Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Buffalo Bill’s wild west show thrills 1894 Brooklyn

July 17, 2017

Part circus, part vaudeville act, part patriotic celebration of a mythic American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a huge summer draw when this traveling extravaganza booked time in New York in the late 19th century.

The show first visited Erastina, a park on the north shore of Staten Island, in 1886. “The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26,” states the blog for the Museum of the City of New York.

“Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper.”

After a turn at Madison Square Garden, the show moved to Brooklyn for the summer of 1894, thrilling audiences at Ambrose Park, a 24-acre parcel of land on Third Avenue and 37th Street in today’s Sunset Park.

And while it might seem corny to New Yorkers today, this kind of spectacle was great family fun for the growing middle class of the Gilded Age, when ferries and elevated trains made day trips to Ambrose Park easier.

William Cody “truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman,” states the MCNY blog.

“His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish.”

Get a load of the map of Greater New York in the poster! Whoever drew it managed to get the Brooklyn Bridge in there, but the city seems to stop at Chambers Street. And what’s the rectangle land mass off Brooklyn?

[Second image Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1894; third photo: Green-Wood Cemetery]

A Little Italy sign reveals an old phone exchange

July 10, 2017

They’re hiding in plain sight all over New York: faded ads and signs with the old-school two-letter phone prefixes phased out in the 1960s in favor of 7-digit phone numbers.

Usually they stand for something in the neighborhood, if not the neighborhood itself, such as MU for Murray Hill; RA for Ravenswood, once a separate Village in Queens but now absorbed by Astoria.

But what to make of this sign high above a restaurant on Mott Street in Little Italy, noting a BA prefix? The guide I usually consult to find out where BA is and what it means is no longer online. The elevator company could have been located anywhere in the city.

ENY has many posts on old-school prefix sightings, but no BA, unfortunately.

This rundown building was once a posh mansion

June 26, 2017

If you stood outside 67 Greenwich Street, you’d never think this shell of a building was anything special: just another decrepit 19th century walkup in Lower Manhattan, now part of a construction site.

Yet behind the scaffolding and broken windows lies the ruins of a Federal–style mansion built from 1809 to 1810—making it one of the city’s oldest houses, even predating the New York City street grid of 1811.

67 Greenwich Street, with its splayed stone lintels and fashionable bowed facade seen on the Trinity Street side of the mansion (below), was built by Robert Dickey, a prominent merchant who amassed his fortune trading tea, coffee, rice, and spices in China, India, and Europe.

A man of such wealth would be expected to live in a grand home on the city’s poshest street. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Greenwich Street was the “Millionaire’s Row” of the era.

Imagine what it must have been like then: an elegant thoroughfare hugging the shoreline of Manhattan, lined with new Federal–style homes occupied by families with last names like Livingston and Roosevelt.

In 1809, “two 3-story houses were under construction” on Greenwich Street, along with two stables and coach house and storehouse on Lumber Street (renamed Trinity Place in 1843), “separated from the houses by courtyards,” says the Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Dickey, his wife Anne (above left), and his family (the Dickeys reportedly had 10 kids) moved into the larger one. They lived there until 1820.

At that time, Dickey’s fortunes took a dive, and he was forced to sell. In 1823, the house was purchased by Peter Schermerhorn, a ship chandler and builder.

The Schermerhorns were of course an old Dutch colonial family; they built the counting houses of Schermerhorn Row at today’s South Street Seaport.

After the 1820s, Greenwich Street was no longer the richest residential area in New York. As the decades passed, what is now called the Robert and Anne Dickey Mansion went through a variety of uses.

It was leased to socially prominent families, took a turn as the French consulate, then became a boardinghouse, ship ticket office.

Like so many New York homes, it even spent time as a house of “ill-fame”—aka a brothel “of the lowest character,” as this frothy New York Times article from 1871 reports.

Incredibly, 67 Greenwich Street remained in the Schermerhorn family until 1919. A fourth floor had been added by then, and most of the remaining Federal–style houses built on Greenwich Street were demolished to make way for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, according to the LPC report.

Somehow the Dickey mansion survived the 19th century commercialization of the Lower West Side, the construction of elevated rail lines on Greenwich Avenue and Trinity Place, the building of the tunnel, and then the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan in the late 20th century.

