Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

An awe-inspiring arch in Central Park’s North Woods

June 13, 2022

Most of Central Park is a pleasure ground of playgrounds, pathways, gentle hills, and rolling meadows. As you head north at about 102nd Street, however, much of the terrain transforms into a woodland wildlife landscape with thick woods, waterfalls, and a ravine.

Amid this more rustic, secluded environment—intentionally designed by co-creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to feel like the deep woods of the Catskills or Adirondacks—is Central Park’s most incredible bridge.

Huddlestone Arch isn’t the biggest of the park’s 36 bridges, and it’s not necessarily the prettiest. But it’s the one that takes its stones straight from the park itself and earns top prize as an engineering feat.

The enormous boulders that make up the arch, placed together by hand, stay in place not because of mortar or other supporting material but gravity.

The boulders are arranged so they “huddle” together and keep their place, making the bridge strong enough to support the East Drive above it and act as a gateway to the Loch, the stream that winds its way through the ravine.

Huddlestone Arch in 1895

“Only gravity and pressure keep the massive boulders in place,” explains the Central Park Conservatory.

Huddlestone Arch was completed in 1866, and it’s parallel to roughly 107th Street closer to Fifth Avenue. On the other side of the arch is the Lasker Rink and Harlem Meer. The Rink is currently under construction, and right now the arch is fenced off. The footpaths to the arch are accessible.

Much of Central Park may be an illusion; Olmsted and Vaux brilliantly recreate unspoiled nature across the park’s 843 often rocky acres. But if you’re feeling adventurous and can’t get to New Paltz, this awe-inspiring engineering marvel is waiting for you.

[Third image: MCNY X2010.11.1274]

The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

June 10, 2022

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

The last “vulgar” survivor of a row of four Fifth Avenue mansions

May 30, 2022

First there were four. Built in 1901 by brothers William and Thomas Hall as speculation developments, the row of mansions from 1006-1009 Fifth Avenue each featured six stories of eclectic Beaux Arts details and a premier address in the late Gilded Age city’s millionaire colony.

Today only one remains. Number 1009, on the corner of 82nd Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stands like a long slender ghost of New York at the turn of the last century. It’s one of a handful of row house mansions left on upper Fifth Avenue.

As much as New Yorkers today admire Gilded Age mansions like Number 1009, with its fairy tale balconies, mansard roof, romantic bays, and fanciful facade carvings, not everyone back then was a fan.

Critic Montgomery Schulyer, writing in Architectural Record in October 1901, singled out Number 1009’s “sheet-metal cornice painted to imitate stone,” according to Christopher Gray in a 1995 New York Times article.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Schuyler wrote, via Gray’s article, “that, when a man goes into ‘six figures’ for his dwelling house, he ought not to make its upperworks of sheet metal. That is a cheap pretense which nothing can distinguish from vulgarity.”

1006-1009 Fifth Avenue in 1925

The criticism didn’t put a dent in sales; the Hall brothers sold all four mansions. Number 1006 went to bank president William Gelshenen and his wife, Katherine, according to the 1977 Landmarks Preservation Commission report for the Metropolitan Museum Historic District. Henry and Kate Timmerman, professions unknown, purchased Number 1007, while a William Augustus and Sarah Hall purchased Number 1008.

1006-1009 in 1940

Number 1009 went to major money: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Duke. Duke was one of the brothers who ran the American Tobacco Company and funded Duke University. The Dukes didn’t stay very long, moving to the Plaza Hotel in 1909, wrote Gray.

The mansions, upper right, in a 1925 postcard

Benjamin Duke’s brother James and his family lived there next, until James Duke relocated to his own new mansion on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street. Incredibly, a succession of Duke family members lived in the house at one time or another through the 1970s, when it received landmark designation.

Numbers 1006, 1007, and 1008 weren’t so lucky. “The two houses at numbers 1006 and 1007 were demolished in 1972, amid strong protest, at a time when the Landmarks Preservation Commission was unable to hold public hearings and landmark proposals,” according to the LPC report. Meanwhile, “the much-altered house at number 1008 was demolished in February [1977].”

