Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

This freewheeling French cafe and artist hangout had a colonial-era past

January 9, 2023

Sometimes you come across an image that compels you to do some research. That’s what happened when I found myself viewing this fleeting moment of intimacy below.

“At Mouquin’s” is a portrait by William Glackens, a founder of the Ashcan School known for his tender urban realist landscapes of New York City at the turn of the century.

In this painting, Glackens shows us two patrons at a cafe called Mouquin’s—a bustling, covivial spot on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in early 20th century Manhattan’s red-light Tenderloin district. It should be a lighthearted, jubilant scene befitting this decadent era before financial panic, the Great War, and Prohibition.

Yet the painting captures a disconnect. While a man of wealth and status tries to engage the interest of a woman sitting with him at a small table, she’s a million miles away—sipping a different drink, turned in another direction, alone in the crowd in 1905 New York City.

Who is this woman, and where is Mouquin’s? The Art Institute of Chicago, which has the painting in its collection, sheds some interesting light.

“In this vivid painting, William Glackens portrayed the members of his circle at their favorite meeting place, the New York restaurant Mouquin’s. Jeanne Mouquin, the proprietor’s wife, shares a drink with James B. Moore, a wealthy playboy and restaurateur, while the artist’s wife, Edith, and art critic Charles Fitzgerald are reflected in the mirror behind them.”

The members of Glackens’ circle also included fellow Ashcan School painters Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The group began gathering for nightly rendezvous at Mouquin’s after Glackens, Henri, and Sloan all found themselves renting studio space in the Sherwood Building on Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, according to Bennard B. Perlman, author of Painters of the Ashcan School.

While Glackens captured the dynamic between men and women inside the cafe, Shinn painted the exterior of this unusual, colonial-looking structure in wet winter weather (second image, above).

That these painters chose Mouquin’s as their hangout isn’t surprising. Founded by Swiss immigrant Henri Mouquin, the cafe first opened its doors on Nassau Street, then moved to Fulton Street. In the early 20th century, Mouquin’s relocated to the Tenderloin. There, politicians, newspaper writers, artists, and authors enjoyed alcohol-fueled conversations until the 2 a.m. closing time.

This was no stuffy Gilded Age dinner spot. Mouquin’s “always was distinctly New York and like the city, thoroughly cosmopolitan,” wrote the New York Herald in 1919. “Because of this character it has the breadth and freedom of cosmopolitanism. It never troubles itself about the rules.”

What gave Mouquin’s even more atmosphere was the building’s pedigree as a surviving piece of colonial New York City. Originally an 18th century estate house owned by the Varian family, it served as headquarters for Hessian generals during the Revolutionary War.

In 1825, the house was converted into a roadside inn called Knickerbocker Cottage (above, in the 1850s). In the first half of the 19th century, Sixth Avenue at 28th Street was almost the country, far from the din and activity of the main city. By the time Mouquin and his wife moved the cafe here around 1900, the area was in the middle of theaters, gambling houses, and other nightlife venues, accessible via the elevated train roaring overhead.

Mouquin’s entertained an eclectic mix of New Yorkers until the 1920s, when it was done in by Prohibition. The vine-covered, Parisian-like facade disappeared when the structure was knocked down soon after. But what a convivial atmosphere this colonial cottage had in its late Gilded Age heyday!

[Top image: Art Institute of Chicago; second image: Fine Art America; third image: Columbia University; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Library of Congress]

Talks and Tours This Month With Ephemeral New York!

November 4, 2022

I’m excited to announce a couple of upcoming events in November—hope to see Ephemeral readers and New York City history fans!

Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek Into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers

Join Ephemeral New York for an insightful look at the 19th century city’s servant class—the people who cleaned the mansions, made the meals, drove the carriages, and managed the households of Gilded Age Gotham.

Using quotes from actual servants, we’ll explore who the servants were, what their lives were like, and the various positions available in the sumptuous mansions and elegant brownstones of the Upper West Side and beyond.

This is a Zoom talk done in conjunction with the historic preservation organization Landmark West! The talk takes place on Wednesday, November 9 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Reserve tickets here.

Exploring the Gilded Age Mansions and Memorials of Riverside Drive

It’s a beautiful time of year to stroll along Riverside Drive’s winding carriage roads from 83rd Street to 107th Street and learn about the avenue’s Gilded Age beginnings—when it rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s premier mansion row.

