Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

New York is dazzled by its first luxury hotel

October 19, 2015

In 1836 Manhattan, houses were lit by candles. Floors were generally made out of wood. Private bathrooms? Decades away.


Yet all of these things could be had at the Astor House (above, in 1874), the city’s first luxury hotel, at Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

Built by multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, this 360-room granite palace dazzled New Yorkers, few of whom had the means to spend a night there or dine in the hotel’s for-men-only restaurant, enclosed under a rotunda in a center courtyard (below, in 1899).

Astorhouserotunda1899“It can never be a success—it is altogether too far uptown,” Astor’s associates warned him, forgetting the he was a real estate pro who foresaw the northward march of the city.

The hotel wasn’t just a huge success, it became an emblem of the growing Empire City.

And what amenities! An in-house gas plant provided gas lighting. A plumbing system offered hot and cold running water to each floor. Rooms had private water closets. A car ferried guests to Madison Square Garden.


President Lincoln stayed there twice: first when he came to New York to deliver his famous speech as a presidential candidate at Cooper Union in 1860, then in 1861, on the way to his inauguration. He made an impromptu speech at the hotel during his second stay, as memorialized in the Harper’s Weekly cover below.

Astorhouseharpersweekly2With City Hall and Barnum’s American Museum across the street, the Astor House booked plenty of politicians. artists, and entertainers, such as Jenny Lind, Mathew Brady, Daniel Webster, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Clay.

Even as the city inched uptown and sumptuous hotels threatened the Astor’s status, it remained a beloved fixture—until John Jacob Astor’s descendants fought over the property and the subway arrived.

In 1913, the Greek Revival beauty, with its Doric columns and pink granite, was torn down because subway construction threatened its foundation.


It was replaced by—what else?—office space aptly called the Astor House Building.

[Photos: NYPL Digital Gallery]

8 uses for Central Park’s second-oldest building

January 19, 2015

One of only two buildings in Central Park constructed when the park was just a gleam in city officials’ eyes (the other is this stone fort), the Arsenal opened in 1851 as a state-run storage place for munitions.


“It was considered at the time to be an ideally strategic position to deploy troops to the city, or to either shoreline,” notes


And in the ensuing 168 years (above, in 1862), this structure designed to resemble a Medieval castle on Fifth Avenue and 64th Street has been repurposed to serve a variety of city needs.

First, in 1857, it was purchased from the state by park administrators and used as an office and police precinct.


In the 1860s, after many New Yorkers began dropping off exotic animals in the new Central Park, the Arsenal became the temporary menagerie, which was never part of the park’s original plan but proved to be a hugely popular attraction.

ArsenalrestaurantBy the 1870s, it housed the Museum of Natural History, whose quarters were under construction across the park. It was also home to the studio were a British artist created models of dinosaur bones.

An art gallery and weather station followed—the city’s weather instruments recorded the official temperature from the top of the Arsenal.

An Arsenal restaurant (right) appeared in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, the building was falling apart, and after an overhaul reopened as offices for the Parks Department.


By the 1980s, the Arsenal assumed the role it still plays today: “as a gallery and space for public forums related to Parks’ mission and may be reserved for private and public functions,” states the Parks Department website.

It stands guard on the east side of Central Park, its Ivy gone, a testament to a changing city.

[Top two images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The sudden demise of New York’s organ grinders

January 5, 2015

Organgrinder1873nyplNewspaper articles going back to the 1850s describe (and deride) them: Poor Italian immigrants who eked out a leaving cranking a hand organ on the street.

The organ grinder’s partner: a regally outfitted capuchin monkey who charmed crowds of onlookers, especially children, while tethered to a string soliciting coins.

“It is very poor music,” wrote Children’s Aid Society founder Charles Loring Brace in a sympathetic 1853 New York Times article about the “colony of Italians” living in Five Points at the time, “but it is the only music some of our neighbors can ever afford to hear.”


By 1880, with Italian immigration to Manhattan surging, nearly one in 20 Italian men in Five Points were organ grinders, wrote Tyler Anbinder in his book Five Points.

