Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

New Year’s Eve in post-Civil War New York City

December 27, 2021

It’s 1865 in New York City. The Civil War is over, families are together, and the holiday season is a firmly commercialized event.

Still, I’m not sure what to make of this illustration, from the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Several children stand in front of a store display, their eyes trained on the toys. Meanwhile, a well-dressed woman and girl stand slightly to the side, watching the other kids delight in the window display.

An image of the haves meeting the have nots? It’s a strangely disquieting illustration, with no one else on the sidewalks on what the caption tells us is New Year’s Eve.

[MCNY, 1865, MNY5788]

A piece of the cut-rate Lower East Side remains on Orchard Street

December 20, 2021

Hidden behind scaffolding and weathered by the elements, the sign is not easy to see. But when you do make it out, you’ll feel like a time machine has delivered you back to the 1920s Lower East Side—when Orchard Street meant cut-rate shopping, not pricy cocktails.

“Ben Freedman Gent’s Furnishings” (such an old-timey way to describe clothes and hats!) got its start on Orchard Street in 1927, when Mayor Jimmy Walker was partying at Manhattan speakeasies and the Woolworth Building qualified as the city’s tallest skyscraper.

The sign may be faded, but the business is still going. Sounding feisty, Freedman was quoted in a 1977 Daily News story about the poor prospects of Orchard Street. “Oh it’s changed for sure, so what?” he told a reporter, who added that Ben had been at his store peddling bargains for 50 years. “It’s still a great street.”

The Lo-Down has more on Ben’s business.

This oldest photo of the moon was taken in 1840 on a Greenwich Village roof

December 19, 2021

The black and white image has deteriorated over the last 180 or so years, and it evokes something ghostly and supernatural. But this crescent shape amid light and shadow is considered the oldest surviving photo of the moon—taken in 1840 by an NYU professor who pioneered early photography.

The backstory of the photo begins in 1839. That’s when word reached New York City about the new photography process developed in France by Louis Daguerre.

John William Draper took a keen interest. Draper, 29, was a London-born chemistry and natural history professor and part of the faculty at the new college on Washington Square then known as the University of the City of New-York (now called NYU).

Draper too had experimented with capturing light, and he “quickly realized the importance of the invention of the daguerreotype, becoming one of the first Americans to try the process,” stated Off the Grid, the blog for the historic site Village Preservation.

The NYU building, since demolished, where the moon image was taken

Draper, as well as his NYU colleague Samuel Morse (a professor of painting before he invented the telegraph), began making daguerreotypes, according to Arthur Greenberg’s book, From Alchemy to Chemistry in Picture and Story, experimenting in the studio observatory on top of the university’s main building (above).

Draper’s first successful daguerreotype that survives is a copy of an image of his 33-year-old sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, below. But set his sights on something more extraordinary: a daguerreotype showing the surface of the moon.

Dorothy Catherine Draper, at about age 33

Though he may not have been the first person to capture an image of the moon, Draper’s moon shot, so to speak, is the oldest that survives (top image).

The photo at top was likely the specific one Draper perfected on March 26, 1840. “The extensively-degraded plate shows part of a vertically ‘flipped’ last-quarter Moon—so lunar south is near the top—which would indicate his use of a device called a heliostat to keep light from the Moon focused on the plate during a long 20-minute exposure,” according to the site Lights in the Dark by Jason Major.

John William Draper, decades after his first moon photos

Throughout his life, Draper racked up numerous achievements as a scientist, writer, philosopher, and physician, even cofounding NYU’s medical school. His moon image, however, didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

“Despite his accomplishment, Draper’s efforts received only modest recognition from his contemporaries; until recently his lunar daguerreotypes were believed to be lost,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of his moon daguerreotypes in its collection.

Like so many other notable 19th century New Yorkers, both Draper and his sister are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

The 19th century remains of a fabled Grand Street department store

December 13, 2021

Standing across the street at Grand and Orchard, you just know this unusual building with the black cornice and curvy corner windows has a backstory. Though it’s a little rundown and has a strange pink paint job, this was once the home of a mighty 19th century department store known as Ridley’s.

Ridley’s story begins in the mid-1800s. Decades before Ladies Mile became Gilded Age New York’s premier shopping district, browsing and buying fashionable goods meant going to Grand Street, which was lined with fine shops and dry goods emporiums east of Broadway in the antebellum city.

The best known of these dry goods emporiums and a rival to neighbor Lord & Taylor (located on Broadway and Grand) was Ridley’s.

Founded by English-born Edward A. Ridley as a small millenary store at 311 Grand Street in 1848, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report, Ridley’s expanded by buying many of the former residential buildings on the block. Ridley then built a new mansard-roof structure at the corner of Grand and Allen Streets accessible to street car lines and the ferry to Grand Street in Brooklyn.

In the 1880s, Grand Street was still a shopping district but no longer elite. Lord & Taylor had already relocated uptown to a prime Ladies Mile site at Broadway and 20th Street. But Ridley’s sons, who had taken over the business, commissioned a new building at the corner of Grand and Orchard Streets.

Five stories tall with a cast-iron facade, the new Ridley’s opened in 1886. The space featured a “curved, three-bay pavilion that may have been originally crowned by a squat dome, or a flagpole,” the LPC report stated.

Inside, 52 “branches of trade” sold everything from clothes to furniture to toys and employed approximately 2,500 people. Stables behind the store “provided parking for horses and carriages,” according to The Curious Shoppers Guide to New York City, by Pamela Keach.

