Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

The magical “blue hour” in rainy 1940 New York

December 9, 2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets.

I’m not sure where Dolice painted this moody, magical scene. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the city at twilight he’s captured here—an enchanting, slightly eerie few moments whether in the middle of Times Square or on a lonely side street.

Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film

December 9, 2019

In 1955—before the shutdown of the Third Avenue El between Chatham Square and East 149th Street in the Bronx—a filmmaker named Carson Davidson took his camera up to a lonely platform and into one of the mostly empty trains.

With just weeks to go before the train and this main portion of the elevated would be trucked to the scrapyard, Davidson and a group of actors shot a haunting Impressionist short film.

The El may have been destined for the wrecking ball, yet Davidson’s film brings it alive—the iron spine of a city snaking between the tenements of Lower and Upper Manhattan and then over the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.

The voiceless characters feel familiar, but they’re not cliches. A man sleeps, a couple plays cards. A stumblebum gets on near the Bowery and tries to wring one last drop out of a bottle of liquor. A little girl excitedly takes a seat.

Out the train windows we see the geometrical shadows of the railings on platforms. The camera turns to the train itself, a metal machine screeching and lurching high above sidewalks while a harpsichord plays as a soundtrack.

During the ride Davidson captures a street cleaner, faded ads, puddles on paving stones, the Chrysler Building, laundry lines, the Harlem River, and a tugboat belching smoke as a swing bridge aligns itself so the train can keep going.

The Third Avenue El threads the characters’ stories, as does a coin caught in the floor of the train car. Each character tries and fails to grab it.

Finally at night, a young couple boards. Amid glimpses of a Horn and Hardart Automat sign and a movie marquee, the male half of  the couple picks up and pockets the coin.

A director and artist I know had this to add about Davidson’s Oscar-nominated short:

“Although the filmmaker is fascinated with mechanics and shapes, it is always softened by humanity, the sympathetic characters. It’s literally a day in the life of the El which ends, after all those geometrically composed images, romantically with the lovers getting the coin.”

Fifth Avenue’s elegant 1890 carriage showroom

October 21, 2019

You might not notice it amid the grit and hustle of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, but there’s a Gilded Age time capsule of a building on the northeast corner.

In the shadow of the Empire State Building and dwarfed by commercial loft buildings is this elegant dowager—made of light brick with terra cotta decorations and enormous arched windows that would look more at home in a cathedral than a busy Murray Hill intersection.

This jewel box is what remains of the Demarest Building.

Completed in 1890 (at left), the Demarest was designed by James Renwick’s architectural firm, which explains the cathedral-like windows. (Renwick is the genius behind Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Those incredible windows served a purpose. The building was commissioned by Aaron Demarest, the head of his eponymous horse carriage company that manufactured luxury carriages and used the space as a showroom for buyers.

Who would be buying the gleaming carriages on display here? (Below, on the right in a 1910s photo)

Wealthy millionaires, including the rich heads of households whose brownstone mansions stood on or near this posh corner at the height of the Gilded Age.

Those old-money millionaires include William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (husband of society doyenne Caroline Astor), William Waldorf Astor, and John Jacob Astor III (next door to his brother William).

(Department store magnate A.T. Stewart had a marble palace of a home on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but by the time Demarest built his showroom, Stewart and his wife were deceased.)

Early on, the Demarest Building fit right in with the wealthy set of Fifth Avenue. It even had the city’s first two electric elevators, in use for 30 years.

But the early 1890s weren’t kind to the building. The Astor households moved on; William Waldorf Astor razed his mansion and built the Hotel Waldorf on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

John Jacob Astor IV, meanwhile, built the Hotel Astoria where his home once stood. (The two neighboring hotels would become the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897)

Then in 1893, the showroom caught fire. A New York Times article described what Hotel Waldorf guests saw from their rooms as the fire illuminated Fifth Avenue:

“The Demarest building is a five-story brick structure, across the avenue from the Waldorf, at the northeast corner of Thirty-third Street and Fifth Avenue.  It is used chiefly as a storage house for carriages.”

“There were over 200 vehicles of all kinds, valued at $150,000, in the building. In the repair shop were twenty fine carriages. Most of these were entirely destroyed and the fire extended to the fourth floor.”

Demarest himself suffered a stroke in 1902; he died in 1908 after eating poisonous clams at a Yale University dinner.

A year later, the company, now building automobiles instead of carriages, relocated to West 57th Street.

The Demarest Building had a colorful new tenant in 1913—a physician who claimed to be able to cure tuberculosis, a leading killer of New Yorkers, especially in poor neighborhoods.

A thousand people showed up for treatment, wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008, but the leasing agent wouldn’t allow the physician to treat anyone.

By the 1920s, this boxy beauty was subdivided into office space. These and other alterations are reportedly the reason the Demarest Building has not been landmarked by the city, as AM New York reported last month.

Currently it is prey for developers and a candidate for the wrecking ball, according to the AM New York article. (Thanks to Robin Kanter for bringing the article to my attention.)

