Archive for the ‘Urban beauty’ Category

What tenement clotheslines said about New York

November 18, 2019

Rich New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t have to bother with clotheslines.

They had in-house staff laundresses who boiled their dirty clothes in machines, then set them to dry in sunlit or steam-heated rooms on the top floor of a townhouse or mansion.

Everyone else—especially tenement dwellers, who made up two-thirds of the city population in 1900—strung their garments and linens out on pulley-powered clotheslines.

For hours, shirts, pants, underwear, and bedsheets swayed loose in the breeze, a family’s intimate items exposed to the elements and to anyone who cared to see.

(As opposed to today, when most of us toss our dirty laundry in a machine, or haul it in a bag for the corner laundry to handle.)

The clotheslines were probably heaviest on Mondays, which traditionally was laundry day.

Washing clothes was hard enough in the days before apartments had hot running water. Instead, water had to be carried upstairs from a street or backyard pump and then boiled on the stove.

After smells and stains were scrubbed out with the hot water and soap, it was time to hang them up on the clothesline—a more arduous task than washing.

How laborious drying was depended a lot on what floor you occupied. If you lived on a high floor, you didn’t have to worry as much about the clothes dye dripping down from someone else’s laundry and ruining yours, or dust and dirt soiling your clothes all over again.

And if your window faced the back, you were in luck, because clotheslines hung in the back of the building like a web crisscrossing a courtyard or alley.

If you didn’t have a clothesline you could reach from your window, you had the option of drying your clothing on the roof. That required climbing more stairs and then keeping an eye on your garments, as clothes were often stolen, explained Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points.

While tenement clotheslines represented the domestic side of life and the desire for cleanliness in a notoriously filthy city, clotheslines served another surprising practical purpose: They could break the fall when a person accidentally tumbled out the window.

Newspapers are filled with these stories. “Her Life Saved by Clotheslines,” reads a front-page headline from the Evening World in May 1903.

“Margaret Igoe, 43 years old, fell from the fire escape on the fifth-floor of the tenement at No. 296 First Avenue this afternoon and was only slightly injured….That she was not killed is due to the fact that she fell through a network of clotheslines, which broke the force of her descent.”

Clotheslines also had an aesthetic appeal, especially after the turn of the century. Artists focused on them in paintings and photographs, using them as icons of life in the slums.

Maybe the order of the lines juxtaposed against the disarray of laundry inspired artists as well. Or perhaps the clothes hanging on laundry lines represented intimacy in an increasingly impersonal modern city.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, Berenice Abbott, 1936: “Court of First Model Tenement House in New York, 72nd Street and First Avenue, Manhattan”; third image: tenement on Mulberry Street, NYPL, 1873; fourth image: laundry over backyard outhouses, NYPL; fifth image: ad, MCNY, F2012.99.509, 1865-1915; sixth image: 1935, Arnold Eagle, MCNY, 43.131.11.264; seventh image: tenements under Tudor City, Samuel Gottscho, 1930-1933, MCNY 39.20.24]

The penthouse dwellers of early 1900s New York

March 18, 2019

Living in a New York penthouse is synonymous with wealth and luxury. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early 20th century, well-heeled New Yorkers began giving up their single-family mansions in favor of apartment living. But no one wanted to reside on or near the building roof, where smoke belched from chimneys and unsightly water tanks were constructed.

Instead, rooms and shack-like houses near or on the roof were given to servants, like these two New Yorkers, happily posing for photographer George Bain on top of an unidentified “skyscraper” apartment residence that city resident today would kill for.

When penthouses were rebranded for the elite in the 1920s, rooms for building staffers and servants were relocated to the lower floors.

13 stories of Art Nouveau beauty in Manhattan

March 13, 2017

The magnificent boulevards of Prague and Vienna are resplendent with Art Nouveau building facades, lobbies, and public transit entrances.

But the sinuous lines and naturalistic curves characteristic of this artistic style never caught on in turn-of-the-century New York, where architects seemed to prefer the stately Beaux Arts or more romantic Gothic Revival fashion.

It’s this rarity of Art Nouveau in Gotham that makes the 13-story edifice at 20 Vesey Street so spectacular.

Completed in 1907, this is the former headquarters for the New York Evening Post—the precursor to today’s New York Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton.

The building is across the street from the graveyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel off Broadway, a wonderful place to look up and linger.

Architect Robert D. Kohn designed the limestone structure with three rows of wavy windows and crowned it with a copper roof.

At the 10th floor, Kohn added a playful touch for a media company: four figures meant to represent the “Four Periods of Publicity“: the spoken word, the written word, the printed word, and the newspaper.

Note the “EP” insignia decorating the iron railings that link the four figures.

The Evening Post moved out in 1930, and today 20 Vesey is known as the Garrison Building, which houses a fairly typical mix of businesses behind its European-like facade.