Why is 67 Greenwich behind scaffolding today? It’s slated to be incorporated into this project, which calls for a 35-story tower to cantilever over what remains of the 217-year-old mansion.

[Second image: Evening Post, 1823; fourth image: Anne Brown Dickey by John Wesley Jarvis, Metropolitan Museum of Art; fifth image: 1940, Library of Congress via LPC report; sixth image: 1965, John Barrington Bayley via LPC report; seventh image: Department of Records Tax Photo 1980s]

The most beautiful old warehouse is in Tribeca

June 12, 2017

Gables, turrets, arched windows, weather vanes: what can you say about this spectacular former warehouse building but wow?

Built in 1891 on Watts and Washington Streets for the Fleming Smith company (see the monogrammed initials in the close-up below), it’s a jaw-dropping Romanesque Revival beauty with neo-Flemish touches—a style popular at the end of the 19th century, as the city looked back on its Dutch colonial roots.

Once a neighborhood of warehouses, the grocery trade, and food processors, Tribeca got its new name in the mid-1970s, according to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, when New Yorkers began moving into the area’s colossal lofts and warehouses.

The Fleming Smith warehouse was the first in Tribeca to be turned into a residence. Got $3 million? You might be able to score one of the building’s co-ops. Take a peek at recent listings.

The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery

May 1, 2017

The first people to hang out at the red brick, Queen Anne–style building that opened in 1885 at 222 Bowery were working-class men.

At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train.

Much of New York loved this, of course, and lots of men flocked there, living in the five-cent hotels or in doorways. Reformer Jacob Riis estimated their numbers at more than nine thousand.

But this was the 1880s, and to keep young men who were “not yet hardened” from getting sucked into sin, the YMCA built their first New York branch at 222 Bowery and called it the Young Men’s Institute.

It was actually a novel idea and an example of Gilded Age uplift. The institute was to promote the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual health of young working men in the densely crowded Bowery,” states Landmarks of New York.

Instead of bars and dance halls, men ages 17 and 35 who joined could attend lectures by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ward Beecher.

They could borrow books from a circulating library (this is before the New York Public Library was established), work out in the gym or pool, or use the bowling alley. Classes in mechanical drawing, architecture, penmanship, and bookkeeping were offered—and Bible reading too, on Sundays.

After the turn of the century though (above, in 1910), as the Bowery’s fortunes fell even further, membership declined.

The Y sold the building in 1932 and it became a residence on the mid-century Bowery, less a raucous zone of fun and vice and now a strip of forgotten men and bars (1930s Bowery at right).

That’s when the artists arrived—like Fernand Leger. After fleeing the Nazis in Normandy, the French surrealist painter landed in Manhattan and lived and worked at 222 Bowery, even after it was sold to a dental manufacturing company.

By the time 222 Bowery was  turned back into a residence in the late 1950s, more artists and writers came, like Mark Rothko, who painted his Seagram murals in the former gymnasium.

Fellow abstract artists James Brooks and Michael Goldberg (his “Bowery Days” painting, at left) moved in too, as did poet John Giorno. Andy Warhol held parties there. Allan Ginsberg and Roy Lichtenstein spent time at 222 as well.

It was William S. Burroughs (right, with Joe Strummer inside 222 Bowery in 1980) who dubbed the building the Bunker.

Burroughs arrived in 1974 and officially stayed until his death in 1997, though he lived his last years in Kansas.

Patti Smith recalled visiting Burroughs there in the 1970s. “It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes,” she wrote in Just Kids.

“You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door.”

Burroughs’ nickname for this gorgeous survivor of the Bowery’s past life remains.

The building, now co-op lofts, “is still affectionately called by that name,” states the 1998 Landmark Preservation Commission report that gave 222 Bowery landmark status.

[Second photo: Alamy/King’s Handbook of NYC 1893; fifth image: Artnet; sixth image: unknown]

A March blizzard pummels New York by surprise

March 13, 2017

The day before it hit, the temperature (measured from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway) was a balmy 40 degrees—and the forecast at the tail end of what had been a warm winter called for light rain.

