Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

What did the FA phone exchange stand for?

December 11, 2017

While enjoying the views along Edgecombe Avenue in Upper Manhattan, I spotted this rusted sign containing an old two-letter phone exchange, once ubiquitous in New York until they were phased out in the 1960s.

The FA exchange is a mystery. Gun Hill is a road in the Bronx, and the Gun Hill Fence Company, founded in 1959, still operates in the Bronx, now in a site on Boston Road.

Fordham is my best (but probably not accurate) guess. These old two-letter telephone exchanges are fun to find in hidden pockets of New York City.

New York’s most beautiful subway light fixture

December 4, 2017

The subway stations along the original IRT line in Manhattan have some lovely decorative touches, like floral motifs and ceramic tablets indicating the station name.

But I think the most beautiful subway ornament I’ve ever seen can be found at the 168th Street station, 100 feet under Washington Heights.

Affixed to the barrel-vaulted ceiling are large blue and tan terra cotta discs like this one, rich in color and design elements I’ve never seen in a train station before.

All that’s missing are the chandeliers that likely hung from them in 1906, the year the station opened.

The light fixtures aren’t the only bits of enchantment here. The recently cleaned vaulted ceiling (above), the walkways high above the tracks, and the terra cotta rosettes (above left) on the walls make it easy to imagine you’re in an Art Nouveau–inspired train station in Europe.

[Top and bottom photos: Ephemeral New York; second photo: Wikipedia]

The glorious mansions on a lovely Harlem block

November 27, 2017

Nineteenth century New York had lots of freestanding, single-family mansions.

Few survive today, but one Harlem block is host to four. These bells-and-whistles monuments to wealth and status do a pretty good job blending in with the walkups that surround them.

You’ll find these mansions at St. Nicholas Place and 150th Street, in the middle of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

Sugar Hill is roomy and lovely, but I don’t think the name was in use when James Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) decided to build this magnificent castle of a home in 1888 (below, in 1895).

It’s a Medieval limestone mansion with 64 windows of mosaic glass and 30 rooms at 10 St. Nicholas Place—an offshoot of St. Nicholas Avenue, a high and wide road popular among the Gilded Age rich who went coaching there.

“Bailey thought that St. Nicholas Place would be lined with other mansions and would develop into a Harlem version of lower Riverside Drive,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2001 New York Times piece.

“But Bailey was disappointed by apartment construction in the area in the 1890s,” Gray stated, and he sold the home in 1904. In 2014 after years of use as a funeral home, the Bailey house underwent a renovation.

Next door to the Bailey Mansion and visible in the above photo is another castle of a home, one whose backstory isn’t quite clear.

The AIA Guide to New York City noted it but didn’t provide any detail; a family named Alexander occupied the wood and stone Queen Anne beauty, with its unusual porch and gumdrop turret, early in the 20th century.

Across 150th Street is 6-8 St. Nicholas Place. Once it was two separate mansions: Number 6 is the Romanesque-inspired rowhouse built in 1895 by Jacob Baiter, a yeast manufacturer.

Number 8 (below) is the John W. Fink House, a Queen Anne from 1886.

“Now used as a hotel, these two buildings were connected in a conversion to a psychiatric sanitarium in 1912,” states Carolyn D. Johnson in Harlem Travel Guide.

At the end of short 150th Street on Edgecomb Avenue and with commanding views of upper Manhattan is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House.

This fortress of loveliness went up in 1890—when Harlem “still resembled a country village,” the Landmarks Preservation plaque on the front of the home says.

Nicholas Benziger was a successful publisher of religious texts. “The mansion features a flared mansard roof pierced by numerous gabled dormers and a richly colored iron-spot brick facade,” the plaque informs us.

In the 1920s, it became part of a sanitarium, and then in 1989 became permanent housing for formerly homeless adults (above).

[Third photo: MCNY x2012.61.22.37; seventh photo: New York Times; ninth photo: mrmhadams.typepad.com]

A view of New York’s oldest and loveliest bridge

October 9, 2017

The Brooklyn Bridge is a beauty, yes, but for architectural grace and historical enchantment (and as a place for long late-night walks, as Edgar Allan Poe discovered), you just can’t beat High Bridge—the 1848 span built to bring city residents fresh water from the Croton Reservoir upstate.

Standing 84 feet above the Harlem River, the High Bridge’s 15 arches were an elegant sight for people on ships below or on the Bronx or Manhattan side above.

A pedestrian walkway was added in the 1860s—and it’s open again after being closed to the public for 40 years.

What a subway payphone looked like in 1932

August 21, 2017

Remember subway payphones? If any still exist today, I can’t imagine they get much use—or that they actually work. Back before mobile phones, of course, they served their purpose.

The first public telephones appeared in New York City subway stations in 1911, according to Time magazine. What that contraption looked like I wish I knew.

But you can get something of an idea of it by looking at this 1932 photo of a payphone inside something of a phone booth at the former IND station on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.

[Photo: MCNY X2010.7.2.5359]

A happy Fourth of July card, 1911 style

July 3, 2017

Uncle Sam, drums, bugles, a pistol, flags, and lots of fireworks—that’s Independence Day as seen by card manufacturers in 1911.

This card, from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, was sent from a son in San Francisco to his father, a Mr. Charles Anderson, who lived at 44 West 125th Street. This is 1911, so no ZIP code needed.

Two forgotten Broadways nobody knows about

April 21, 2017

Broadway, the 13-mile road that began as an Indian trail and grew to define the city, is synonymous with greatness.

To put “Broadway” in the name of a new street is to aspire to something big — which was the idea behind East Broadway and West Broadway.

City fathers in the 19th century gave these names to existing streets in Lower Manhattan to divert traffic from the real Broadway and create what they hoped would be successful thoroughfares, states The Street Book.

