Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]

Whose horses boarded at this 10th Street stable?

November 13, 2017

I’ve always been curious about the 19th century three-story stable at 50 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.

Today, it’s a well-tended and enviable private house—who wouldn’t be charmed to come home to this lovely building every day? (Especially with the ghost of former resident Edward Albee hanging around.)

The stenciled letters over the stable doors hint at its past: “Grosvenor Private Boarding Stable.”

Considering that the circa-1876 Hotel Grosvenor was just down the block at 35 Fifth Avenue, it seems plausible that the stable was used by the hotel.

Perhaps it was a convenient place for hotel brass to keep horses for delivery wagons or for a private hansom cab for guests (like the ones seen outside the brownstone-and-balconied hotel in this 1890 photo).

Carriage Houses are still a thing in New York—this low-rise stretch of East 73rd Street has an entire block of them, and of course, these two Chelsea stables contain incredible history.

[Second photo: MCNY 2010.11.4277]

A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan”

November 13, 2017

Overshadowed by social realist painters and then the abstract movement early in the 20th century, Colin Campbell Cooper never quite got his due.

But his evocative takes on New York’s streetscapes and skyline reveal a fascination with the bigness of the city’s architecture contrasted against the smaller personal stories of millions of anonymous New Yorkers.

The bigness you notice first, especially with paintings like the “Mountains of Manhattan” (top) and the “Cliffs of Manhattan” (second), which both depict the city as an awesome and mighty wonder along the lines of the Rockies or the Alps.

When Cooper contrasts the big and the small, as he does here in 1917’s “South Ferry,” he gives us a more humanistic view of Gotham.

We may not be able to read their faces, but every one of those trolley riders ans sidewalk vendors has a story.

“Chatham Square,” above, from 1919, is similar. The city’s skyscraper mountains are in the background, while the day-to-day life, its human side, is in the forefront.

Commuters wait for the elevated train to pull in, soldiers march under the tracks, and movie houses attract crowds on the sidewalk. We don’t have to be able to see them up close to know they are us.

“New York From Brooklyn” gives us a more detailed and personalized County of Kings. Meanwhile, Manhattan across the river is muted, as if it’s an impenetrable fortress.

Cooper lived in New York from 1904 to 1921. “My pictures are built on these contrasts,” he once said of the juxtaposition in many of his paintings of older, smaller-scale buildings and the modern skyscrapers dominating the skyline.

“Columbus Circle” (above), completed in 1923, illustrates this perfectly.

All the ways to get to Columbus Circle in 1910

October 23, 2017

The makers of this postcard may not have realized it at the time. But they selected an image that gives contemporary viewers a glimpse at all the different transportation options available to New Yorkers in 1910.

Trolley cars would continue at least through the 1930s. Horse-drawn wagons had another decade before they were banished to quiet side streets or out of the way neighborhoods. The automobile would soon dominate city streets.

Pedestrians walk on what looks like a new sidewalk. And on the left, one of the original subway kiosks hint at the mass transit option of choice for city residents through the 20th century.

[Postcard: MCNY]

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]