Archive for the ‘Union Square’ Category

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.

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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]

All that remains of the Flatiron Novelty District

January 12, 2017

noveltyshackmansignIs this cast-iron plaque outside a trendy clothing store on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street really all that’s left of Manhattan’s once-thriving Novelty District?

I think it must be. B. Shackman & Co. began selling cheap toys, costumes, and gag gifts in 1898—one of several novelty stores that popped up in the early 20th century between Union and Madison Squares.

Jeremiah has a treasure of photos of the store from 1980, before the space was taken over by Anthropologie in the 1990s.

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An entire neighborhood devoted to party favors, decorations, jokes, games, and magic tricks? It made it into the 1980s, but it couldn’t possibly survive in a more luxurious city and a digital commerce world.

The Novelty District went the way of Flatiron’s former Photo District and Chelsea’s Fur District and Sewing Machine District. The Flower District on Sixth Avenue in the 20s might be next.

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Gordon Novelty, with its 1930s storefront lettering and facade painted in explosive blue, was the last holdout of the Novelty District, located on Broadway and 22nd Street. [Second photo in 2007; third in 2010, from Greenwich Village Daily Photo.]

The place went down in 2007, Jeremiah reported.

A walk down Manhattan’s first “block beautiful”

January 9, 2017

New York City has hundreds of breathtaking residential streets that inspire beauty—and deep real-estate envy.

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But perhaps the first “block beautiful,” as it was called by a home design magazine around 1909, is the stretch of East 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue.

19thstreet139The houses here were largely built in the 1850s—two decades after real estate man Samuel Ruggles bought land on a marsh-turned-farm called by the old Dutch name “crommesshie” and remade it into Gramercy Park.

Yet 19th Street’s eclectic charm comes in part from architect Frederick Sterner, who remodeled many of the original houses in the early 1900s, starting with his own at number 139 (left).

Sterner altered traditional brownstones, considered dour by the turn of the century, into more fashionable residences with playful touches like light colors, wide shutters, jockey statues, stucco facades, and colored tiles.

19thstreetgeorgebellowsHis alterations earned high-fives from architectural critics and attracted painters and actors, turning the block into something of an artists’ colony in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of those artists was social realist painter George Bellows, who moved his family into number 146 (right) closer to the Third Avenue end of the block and built an attic studio.

Bellows was known to paint scenes of Gramercy Park, like this one from 1920 with his kids in the center.

19thstreetgiraffepanelsPainter and muralist Robert Winthrop Chanler lived across from Bellows at number 147, the wide and pretty home with the whimsical giraffe panels over the entrances (left).

They mimic the giraffes in one of Chanler’s murals, from 1922.

Tudor-style number 132 (below), built by Sterner, has an illustrious list of former tenants, including muckraking author Ida Tarbull and painter Cecilia Beaux.

19thstreet132cityrealtySome well-known actresses also reportedly lived in this apartment building in the middle of the block: Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Theda Bara.

Of course, no New York City block beautiful would be complete without renovated carriage houses, and this pocket of East 19th Street has three.

The two neighbor stables at numbers 127 and 129 (below) near Irving Place may have been built as early as the 1860s.

Their red brick and Gothic touches make them look like they belong in a fairy tale.

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And then there’s teeny tiny number 124, also on the end close to Irving Place, which comes off as a holdover from the colonial Dutch era (below).

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This Flemish-inspired carriage house actually only dates to the late 19th century and for most of its history has been a residence.

Why 1970s New York was nicknamed “Fun City”

December 30, 2016

New York City has had some colorful nicknames over the years—from Gotham and the Empire City in the 19th century to the Big Apple in the 1920s jazz era.

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But the “Fun City” moniker of the 1960s and 1970s?

The term was supposed to be a joke, a take on a phrase used by Mayor John Lindsay during a 1966 interview with sports journalist Dick Schaap, who was then a metro columnist with the New York Herald Tribune.

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“Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor,” wrote the New York Times in Schaap’s obituary in 2001, recounting how the nickname was coined.

funcityplaybill1972Lindsay responded, “I still think it’s a fun city.”

Schaap put the term in his column, using it “as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city,” stated the Times.

The phrase caught on with New Yorkers, who were unimpressed with the new mayor’s upbeat tone in a metropolis that over the next four years would endure a sanitation strike, a teacher walkout, a crippling blackout, and increasing financial distress.

Soon, the nickname was emblazoned on Times Square strip club marquees, city bus ads, and even on Broadway, where a short-lived play starring Joan Rivers debuted in 1972 (and closed a week later).

