Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

The claw hammer murder rocks 1930s New York

May 18, 2015

PhelanleavingcourtEarly on New Year’s Eve 1933, the battered body of a 68-year-old retired stockbroker was found in his five-room apartment at the Grinnell (below), a luxurious building at 800 Riverside Drive.

Douglas Sheridan’s corpse was slumped in the bathtub with scalding water from the shower pouring down over it.

His head had been bashed in, once in his face and once in the back of the skull.

The scene was grisly, but it offered detectives immediate clues.

“In the courtyard below they discovered a hammer which they believe to have been the murder weapon,” wrote the New York Times on January 1, 1934.

Detectives also noticed that Sheridan’s housekeeper, 52-year-old “gray haired” Catherine Phelan (left), had bloodstains on the lenses of her glasses.

Phelan, who had worked for Sheridan for 28 years, had called police to the apartment and led them to Sheridan’s body.

She told police she had the night off, and that she left the apartment to see a movie after two guests of Sheridan’s arrived.

Phelanmurdergrinnell“Later in the evening, she was quoted as saying, she became vaguely uneasy because Mr. Sheridan had been drinking, and she started back toward the apartment,” stated the Times.

Soon after, she discovered her employer’s body—his two guests gone, she claimed. Hours later, she called police.

Detectives cast doubt on her story, but they didn’t arrest her immediately. It took a day to check out her version of events and look into Sheridan’s personal and financial life.

PhelanmurderheadlineThey soon learned that Phelan stood to gain $8,000 from Sheridan’s will, and that Sheridan was about to fire her, according to apartment building employees.

In addition to that, Sheridan apparently had a “fondness for young women friends.” One of his guests the evening he died was a young female, and police believed Phelan killed Sheridan out of jealousy.

After her arrest on January 1, she insisted she was innocent. Charged with murder, she stood trial in November.

A month later, she was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “Thank you for the Christmas present, your honor,” she told the judge, before heading off to Auburn state prison.

The old-school store signs of Washington Heights

May 18, 2015

Fans of store signage dating back generations should take a stroll along upper Broadway between 168th and 181st Streets.

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Here remain some vintage signs—like this classic Cafe/Bar sign for Reynold’s, an Irish workingman’s bar that opened 50 years ago and closed its doors for good in March.

DNAinfo has a terrific story about the backstory of Reynold’s and the bar’s closing.

Washhtsstoresignbicyles

The colorful sign for Victor’s Bicycle makes the place look like a party store. If only it wasn’t partly obscured by scaffolding.

Washhtsstoresignsliquor

Discount Wines and Liquors says it all: cheap booze in a gritty New York shop with display windows that haven’t been cleaned off in years.

Check out more vintage store signs, this time in Brooklyn.

When the Yankees were on top (of 168th Street)

May 11, 2015

Hilltoppark1912Broadway and 168th Street, with its rocky terrain, isn’t exactly the best place for a baseball stadium.

Which partially explains why in 1903, New York’s newest baseball team, the appropriately named Highlanders, only played in a ball park at the site for the next 10 years.

Called American League Park and nicknamed Hilltop Park, it was hastily built in six weeks, just in time for the start of the spring season.

Hilltoppark1912entranceA New York Times piece summed up the challenge of turning a hilly nine-acre trapezoid of land into a worthy stadium:

“From Broadway looking west, the ground starts in a low swamp. It rises into a ridge of rocks perhaps twelve to fifteen feet above the level of Broadway. From the top of the ridge the land slopes off gradually to Fort Washington Road.”

“As the property is today it will be necessary to blast all along the ridge, cutting off a slice eight feet or more. … There are about 100 trees to be pulled up by the roots.”

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With the help of Tammany insider Thomas McAvoy, construction on the park began. Five hundred men (paid $2 a day) set to work digging, blasting and carting away 12,000 cubic yards of bedrock.

“In a remarkable six weeks, the McAvoy construction crew had converted a picturesque but forbidding mesa into a serviceable, if unfinished, venue for major-league baseball,” states the Society for American Baseball Research.

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“Fans would be accommodated in three grandstand sections ringing the home-plate area and extending along the baselines. Single-deck bleacher areas extended from the grandstands to the outfield fences while an adequately sized scoreboard was erected near the left-field foul line.”

Over the decade, the Highlanders didn’t win many games. But they attracted big crowds to the 16,000 person venue, especially with the help of the new subway system.

DSCN5324-copyThe 1912 season was their last at Hilltop Park, which was constantly beset by flooding and other problems.

The team now known as the Yankees shared the nearby Polo Grounds with the Giants, then moved into their own stadium in the Bronx in 1923.

Nothing appears to remain of Hilltop Park, bulldozed to make way for a tabernacle and then Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in 1925, which occupies the hilltop today.

hilltopplaqueBut there are a few interesting remnants. First, the lone tenement apartment building that stood out so prominently in early photos of the park still exists on 168th Street, long surrounded by other apartment houses.