On this New York Adventure Club walking tour, we’ll look at the mansions that remain as well as those lost to time, plus the families and characters who lived in them. We’ll also explore Riverside Drive’s wonderful monuments meant to inspire the city. Tickets are available here.

[First image: MNCY, MNY204627; second image: NYPL; third image: New York Adventure Club]

Take a Walk up Riverside Drive with Ephemeral New York This Sunday!

October 15, 2022

On Sunday October 16, I’ll be leading another relaxing and insightful walking tour that explores the Gilded Age mansions and monuments of Riverside Drive—and there’s still room for more guests.

We’ll begin at 1 p.m. on Riverside and 83rd Street, dip into Riverside Park, and then stroll up to 108th Street. In between, we’ll delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, when the Drive became a second “mansion row” and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.”

The tour explores the mansions and monuments that survive, as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball. We’ll take a look at the wide variety of people who made Riverside Drive their home, from wealthy industrialists and rich business barons to actresses, artists, and writers.

Though we cover a lot of territory, the tour goes at a breezy, conversational pace. Fall is the best time to walk New York’s streets and neighborhoods. All are welcome! Tickets are available here via the New York Adventure Club.

[Top image: MCNY, 26908.1F; second image: MCNY, F2011.33.73; third image: NY Adventure Club]

Join Ephemeral New York for a free presentation on women of the Gilded Age!

July 4, 2022

The Gilded Age was a captivating era of growth, greed, and deep cultural changes that set into motion the way we live today. It was a time when men and women typically occupied vastly different spheres: men in the outside world of business and industry, women as the center of home, family, and society.

But that doesn’t mean women didn’t have power and influence. Join me on Thursday, July 7 from 1-2 p.m. as I moderate a free Zoom presentation that features stories of women during the Gilded Age from Laura Thompson, author of Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies, and Betsy Prioleau, author of Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age.

“Women in the Gilded Age: Two Authors’ Insights” is part of American Inspiration, the best-selling author series by American Ancestors. Among the Gilded Age women we’ll explore are Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of social climbing, new money doyenne Alva Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Frank Leslie, who took over her husband’s publishing empire and influenced millions of readers.

Follow this link for more information and to sign up. Audience questions will be addressed, and both authors are wonderful storytellers. The event should be informative as well as a lot of fun. Everyone is welcome!

Looking for remnants of Paisley Place, a lost row of back houses in Chelsea

June 6, 2022

Like many downtown neighborhoods, Chelsea has its share of back houses—a second smaller house or former carriage house built behind a main home and accessed only by an often hidden alleyway.

Now imagine not just one back house but an entire row of them forming a community where a group of people lived and worked for decades, almost locked within a city block. That’s kind of the story of Paisley Place, which got it start after yellow fever hit New York City in October 1822.

With an epidemic raging, city residents fled. “The banker closed his doors; the merchant packed his goods; and churches no longer echoed words of divine truth,” stated Valentine’s Manuel of 1863. “Many hundreds of citizens abandoned their homes and accustomed occupations, that they might seek safety beyond the reach of pestilence, putting their trust in broad rivers and green fields.”

A good number of these fleeing residents relocated to the village of Greenwich, putting down roots there and transforming it into an urban part of the city within a few decades.

Southampton Road making its way through Chelsea on the John Randel survey map from 1811

One group of immigrant artisans—Scottish-born weavers who carved out a niche by supplying New York with hand-woven linens—went a little farther north. These tradesmen and their families set up a new community in today’s Chelsea off a small country lane called Southampton Road. (above map).

“A convenient nook by the side of this quiet lane was chosen by a considerable number of Scotch weavers as their place of retirement from the impending dangers,” according to Valentine’s. “They erected their modest dwellings in a row, set up their frames, spread their webs…and gave their new home the name ‘Paisley Place.'”

This 1857-1862 street map shows a row of three houses in the middle of the block marked “weavers.”

Southampton Road, which once wound its way from about West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue to West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, soon ceased to exist as Chelsea urbanized and conformed to the street grid. The houses of Paisley Place then became “buried in the heart of the block between 16th and 17th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues,” wrote the Evening World.

Through the decades, the weavers carried out their trade. Paisley Place consisted of “a double row of rear wooden houses entered by alleys at 115-117 West 16th Street and 112-114 West 17th Street,” per The Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1905.