The entrance on 82nd Street

A 22-story building, 1001 Fifth Avenue, replaced all three.

Number 1009 Fifth Avenue, known today as the Duke-Semans House or the Benjamin N. Duke House, has had a few colorful owners since the turn of the 21st century. In 2006, a billionaire named Tamir Sapir bought the house for a reported $40 million, according to Forbes. In 2010, he flipped it for $44 million to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Slim put the townhouse on the market in 2015 for $80 million. Some interior shots made it online, though it’s unclear if it sold or is still up for grabs.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: MCNY x2011.34.3703]

Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera

January 31, 2022

On the surface, Robert Bracklow probably appeared to his customers and neighbors to be a typical New Yorker.

Canal Street Between Laight and Varick Streets, 1897

Born in 1849, he immigrated to Gotham with his family when he was a child. He grew up during the Civil War and early Gilded Age, then made his living as a stationer and printer—owning his own legal stationary shop in Lower Manhattan, according to the New-York Historical Society.

He lived in Brooklyn, and though he never married, he seemed devoted to his lady friend of many years, a schoolteacher.

14th Street West of Fifth Avenue

But beneath the ordinariness of his life, Bracklow had a special passion for photography, which he discovered in his early 30s.

During early morning outings around Manhattan and sometimes to outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bracklow, nicknamed “Daylight Bob” because he was afraid of the dark (and darkrooms too), “created a picture history of New York’s growth at the turn of the century,” according to a 1984 article in Photography.

Brighton Beach, 1895

Contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz (a fellow member of the Camera Club of New York in the 1890s) were pushing the boundaries of photography as a fine art form.

Yet Bracklow “never embraced Stieglitz’s more abstract artistic vision, nor did he use his photography to expose social ills or make a clear political statement, like his contemporary Jacob Riis,” wrote the New-York Historical Society.

Corner saloon, 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

Instead, most of the thousands of photos Bracklow took were documentary-style, unsentimental glimpses of New York.

His camera captured horse-pulled wagons meandering along rundown streets, new skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, shantytowns and shacks, corner saloons, beachgoers at Coney Island, and other scenes in a changing city.

Dutch Street

The fascinating part about Bracklow’s photography is how all the images he took of a 19th century city shifting into the modern era made it into the hands of museum curators.

It didn’t happen until decades after he passed away. Bracklow died in 1920, and his possessions went to his lady friend, including “3,000 glass plates and 715 platinum prints in 28 scrapbooks,” states Photography.

Church of the Messiah, 34th Street and Park Avenue

“After the house she lived in was sold 30 years later, the collection came to the attention of Alexander Alland, Sr., who bought the negatives from a second-hand furniture dealer and made silver prints from them,” per Photography.

“In 1982, the scrapbooks were given to the New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the photographer’s sweetheart.”

Boy using a water pump on Edgar Street

In 2015, the New-York Historical Society and Metropolitan New York Library Council digitized the entire collection.

Here are some of Bracklow’s images: They aren’t romantic or necessarily artistic, but they perfectly document with composition and clarity the New York he lived in, which was in flux.

Robert Bracklow’s last known photograph of himself

[All photos New-York Historical Society Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection]

All the terra cotta beauty of an early uptown apartment building

January 31, 2022

Sometimes you come across a building so rich with decoration, it knocks you out. That was my reaction when I found myself at 45 Tiemann Place, near the corner of Broadway and just below 125th Street.

The building appears to be just another early 1900s apartment residence in the slightly askew neighborhood of Manhattanville—where the grid plan doesn’t necessarily hold and streets tend to have names based on early people and places in the area, not just numbers.

But see the doorway and first floor level: both are decorated with rich, blue-green terra cotta leaves interspersed with lion heads. On the second floor, geometric shapes between and above the windows give the building almost an Aztec or Mayan feel.

The ornamentation doesn’t end with the facade. Inside the front doorway are what look like terra cotta panels of great sailing ships and seagulls flying between them.

What’s with all the artistic trimmings? It might simply come from the imagination of the architect. The building was designed by Emery Roth, the man behind so many distinguished New York apartment buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Beresford and the San Remo on Central Park West and 2 Sutton Place.

