Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

Before a playground came to Bleecker Street

August 26, 2016

Our local parks and playgrounds become such neighborhood fixtures, it’s difficult to imagine that they weren’t always part of the cityscape.

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That’s why it’s so jarring to see this 1959 photo of the junction of Bank, Bleecker, and Hudson Streets—but no Bleecker Playground, the cheery place of swings and sand always crowded with happy kids and captive parents.

Anchoring that corner in the early 20th century was the formidable Henry I. Stetler brick warehouse. (Beside it is a bandstand-turned-comfort station.) It fits right into the far West Village of the time, an area of warehouses and light industry.

Bleeckerstreetplayground2910jonathankuhn

In 1927, a spectacular fire raged through the Stetler warehouse, injuring dozens of firefighters and causing the city to condemn the building. A changing West Village came up with a reason to raze it in the 1950s.

Bleeckerplaygroundsignwallygobetzflickr“In 1959, demand for a safe play space for neighborhood children prodded the city to acquire the Stetler Warehouse south of historic Abingdon Square to make way for a playground, the first in the area,” states nycgovparks.org.

Seven years later, Bleecker Playground opened (above, in 2010, and at right). It feels like it’s been in the neighborhood far longer.

[Top photo: New York City Parks Photo Archive; second photo: Jonathan Kuhn via New York City Parks Photo Archive; third photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr]

A curious detective agency sign on Ninth Street

August 22, 2016

Appearing on the facade of Randall House, an apartment building at 63 East Ninth Street, is this very noir-ish and mysterious sign.

Burnsdetectiveagencysign

It’s for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. Who was William J. Burns? Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Burns started out as a Secret Service Agent and then became head of the FBI in the 1920s before founding his own detective agency.

“His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published ‘true’ crime stories based on his exploits,” states the FBI website.

It’s still a mystery why this sign is on Randall House—an otherwise ordinary residential building in Greenwich Village. As far as I know, it’s the only sign of its kind in New York City.

The 1852 stable-turned-synagogue in the Village

August 12, 2016

In a neighborhood filled with architectural anomalies, the little house with the front yard at 11 East 11th Street has a curious 164-year history. In that time, it went from stable to brothel to garage to private home before becoming a synagogue half a century ago.

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First things first. The house was built in 1852 as a carriage house for George Wood, a wealthy lawyer who that same year constructed a stately mansion next door at 45 Fifth Avenue.

11east11thstreetsideIn that antebellum era, lower Fifth Avenue was a cream-of-the-crop street lined with freestanding mansions.

The families who occupied these impressive homes needed places to keep their horses, so they put up stables nearby set back from the road with a front yard for hitching.

The 19th century went on, and the richest residents moved northward. By the 1860s, Wood’s former carriage house had become a “disorderly house” raided a few times by the police, reported New York Times.

11east11thstreetnytjuly211867At the century’s end, development changed the face of lower Fifth Avenue. Most of the grand mansions were remodeled or replaced by apartment residences; the carriage houses were demolished.

Yet Wood’s stable, with its tidy front yard, survived. With the arrival of the automobile era, it was turned into a garage with a loft, reported the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

11east11thstnypl195111 East 11th Street “now has window arrangements typical of the 1920s,” the GVSHP wrote.”It has been roughcast in stucco with diamond-shaped tile patterns set in the parapet, which is crowned by a stone coping stepped up at the ends above small, square blocks.”

In the next decades, the little house served as a private residence and a “light protector” for the bigger Van Rensselaer Hotel next door.

In 1959, the Conservative Congregation of Fifth Avenue—which had been holding services in a hotel—made the former stable with the ginko tree out front its synagogue.

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This year, looks like the house and property have been approved for a renovatation.

[Newspaper article: NYT July 21, 1867; fourth photo: 1951, NYPL]

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.

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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.

Washington Square Park’s first, forgotten arch

August 4, 2016

Modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the white marble arch that marks the Fifth Avenue entrance of Washington Square has been an icon of Greenwich Village since it was dedicated in 1895.

Washington Square Arch

As recognizable as it is, it’s not the original arch built six years earlier to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s presidential inauguration.

Washingtonarcholdcentennial1889mcnyThat first arch (above, in 1890), made of wood and plaster, was meant to be temporary.

It was also a sneaky way for residents of still-posh Washington Square North to make sure that citywide festivities made it down to their neck of Manhattan.

“To ensure that the Centennial parades would pass near the historic park named for the president, William Rhinelander Stewart of 17 Washington Square North commissioned the architect Stanford White to design a temporary triumphal arch for the occasion,” states the website for the Washington Square Park Conservatory.

 Stewart, born and raised in Greenwich Village, was a scion of old New York, a philanthropist from a rich family with major real-estate holdings along Washington Square North (below; number 17 is on the left).

To finance the arch, however, he appealed to friends and neighbors, collecting $2,765 from them.

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“Straddling lower Fifth Avenue a half block north of the park, bedecked with flags and topped by an early wooden statue of Washington, White’s papier-mache and white plaster arch was a sensation,” continued Washington Square Park Conservatory.

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At the end of the centennial (see the processions in the second photo), White scored a commission to design a permanent arch in marble that would be built at the entrance to the park.

