Archive for the ‘Upper West Side/Morningside Hts’ Category

Vintage signs from 1960s and 1970s New York

October 5, 2015

They’re an endangered species, these 1960s and 1970s store signs, with their old-school cursive lettering and often sporting a kaleidoscope of colors.


The sign for Murray’s Sturgeon Shop is a gorgeous example.

Short, sweet, and stylized, the sign looks very 1960s, though Murray’s has been in the smoked fish business on Broadway and 89th Street since 1946.


The Weinstein & Holtzman Hardware sign bursts with magnificent color on Park Row near City Hall. They’ve been selling paint and tools sine 1920.

Hardware stores all over New York have some wonderful vintage signs.

I can’t find any information on when Truemart Discount Fabrics, on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street, opened.


But that old-school sign! It’s a relic of lower Seventh Avenue’s low-rent past, influenced by the Fashion Institute of Technology across the street.


The sign for Anthony Liquors, Inc. on Spring Street in Nolita isn’t splashy, but the typeface is unique. I wonder if other store signs in what once was Little Italy had the same type.


I’ve always liked the sturdy, simple sign for John’s Shoe Repair on Irving Place, and the confident line underscoring the name John, done in script.

I hope they can keep going in a city that doesn’t have much use for neighborhood shoe repair places.

Bits of Medieval France in the Joan of Arc statue

September 21, 2015

Jeanne d'ArcThe heroic, life-size bronze of Joan of Arc at 93rd Street and Riverside Park was created a century ago by a group of prominent city residents who wanted to commemorate the Maid of Orleans’ 500th birthday.

And incredibly, it was the first statue in the city that honored a real, nonfictional woman (as opposed to the Statue of Liberty or Mother Goose).


But this monument to a Medieval martyr is distinguished and remarkable in other ways as well.

JoanofarcparksdeptSculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington sought to show not a warrior but a spiritual girl whose mission to defeat the British was inspired by the voices of saints.

“Well, the whole idea was that I remember reading before she went into battle she had acquired a new sword,” Huntington later explained.

“And when she went into battle, she unconsciously raised it to heaven to ask the blessing of the Lord on it before she went into battle.”

To invoke Medieval France, architect John Van Pelt made a granite base that contains actual stones from the cathedral in Rheims, where King Charles (who supported Joan’s fight before abandoning her) was crowned.

JoanofarcinscriptionHe also incorporated real limestone blocks from the Tower of Rouen, where Joan was imprisoned and tried for heresy and witchcraft before being burned at the stake.

“On December 6, 1915, the sculpture was unveiled in an elaborate ceremony, which included a military band and French Ambassador Jean J. Jusserand,” states

JoanofarcdedicationThat Jusserand (left, at the ceremony, with Mrs. Edison) made it to the ceremony is impressive, considering that France was embroiled in the Great War at the time.

In front of a crowd of about 1,000, Thomas Edison’s wife unveiled the statue—a symbol of solidarity among America and France and one of the finest city sculptures.

Joan of Arc’s name lends itself to numerous city buildings—like these “French Flats” on 14th Street and this women’s hotel in Chelsea, formerly known as a home for “friendless French girls.”

[Second photo:]

An 1843 orphanage behind a Manhattan cathedral

August 24, 2015

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—begun in 1892 and still unfinished—is one of the city’s most magnificent houses of worship, occupying 13 acres on a plateau on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street.


But there’s a building on the cathedral grounds that predates St. John’s by 49 years and stands as a reminder of how 19th century New York handled parentless or unwanted children.

LeakeandwattspamphletThe lovely building is the former home of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843 when this part of Manhattan was wide open countryside.

Leake and Watts cared for “full orphans, between the ages of three and twelve years,” according to the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City.

The orphanage was founded by wealthy lawyer John Leake, who died in 1827 with no heirs. He left his fortune to a good friend’s son, Robert Watts, on the condition that he either adopt the surname Leake, or forfeit the money so it could be used to open an orphan asylum.