Roth designed the building early in his career in 1909. When it opened that year, the six-story dwelling was called the Whitestone, and the address was 609 West 127th Street, per a newspaper advertisement reprinted in Eric K. Washington’s book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.

The ad described the Whitestone as “one of the richest ornaments to a neighborhood full of fine, high-class apartment houses.”

I wonder if the Whitestone’s colorful entryway with the ship images was inspired by the terra cotta plaques installed in many of the new subway stations of the decade.

Sailing ships were (and still are) a popular motif: the Columbus Circle stop features plaques of the Santa Maria; the Fulton Street Station downtown depicts Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont. The South Ferry station also has sailing ship plaques.

The plaques in the entryway likely made sense in 1909 (above, when the building opened). That’s the year the entire city turned out for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, honoring the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon navigating the river that bears his name, as well as the 100th anniversary of Fulton’s steamboat.

There’s another feature at the entrance that deserves a closer look: the two lantern-like lights flanking the front door. Why are they significant? It has to do with Daniel Tiemann (below), the Manhattanville industrialist this two-block street is named for.

Tiemann served as New York’s mayor from 1858 to 1860. Since Dutch colonial days, tradition had it that twin lanterns would be installed outside the front door of the mayor’s home.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Roth may have installed the lamps as a tribute to Tiemann and to a tradition kept up in the early 20th century—until Gracie Mansion became the official mayor’s residence in the 1940s.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, X2010.28.211; sixth photo: NYPL]

5 Remnants of the 19th century West Side village of Manhattanville

January 17, 2022

Think of Manhattan in the early 1800s as an urban center at the tip of the island surrounded by a collection of small countryside villages.

The city itself, with a population under 100,000, was concentrated below Canal Street. But a few miles up the Hudson River was sparsely populated Greenwich Village. Parts of today’s Upper West Side once formed the farming village of Bloomingdale. Harlem started off as a rural area in the 17th century as well.

Then there’s Manhattanville (below, at the top of the map). Founded in 1806 in a valley known as Harlem Cove, this former outpost 10 miles from the city was centered on today’s 125th Street and Broadway.

It’s not an accident that Manhattanville was founded here. In the early 19th century, this was the crossroads of Bloomingdale Road and Manhattan Street—two crucial arteries that connected residents to Harlem and the lower city. (Manhattan Street likely gave the village its name.)

“Building lots were being advertised for sale ‘principally to tradesmen’ in this enclave that already boasted a ‘handsome wharf,’ ‘convenient academy,’ and an ‘excellent school,'” according to a Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) report.

The village’s early population included mostly poor residents of British and Dutch descent, plus a small number of African Americans, per the HLC report. Decades later, Manhattanville would be better known as an industrial center and also an early transit hub.

“By the mid-1800s, this picturesque locale was the convergence of river, rail, and stage lines,” wrote Eric K. Washington in his book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. The first northbound passenger stop on the Hudson River Railroad was at Manhattanville, Washington wrote. (Below, the little white Manhattanville train depot, in front of an early building for Manhattan College.)

Manhattanville remains on the map and as a neighborhood name. But like other villages, it became part of the larger city in the early 20th century.

Still, bits and pieces of the old village exist. For starters, the streets are a little askew; they don’t always align with the official street grid laid out in 1811. Before crossing Amsterdam Avenue, 125th and 126th Streets (the former Lawrence Street) make hard turns and slant northwest toward the Hudson.

This charming nonconformity makes it possible to stand at the corner of 126th and 127th Streets or find yourself at the intersection of 125th and 129th Streets. It’s a little puzzling, but it reminds you of the life and activity in New York that predates the Commissioners Plan.

What else still exists of the former village? Probably the loveliest remnant is the yellow clapboard parish house for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. An outgrowth of St. Michael’s church in Bloomingdale, St. Mary’s was founded in 1823 for Manhattanville residents. (St. Mary’s was the first church in the city to do away with pew rentals, which was a common practice at the time.)

The original church was a simple white wood structure consecrated in 1826, replaced in 1908 by the current English Gothic-style church building. The yellow parish house, however, was built in 1851 and feels more country village than urban city.