The next morning, Monday, March 12, 1888, the rain had turned to snow, ferocious winds created heavy drifts, and temperatures dropped to the low 20s.(Below, Park Street in Brooklyn)

For the next 24 hours, “the city went into its gas-lighted rooms and its heated houses, and its parlors and beds tired, wet, helpless, and full of amazement,” reported the New York Sun on March 13. (Below, 14th Street)

Take a look at these scenes of the city during and after the “White Hurricane” that pummeled the metropolis at the start of a workweek in mid-March 129 years ago.

About 200 people were killed during the storm itself and many more succumbed to storm-caused injuries later, felled by heavy snow or left in unheated flats after coal deliveries ceased. (Below, Fifth Avenue at 27th Street)

The downed power lines, stuck streetcars and trolleys, and deep mounds of snow are reminders of all the damage a late winter storm can do when city residents have been tricked by a mild winter season into feeling spring fever before winter is officially over.

Exiled Cuban journalist Jose Marti chronicled the storm from his New York home for an Argentinian newspaper.

Marti captured the mood of the city paralyzed by snow in poetic, descriptive prose, more of which you can read in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

Creative ways to use a tenement fire escape

March 6, 2017

fireescapecoupleIn February 1860, a swift-moving evening blaze raged through a tenement on Elm Street—today’s Lafayette Street.

Ten women and children died, largely because firefighters’ ladders didn’t reach past the fourth floor.

The Elm Street fire certainly wasn’t the first to kill tenement dwellers. But thanks to newspaper coverage and the high death toll, it prompted an enormous outcry from city residents for building reform.

So a law was passed two months later mandating that city buildings be made of “fireproof” materials or feature “fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs.”

fireescapenypljunkThis regulation, and then the many amendments that came after it, was the genesis of the iconic New York fire escape—a sometimes lovely and ornate, often utilitarian and rusted iron passageway that helped cut down the number of casualties in tenement fires.

But as anyone who has ever lived in a tenement knows, fire escapes have lots of other uses aside from their original purpose—and you can imagine how handy they were in an older, poorer, non-air conditioned city.

First, storage. For large families sharing two or three rooms in a typical old-law tenement flat, fire escapes functioned as kind of a suburban garage or mud room, even though by 1905, clutter was outlawed.

It was an especially good place to keep an ice box in the winter, where food that had to be kept cold could be stored until it was time to eat.

fireescapesleepbettmancorbisThe railings off of a fire escape also made for a handy spot to air out bedding and mattresses and hang laundry to dry after it was washed by hand.

Playgrounds arrived in the city at the turn of the century. But fire escapes doubled as jungle gyms and play areas, where kids could burn off energy close to home yet away from the eyes of parents.

During what was called the “heated term,” fire escapes became outdoor bedrooms, the summer porches of the poor.

Families dragged out mattresses and tried to catch a faint breeze on steamy summer nights, when airless tenements felt like ovens. Sadly, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to fall off while sleeping and be killed.

fireescapepuckbuilding

But on the upside, there’s the most romantic use for a fire escape: as a private space for couples, where darkness and moonlight turn even the most depressing tenement district into a wonderland under the stars.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFire escapes didn’t have to be as beautiful as the one on the Puck Building, above, to have some magic and enchantment.

Fire escapes and the tenements they’re associated with are icons of late 19th century metropolis, and The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 offers a first-person feel for what it was like to live in one.

[Top photo: Stanley Kubrick; second photo: MCNY; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: Bettman/Corbis]]

5 houses from the East Village’s shipbuilding era

November 7, 2016

avenuedsignIf you traveled back in time to the far East Village of the mid-19th century, you would see a neighborhood sustained mainly by one industry: shipbuilding.

Along the East River, thousands of iron workers, mechanics, and dock men—many who were recent Irish and German immigrants—toiled in shipyards and iron works in what was then called the Dry Dock District, east of Avenue B.

avenuedrow

Marshlands were filled in, and row houses, shops, and churches (like the recently restored St. Brigid’s on Avenue B) went up for workers and their families.

“In sight and sound of their hammers along the water-front these master workmen and owners built themselves homes,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1897.

avenuedrow264

One lovely row was a stretch of Greek Revival–style houses on East Seventh Street (the “Fifth Avenue of the Eleventh Ward,” as the block was called)—between Avenues C and D.