Watts died before he could inherit the fortune, however, so the orphanage got the go-ahead.


At its opening, the orphanage housed 60 boys, and soon girls were cared for there as well.

Leakeandwattscathedral1900“Here the institution cares for homeless and friendless orphans, educating them and, at the age of 14, finding Christian homes for them,” states King’s Handbook.

After four decades in the open country of Morningside Heights, Leake and Watts sold their land to the trustees who planned to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Leake and Watts moved their orphanage to Yonkers, abandoning the Greek Revival-style building with its impressive Ionic columns.

LeakeandwattscathedralOne wing was sheared off in the 1950s, but the Ithiel Town Building—named after its architect, who also designed Federal Hall downtown and St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street—still remains.

It’s a link to the city’s institutional past, when orphanages abounded and were considered a humane alternative to turning unwanted and homeless kids out into the street. [Fourth image: MCNY Collections Portal, 1900]

What if the West Side Airport had been built?

June 29, 2015

Imagine if the entire stretch of Manhattan from West 34th Street to West 79th Street from Broadway to the Hudson River was an enormous airport runway.


It could have happened in 1946—if flamboyant real estate developer William Zeckendorf had his way.

That’s when Zeckendorf unveiled plans for his West Side Airport, the city’s “dream” airport that would obliterate Midtown West and part of the Upper West Side.


Handling 68 domestic commercial flights per hour, “the sprawling terminal, in effect, would bring air service right to the heart of New York City and eliminate the necessity of limousine travel to and from existing airports which are 10 miles outside the business districts,” states a May 1946 Life article.


“[Zeckendorf’s] plan included the building of thirty-five 10-story buildings for industrial purposes, terminals for buses and trucks, commercial and freight railroad lines, and an airport standing above the buildings and streets on a sizable deck,” states one book on urban renewal.

WestsideairportinsideIt’s not exactly a surprise that the airport idea died a quick death. Though Zeckendorf was a successful developer who helped piece together land to build the United Nations, some of his other ideas—a 102-story tower on top of Grand Central terminal, a boulevard of apartment houses on 42nd Street leading to the U.N.—also tanked.

They join so many other ideas for New York City that also never made it past the planning stage, such as a speedway in Central Park, a 100-story housing development in Harlem, and moving sidewalks to whisk pedestrians to their destinations.

[Photos: Life]

The reason Morningside Park became a park

May 18, 2015

Morningside Park became a park for one inconvenient reason: 19th century park administrators believed the craggy peaks of Manhattan schist were too steep and rugged for the city to pave over.


“In 1867 Andrew Haswell Green, Commissioner and Comptroller of Central Park, recommended that a park be located in Morningside Heights. He argued that it would be ‘very expensive’ and ‘very inconvenient’ to extend the Manhattan street grid over the area’s severe topography,” states

Opened in the 1880s, Morningside still has a Victorian-era feel. Too bad St. Luke’s Hospital building no longer rises high over the park as it does in this circa-1900 postcard.

An apartment house evokes “memories of Paris”

May 4, 2015

Dorilton1902architecturalreviewWhen the Dorilton opened in 1902, the 12-story Beaux-Arts building at Broadway and 71st Street was one of many grand apartment houses designed to take advantage of all the new Upper West Side residents the coming subway system would bring.

With its curvy mansard roof and enormous arched entryway, it caught the eye of architectural critics, who generally loathed its florid, ostentatious details.

“[The Dorilton] was criticized as an ‘architectural aberration’ because of its grandiose scale and overly lavish ornament,” states Gwendolyn Wright’s Building the Dream.


But that didn’t stop people from moving in. Consider the amenities: filtered water, free electricity, separate servant and passenger elevators, soundproof walls and windows, and long-distance telephone service and refrigerators in every apartment.

DoriltonfloorplansnyplThere was even a charger for the electric automobiles hitting the streets at the time.

If flamboyant ornamentation is your thing, then the Dorilton is a dream. The iron gates at the limestone entryway look like they belong in a European palace.