And a small base-shaped plaque in a hospital courtyard marks the site of home plate.

[Top photos: Library of Congress; fifth photo: copyright David B. Stinson; bottom photo: Uptown Collective]

A settlement of shacks on upper Fifth Avenue

March 9, 2015

Recognize this block, which is less of a block and more of a hilly, rocky lot?

It’s Fifth Avenue at 101st Street in 1894, when this stretch of the future Museum Mile was still the province of the poor and vulnerable.

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“A semi-rural hilly area with modest row houses and shanties at the end of the 19th century, Carnegie Hill was really discovered by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who purchased land on Fifth Avenue around 90th Street in 1898 and built a 64-room mansion,” states the New York Times in a 1994 article.

A Times article from 1905 appears to describe one of these shanties.

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“Within a stone’s throw of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion . . . stands a gabled shanty within 20 feet of Fifth Avenue of such scant dimensions and poverty-stricken appearance that it would be despised among the hovels that house some of the poorest of the city’s residents.”

Upperfifthave2015Shanty settlements like these seemed to dot Fifth Avenue farther north, like the ones seen in this photo, dated 1895.

A cross street is not listed on the photo, unfortunately. But note the lamppost; it wouldn’t be long before developers rush in, ushering in an upper Fifth Avenue of hospital buildings and stately apartment residences that still exist today.

[Top two photos: MCNY]

Three subway scenes from a 1930s painter

February 2, 2015

The head scarves, newspapers, advertisements, and hats are definitely Depression-era. Substitute the newspapers for iPhones, however, and it’s eerily familiar.

Celentanosubway1935

This 1935 painting by Daniel Celentano, Subway, looks strangely contemporary: a packed car, a cross-section of New Yorkers, and almost everyone minding their own business, looking down or away.

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Celentano needs more recognition. A WPA muralist born in 1902, he grew up as one of 15 kids in a Neapolitan family in Harlem’s Little Italy.

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His work captures the rhythms of 1930s life in the city’s immigrant enclaves and beyond: festivals inspired by saints, laborers at work, and a coal stove keeping passengers warm as they wait for the train in an El Station.

CelentanoselfportraitIn the second painting, Celentano gives us a glimpse of the hustle and bustle under the elevated tracks in a working-class New York neighborhood.

Celentano’s New York Street Scene, the third painting here, offers a view of the 1930s elevated train far off in the distance. But what is going on in that green booth with a figure of a woman hanging inside it?

[Above, Celentano’s self-portrait, 1940]

The rich widow haunting an uptown mansion

October 27, 2014

ElizajumelyoungIf you visit the lovely Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights and see a mysterious red-haired beauty, don’t be alarmed.

It’s just late-18th century New Yorker Eliza Jumel, a notorious social climber who spent much of her adult life in the home, shunned by society and eventually a recluse.

Born in Rhode Island in either 1773 or 1775 to a prostitute mother, Eliza spent her childhood in a workhouse before making her way to New York City in the 1790s to become an actress . . . and marry a rich, socially prominent man.

Young and beautiful, she began an affair with Stephen Jumel, an older French-born wine dealer.

Morrisjumelmansion“Eliza became Jumel’s mistress and for four years he gave her all the material possessions she could desire, but even those could not give her the respectability of ‘proper’ society that she so desperately sought,” wrote Michael Norman and Beth Scott in Historic Haunted America.

Eliza wanted to be married, so she feigned illness and begged Jumel to marry her. He agreed.

Aaronburr“According to legend, no sooner had the priest married the couple and left the house than Eliza sat up in bed and began brushing her long red hair,” state Norman and Scott.

The Jumels moved from Whitehall Street to the Roger Morris House, a summer home miles from the city that served as George Washington’s temporary headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

They redid the place with the latest furnishings from France. But Eliza was shunned by New York’s social scene and went back and forth to France with her husband, finally returning to their home before 1832, the year Jumel died.

It wasn’t long before she found her next wealthy, connected man.

ElizajumelolderIn 1833 she married former vice president Aaron Burr. It lasted a year, thanks in part to Burr’s womanizing ways and desire for Eliza’s inherited money.

For the next three decades, as New York City grew and changed, Eliza remained in her uptown mansion, living and dying alone in her early 90s in 1865.

Though buried five blocks away in Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street, her spirit supposedly haunts her former home, now surrounded by city streets.

“A governess for a child of one of Madame’s nieces said dreadful rappings would occur in the floors and walls of the old woman’s former bedroom,” wrote Norman and Scott.

Elizajumelold“One relative said her ghost, clad in all white, actually stood by her bed.”

And in the 1960s, a group of schoolkids reported seeing “a red-haired woman come out on the balcony and press a finger to her lips.

“She rebuked them for their noisy behavior. Her husband was ill and not to be disturbed, she chided.”