The circa-1840s row was built on “the profits of the sea,” the Tribune stated, describing them as “buildings of fine window casings and door frames and artistic mantels, yet with curious narrow halls and low ceilings . . . both within and without they show themselves to be houses of character.”

avenuedrow262

Perhaps they were occupied by high-level shipbuilders at first. But as residents of the Dry Dock District gained power and ran for office, the houses acquired a new distinction: “Political Row.”

avenuedrowtimesarticlePolitical Row “has furnished many office-holders, and there were more office-holders and patriots who are willing to serve the city and county, the State or the country at large, living on that thoroughfare now than on any similar stretch of highway in New York,” stated the Evening World in 1892.

“Electioneering goes on there from one end of the year to the other.”

The beginning of Political Row’s end came at the turn of the century, when many of the original houses went down and tenements built in their place.

Newspapers wrote descriptive eulogies, mourning a neighborhood that was “an American District” now colonized by a second wave of immigrants.

avenuedrownoveltyironworksmcny60-122-7

Two score years ago,” wrote the New York  Times in 1902, the “streets were then lined with trees covered with luxuriant foliage, and each house had its own green patch of yard.”

“Then Avenue D . . . was a thoroughfare that was made brilliant every Sunday by a promenade of all the youth and fashion of the neighborhood.”

avenuedrowangle

Today, five houses on the south side remain. Their facades have been altered; three sport pastel paint. Wonderful details over doorways and windows maintain their character and harken back to a very different East Village of another era.

avenuedrownumber264The row’s future is in danger; the owners of number 264 (right) have applied for a permit to demolish it.

The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation is rallying to get the house landmark status, so it can’t be torn down.

Read about the GVSHP’s efforts to save the row and preserve a bit of the East Village’s history.

[Fourth image: New York Times headline, 1902; fifth image, Novelty Iron Works, East 12th Street and the East River, 1840s; MCNY 60.122.7]

Rock-throwing and gunfire on Election Day 1864

November 7, 2016

If you think the 2016 presidential election has been brutal, consider the violence triggered by the election of 1864—as seen through the eyes of a bright 9-year-old boy living in a tenement district on Eighth Avenue and 57th Street.

lincolnmcclellansupportersfight

That year, incumbent President Lincoln was up against General George B. McClellan. “The campaign was very bitter on both sides in our neighborhood,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor who published his memories of the Civil War–era city in Tell Me of Lincoln.

lincolnbookcoverKelly remembered his pro-Lincoln father, “having rows with the Copperhead neighbors.” Copperheads, of course, were Northerners who were against the Civil War.

There were plenty of Copperheads in New York, who felt the war was bad business for New York merchants. Thousands of immigrants, many Irish, who had fought in the war were also disenchanted.

Many Irish women, Kelly wrote, “thought if McClellan were elected on ‘The War is a Failure’ platform, their husbands would come back from the front.”

With a war going on, much was at stake—and it showed in city streets.

‘The streets were overhung with banners, decorated (or defaced) with so called portraits of Lincoln and Johnson and McClellan and Pendleton,” wrote Kelly. “There were the usual torchlight parades, and the air echoed with glorification of ‘Little Mac,’ and the abuse of ‘Old Abe.'”

lincolnjohnsoncampaignpostercurrierives“The very curbstones were covered with election posters called ‘gutter snipes.'”

After a brutal campaign season, it was finally Election Day, a holiday in the city. On that cold, rainy morning, Kelly left his house to a polling place.

“I peeped in the doorway. Along the counter were some large glass globes . . . .There was a slit in the top, through which was dropped the folded ballot. . . . The room was filled with tobacco smoke, though I could dimly make out the glint of a policeman’s buttons.”

“Before I could see more, I was hustled aside by a crowd of drunken roughs, who joggled the undisciplined voters swarming in and out at will. I saw a crowd on the corner rush through 57th Street. I followed them to near Sixth Avenue, where they ran into another crowd, and began to pelt one another with stones.”

lincolnelection1864electinoneering

“Then a shot snapped out. The crowd ceased fighting. . . . The man who had been shot was half lying, resting on his right arm, with his left hand on the wound in his breast, groaning heavily.”