And don’t forget the sculptures on the Broadway side, “two greater than life size female figures whose handsome draped clothing enhances the motion expressed in their bodies,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The Dorilton wasn’t one of the few luxury buildings on Upper Broadway for much longer. But as the neighborhood declined after World War II, so did the Dorilton, with pieces of the cornices and other details falling off.

DoriltonupperfloorscloseupAfter it was landmarked in 1974—with the Landmarks Preservation Committee report describing it as evoking “memories of Paris”—the Dorilton rebounded, undergoing a renovation to return it to its glory.

Today, this “aberration,” as it was called, has some of the most sought-after co-op apartments in the city. And its pull-out-all-the-stops ornamental beauty stops pedestrians in their tracks.


[Top photo: Architectural Review; third, NYPL; fourth: Wikipedia]

Holdout buildings that survived the bulldozer

February 16, 2015

They’re the survivors of New York City real estate—the walkups and low-rise buildings now dwarfed by shiny office towers and more contemporary residences.


Each building probably has a different backstory that explains how the wrecking ball was avoided.

Maybe an owner refused to sell for sentimental reasons. This lovely Greenwich Village brownstone, sandwiched between two tall apartment houses above, looks like it could have been one person’s longtime romantic hideaway.


Or perhaps an owner tried to hold out for a bigger offer, until a developer realized it wasn’t worth the payout anyway. That might have been in the case of this one-story space wedged between a 19th century tenement and 21st century box on Tenth Avenue.


And thanks to real estate rules governing landmark structures and historic districts, some of these buildings probably couldn’t be torn down, like the gorgeous carriage house on a Gramercy side street.


It’s hard not to root for these underdogs. This ivy-covered walkup on East 60th Street gives bustling 59th Street near Bloomingdale’s the feel of a smaller-scale city.


Doesn’t this stately red townhouse do a good job breaking up the monotony of a block of Murray Hill terraced high-rise apartment buildings?


I can’t be the only New Yorker happy to see a Gilded Age limestone mansion holding its own in the middle of a stately Upper West Side block.

New York City’s “open-air” schools for sick kids

September 13, 2014

Despite advances in sanitation, New York City at the cusp of the 20th century was a breeding ground for illness, especially in the city’s crowded downtown slums.

Trash- and manure-filled streets combined with dark, dank tenements enabled the spread of a host of communicable illnesses, with tuberculosis among the most dreaded.

Outdoorschooljacobriis1910mcnySo education officials launched an unusual type of school for children thought to have or be predisposed to the White Plague: outside classrooms.

Holding class outside, or in an unheated indoor area with all the windows wide open, meant exposure to fresh air and light, and both were thought to combat tuberculosis.

The idea came from a German “open air” school started in 1904. Other cities adopted them, and New York’s first outdoors school launched in 1908 on an abandoned ferry.

Over the next few years, other outdoors schools opened their doors to tuberculosis kids, malnourished kids, even kids described as “nervous, irritable, or anemic.”

One school was located on Carmine Street, on top of a public baths building. Another opened at Public School 33 (which may have been on West 28th Street).


Horace Mann, the private school then in Morningside Heights, also started a rooftop school, described as “closed on three sides only, the south side being entirely open with a drop curtain to close that side in time of storm,” explains a 1914 report.

Outdoorschoolsittingoutbagbeals“The floors are made of wood. Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary in exceptional cases.”

Kids handled the bracing weather by wrapping themselves in “sitting out bags” (right).

Well-meaning as it was, this educational movement apparently died out quickly. In 1914, the medical director of New York City’s open-air schools came out against them, citing bad weather and the expense of building truly stable structures on the roof.

“With the changeable climate of New York City, and the extremely raw weather in the winter, I am distinctly in favor of keeping classes within buildings,” he says in this 1918 book on open-air schools.