The amazing thing is, the new block-long Ridley’s would only occupy the space for 15 years. In 1901, Ridley’s went out of business, according to an Evening World article that year—partly a victim of its increasingly unappealing location on the crowded Lower East Side.

After Ridley’s departed, the space was chopped up into smaller retail outlets. Above is the building in 1939-1941 with a housewares store on the ground floor. Today, a men’s clothing store exists there.

[Second image: LPC; third image: MCNY 261260; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The unusual clock hands on a Third Avenue union sign

October 25, 2021

I must have passed the sign for the Metallic Lathers Union on Third Avenue in Lenox Hill a hundred times before finally noticing it the other day.

There’s a little history on it: the current union came out of an original union of wood, wire, and metal lathers workers that was organized in 1897. But what really caught my eye was the street clock attached to the sign, with its streamlined, Art Deco look.

The clock hands could be tools of some kind, perhaps a tool a lather might use? (A lather installs the metal lath and gypsum lath boards that support the plaster, concrete, and stucco coatings used in construction.)

This lathe cutter looks something like the clock hands. Maybe it’s a stretch, but perhaps the clock reflects something about the work these union members do in an industry vital to the growth of the city.

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 200-year history of a Bleecker Street house

August 16, 2021

Every house in New York City has a story. And the story of the Federal-style, Flemish bond brick residence at 58 Bleecker Street begins in the early 19th century with a Roosevelt.

58 Bleecker Street in 2021

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt III—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great-grandfather—had the house at Bleecker and Crosby Streets built for himself and his family in 1823. It was once part of a row; a two-story carriage house was constructed a few years later that still survives next door on Crosby Street.

James Roosevelt was a patrician citizen of the growing metropolis. Born in 1760, he was the fifth generation of Roosevelts in New York City since his ancestor, Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt, immigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, according to Shannon Butler’s Roosevelt Homes of the Hudson Valley.

Roosevelt followed his father into the sugar refining and banking businesses, and he also had a farm in Harlem, wrote Butler. He dabbled a bit in politics, serving in the New York State Assembly and as an alderman on the City Council. But business and a little philanthropy were his main occupations.

When the neighborhood near his South Street primary residence became undesirable, Roosevelt relocated to newly fashionable Bleecker Street—where other prominent New Yorkers were building houses as well.

During his two decades or so living in the house, Roosevelt watched his neighborhood become one of the most elite in the 1830s and 1840s city. Still, his life was marked by tragedy. Roosevelt’s first two wives died, and he received visitors at the house in 1827 after his 19-year-old son Walker lost his life, according the Evening Post.

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt, the elite New Yorker who built the house

Roosevelt died in 1847. His widow, Harriet Howland Roosevelt, stayed in the home for several years. By 1856, however, she likely passed away or moved on; an ad in the New York Times noted that an estate sale was being held in the house and all furniture was to be sold, including the “elegant rosewood parlor furniture, covered with damask,” “mahogany bedroom furniture,” and a large carriage.

In 1857, the house entered a wildly different phase. Elizabeth Blackwell—the first female physician not just in New York City but the entire country—rented the house and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children there on May 12.

Blackwell, along with her doctor sister, outfitted Roosevelt’s old home with a maternity center and surgical suite. The doors opened the doors to the increasing number of poor families in the once-posh neighborhood. The infirmary, which treated women at no cost, also trained female doctors.

“Forty-six indoor patients, each remaining on an average of three weeks in the house, have been treated, comprising 30 cases of general disease, 13 midwifery cases, and 3 surgical operations,” wrote the New York Times in December 1857, summing up the first six months of the infirmary.

The Roosevelt house, 1939-1941

By the 1860s, however, Roosevelt’s house was serving an entirely different function. It was home to a dressmaker, who placed an ad in the New York Daily Herald in 1863 to inform “the ladies of New York and environs that she will have her grand opening day” on March 26 and “she respectfully invites them to give her a visit.”

Through much of the 19th century, this eastern end of Bleecker Street held steady as a retail area. A furniture store occupied the ground floor in the 1870s, and a feather shop took the space in 1891, according to the LPC report.

The main house in 1975, with the carriage house behind it

Manufacturing arrived in the 20th century; the upper floors were converted to manufacturing lofts. The ground floor became a restaurant. “The house continued in that usage into the mid-20th century,” the LPC report states.

By the 1990s, things changed once again for Roosevelt’s former residence. Bleecker Street between the East Village and the soon to be named Nolita was once again a destination neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, Bleecker Street Bar held court on the ground floor. Today, the bar is gone.

58 Bleecker Street in 2011

Alterations over the last 200 years include changes to the roofline. The Dutch-style stepped gables still extant in 2011 (see above) are gone, and today it’s perfectly pitched with both chimneys rising high. Perhaps this third floor facade was rebuilt, and the coat of red paint removed.

Scaffolding currently outside the Bleecker Street side tells us that Roosevelt’s house is getting ready for its next incarnation in an ever-changing New York City.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York Times 1856; fifth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.68; seventh image: Wikipedia]

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

The steam pipe repair crew fixing New York at night

June 14, 2021

Born in New York City in 1901, painter Dines Carlsen made a name for himself as a still life and landscape painter. Here he made nighttime New York City his landscape, focusing on the men called out to do the rough work of fixing steam pipes while most of the city sleeps.

“Steam Pipe Repair Crew” is undated, and I’m not sure where it’s set. Though the scene takes place likely in the first half of the 20th century (based on the clothes and truck), it depicts a situation that occurs multiple times every night, night after night, somewhere in New York—people doing their jobs out of sight under darkness, when most of us are unaware.

[Cavalier Galleries]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]