A similar map also from 1857-1862 marks another back house with “weaver”

More is known about their houses than the weavers themselves. “The little colony mingled only slightly with the scores of other nationalities of early New York,” stated another Evening World piece.

By the 1860s, the weavers became something of a curiosity, the subject of newspaper articles and magazine sketches. After 1900 the people of Paisley Place were gone; they either died or moved on when their hand-weaving skills were no longer needed in the era of industrialization.

Their homes hidden inside a modern city block held on a little longer. “The Scotch weavers are gone, but the houses which they built still hold their long accustomed place on the line of the vanished Southampton Road,” stated a Brooklyn Standard Union article from 1902.

17th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

The writer of the Standard Union article noted that two remaining wooden houses had a “quaint picturesqueness [that] was of a sort to warm the heart of the antiquarian.”

Today, 17th Street doesn’t seem to carry any traces of this former community, and no remnants remain of the wood houses that would be in the middle of this tightly packed block. This antiquarian, however, wishes that something of their lives was left behind.

[Top image: Valentine’s Manual, NYPL; second image: John Randel survey map; third and fourth images: NYPL]

The Manhattan country estate houses of old New York’s forgotten families

May 19, 2022

The significance of their names has been (mostly) forgotten, their spacious wood frame houses in the sparsely populated countryside of Gotham long dismantled, carted away, and paved over.

The Riker estate, in 1866

But the wealthy New Yorkers who purchased vast parcels of land and built these lovely country homes (surrounded by charming picket fences, according to the illustrations left behind) in the late 18th or early 19th centuries deserve some recognition.

These “show places,” as one source called them, dotted much of Manhattan in the era when the city barely extended past 14th Street. The families who owned them likely lived much of the year downtown. But when summer brought stifling heat and filthy streets (and disease outbreaks), they escaped to their estates by boat or via one of the few roads in the upper reaches of the island.

Arch Brook on the Riker estate grounds, 1869

The estate house in the top image belongs to a familiar name: It’s the country home of one member of the Riker family, circa 1866. Before their name became synonymous with a jail and an island in the East River, the Rikers were a well-known old money clan. Abraham Ryeken, who sailed to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands and owned a home on Broad Street, was the patriarch.

The descendent who lived in this house on today’s 75th Street and the East River was Richard Riker, born in 1773. He held a number of positions in New York including district attorney. Known for his “polished manner and social prominence,” he counted Alexander Hamilton as a friend. Riker died in 1842, and his funeral commenced in the estate house, according to the New-York Tribune. Could that be his widow in the illustration?

Cargle house, 1868

On the other side of Manhattan stood this pretty yellow house (above) with the gable roof, long side porch, and four chimneys. It was the estate home on the Cargle family at 60th Street and Tenth Avenue. It’s modest by 19th century standards, but far larger than any town house or early brownstone. The land might have even extended all the way to the Hudson River.

Who were the Cargles? This name is a mystery. Newspaper archives mention a Dr. Cargle, but so far the trail is cold. The image dates to 1868, and the paved road has a sidewalk and gas lamp. Imagine the cool river breezes on a warm summer night!

Provoost house, 1858

The Cargles lived across Manhattan from David Provoost and his family. The Provoost country residence (above) was on 57th Street and the East River, just blocks north of another fabled estate house of a notable family—that of the Beekmans.

David Provoost, or Provost, was the son of a New Amsterdam burgher who became a merchant and then mayor of New York from 1699 to 1700. Provost Street in Brooklyn and Provost Avenue in the Bronx are named for him or perhaps a family descendent. Who built the house, so grand that it qualifies as a true mansion?

Henry Delafield mansion, built in the 1830s and pictured in 1862

The Delafield house (above) is another mansion that must have been lovely and cool thanks to the East River nearby. Located on today’s East 77th Street and York Avenue, it was the home of Henry Delafield, son of John Delafield, who arrived in New York from England in 1783. John Delafield became one of the “merchant princes” of New York, according to 1912 New York Times article.

Henry Delafield also became a merchant and founded a shipping firm with his brother. His house was described by the Times as “one of the show palaces among the splendid country residences on the East Side north of 59th Street.” He died in 1875. “The latter years of his life were spent pleasantly on his fine country estate overlooking the East River,” the Times wrote. Fine, indeed!

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

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]