[Top three photos: Jacob Riis, 1910, MCNY Collections Portal; fourth photo: Jessie Tarbox Beals, Library of Congress; fifth photo: PS 51 “anemic classes” from the Library of Congress]

A Riverside Park Holocaust memorial never built

August 18, 2014

Riverside84thstsign“On Sunday, October 19, 1947, fifteen thousand people gathered in the rain to witness the dedication of the site for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial in Riverside Park,” wrote Wayne Jebian in the Columbia Journal of American Studies in 1995.

On that gray day, Mayor O’Dwyer spoke; Jewish leaders and 100 survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau appeared at the ceremony.

RiversideparkmemorialnytThe stone plaque placed in the ground was supposed to be the cornerstone of a larger Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, one of the first Holocaust monuments planned in the United States.

But it was never built, and 67 years later, the cornerstone and the plaza surrounding it have become the memorial.

Considering that the postwar Upper West Side was home to many concentration camp survivors and Jews who fled war-torn Europe, what happened?

“Over several decades sculpture proposals for this location were submitted by Jo Davidson, Percival Goodman, Ivan Mestrovic, and Erich Mendelsohn and Nathan Rapoport, among others, but none received funding,” states the NYC Parks Department website.


That’s because city officials in charge of approving sculptural monuments rejected the proposals as “too ugly, too depressing or too distracting for drivers on the West Side Highway,” wrote The New York Times in 1993.

One sculpture that did get city approval. “On June 17, 1951, the New York City Art Commission unanimously backed the design by Mendelsohn and Yugoslav sculptor Mestrovic,” wrote


“The sculpture was to be of an eighty-foot pylon of two tablets on which the Ten Commandments would be inscribed, a 100-foot wall of bas-relief depicting humankind’s struggle to fulfill the Commandments, and a giant carving of Moses. When Mendelsohn died in 1953, the momentum seemed to die with him.”

The idea for a memorial was scrapped in the 1960s. These days, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is commemorated every April at the cornerstone, the Upper West Side’s de facto public Holocaust monument.

How Columbus Circle almost became Hearst Plaza

July 28, 2014

For miles up Broadway, New York pays tribute to its greatest newspaper and media figures, from Newspaper Row near City Hall to Herald Square, Greeley Square, and Times Square.


William Randolph Hearst (right) must have realized this after he came to town in the 1890s.

HearstbuildingAlready a San Fransisco newspaper baron, he arrived to take over the New York Journal and build a media empire here too.

But waging war with against other papers with his sensationalist journalism wasn’t enough. He also began buying real estate at sparsely populated Columbus Circle, near the New York Journal offices (at left, in 1912).

His intention: to add to the map of the city something called “Hearst Plaza,” which would be the headquarters for his growing company and would rival Herald Square and Times Square in size and prestige.

Williamrandolphhearst“William Randolph Heart envisioned a headquarters building as early as 1895, and began purchasing huge amounts of property—in and around 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Columbus Circle area,” states the Hearst Corporation website.

He finally broke ground for a Hearst headquarters building on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue in the 1920s.

“The selection of this site was directly related to the commercial and cultural development in the Columbus Circle area and to Hearst’s intention to establish Hearst Plaza in the area.”

HearsttowerThe headquarters (above), a six-story Art Deco beauty with allegorical figures representing art and culture, opened in 1928.

But what happened to the great plans to turn Columbus Circle into a monument to his empire?

The Depression hit, and then World War II, both of which made a huge dent in the Hearst Corporation’s bottom line.

Columbus Circle didn’t need the Hearst name to thrive; it went on to become a bustling commercial center and gateway to the Upper West Side.

Hearst headquarters was built to support a skyscraper on top, in anticipation of the development of Hearst Plaza.

Newyorkjournal1898Yet wasn’t until 2006 when a skyscraper was actually completed there—the glass trapezoidal Hearst Tower (above).

Hearst did make one other contribution to Columbus Circle: he made the call for funds to build the Maine Monument, completed in 1913, honoring the battleship that exploded in 1898 off Cuba.


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