Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Park Avenue’s terra cotta tapestry of grotesques

January 15, 2018

Sometimes you come across an apartment building with a facade that takes your breath away.

That was my experience recently on a walk past 898 Park Avenue. This 14-story Romanesque beauty on the corner of East 79th Street finished in 1924 is a medley of terra cotta detailing, figures, and faces.

The design is described as “Tuscan-style terra cotta ornamentation” by Andrew Alpern in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses in Manhattan. It’s also been called “Lombardy Romanesque” or “Tuscan Tapestry,” Alpern says.

Whatever the style is called, it’s delightful, as Alpert also points out. The facade belies the reputation Park Avenue has as a stretch of New York with staid, fortress-like residences.

There’s a playfulness at 898 Park. The cerulean and tan arches on the second story contain bas relief images of men sleeping, eating, and what appears to be inventing. (Newyorkitecture.com has closeups.)

And the grotesques affixed to the ground floor arched entryway—they have disturbingly weary faces. But then again, they have been watching passersby for 94 years.

[Top photo: Streeteasy.com]

Where was the original WPIX yule log filmed?

December 24, 2017

WPIX Channel 11’s strangely mesmerizing Yule Log is a Christmas tradition for New Yorkers from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So it was quite a disappointment to discover that the yule log so many of us grew up on was actually shot in a fireplace in California.

The original 16mm footage, a 17-second loop first shown on Christmas in 1966, was actually and appropriately filmed in a fireplace at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor John Lindsay lived at the time.

But when Channel 11 wanted to upgrade the deteriorating film to 35mm in 1970, they got a definitive no from the Lindsay administration.

“Unfortunately, when WPIX shot the original Gracie Mansion footage, to capture the log in all its flaming glory, the crew decided to remove the protective screen and a stray spark damaged a valuable antique rug,” explains a story on WPIX’s website, pix11.com.

“Needless to say, the Mayor’s office was not receptive to the idea of letting WPIX come back and re-shoot the footage.”

A fireplace was located in Palo Alto, California and new footage shot—but really, there wasn’t one townhouse owner who could lend his or her fireplace to the film crew so the Yule Log could be from New York, for New York?

[Photos: Wikipedia]

A spooky Gothic mansion in Upper Manhattan

October 30, 2017

If only New York didn’t tear down the William A. Wheelock House—a glorious, eclectic confection of Victorian porches, bay windows, lace-like ironwork, and a bow-shaped mansard roof crowning off a central tower.

But because this Addams Family–esque mansion and its grounds reminiscent of Grey Gardens near Riverside Drive and 158th Street bit the dust in the 1940s, this post will be a memorial to what could have been the most perfect place to celebrate Halloween in Manhattan.

William A. Wheelock graduated from New York University in the 1840s and become a successful merchant who made enough money to retire at age 37, according to the New-York Tribune.

He moved his family to the wilds of Upper Manhattan, where painter and Birds of America author James Audubon owned acres of pristine forested land far from the urban center in today’s West 150s.

After Audubon died, Wheelock—by all accounts a decent, philanthropic-minded guy—helped Audubon’s wife, Minnie, handle her dwindling finances.

 That necessitated selling off some of her land, typically to wealthy city residents who wanted to build great homes far from the city.

Wheelock himself bought a parcel of property in 1870.

He then built his family this house on the north side of 158th Street, according to the Audubon Park Historic District website.

This painting by Gustave Wolff, “Approaching the Wheelock Mansion,” gives an idea just how remote the area was in the late 19th century.

But of course, the city would begin encroaching on the neighborhood in due time.

Change came not long after the turn of the century—after William Wheelock’s death in 1905.

Paved roads, subway access, and the northern extension of Broadway would all bring development to Audubon’s former property and encroach upon the Wheelock House.

 

The mansion managed to survive into the 1930s, a relic of another era. Berenice Abbott found it such a curiosity, she took photos of it while working for the Federal Art Project in 1938.

In 1940, the city purchased the property outright and called in the bulldozers not long afterward. Today this quiet sliver of northern Manhattan hosts a storage building and nondescript apartments—the elms, tulip trees, hills, and streams of Audubon’s land long gone.

[First, second, and fifth photos: Berenice Abbott; third photo: Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, by James Renner; fourth image: Wichita Art Museum; sixth photo: Ephemeral New York]

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]]