[Top: Eliza as a young beauty; second image: the Morris-Jumel Mansion today, from morrisjumel.org; third image: Aaron Burr; fourth image: Eliza Jumel and younger relatives; fifth photo: Eliza, older]

The ices vendor setting up on East 110th Street

July 14, 2014

The ices offered by this street vendor are probably not artisanal or organic. But I bet they hit the spot on a hot summer day.

Icemanoneast110thst

Photographer John Albok captured the cones and syrups of one man’s cart in East Harlem in 1938, a neighborhood of Italians at the time with a small but growing influx of Hispanics.

The link from the Museum of the City of New York describes them as piraguas—the Puerto Rican treat sold by many vendors today.

[Photo: MCNY Collections Portal]

The uptown Museum Row no one knows about

May 22, 2014

It was a visionary idea around 1900: the construction of a majestic cultural complex in the wide-open, breezy space between Riverside Drive and Broadway at 155th Street.

AudubonterracesignAt the time, this area of Upper Manhattan, once part of the estate of artist James Audubon in the 1840s, was being developed into a residential neighborhood.

Builders were putting up apartment houses and flats in what they hoped would be a prime part of the city. Adding a beautiful museum row would enhance the area and give it cultural cache.

Audubonterrace1919mcny

So the Beaux Arts-style, granite and limestone structures were built, centered around a brick walkway and sunken courtyard and marked by a wrought-iron gate. Opened in 1904, this uptown museum row was called Audubon Terrace.

Hispanicmuseumpostcardmcny1925

The Hispanic Society of America, a museum with Goyas and El Grecos, moved in. So did the American Indian Museum, American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Geographical Society, and the American Numismatic Society.

Audubonrowelcid2This cultural crossroads attracted crowds, at least at first. The problem? As they say, location location location.

Upper Manhattan didn’t pan out as the well-to-do enclave developers had hoped. And it was far out of the loop of the main part of the city.

Decades passed. Three of the original tenants moved out. Only the Hispanic Society museum and the American Academy of Arts and Letters remain. Boricua College, a bilingual institution, has joined them.

Audubon Terrace today feels like a secret. The wide courtyard, ghostly equestrian statue of El Cid, and other monuments to art and culture are devoid of crowds.

Audubonterrace2

The art at the Hispanic Society is fantastic (and free!). It’s an ideal place for walking and looking and dreaming.

[Photos: Second photo, 1919, MCNY; third, 1925 postcard from MCNY]

New York City’s other Washington Bridge

March 31, 2014

There’s no scandal surrounding this lovely, smaller-scale steel-arch bridge, which links Washington Heights to the Bronx.

This postcard is undated, but it depicts a very sleepy Upper Manhattan.

Washingtonbridgepostcard

The Washington Bridge isn’t very well known and gets little love by New York residents.

But it should. It opened to pedestrians in 1888 and vehicles in 1889, making it older than its similarly named, much bigger counterpart by a good 40-odd years!

An anarchist bomb explodes on Lexington Avenue

March 31, 2014

Lexington103rdstreetsignIn 1914, labor leaders and anarchist groups had John D. Rockefeller Jr. in their sights.

They blamed Rockefeller, head of U.S. Steel and one of the world’s richest men, for the Ludlow massacre—the deaths of striking workers and their families at a Rockefeller-owned mine in Ludlow, Colorado in April.

LexingtonavebombAnarchist leader and New Yorker Alexander Berkman ( below), who had served time for attempting to murder industrialist Henry Frick in 1892, called for Rockefeller’s assassination.

Other anarchists and labor leaders, roughed up during a subsequent protest at Rockefeller’s Tarrytown estate, also felt that a bomb left at Rockefeller’s estate would be appropriate payback.

So out of a top-floor apartment in a tenement house on Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street, several men armed with dynamite and batteries set to work.

Alexanderberkman

On July 4—Independence Day, oddly enough—the bomb exploded prematurely, killing three anarchists, the girlfriend of one, and injuring other residents of the otherwise unremarkable tenement in working-class Italian East Harlem.

“Lexington Avenue and the thickly populated intersecting streets in the neighborhood were crowded with men, women, and children on their way to seashore or park to spend the holiday, when suddenly there was a crash like that of a broadside from a battleship,” wrote The New York Times.

“Simultaneously the roof of the tenement house at 1626 Lexington Avenue was shattered into fragments and the debris of it and the three upper floors showered over the holiday crowds, some of it falling on roofs two and three blocks away.”

Lexingtonavenuebombsite2014Four mostly mangled bodies were eventually found. The dead were IWW (International Workers of the World) leaders or followers with “anarchist leanings,” as the Times put it.

A week later, about 5,000 people came to Union Square to hear a tribute to the would-be bombers.

As officials investigated, Berkman first denied any involvement. He later admitted that he was aware that the bomb was destined for Rockefeller’s estate.

Here’s the tenement at 1626 Lexington Avenue today; its anarchist past long obscured.


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