Art Nouveau–inspired buildings are scattered in different pockets of New York, such as this former department store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

Plans for an Art Nouveau hotel around the corner on Church Street drawn up in 1908 by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, unfortunately, never panned out.

[Third photo, 1910, MCNY x2010.7.1.887]

A hidden magical garden behind the FDR Drive

November 28, 2016

Considering the density of its streets, New York is a city with a surprising number of hidden gardens: some in churchyards, others created on empty lots, and some designed to mask garages and other unpretty structures.

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But few of these green spaces are as hard to get to as the quarter-acre oasis between the FDR Drive and First Avenue, behind the cluster of buildings that make up Bellevue Hospital Center.

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It’s the Bellevue Sobriety Garden, a strangely magical place that mixes sculpture, trees, flowers, mosaics, doll parts, cement, and foliage.

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Started by a Bellevue psychiatrist in 1989 and tended to by recovering addicts in the hospital’s Chemical Recovery Program, this isn’t your typical serene green space.

You won’t find many tourists or crowds here; it’s accessible via a lonely stretch of 26th Street beyond First Avenue or from an FDR Drive off ramp. And it’s not a landscaped masterpiece; grass can be patchy, and it has a wild, overgrown look to it.

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But that’s all part of its whimsical and imaginative charm, a garden straight out of an artist’s fairy tale. It’s not exactly a secret, but if you visit, you’ll feel like you stumbled into a New York you never knew.

The entrance, flanked by enormous statues and pieces of old buildings, welcomes visitors while encouraging them not to steal the veggies and fruits grown here in warmer months.

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Slender cobblestone paths take you past patches of flowers to benches, trellises, a wooden bridge, and a tiny gingerbread-like house. Along the way you’ll walk past mosaics and sculptures of sheep, dogs, pigs, and a snake.

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Take a walk through it, and you’ll forget about the parking lot next door and the roaring traffic on the FDR Drive.

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Back in 2014, someone came in and vandalized the garden, defacing its statues. By the looks of things now, on a warmish autumn day, everything seems back in order—a peaceful and magical respite not very accessible to the average New Yorker.

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.

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With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.

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More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.

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“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.

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“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

“Victory gardens” bloom across the 1940s city

March 14, 2016

One was planted on Park Avenue. Another bloomed on the grounds of the magnificent Schwab mansion on Riverside Drive. A third sprouted in Midtown in the shadow of the Chrysler Building.

Others were tended to in empty lots on Ludlow Street (above), on Upper East Side apartment terraces, and in the open spaces of Brooklyn and Queens.

These victory gardens, as they were called, grew out of a national push during World War II to help ease food shortages in the states, as so much food from America was going to soldiers abroad and our allies.

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New Yorkers answered the call. After the program began in 1943, the city had approximately 400,000 victory gardens, which sprouted up on 600 acres of private land.

The biggest crop: tomatoes, followed by beans, beets, carrots, lettuce, and Swiss chard.

VGjohnalbokrockcenter1943An astonishing 200 million pounds of vegetables were cultivated, according to Amy Bentley and Daniel Bowman Simon, who wrote about victory gardens in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lovers Companion to New York City.

Victory gardens were mostly about food. But they had a civic function as well, rallying communities to work together to aid the war effort.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia even announcing that one would be started on Rikers Island.

VGschwabmansion“We have a lot of space there and a lot of guests too, and we won’t need machinery, because we can make them work,” he cheekily told the New York Times.

Experienced gardeners lent a hand showing urban green thumbs the ropes. “New York University, Columbia University, and the New School all offered courses on Victory Gardening, wrote Bentley and Simon.

Department stores like Macy’s opened gardening centers that held lectures, sold seeds, and even offered war bonds to gardeners who produced bumper crops.

When the war ended, the mini-farms appeared to have been left untended. Of course, they weren’t the last urban gardens to pop up in the city.

But with real estate values sky-high, it might be a long time before we ever see vegetables growing on Manhattan avenues again.

Snow lions flank the New York Public Library

January 11, 2016

In December 1948, a blizzard (remember those?) covered New York in almost 20 inches of white powder. An army of more than 18,000 men shoveled and plowed the snow as it fell all night.

They must have done a good job, because incredibly, city schools were all open the next morning.

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But they didn’t clear away the snow from the two library lions, Patience and Fortitude, who have been guarding the main entrance of the New York Public Library since 1911.

They look lovely blanketed in snow.

One photographer’s abstract, shadowy New York

September 8, 2014

Some photographers turn their cameras to the faces of people, capturing depth and unguarded emotion in human expression and behavior.

Alvin Langdon Coburn found quiet, abstract beauty in the light and shadows of the landscape of turn of the century New York City.

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[“The Coal Cart,” 1911]

Born in 1882 in Boston, Coburn received his first Kodak as a child in 1890. Infatuated with this relatively new medium, he learned the craft and experimented in the darkroom.

