Archive for the ‘Union Square’ Category

The last daughter to live in a 14th Street mansion

July 29, 2019

There’s a modest white fountain topped with an angel (bottom image) on Second Avenue near 10th Street, where two sides of the iron fence surrounding St. Mark’s Church come together.

Below the angel is a faint, undated inscription: “To the Memory of Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren.”

Who was Elizabeth? She was born in 1831 in New York and died in 1908.

Never married, she was one of the last descendents of the wealthy Spingler-Van Beuren clan, who maintained a fabled farm-like homestead at 21-28 West 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue.

Her family’s story echoes the story of Manhattan.

An island dotted with farms and estates in the late 18th century became a metropolis by the early 20th century.

This sleek, modern city had no room for the “curious relic” that was Elizabeth’s lifelong home—on a large plot of land shaded by gardens and poplar trees, where a cow grazed and chickens wiled away the days.

Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Henry Spingler (above), was the one who launched the family farm.

A successful shopkeeper, Spingler bought 22 acres of farmland in 1788 centered around today’s 14th Street and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, according to a 1902 New York Times article.

At end of the 18th century, this really was farmland. The city street grid had yet to be created. Union Square, at the “union” of Broadway and the Bowery, wouldn’t officially be established until 1839.

Henry lived in what’s described by a newspaper article as a “quaintly built Dutch structure” until his death in 1811. (The top image and drawing above show what that Dutch farmhouse supposedly looked like.)

In 1830, a granddaughter of Henry’s who married into the prominent Van Beuren family constructed a handsome double-size brownstone mansion on a large piece of family farmland on West 14th Street. (Above image, about 1910.)

The granddaughter was Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth and her siblings grew up in the mansion when 14th Street was the center of a fashionable, refined neighborhood.

Not much is known about how Elizabeth spent her days. Like other elite young women in the mid-1800s, she probably had tutors or attended a day school. Her family worshipped at St. Mark’s Church; the Spinglers had a burial vault there.

During the Civil War, she may have also helped raise money for hospital care for wounded soldiers or served in another volunteer capacity, as many socially prominent women of all ages did.

By the end of the war, 14th Street changed. The street became a commercial strip and Union Square itself a theater district. Rich New Yorkers escaped the crowds and noise by moving uptown to posh Madison Square and beyond.

The elite departed—but the Van Beurens remained. Elizabeth’s sister, Emily Van Beuren Reynolds, lived in another brownstone mansion across the garden from hers at 29 West 14th Street.

Together the mansions were known as the Van Beuren Homestead, which stretched to 15th Street, where a stable was maintained.

As the Gilded Age accelerated and 14th Street was colonized by the new department stores like Macy’s (becoming part of the Ladies Mile Shopping District), the Van Beuren Homestead took on almost a mythic quality.

“After 14th Street had grown up about the old home and its gardens, when Macy’s red star was in its ascendency at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, there were always groups of people standing staring at [the] farm, with a cow and a vegetable garden, flower beds and hens, in the midst of the blooming city,” recalled one man in a 1922 New York Herald article.

“In the heart of New York’s retail shopping district, the old Van Beuren mansion has presented the spectacle of a huge family mansion standing alone in its own grounds, with large gardens, stables, chicken coops, dove cotes, arbors, and grass plots,” the New York Sun wrote in 1902.

“There was nothing modern about the place. It had all the marks of a true homestead inhabited by an old and long-wealthy family who could afford to throw away the enormous profit they could make by turning this valuable land over to business purposes….Artists, poets, and lovers of the picturesque have long feared the destruction of this quaint structure.”

When Elizabeth Van Beuren’s demise was announced in newspapers in 1908, the days were numbered for 21 West 14th Street.

Her sister’s death also put another nail in the coffin for the Homestead. which spent its final years unoccupied.

In 1927, the two mansions met the wrecking ball. (Above, in 1925)

Today, 21 and 28 West 14th Street is occupied by a one-story retail building. What would Elizabeth and the rest of her family, interred in their vault at St. Mark’s, think of the building that replaced their homestead?