“An aspiring grinder could rent a hand organ for four dollars per month on Baxter Street, or buy one direct from the manufacturer a block away in Chatham Square,” stated Anbinder.


As for the monkeys, they were apparently purchased on Baxter Street as well.

The organ grinder-monkey team playing carnival-like music in warm weather was a popular street entertainment act for decades.

OrgangrindermayorlaGuardiaBut in 1936, they were outlawed. What happened? Blame the city’s recently elected Italian-American mayor, Fiorello La Guardia.

“He refused to renew the grinders’ licenses in 1936, saying that the radio and outdoor concerts had made them superfluous and that the city should discourage street begging,” wrote the New York Times‘ Michael Pollack in a 2006.

“By mayoral fiat he declared them public nuisances, ordered the police to roust them on sight and refused to relent, despite pleas from citizens.”

La Guardia may have had another reason for being so rankled by organ grinders: they became an Italian immigrant stereotype, which he personally resented.


“As an Army brat living near Prescott, Ariz., Fiorello suffered when an Italian organ grinder and his red-hatted monkey came to town,” explained Pollack. “‘Where’s your monkey?’ the children yelled, along with anti-Italian slurs, La Guardia recalled years later.”

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery, 1873; second image: LOC, 1910; third image: NYPL Digital Gallery, 1901; fifth image: one of New York’s last organ grinders, by Samuel Gottschow, 1935]

Car-free Greeley Square and the Sixth Avenue El

November 10, 2014

Cars have yet to clog up Broadway in the 30s in this vintage, post-1912 postcard depicting Greeley Square and Broadway, crossed by the Sixth Avenue el tracks.


“A view of Broadway from Greeley Square to Times Square showing the upper end of the most important retail district in the world,” reads the caption. “The McAlpin Hotel, largest in the world, is shown in the foreground.”

That’s the building on the right next to the 1912 Wilson Building. Today, stripped of its once-famous murals, it’s an apartment tower.

Lower Manhattan at night, seen through an arch

August 25, 2014

What a view! We’re looking through one of the arches of the Municipal Building to a Manhattan night sky.


There’s the Woolworth Building, City Hall, City Hall Park, and the Art Deco beauty known as the Transportation Building “raising [its] head in the background,” the caption of this 1940s-era postcard notes.

Too bad the postcard doesn’t offer a glimpse of the enchanting tiles on the vaulted ceiling above the Municipal Building’s arches. They are Gustavino tiles, installed before the building opened in 1914.

Defunct city addresses on vintage real estate ads

August 11, 2014

Lots for sale on 83rd and 84th Streets at Avenues A and B? That’s not a misprint—York Avenue was Avenue A until the 1920s (and some Avenue A signage still exists, like this school address).

As for Avenue B, based on the faint map on the 1854 ad, it’s the last avenue before the East River.


Manhattan Square? This existed once too at today’s Central Park West in upper 70s and 80s.

In 1852, when this auction was scheduled to be held, it seems to have been part of the sparsely populated village of Harsenville.


What a difference 20 years makes. In the 1870s, it was secured for the site for the American Museum of Natural History, which occupies the four-block square today.

Anthony J. Bleecker, a member of the family Bleecker Street was named after, must have been the preeminent auctioneer at the time. I wonder what he sold these lots for?

[Vintage ads: Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal]

Decorative New Year’s babies of Gramercy Park

January 9, 2014

Cute little sculptures such as these seem to be prevalent above doorways and entrances on and around Gramercy Park brownstones and townhouses.


The top one comes from a townhouse across from the park; the one below shows two cherubs guarding a doorway on Irving Place.


They’re nice to see at the start of a new year!

A sinful side street in 19th century New York City

November 28, 2013

SoubretterowsignAside from the Bowery, no neighborhood in late–19th century New York packed in as many saloons, music halls, gambling dens, and brothels—lots and lots of brothels—as the Tenderloin.

