Archive for the ‘Union Square’ Category

A painter renders Union Square’s sea of humanity

August 22, 2016

Shop girls, down and out men, lone pedestrians on the way to the elevated train—from the 1930s to the 1980s, Isabel Bishop observed these men and women from her Union Square artist’s studio, painting them in soft tones that reveal their humanity and fragility.

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Born in 1902 in Cincinnati, Bishop moved to Manhattan at age 16 to attend the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She then took classes at the Art Students League, developing her talents as a printmaker and painter.

Influenced by early Modernists like Robert Henri and old masters such as Rubens, she became associated with the 14th Street School, a group of realist artists that included Reginald Marsh and Raphael Soyer.

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Bishop married in 1934 and moved to Riverdale. But she kept her studio first at Nine West 14th Street and then another at 857 Broadway. The Union Square area in those pre- and postwar decades was home to lower-end department stores, offices, and cheap entertainment venues.

And of course, there was the park itself, a gathering place for everyone from soap-box agitators to workers on their lunch hour to derelict men with no where else to go.

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The subject matter right outside her studio suited Bishop perfectly.

“It was in New York’s pulsating environment that Bishop combined her admiration for the old masters with a contemporary taste for urban realism,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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“With her discerning eye, she portrayed ordinary people in an extraordinary manner, often monumentalizing her figures within spaces that barely created context or indicated a location.”

“She chose average models from the streets of Manhattan and often rendered them in a state of physical activity—a sharp departure from the idealized, passive nudes of previous traditions.”

[“Fifteenth Street and Sixth Avenue,” 1930]

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Bishop focused many of her paintings on women—the otherwise ordinary women who passed through Union Square, coming in and out of offices or catching a train. Neither mothers nor sex symbols, they “exist for themselves,” as one critic put it.

“On the street corner, in the automat, in the subway and on park benches in fine weather, Miss Bishop proved herself a perceptive observer,” wrote the New York Times in her obituary. “For young women in the big city who were as yet unmarked by life, she had a particular feeling.”

[“Fourteenth Street,” 1932]

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As time went on, Bishop’s style seemed to become more muted, with figures of women in what looks like perpetual motion—perhaps a comment on the rise of women in American society.

Bishopselfportrait1927Bishop kept her Union Square studio until 1984; she died in 1988. This self-portrait was done in 1927, when she was just 25.

She isn’t as well-known as she should be, but her amber-hued men and women caught in ordinary, fleeting moments speak to the anonymity and motion of urban life in the 20th century.

[Images 1-4; 6: onlinebrowsing.com; Image 5 and 7, dcmooregallery.com]

The 1852 stable-turned-synagogue in the Village

August 12, 2016

In a neighborhood filled with architectural anomalies, the little house with the front yard at 11 East 11th Street has a curious 164-year history. In that time, it went from stable to brothel to garage to private home before becoming a synagogue half a century ago.

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First things first. The house was built in 1852 as a carriage house for George Wood, a wealthy lawyer who that same year constructed a stately mansion next door at 45 Fifth Avenue.

11east11thstreetsideIn that antebellum era, lower Fifth Avenue was a cream-of-the-crop street lined with freestanding mansions.

The families who occupied these impressive homes needed places to keep their horses, so they put up stables nearby set back from the road with a front yard for hitching.

The 19th century went on, and the richest residents moved northward. By the 1860s, Wood’s former carriage house had become a “disorderly house” raided a few times by the police, reported New York Times.

11east11thstreetnytjuly211867At the century’s end, development changed the face of lower Fifth Avenue. Most of the grand mansions were remodeled or replaced by apartment residences; the carriage houses were demolished.

Yet Wood’s stable, with its tidy front yard, survived. With the arrival of the automobile era, it was turned into a garage with a loft, reported the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

11east11thstnypl195111 East 11th Street “now has window arrangements typical of the 1920s,” the GVSHP wrote.”It has been roughcast in stucco with diamond-shaped tile patterns set in the parapet, which is crowned by a stone coping stepped up at the ends above small, square blocks.”

In the next decades, the little house served as a private residence and a “light protector” for the bigger Van Rensselaer Hotel next door.

In 1959, the Conservative Congregation of Fifth Avenue—which had been holding services in a hotel—made the former stable with the ginko tree out front its synagogue.

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This year, looks like the house and property have been approved for a renovatation.

