front—I assumed number 148 had been a Federal-style, early 19th century home. These modest brick houses for the middle class merchants and artisans were popular in the 1820s and 1830s. Humble but sturdy, they typically reached three stories and featured dormer windows on the third floor.

Many Federal-style homes have been demolished over the decades, small and out of fashion. But a good number remain, with a handful on lower Eighth and Ninth Avenues. They were likely built when this area was on the outskirts of the newly planned Chelsea neighborhood, which rose from the 18th and early 19th century estate of Captain Thomas Clarke, which he called Chelsea.

148 Ninth Avenue

Unfortunately, when it came to finding a photo or illustration of a former Federal-style house at number 148, I came up empty.

Instead of an early 19th century home with peaked roof and dormer windows, the photos I found of 148 Ninth Avenue depicted a typical late 19th century walkup tenement (above and below), similar to but not quite a match to its neighbors running north from numbers 150 to 158.

148 Ninth Avenue in 1939-1941

I don’t know when the corner tenement was torn down. But once it was gone, it seemed to reveal the ghost of the Federal-style house, strangely preserved enough so passersby like myself could imagine the family that inhabited it in the 1820s or 1830s—maybe operating a store downstairs and living on the second and third levels.

From the New York Daily Herald, 1873

Decades later, the little house may have been sliced into separate apartments, as single-family houses in New York City almost always were. Perhaps this furnished room advertised for rent in the New York Daily Herald in 1873 was one of the carved up flats (above)?

The roar and grit from the Ninth Avenue elevated, which dominated the avenue by the late 1860s and lowered the value of the area as a residential enclave, might have hastened the house’s demise.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The touching 1913 dedication over a Grand Central Terminal entrance

April 21, 2022

When Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, the railroad barons who financed the $35 million project could have dedicated the stunning terminal to their board of directors, or to the city officials who cut through red tape to help make this third version of a central train station at 42nd Street on Manhattan’s East Side a reality.

They could have eschewed a dedication altogether, too. After all, do most rail terminals, or other major urban development projects, have dedications?

Grand Central in 1915, two years after opening

Instead, they decided to dedicate Grand Central to the people who actually labored to build it.

“To all those with head heart and hand toiled in the construction of this monument to the public service this is inscribed,” the dedication reads, above an entrance on the 42nd Street side and under one of the many spectacular clocks across all the halls of this city treasure.

Something about the modest inscription makes Grand Central even more of a spectacular place than it already is.

[Second image: MCNY, 1915, X2011.34.3570]