“Hustled aside by the crowd, I trotted homeward, joining the other boys collecting ballots which were scattered thickly upon the sidewalks  and along the gutters.”

lincolnelectionpollingplacenyplAt day’s end, the action was only beginning, with Election Night bonfires illuminating the sky.

“The short November day began to darken. According to the English custom, a voice rang out, ‘Hear ye! Hear ye! The polls are closed!’ The crowd made a charge for the election boxes, carting them off to be used for the fires later that evening.”

“Night came on, cold, bleak, and drizzly. . . . The boys who had been stealing barrels for a month or so, now rolled them out of their cellars, or carried them on their heads in triumph. They built them into mounds before touching them off.”

lincolnmccellanposter“With yells of a gang of large boys, the grocer’s wagon was hauled along and run into the flames, but was rescued by the frantic German.”

“Boys danced around and jumped through the flames, till at last, they were hauled off by the ear or the neck by their enraged mothers who had been hunting for them. Finally, the rain scattered the rest, and the embers died down under its dreary beat.”

The results weren’t in until the next morning. While Lincoln received only 33 percent of the vote in New York City, voters from the rest of the country gave him a second term.

lincolnelection1864nyt

“Next morning, my father was up bright and early, and called to us, ‘President Lincoln re-elected.’ Then we sat down to a joyous breakfast, while he read aloud the details of the victory.”

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverKelly wouldn’t yet know that at the end of November, a group of Confederate sympathizers would attempt to burn down New York. The plot was foiled, and it turned many residents against the South and pro-Union, hoping for victory.

Interestingly, McClellan’s son, George B. McClellan Jr., became New York’s mayor from 1904-1909.

Read about the Plot to Burn Down New York City in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

The sauciest society hostess of the Gilded Age

October 31, 2016

mamiefish One thing about those self-appointed doyennes of New York’s social scene in the late 19th century: they sure knew how to throw a party.

But no party host was as outrageous as Mamie Fish, the wife of old money scion Stuyvesant Fish, a banker whose colonial lineage went back centuries in New York.

Born Marion Anthon, Mamie brought an acid tongue and catty wit to society, which was serious business for women like the dour Caroline Astor, who reigned over the social season and who Mamie hoped to usurp.

“Mamie Fish was a hostess with flair and a capacity for the unexpected, qualities notably lacking in Mrs. Astor’s entertainments,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.

From her first mansion at 19 Gramercy Park South (right) and later inside her spectacular Stanford White–designed palazzo on Madison Avenue and 78th Street (below), Mamie hosted dinner parties for the city’s elite, complete with after-dinner vaudeville shows in the ballroom.

mamiefishgramercyparkShe “was plain, could barely read and write and had a laugh that was described as ‘horselike,’: writes the blog The Gilded Age Era.

“But Mamie was sharp, witty and irreverent which made her an excellent hostess with never a dull moment.

“She once sent out invitations to a dinner honoring a mysterious prince; when the guests arrived they found that the “prince” was a monkey dressed in white tie and tails,” according to one biographical site.

At another party, she reportedly rented an elephant and had dancers feed the animal peanuts as they entertained invitees.

mamiefish78thstreetx2010-28-59mcny“Make yourself perfectly at home,” she would tell guests, “and believe me, there is no one who wishes you there more heartily than I do.”

Perhaps her most fun and frivolous event, symbolizing the excess of the Gilded Age, was the birthday party she threw for her dog—who showed up at the table wearing a $15,000 diamond collar.

Her catty side came out often as well. Speaking about Theodore Roosevelt’s wife Edith, she remarked, “It is said [she] dresses on three hundred dollars a year, and she looks it.”

mamiefishcostumeparty

She also opposed suffrage for women, telling the New York Times, “a good husband is the best right of any woman.”

After Mrs. Astor died in 1908, Mamie inherited the mantle of society queen. But times and tastes had changed, and the social comings and goings of New York’s old money set was never less relevant.

Mamie Fish, the “fun-maker” of New York’s Gilded Age, died in 1915.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAmazingly, her homes still survive; former mayor Michael Bloomberg owns the East 78th Street mansion now.

For more on the fun and frivolity of late 19th century society, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: The Esoteric Curiosa; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: MCNY X2010.28.59; fourth photo: New York Social Diary; fifth photo: The Gilded Age Era]