So how do you explain Old Broadway and Broadway Alley, two narrow byways all but forgotten by the early 20th century?

Old Broadway is actually a leftover piece of another street. This lane runs from 125th Street to 129th Street (at left in 1932) just east of the real Broadway, then picks up again between 131st and 133th Streets (below, also 1932).

It’s a vestige of the old Bloomingdale Road, a colonial-era road that started around Madison Square and crossed to today’s Upper West Side.

In the late 19th century, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of the real Broadway.

The remaining seven blocks of Bloomingdale Road didn’t fit anywhere, so it was given the moniker Old Broadway and allowed to remain on the map.

“Why the few blocks of Old Broadway were left no one knows exactly, but probably because the wiping out of the thoroughfare, with many of its old houses, would have entailed unnecessary hardship upon the residents,” explains a 1912 New York Times article.

Vestiges of rural Manhattan remained through the 1930s. “For nearly a block, on the west, huge signs hide a bit of raised, rocky ground — pasture, no doubt, for goats in days gone by,” states another Times piece from 1930.

Today, the only reminder of a bygone city is the Old Broadway Synagogue (on the left side of the above photo), built in 1922 for Harlem’s Jewish population.

Broadway Alley has a more colorful past. It’s a one-lane drive between 26th and 27th Streets and Lexington and Third Avenue with a street sign on the 27th Street side.

Laid out around 1830, according to a 2005 Times article, the street was given its name at some point by owners who hoped to associate it with the glamour of Broadway theater.

For much of the 19th century, it was actually associated with crime and poverty; the alley was home to narrow tenements where residents had a fondness for gambling and drinking.

Rumor has it that Ringling Brothers once kept their circus elephants here — hopefully when it was a dirt drive not littered with debris behind wire and iron fencing, as it is today (at left), from the 26th Street end).

Broadway Alley is mostly covered in asphalt now, but it was once considered one of the last unpaved roads in the city.

Though maybe it doesn’t technically count, since Broadway Alley is privately owned and only one occupied building uses the street address, according to the Times.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.174; third photo: MCNY: 33.173.175]

One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City

January 16, 2017

On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.

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After arriving and meeting up with Naomi’s older sister Josie, a Manhattan resident, the family settled into the West 118th Street home of their host, a Mrs. Purdy.

naomicentralparkmallThrough early February they did what most first-time tourists do: they visited museums and Central Park (left), window-shopped stores, took in the Bowery, and saw the seashore at Coney Island.

What makes King’s visit so unique is that it occurred in January 1899.

And because King kept a travel diary (part of the Archives & Manuscripts Collection at the NYPL), contemporary readers get to experience the Gilded Age city as it appeared through her impressionable eyes.

naomicentralparkbandLike any trend-driven tween, King wrote about the clothes displayed in stores like Stern’s (top image) in the Ladies Mile shopping district.

“We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” she wrote.

She saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

naomizoo1895mcny93-1-1-18316The family strolled the mall in Central Park “under the arches of the beautiful trees whose branches interlaced overhead” and saw the bandstand (above) “where Sousa’s celebrated band plays all during the summer. . . . “

They were impressed by the lions (left) and hippos at the zoo. “Beside [the lions was] the royal Bengal tiger and his mate next to him in a separate cage, while a horrid hyena paced up and down his cage.”

King and her parents gawked at the mansions of Fifth Avenue. “We passed Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s elegant residence (below right). . . . “

naomiwkvanderbiltmansion“A little farther on we saw old Mr. Vanderbilt’s residence and a wealthy gentleman Mr. Rockefeller whose mansion is even finer than the Vanderbilts.'”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the family visited some of the city’s notorious charitable institutions, which King wrote about movingly.

On Randall’s Island at the House of Refuge (below), kind of a 19th century reform school, she saw boys working in the institution’s laundry department.

naomihouseofrefugemcny91-69-1811915

“We passed however a large hall of locked cells which the larger boys sleep,” she wrote. “They lock them up to prevent making their escape.”

Also on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War city.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“We . . . went to the baby residence, the home of the little waifs who were picked up out of the city’s ash barrels and dark alleyways. They looked so frail in their white  cot beds. . . . There are so many babies and yet not one little face that looked like another.”

What became of King after her visit I wish I knew.

But her travel diary stands as a testament to the wonder and tragedy of New York on the cusp of the 20th century.

The Gilded Age in New York includes these excerpts from King’s diary—as well as diary excerpts from other New Yorkers of the era. Many thanks to the NYPL for permission to cite the text in the book.

[Top three photos: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth photo, MCNY: 93.1.1.18316; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]

The brilliant future of Broadway at 179th Street

January 12, 2017

In 1910, not long before the production of this pretty postcard of Broadway above 179th Street, newspapers were singing the praises of Washington Heights and its “brilliant future.”

broadwayabove179thst1915mcnyx2011-34-2296

“The completed buildings and those in course of construction are of a far higher class than formerly built, and the advent of fireproof construction brings Washington Heights into direct competition with the downtown residential sections,” noted the New York Times in April of that year.

As for the proposed bridge at 179th Street (which would be completed in 1931), it “will be the means of bringing many residents from New Jersey to the upper part of Washington Heights to do their shopping…” the Times added.

broadwayat179thstreet2016

Here’s the same view today. The 1960s-era George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal wiped out an entire block to the south of the 1915 view—helping to turn Washington Heights’ brilliant future into one of urban blight.

But otherwise, save for those early model devil wagons and the Papa Joes on the left corner, the intersection hasn’t really changed. However, those shoppers from New Jersey? I think they’ve long since stopped coming.

[Postcard: MCNY, 1915, x2011.34.2296; image: Google]

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.

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But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.

Cornercutbroadway

Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.

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A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.

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I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.

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Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.