St. Mary’s Church is the site of a more eerie piece of Old Manhattanville: a burial vault under the church porch containing the remains of one of the village’s founders, a man named Jacob Schieffelin (along with the remains of his wife and brother). Schieffelin donated the land on which St. Mary’s was built.

Schieffelin, a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, amassed his post-independence fortune as a wholesale druggist and mercantile owner. He was one of a handful of prominent New Yorkers who made up the founding families of Manhattanville.

Among them were the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, as well as Daniel F. Tiemann—who served as mayor of the city from 1858 to 1860 and owned D.F. Tiemann & Company Paint & Color Works, which moved to the village in 1832. The arrival of the paint factory helped turn Manhattanville into an industrial center powered by an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century.

On the same block of 126th Street is another hint of old Manhattanville: the Sheltering Arms Playground and Pool. The name comes from the Sheltering Arms, which took in children who were “rejected due to incurable illnesses, some were abandoned, and others were so-called ‘half-orphans,’ whose parents required temporary assistance while striving to overcome abject poverty or other adversities,” according to NYC Parks.

Finally, there’s the mysterious street known as Old Broadway, a slender unassuming strip that spans 125th to 129th Streets and then picks up again from 131st to 133rd Streets east of regular Broadway. It’s the last piece of Bloomingdale Road.

In the late 19th century, as urbanization arrived in Manhattanville, Bloomingdale Road was straightened and made part of regular Broadway, which became the main north-south thoroughfare. This leftover strip of Bloomingdale Road no longer served a purpose. Rather than de-mapping it entirely, it was renamed Old Broadway—a remnant of a village that’s now often referred to as West Harlem.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY, MNY29573; fourth image: NYPL; eighth image: Wikipedia]

An Impressionist artist captures the rural feel of early 1900s Upper Manhattan

December 27, 2021

Throughout his life, painter Ernest Lawson lived in many places. Born in Halifax in 1873, Lawson moved to New York at 18 to take classes at the Art Students League.

“High Bridge at Night, New York City”

Over the years he studied and worked in Connecticut, Paris, Colorado, Spain, New Mexico, and finally Florida, where his body was found on Miami Beach in 1939—possibly a homicide or suicide.

“Shadows, Spuyten Duyvil Hill”

But if there was one location that seemed to intrigue him, it was Upper Manhattan—the bridges and houses, the woods, rugged terrain, and of course, the rivers.

“Ice in the RIver”

From 1898 to about 1908, while fellow Ashcan School artists focused their attention on crowded sidewalks and gritty tenements, Lawson lived in sparsely populated Washington Heights, drawing out the rural beauty and charm of the last part of Manhattan to be subsumed into the cityscape.

“Boathouse, Winter, Harlem River”

“Less committed to social realism than his peers, his works are more remarkable for their treatment of color and light than their social relevance,” states the National Gallery of Canada.

“A House in the Snow, the Dyckman House”

Lawson’s Upper Manhattan is an enchanting, often romantic place, which he rendered in “thick impasto, strong outlines, and bold colors,” according to Artsy.com. His nocturnes reflect the seasonal beauty of still-extant spots like the High Bridge, Harlem River, Spuyten Duyvil, and the Dyckman Farmhouse (the last Dutch colonial-style farmhouse in Manhattan).

“The Harlem River (Rivershacks)”

Though one critic described him as “a painter of crushed jewels,” according to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), and another noted his “peculiar power of finding sensuous beauty in dreary places,” Lawson never found fame like Ashcan painters George Luks and John Sloan.

Portrait of Ernest Lawson by fellow Ashcan artist William Glackens

“Despite great acclaim from certain critics, Lawson remained under-appreciated in his lifetime, and was often depressed and struggling financially,” per PAFA. His name may not be well-known, but Lawson captured the mood and feel of Upper Manhattan’s landmarks and landscape just before urbanization arrived.

What happened to New York City’s 14th Avenue?