[Second photo: American Architecture and Building News/Office for Metropolitan History via The New York Times; third image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth image: The Portal to Texas History; eighth image: New York Times, 1893]

Columbus Circle’s original IRT subway kiosk

October 14, 2019

No matter what you think of Christopher Columbus, I think we can all agree that the original subway kiosk at the circle named after him is an iconic and inspiring piece of street architecture.

And the trolleys, the lamppost, the dune buggy–like early car in this 1910 postcard of Columbus Circle…sigh.

This kiosk would be for entering the subway. The old-school rule: Domed-roof kiosks were for going into the station, while peaked-roof kiosks were for exiting, according to Tom Range’s 2002 book, New York City Subways.

[Postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2391]

A relic of the 1931 opening of a New York bridge

October 7, 2019

More than 50,000 cars crossed the George Washington Bridge on its opening day October 25, 1931, an event filled with “carnival spirit,” as The New York Times described it in an article the next day.

“During the day elderly men with canes wandered slowly along the walks at the sides, and small boys skated more rapidly than courtesy and the crowd seemed to suggest,” the Times reported.

“There were women with babies and some with carriages as well. There were nautical souls strolling with cameras and opera glasses. Far below were speed boats skipping about like bugs, and high overhead airplanes looked down on the latest massive achievement of man.”

The Times noted souvenir sellers hawking pictures of the first president—but no mention of pins like this one, with a ribbon that reads, “Opening of George Washington Bridge” and the date in gold.

Someone came to the opening ceremony for the GW Bridge that day and left with this pin, then left it behind…to be found once again via a garage sale or flea market by someone who has never known a New York without this iconic Hudson River span.

[Top photo: AP; third image: NYT October 26, 1931]

The tidy tenements of Williamsburg in the 1940s

September 30, 2019

Working class Brooklyn looks like a diorama of tidy townhouses and tenements in this painting by Russian American artist Maurice Kish, completed in the 1940s, according to Live Auctioneers.

It’s a uniformly cozy scene on the industrial side of the East River. Snow covers the slender streets and sidewalks, and neat reddish houses with their rooftop water towers and smoking chimneys give Williamsburg an intimate feel.

Looming far in the background is the skyscraper city in Manhattan, shrouded in darkness.

Two magical views of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

August 19, 2019

What’s more inspiring than an old color postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge?

An old color postcard of this “eighth wonder of the world,” as it was called on its opening day in May 1883, at night—with the city skyline and the lights of the bridge casting an enchanting glow across the East River.

The earliest postcard of the nighttime bridge is from 1906 (above), and I’m not sure I recognize what appears to be the Brooklyn side in the foreground.

Buildings are short and squat. Pedestrians walk the bridge as they do today, though the trolleys are gone; they were discontinued in 1950.

This second Brooklyn Bridge postcard gives us the bridge three decades later, in 1930.

The bridge itself doesn’t seem to be the focus so much as the magnificent Manhattan skyline of gleaming, towering buildings.

And wow, an airship! I hope it’s not planning to dock at the top of the Empire State Building; that idea didn’t exactly pan out when it was proposed in the 1920s as the building was under construction.

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

The earlier name for Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway

July 15, 2019

While browsing old postcards of Brooklyn recently, I came across this lovely image from 1905, which features a bicyclist on the then-new cycling path on Ocean Parkway.

Then I looked closer at the postcard. Ocean Boulevard? This was apparently the name for the street in the late 19th century.

Newspaper articles in 1869 announced that the “Grand Ocean Boulevard” from Prospect Park to Coney Island was in the works. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was to be modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe, with a pedestrian path on the grassy median.

Thanks to the popularity of cycling in the late 19th century, the bicycle path came into the picture in 1894.

Ocean Boulevard? The term seemed to fall out of favor, and by the 1890s, most news stories called it Ocean Parkway.

When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars

July 8, 2019

New York summers were as stifling, sultry, and sweat-soaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they are today.

In that pre-AC city, the last place you wanted to be on a July afternoon was in a horse-drawn streetcar. (At right, traveling on First Avenue and 67th Street in 1904).

Sure you might be able to open the windows, but you were basically crammed into a group of perspiring passengers inside a metal box under the broiling sun.

“In summer the packing-box system makes comfort impossible,” complained the New York Herald of streetcars in 1876.

So with summertime comfort in mind, streetcar companies—especially the John Stephenson Streetcar Company, a leading manufacturer on East 27th Street near Fourth Avenue—began making “summer cars,” which showed up on city streets in the 1870s and 1880s.

These open-air streetcars had rows of seats but no side panels, so taking a ride in one offered fresh air and something of a breeze, depending how fast the horses were traveling.

While they were most certainly a relief from the heat, these summer cars seemed to be a lot less safe than the regular streetcars.

New York and Brooklyn newspaper archives contain many stories of people falling off them and getting injured or killed. Seat belts, needless to say, were nonexistent.

Of course, taking a streetcar in the winter wasn’t danger-free either, as this firsthand account from a boy in the 1860s demonstrates.)

[First image: unknown; second image: MCNY, 44.295.142; third image, MCNY, 44.295.119; fourth image: MCNY, 44.295.155]