[Newspaper article: NYT July 21, 1867; fourth photo: 1951, NYPL]

Solitary browsing on Fourth Avenue’s Book Row

June 6, 2016

Manhattan has always had its neighborhoods of commerce and industry, from the Garment Center to the Pickle District.

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And like those two vestiges of the late 19th century city, a booksellers’ district also popped up, this one on the warehouse blocks along Fourth Avenue south of Union Square.

Bookstores4thave10thst1933schultes“That quarter-mile section of Fourth Avenue which lies between the Bible House [at Astor Place] and the vista of Union Square has been for more than forty years the habitat of many dealers of old books,” noted Publishers’ Weekly in 1917.

That means Booksellers’ Row—the fabled enclave where book vendors and lovers came together in dusty storefronts, buying and selling hidden treasures—dates back to the 1870s.

Thanks to the presence of many book publishing offices, “it admittedly is now the ‘Booksellers’ Row’ of the metropolis,” the article proclaimed.

Booksellers’ Row attracted bibliophiles and casual browsers for decades; in the 1950s, more than 40 general and specialty shops lured reader to their mazes of shelves.

boosktorefourthaveessdeross10thst1938These black and white photos, from the 1930s and 1940s, convey mystery and solitude.

Who are these serious-looking readers, picking through bins and piles on tables while the rest of the city thunders along, pursuing progress and profit?

In the 1950s, Booksellers’ Row was on the wane. It was the usual culprit, of course: increasing rents.

“This is their plight: They can exist only in low-rental shops, yet they need tremendous storage space,” wrote the New York Times in a 1956 piece on the dilemma of selling books in New York City.

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By the 1970s, many stores were gone or on the way out, or “scattering” to other parts of the city, as the Times seemed to predict. The article featured a prescient last paragraph:

Bookstoresthestrand1938“The Commissioner [of the city’s department of commerce and public events], something of a sentimentalist, thinks he can prevent this scattering.

“He thinks New York must never go so modern that it must ride roughshod over these mellow places.

“He thinks something essential dies when that happens,” the Times stated.

Today the Strand, opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue and now on Broadway and 12th Street, is the only old-timer remaining.

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[Top photo: Mosk’s, Astor Place, 1935, MCNY; second photo: Schulte’s, Fourth Ave and 10th Street, NYPL; third photo: browsers on Fourth Ave, NYPL; fourth photo: Books and Stationary on Fourth Ave and 11th Street, NYPL; fifth photo: The Strand, 1938; sixth photo: 13th and Fourth Ave, 1930, NYPL]

A Gilded Age painter’s springtime New York

May 23, 2016

I used to think that Frederick Childe Hassam’s most evocative paintings were his moody, poetic winter scenes of turn of the century New York.

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But his Impressionist renderings of Manhattan in springtime—lush parks, rainy blue twilight, and exaggerated pastel skies—are just as striking.

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“Lower Fifth Avenue,” at top, depicts the lights and shadows of what appears to be an early spring day in 1890, warm enough to do without overcoats and for leaves to appear on fledgling trees.

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“New York is the most beautiful city in the world,” Hassam reportedly said, citing Fifth Avenue as the city’s loveliest street. “Fifth Avenue Nocturne,” from 1895, gives us sidewalks slicked with rain and illuminated by electric lights.

Union Square is an oasis of lush greenery amid the backdrop of a gray city in 1896’s “Union Square in Spring.”

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The stretch of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Washington Square was Hassam’s milieu; no surprise, as he had studios at Fifth and 17th and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Washington Arch, Spring,” from 1890, shows what Hassam called “humanity in motion,” which he considered his primary subject and theme.

A Village church’s secret presidential wedding

April 18, 2016

ChurchoftheascentionwikiThe beautiful Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, has a long history in New York. It started in 1829 in a Canal Street building, where the city’s growing Evangelical population gathered.

After the original church was destroyed by fire a decade later, the parish moved to a Gothic Revival cathedral designed by Richard Upjohn in 1841 in what was then the outskirts of town.

In 1844, it earned fame as the site of a small wedding for a very prominent groom: United States President John Tyler.

And amazingly, the entire ceremony was pulled off without the press or public finding out until after the couple said their vows.

ChurchoftheasensionjuliaTyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame) had ascended to the White House when his Whig party running mate, William Henry Harrison, died one month after taking office.

After meeting her at a Washington reception, Tyler fell hard for Julia Gardiner, a beautiful 24-year-old from a wealthy New York family.

Following the death of Tyler’s first wife in 1842, the president was determined to win Julia’s hand.