December 27, 2021

You know 12th Avenue in Manhattan, the Far West Side avenue that becomes the West Side Highway. And you may have heard of 13th Avenue, a short-lived thoroughfare built on landfill in the 1830s from 11th Street to about 25th Street that had a dreary, creepy vibe—based on photos and newspaper accounts.

But 14th Avenue in Manhattan? I’d never heard of it until I saw the 1860 Johnson’s Map of New York (above). In the uppermost part of Manhattan, at Tubby Hook and the railroad tracks that hug the Hudson River, there’s a small stretch marked “Fourteenth Avenue.”

Even stranger, 13th Avenue makes an appearance as well, running from about 168th Street to Spuyten Duyvil.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the map that laid out Manhattan’s street grid, says nothing about 14th Avenue. The last street on that map is 155th Street, and to the north are scattered place names (like Fort George and Kings Bridge) as well as the names of landowners.

There are a few mentions of 14th Avenue in newspaper archives, specifically when it comes to real estate transactions. In 1875, the New York Times noted that a plot from 214th to 215th Streets along 14th Avenue exchanged hands for $80,000.

Some other 19th century maps mark 14th Avenue, like the one above from 1879.

So why did 14th Avenue (and this slice of 13th Avenue) get de-mapped? Did the city decide it was too small to be an avenue, too insignificant at only 10 or so blocks long? Meanwhile, Tubby Hook is still on the map; even Google notes this spit of land jutting into the Hudson (below).

It likely has to do with Inwood Hill Park. Where 14th Avenue is marked on the 1860 map happens to be where Inwood Hill Park Calisthenics Park is today, right alongside the water. I don’t know when the Calisthenics Park opened, but Inwood Hill itself became an official city park in 1926.

A short avenue had no place inside Inwood Hill Park. As a result, 14th Avenue forever bit the dust.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: Google Maps]

Two mystery initials on a 125th Street building reveal a former department store

September 16, 2021

Sometimes the ghosts of New York City put clues about Gotham’s past right under your nose.

That’s what happened on a recent walk down busy 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. On an empty building partially hidden behind scaffolding and a blue tarp are two letters, entwined like a logo: KC.

The initials can be seen from the sidewalk, and they pose the question: What’s KC?

Turns out these initials stand for Koch & Co., a once-heralded department store with its roots in the city’s Gilded Age, when mass consumerism was born and the idea of shopping for leisure took hold.

Henry C.F. Koch, an immigrant from Germany, founded his eponymous emporium with his father-in-law in 1860, according to Walter Grutchfield. Their first store opened at Carmine and Bleecker Streets, then made the jump the Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in 1875.

At the time, the Sixth Avenue location put Koch & Co. squarely in New York’s burgeoning Ladies Mile Shopping District, which roughly spanned Broadway to Sixth Avenue and 10th Street to 23rd Street.

Koch & Co.’s competition on Ladies Mile would have been B. Altman’s on Sixth and 19th Street, Hugh O’Neill & Co. on Sixth and 21st, and Macy’s at Sixth and 14th Street. These and other department stores sold everything from fashion to furniture to food to women who were free to browse and buy without being accompanied by male escort, as was the usual custom at the time.

In 1892, perhaps taking note of population shifts and the elevated railroads that opened uptown Manhattan to residential development, Koch relocated his store to a new building at 125th Street.

“At that time the street was residential in nature, and H. C. F. Koch & Co. were pioneers in leading the changes that converted 125th St. into a shopping street,” Grutchfield wrote.

Koch & Co. certainly got good press. In a New York Times article from 1893, a reporter wrote: “The great store of H.C.F. Koch Co. in One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, is, par excellence, the emporium of the far uptown district, and consequently the announcement of its Fall opening is attracting thousands of buyers and seekers after the styles of the season.”

Still, it may have been hard at first to lure shoppers so far uptown, as this ad in The New York Times (above) from 1893 hints. Koch himself had moved to Lenox Avenue, and in 1900 he died, passing the business to his sons.

The department store continued until 1930, when it was bought out and closed. The stately building remains, with those CK initials and the name “Koch and Co” carved in stone high above the cornice.

[Third image: NYPL, 1936; fourth image: King’s Views of New York City, 1903; fifth image: New York Times, 1893]