The term has mostly disappeared today—though a few critics dubbed Mayor Bloomberg’s New York of the early 2000s the “no-fun city.”

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But we still have Fun City Tattooing on St. Marks Place near Avenue A, going strong since the height of the Fun City era in 1976!

[Second photo: Fun City Peep Shows circa 1988: Michael Horsley/Flickr; third photo: playbill.com; fourth photo: unknown source]

A vintage pharmacy relic on University Place

December 24, 2016

whitneychemistsscaleHere’s something you won’t find at Duane Reade or Rite-Aid: an old-fashioned pharmacy scale.

This relic of old New York’s neighborhood drugstores can be found just inside the entrance of Whitney Chemists on University Place off Ninth Street.

It’s a packed-to-the-gills pharmacy time machine and one of the city’s rapidly disappearing independent drugstores.

And where was the scale—now weathered and a little beat up—manufactured? Brooklyn USA is stamped beside the 250 lb. mark.

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The Detecto Scale Company began producing medical scales in 1900 in Williamsburg, but how old this one is and how long it’s held court just inside the 50-year-old pharmacy entrance is a mystery.

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The one thing I forgot to check: if the scale actually works!

[Third photo: Yelp]

A cast-iron jewel sits behind this glass facade

December 19, 2016

tiffanys2016If only we could peel back the black reflective glass obscuring 15 West 15th Street and knock off some of the coffin-shaped boxes from the upper floors.

Because underneath what looks like another modern commercial building is the skeleton of Tiffany & Co.’s 1870 headquarters, a spectacular cast-iron building designed for New York’s legendary “palace of jewels” (below).

This is where the famed jeweler relocated after starting out on Broadway across from City Hall in 1837 before moving to Broadway and Prince Street in the mid-19th century.

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“To call John Kellum’s design for the 5-story building ornate would be an understatement; its decorative columns, cornices, and other projections attempted to render in cast iron a symbol of the ‘palace of jewels’ inside,” wrote John Hill in Guide to Contemporary New York Architecture.

tiffanysunionsquarenewstore1870nyplUnion Square was an ideal spot for the new Tiffany’s.

After the Civil War, Ladies Mile, New York’s premium shopping district, moved to the fashionable stretch between 9th Street and 23rd Street along Broadway.

Tiffany’s wanted to be part of the action. On Union Square East, the store occupied prime real estate betwen the best dry goods emporiums of the day, like Lord & Taylor, which also relocated “uptown” in 1870, to 20th Street.

Throughout the Gilded Age, Tiffany’s dazzled New Yorkers with its jewelry collection and what the New York Times in 1873 called its “spacious galleries” of home furnishings and objects of art.

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Imagine the store during holiday time in the late 19th century, with well-heeled wives perusing the display counters for gifts of gold and diamonds (above) . . . and thieves looking for a way to break in and rob the place, which happened all too often, according to newspaper accounts.

tiffanys1899nyplTiffany’s stuck around Union Square until the 1900s before following other retailers to a new midtown spot at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in 1905. In 1940, it moved to its present address up the avenue at 57th Street.

So how did the Union Square store end up swathed in black, as if it’s in mourning?

Amalgamated Bank took over the building in the early 1900s, then stripped it of its ornamental loveliness (a safety precaution, as a chunk fell off and killed a pedestrian) in the 1950s.

tiffanyfacade1953-1954mcny54-37-18For five decades the featureless, white-brick building (right) housed various tenants. In the 2000s, it was redone as a pricey apartment residence.

The architects for the new residence removed the white brick. “With the brick and [much of the] cast iron gone, the new zinc-framed glass walls sit two feet in front of the remaining 1870 cast iron structure,” wrote Hill.

Apparently at night, if you look closely, you can see the original arched windows—a ghostly remnant of one of the city’s most famous emporiums.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1885, x2010.11.3352; third photo: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth photo: NYPL, 1899; fifth photo: MCNY, 1953, 54.37.18]

A modern facade hides a 19th century building

November 14, 2016

Paint, glass, brick face—there are lots of ways to cover up the original facade of an old city building and give it a more modern spin.

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But sometimes a piece of the old structure ends up peeking through, or it’s impossible to cover it up completely. That appears to be the case with 18 East 14th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place.

The second through fifth floors are covered in what looks like 20th century brick face. The sixth floor, though, has the facade of an older turn-of-the-century building, with oval windows similar to its neighbor on the right and 19th century-era decorative touches.

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Was this structure really built in 1930, as Streeteasy states? Looks more like it belongs to the bustling 14th Street of streetcars, department stores, piano showrooms, and elevated train stations.

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.

Bookstores1945fourthave10th11thstsNYPL

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]