The independent-minded Julia (who shocked society when she posed on the arm of a man who was not related to her in a store ad) eventually accepted.

The wedding was set for June 26, and the goal was to keep the press from finding out—and making a big to-do about the short time between Tyler’s first wife’s death and his second marriage, as well as the couple’s 30-year age difference.

Churchoftheascensionjohntyler“Tyler was so concerned about secrecy that he did not discuss his plans with his other children until after the wedding,” stated one source.

Tyler, 54, did tell his son John Tyler, Jr., who arrived in New York for the wedding with his father. They stayed at Howard’s Hotel on Lower Broadway, where the staff were kept on lockdown so no one would find about about the famous guest.

The secret ceremony was pulled off successfully, with only one newspaper reporting the nuptials. “The bride is a very beautiful and elegantly formed woman of apparently 20 years of age,” wrote The New York Morning Express.

Churchoftheascension1840“She was robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” Less than 10 people attended, and afterward “the party departed for the residence of the bride in Lafayette Place (below)…the wedding cortege consisted of five carriages.”

After a wedding dinner, the couple boarded a steamer. Apparently Tyler was recognized, because people on passing ships “cheered most heartily” and presidential salutes were fired from “various ships of war.”

Julia was only First Lady for a short time. After Tyler’s term ended, he moved back to his Virginia plantation.

Churchoftheascensionlagrangeterrace1886There, the couple had seven kids—in addition to the seven Tyler fathered with his first wife.

On another note, incredibly, two of Tyler’s grandchildren—children born of a son Tyler had with Julia—are still alive today.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; fourth image: Church of the Ascension; fifth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The story behind three faded ads in Manhattan

April 11, 2016

If you look up enough while walking through the city, you see a fair number of these weathered ads, partly erased by rain and grime.

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Deciphering what they say isn’t always easy. Take this ad at 23 East 20th Street. “Furs” is still legible, but the name of the company is tricky.

It looks like M. Handin & Grapkin—which is close, as sure enough a company with the name Drapkin appears to have gone into the furrier business as early as 1909.

The wonderful faded sign site 14to42.net says that M. Handin and Drapkin were located in this building around 1909, and the faded ad could be more than a century old.

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This building on East 12th Street and University Place is a faded sign spotter’s dream. “Student Clothes” up top is easy enough to read.

Walter Grutchfield’s photo is better than mine, and his caption explains that the company occupied this building from 1924 to 1929.

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To get this view of this faded ad at 324 West 84th Street, you have to stand inside the 15th floor apartment of the building next door.

The address is barely legible—and though 324 is an apartment house today, as early as 1918 it was the Hotel Ramsby.

The left side of the ad must have listed room rates, forever lost to the ages.

Who is the man on a Greenwich Village building?

April 4, 2016

AlabamafacadeManhattan corners don’t get much lovelier than West 11th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. And one especially sweet building on the north side is the wonderfully named Alabama.

Affiliated with the nearby Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Alabama dates back to the mid-19th century, going through various incarnations as a hotel, apartment house, co-op, and now a dorm, it seems.

There’s nothing unusual about the building at all. It has typical period detailing and decorative elements . . . except for the very late 20th century–looking man’s face above the front entrance.

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Gargoyles, the Green Man sculptures, griffins—these are all pretty normal for a 19th century New York residence.

But who is this cool person in sunglasses and a cowboy hat, and why does he look a little like Tom Petty?

The prewar mailing address on a Village window

March 28, 2016

ZipcodestorefrontThe eclectic antiques and furniture store at 80 East 11th Street in Greenwich Village is so discreet, it has no store sign above the entrance.

What the store does have, though, is its mailing address painted in the lower right corner of the store window—with the old school–style one-digit postal code rather than the five-numeral ZIP code we use today.

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Seen all the time on old letters and ads, these postal codes, pioneered in the 1940s as a way to speed mail delivery, are a rarity in the contemporary city.

They were replaced by the five-digit zip codes in the 1960s. Clearly some businesses in contemporary New York prefer their mailing address the old-fashioned way.

When S. Klein’s store dominated Union Square

March 14, 2016

A few weeks ago, a post of a 1970s-era photo of Mays discount department store on 14th Street at Union Square brought in many comments about the old S. Klein store that once stood across the street.

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Here’s an old postcard of the store and 14th Street looking east, occupying the space where Zeckendorf Towers and the Food Emporium are today.

Wow, look at the Third and Second Avenue Elevated train lines in the distance!

A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

March 14, 2016

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]