“The Tenderloin was the most famous sex district in New York City history,” wrote Timothy J. Gilfoyle in his book City of Eros. “Sandwiched between wealthy Gramercy Park and Murray Hill on the east and working-class Hell’s Kitchen on the west, the Tenderloin stretched north from 23rd Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues.”

Metoperahouse39thbway1904Amid all this sex openly for sale, one street stood out: 39th Street west of Seventh Avenue, nicknamed “Soubrette Row.” (a Soubrette is a saucy, flirtatious girl.)

Here, around the corner from the elite new Metropolitan Opera House (left, in 1904), the bordellos were run by French madams.

The girls they managed specialized in some, um, scandalous practices for the era.

By the 1890s, the houses on West 39th Street, “‘were known all over the country,’ according to one observer.

West39thstreetnypl1934“‘The French girls in these houses,’ wrote another investigator, ‘resort to unnatural practices and as a result the other girls will not associate or eat with them,'” wrote Gilfoyle. As the Tenderloin grew, another Soubrette Row popped up by 1901, along West 43rd Street, states Gilfoyle.

The brothels on these Soubrette Rows eventually moved uptown and dispersed, as the the city crept northward and Progressive-Era officials cracked down on sex and sin.

Today, West 39th Street contains the ghosts of the neighborhood that replaced the Tenderloin—the Garment District.

[Right: West 39th Street in 1934, long after Soubrette Row had moved on]

New York City’s free-roaming, trash-eating pigs

November 18, 2013

NicolinocalyopigFrom its earliest colonial days, New York produced lots of trash.

What wasn’t dumped in the rivers by private carting companies or scavenged by rag-pickers piled up on streets, producing a terrible stench described as  “a nasal disaster.

The image above, by Italian painter Nicolino Calyo, shows trendily dressed Bowery Boys in the 1840s, unfazed by a pig beside them.

In an era before street cleaners and a real sanitation department, the metropolis relied on one tactic: free-roaming pigs, who fed on household food scraps tossed into the gutters.

Fivepoints1827Swine didn’t just eat trash in poor neighborhoods, like Five Points (above in 1827, with fat sows mixed into the crowds). Pigs could be found on more upscale streets as well.

Charles Dickens made much of their presence when he was touring Broadway in American Notes, a book about his travels in 1842:

“Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner,” wrote Dickens. “Here is a solitary swine lounging homeward by himself. He has only one ear, having parted with the other to vagrant-dogs in the course of his city rambles. . . . They are the city scavengers, these pigs.”

In 1849, the city drove thousands of them toward the northern reaches of the city, and by 1860, swine had been banished above 86th Street—where there were still sparsely populated enclaves of shantytowns and rural villages.


By the 1870s, the city stopped dumping refuse in the rivers, and a decade later, the first garbage incinerators are built. In the 1890s, George Waring’s “White Wings” finally cleaned the city up.

Above: no more pigs, but New York still needed horses to cart away trash and ashes, now kept curbside in barrels, as this 1897 Alice Austen photo shows.

Manhole covers that left their mark on the city

November 4, 2013

Looking up at New York’s buildings isn’t the only way to get a sense of the city’s past.

Cast your eyes down on the sidewalk and street, and you’ll start seeing an incredible variety of manhole covers—many from the 19th and early 20th centuries.


These iron lids serve a utilitarian purpose. But the men who made them at Ironworks across the city imbued them with a sense of pride and craftsmanship.


Jacob Mark created his signature covers with colored glass, which look like glistening jewels. The one at top of the page was discovered in Tribeca.


Charles H. Fox’s Hudson River Ironworks made the manhole cover above, with its lovely decorative stars. It’s in the ground in the West Village, not far from the Ironworks’ headquarters at 369 West 11th Street.

The big star in the center of this next cover must be the signature of John P. Weldon, who plied his trade down on Stone Street, when “New York” was still hyphenated.


This manhole cover made by Emilnick Ironworks is on Vernon Avenue in Long Island City. It certainly has seen better days, but it’s holding its own.

Some especially beautiful covers can be found here.


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