[Top image: Fifth Avenue Old and New; second image: Geni.com; third image: 1913 painting by Charles Mielatz; fourth image: MCNY, 1906, X2010.11.5832; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: New-York Historical Society; seventh image: New York Sun; eighth image: MCNY, 1925, X2010.11.58021925; ninth image: ENY]

This woman made Macy’s a Gilded Age success

July 1, 2019

Macy’s—the retail giant that got its shaky start at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street (below right) in 1858—takes credit for a lot of firsts.

This dry goods emporium was the first to offer set prices for each item (in other words, no haggling), a money-back guarantee, and a store Santa starting with the 1862 holiday season.

But the retailer that eventually operated 11 shops across 14th Street in the Ladies Mile shopping district before decamping for Herald Square in 1902 can also claim another first.

Macy’s was the first store, or perhaps the first business in New York at all, to employ a female executive.

Having an astute woman leading a company that largely marketed itself to women may have been the secret that helped make Macy’s the retail giant it still is today.

Born in 1841, Margaret Getchell (above) was a former schoolteacher from Nantucket who moved to New York City at the age of 20. She applied for an entry-level job as a Macy’s clerk.

[Some accounts have it that Getchell was a distant relation of Rowland H. Macy, the store founder; but it’s unclear if this was actually true.]

“[Getchell] was an incredibly hard-working employee and, aside from her quick calculations as a cashier, she would often stay late at night to help with the company bookkeeping,” states The Folding Chair, a women’s history website. “Macy decided to promote her to the store’s bookkeeper.”

Soon, Getchell wasn’t just keeping track of the books and training new “cash girls,” as the shopgirls were called. She was recommending trends to Macy that he should capitalize on.

“At the end of the Civil War, Margaret suggested the addition of military-inspired fashion. She also began to spot budding trends in gifts, jewelry, clocks, homeware and cooking equipment,” The Folding Chair explains.

“These suggestions, as they began to materialize in the shop, transformed Macy’s into the first modern department store in America.”

By 1867, after pioneering an in-store soda fountain and window displays with cats dressed in baby clothes, Getchell, 26, was promoted to store superintendent.

She married another Macy’s employee, and the two lived above one of the stores, according to Macy’s for Sale.

As consumerism exploded in the Gilded Age, Macy’s became one of New York’s leading new department stores.

Getchell, sadly, didn’t live to see the store make its historic leap to Herald Square at the beginning of the 20th century.

Two years after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1878, Getchell succumbed to heart failure and inflammation of the ovary.

Her business motto, however, still applies to retail today: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

[Top photo: The Folding Chair; second photo: Bettman/Corbis; third photo: Postcards From Old New York/Facebook; fourth photo: Alice Austen; fifth photo: The Folding Chair]

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

The glory days of Julian’s 14th Street pool hall

May 21, 2018

If you spent any time east of Union Square from the 1930s to the early 1990s, you might remember Julian’s, one of the last of New York’s dark and smoky billiards halls. It ended its run on the second floor of the old Palladium building in 1991.

Ephemeral New York has celebrated Julian’s before, where (mostly) men and teenage boys shot pool and played hooky from work and life. But these noir-ish 1938 photos of Julian’s are another reason to bring it back again.

Reginald Marsh shot these images. He’s better known as an artist of the 1920s to 1940s who was drawn to the city’s seedy underbelly along the Bowery, at Times Square, and on Coney Island.

But he took a series of photos in the 1930s along 14th Street as well, capturing Depression-era New York’s grit, glamour, and many forgotten men.

A long shadowy staircase leading to the second floor entrance, the electric sign with “ladies invited” underneath, the ad for table tennis, the barber pole advertising a cut and shave to the left . . . these photos are an invitation to 1930s New York City. (Above photo, Julian’s in the 1980s).

[First and second images: MCNY: 90.36.2.30.1A; 90.36.2.30.1C. Third image: Warehouse magazine]

Spring rain and black umbrellas in Union Square

April 2, 2018

Few painters capture the enchantment of New York in the rain like Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist who had studios at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Rainy Late Afternoon, Union Square” captures the southern end of the park looking very much as it does today, with rain showers turning the pathways into seas of black umbrellas set against gray skies and a hint of green lawn.