In his 20s, he traveled to New York City and Europe to study with greats such as Edward Steichen. Like leading photographers Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, Coburn was part of the Pictorialist movement.

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[“The Octopus,” 1912, taken from the top of the Met Life Tower in Madison Square Park]

Pictorialists “argued that photography was a creative art form, on a par with other visual arts including painting, and not simply a mechanical means of objectively recording the world,” states this post from amateurphotographer.co.uk.

“They used a wide variety of techniques to express emotion and mood, and were particularly known for producing atmospheric, soft-focus portraits and landscapes.”

[“Fifth Avenue From the St. Regis,” 1913]

Coburn exhibited photos in galleries and was commissioned to do portraits of notable men of the era, such as George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. Soon, his work took a more abstract turn.

“Like many photographers associated with Stieglitz, Coburn by 1910 sought to shed the romanticism of the pictorial movement and bring photography more in step with abstract painting and sculpture,” states the National Gallery of Art website.

“He made photographs looking down from the tops of tall buildings to explore the use of flattened perspective and geometric patterning. During World War I he became involved with the Vorticists, a group of British artists, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, who sought to construct a dynamic visual language as abstract as music.”

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[“Broadway at Night,” 1905]

“As a photographer of cities and landscapes (1903–10), he concentrated on mood, striving for broad effects and atmosphere in his photographs rather than clear delineation of tones and sharp rendition of detail,” states MOMA.

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[“Flatiron Building,” 1912]

“He was influenced by the work of Japanese painters, which he referred to as the ‘style of simplification.’ He considered simple things to be the most profound,” continues the MOMA website.

AlvinlangdoncoburnselfportraitCoburn didn’t stay in New York long. He moved permanently to the UK in 1912.

By 1918 he had given up photography professionally, devoting the rest of his life to the study of mysticism and the occult.

He died in Wales in 1966, leaving a legacy of enchanting images of the New York of a century ago: the soft glow of early electric lights, 22-story skyscrapers casting monstrous shadows over parks and sidewalks, and the presence of powerful machinery interrupting the serene beauty of nighttime streets.

[Right: self-portrait, 1905]

A golden goddess topping Madison Square Garden

September 2, 2014

She was the second statue of Diana to grace the top of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, the sportsman’s playground with the glamorous roof garden that opened in 1890 on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

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But this figure of the gilded goddess was the most famous, a 13-foot huntress who balanced on one toe aiming a bow and arrow for 32 years.

Illuminated at night by electricity, her slender form, the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, could be seen as far away as New Jersey.

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And it goes without saying that her nudity offended some New Yorkers, particularly Anthony Comstock, head of the self-created New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Newyorksocietysuppressionvicelogo“The naked figure immediately caused outrage in some, and delight in others; it became known as the Statue That Offended New York,” states Atlas Obscura. “Critics led by the moralizing Anthony Comstock demanded it be taken down, whilst others flocked to see the sensuous Diana, glittering in the sunlight.”

To shush the critics, White had Saint-Gaudens drape a pennant over the statue to obscure Diana’s private parts. It quickly blew off in the wind, much to White’s delight.

DiananytDiana scandalized some residents, and she was witness to a scandalous murder on the roof in June 1906.

That’s when White was shot dead by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. White had carried on a relationship with Nesbit since she was 16.

In 1924, Madison Square Garden was set to be demolished. Diana’s fate was hotly debated.

Some wanted her to grace the Municipal Building; others thought she should go atop the New York Life tower, which was replacing the Garden.

Where did she end up? In storage for six years, and then the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she greets visitors in the entrance hall to this day.

Hidden waterfalls in the tiny parks of Turtle Bay

August 25, 2014

New York has lots of lovely pocket parks that offer a hideaway from urban life.

But the stretch of East Midtown known by its wonderfully pastoral 17th century name, Turtle Bay, seems to have more of these patches of green than other neighborhoods.

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Even better, many of these parks have cascading waterfalls that drown out urban noise and heat and leaves us feeling calm and soothed. No need to head to Central Park for a waterfall fix—these do the trick.

Paley Park (top photo), on 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues (not technically Turtle Bay but close) has a back-lit waterfall, along with ivy-covered walls and locust trees. Financed by a foundation set up by William Paley, former chairman of CBS, it’s attracted quiet crowds since 1967.

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Carved out of a space surrounded by modern apartment buildings and old-school tenements is Greenacre Park, above, created by a foundation organized by a Rockefeller family member in 1971.

The park is designed to be such a break from urban life, photography isn’t allowed (but no one will stop you from taking pictures from the street).

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If the park with this circular wall of water has a name, I missed it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in the blue-purple house, with the sight and sound of falling water accessible from your terrace?

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Across the street from the United Nations on 47th Street and First Avenue is lush, secluded St. Mary’s Garden, part of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church.

It’s hard to see the benches and walkways along the sides, as well as the small waterfall that feeds into the pond on the left.