Hassam painted the city in all seasons, but his images of New York in rain and snow are especially magical.

Rushing by the relics of the Union Square subway

March 26, 2018

The concrete maze that is the Union Square/14th Street subway stop is a patchwork of what was once three subway stations built in 1904, 1918, and 1930.

It doesn’t have a lot of charm, but it does have subway history—especially in the form of the six crumbling pieces of masonry, tile, and terra cotta all in a line on the mezzanine level that bridges the various train lines.

These are the remnants of the original walls of the 1904 IRT station. Long thought to have been lost to the ages, they were unearthed during a 1997 renovation and then incorporated into a permanent art exhibit the following year.

Next time you’re rushing from the L to the 6, stop and take a look at them, and behold subway history.

“Artist Mary Miss created standalone panels using historic architectural elements recovered during the renovation of the 14th Street/Union Square station complex,” states the always-informative nycsubway.org.

“The six ’14’ eagles were original elements of the 1904 station construction but most were hidden in disused side platforms along the Contract One IRT route.”

The photo above, from Joseph Brennan’s Abandoned Stations site (originally included in the Board of Rapid Tansit Railroad Commissioners’ year-end report for 1903), shows the eagles against a station wall.

Miss’ urban archeology exhibit includes dozens of other subway remains scattered across the staircases, passageways, and platforms of the station, all of which have the same red border as the subway walls.

These relics, “offer a sense of intimate engagement: to look into one of the framed spaces is as though a secret is being sought and slowly revealed,” states Miss on her website. It’s something to think about next time you’re transferring trains.

[Third Photo: Abandoned Stations by Joseph Brennan]

The most spectacular roofs are in Union Square

April 10, 2017

On a walk around Union Square, it’s impossible not to look up, thanks to the number of gorgeous roofs—stacked, sloping, multi-tiered roofs that top off the Gilded Age buildings like the elaborate feathered hats worn by stylish women of the era.

The four-story mansard roof crowning 201 Park Avenue South is perhaps the most impressive. This gorgeous building—close to the heavily German East Village back in the day—was once the headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company, built in fashionable French Renaissance style in 1911.

On the north side of the square at 33 East 17th Street is the Century Building, with it Queen Anne bells and whistles and two-story gambrel roof. Opened in 1881, the first tenant was a music publisher—and there’s a publishing link today, with Barnes & Noble occupying four floors.

A little farther up Broadway at 20th Street is a mansard roof like no other. Lord & Taylor built this Victorian blowout in 1870, when this stretch of Broadway was nicknamed Ladies Mile. The enormous store featured one of New York’s first steam elevators, and the company installed the first Christmas window decorations.

A detour to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street puts this double-decker Addams Family–esque roof in view. This is the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods store, also part of Ladies Mile.

Constructed between 1869 to 1877, the monster emporium spanned 19th Street from Broadway to Fifth Avenue.

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]

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

A 1960s downtown rock club with an 1860s name

January 16, 2017

When the Academy of Music opened in 1854 on 14th Street near Third Avenue, it was New York’s premier opera house, an anchor of the city’s buzzing new “uptown” theater district.

academy-of-music-palladium-rock-landmarks

It was also a favorite of the city’s Old Money elite in the 1860s and 1870s, who socialized in its “shabby red and gold boxes,” as Edith Wharton put it in her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, while shutting out the New Money families they despised.

academyofmusic1870Considering what a haughty place it was in its heyday (right), it’s fitting that after the Academy was demolished in 1926, a movie-theater-turned-rock-venue opened up across the street and adopted the Academy of Music name, reported Bedford + Bowery.

More name borrowing: The rock version of the Academy of Music became the Palladium in the 1970s (with Julian Billiard Academy on the second floor). Today, the site is occupied by NYU’s Palladium dormitory.

[Photo: Harold C. Black of Teenage Lust via rockcellarmagazine.com]