 That’s the Beaux Arts beauty recognized for 121 years as a symbol of glory and art.

[Photos: MCNY; “Wet Night in Washington Square,” John Sloan, 1928; Delaware Art Museum]

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.

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Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.

Stlukesplace11to131900mcny

Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.

Stlukes15to17

St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]

The mystery of these Washington Place fire relics

July 18, 2016

On a quiet walk down Washington Place just east of Sheridan Square, some unusual symbols came into view.

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Three of the lovely Federal-style 1830s townhouses on the south side of the street had small plaques on their facades, each with a different image and letters.

FiremarkFAhoseOne featured an eagle and the words “Eagle Hose No. 2.” Another depicted what looked like a fire pump steam engine. A third had a hose attached to a barrel and the initials F.A.

What was all this fire imagery about? These Fire marks, as they’re officially called, were produced by fire insurance companies in the 19th century.

“Possibly the latter day reader never heard of a fire mark, but they could be found on the front of many buildings in the city before 1870,” explains a 1928 New York Times article.

Firemarkeaglehoseno2“Those were the days of the volunteer fire department, and the fire marks were posted by insurance companies to make known that a reward was ready for the firemen should they save the building from destruction by flames.”

“The fire mark might be a symbol cut in stone, a cabalistic iron letter or some other design of metal,” continued the Times.

Fire marks had other uses, like serving as advertising for insurance companies. They may also have “minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job.”

FiremarkenginepumpIf firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire,” states nycfiremuseum.org.

Plus, “a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.”

Fire marks began disappearing after 1865, when the city’s 124 volunteer engine companies, hose companies, and hook and ladder companies were replaced by the professional (and paid) Metropolitan Fire Department—which was supposed to fight fires without regard to whether the property was insured or not.

firemarkvolunteerfirefighterThey became collectors’ items in the 20th century. “There are still a few of these fire marks embedded in the walls of byways of the old city,” wrote the Times in 1928. “Yet the extent of rebuilding on Manhattan Island must soon sweep them away.”

Were these fire marks bought at antique shops and affixed to the facades by later homeowners to give their townhouses more authenticity?

One owner I spoke to on Washington Place, who offered some backstory on these relics, believes they were put up in the 19th century.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe NYC Fire Museum maintains a photo gallery of fire marks to browse and terrific images, like this Currier & Ives depiction of a volunteer fireman in the mid-1800s.

[Many thanks to Washington Place townhouse owner and enthusiast R.R. for filling me in on the history of these remnants of 19th century New York City.]

For more about the early days of Gotham’s professional firefighters, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available for preorder now and in bookstores September 27.]

A sign of a 1920s speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

July 18, 2016

When these walkup buildings on Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street went up in the 1830s, they may have looked more alike.

Speakeasysixthave

Over time, however, things change: facades are altered, paint goes up, and cornices are chopped (or crumble) down.

SpeakeasytalesofthejazzageBut the altered facade at number 359, the red building on the right, is drastic: the three second-story windows have been bricked in and painted over.

What did the proprietors of 359 Sixth Avenue have to hide? Booze.

This was the secret second floor (or half floor, according to one account) speakeasy called the Red Head, one of probably hundreds that popped up in Village basements and back rooms after Prohibition.

A second wooden door (below) past the front door led to the speakeasy, reported Westviewnews.org.

Launched in 1922 by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns as a way to pay their college tuition, the Red Head disguised itself as a tea house and served alcohol in teacups, according to Savoring Gotham: a Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Speakeasyredheaddoor“The Red Head became a favorite drinking spot for the ‘flaming youth’ made famous that year by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the club’s regulars, in his book of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age,” wrote Donald L. Miller in Supreme  City.

Kriendler and Berns kept their speak in business thanks to Tammany Hall protection money and a constant flow of college kids and celebrities like Dorothy Parker.

No party lasts forever. In 1925, Kriendler and Berns shut down the Red Head and opened a speakeasy called the Fronton at 88 Washington Place.

They then moved up to Midtown, settling in at 21 West 52nd Street. After Repeal it became the 21 Club, where drinks still flow to this day.

The globe and quill in the Meatpacking District

July 14, 2016

Who would build the headquarters of a publishing company on far West 13th Street at the turn of the century—amid the warehouses and cold storage spaces of what was then the center of New York’s produce, meat, and dairy markets?

Colliersbuildingglassdoor

Peter Collier did. Collier was the founder of popular Collier’s magazine, which covered “fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humor, and news” and ran some noteworthy authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and groundbreaking muckraking pieces too.

Collierscover1921Collier put his company offices and printing plant (he published books too) in this neoclassical building at 416-424 West 13th Street, constructed from 1901 to 1902.

West 13th Street here was Astor-owned land, and Collier’s son was married to an Astor daughter.

In the 1920s, 700 people worked in the company headquarters (including e.e. cummings), cranking out thousands of books and periodicals a day.

But the Collier company decamped from the building in 1929. It did turns as a General Electric warehouse, girdle factory, and moving company home base.

Collierslogo

More than a century later, in the revived and revamped Meatpacking District, Collier’s stately and inspiring globe logo, flanked by a quill pen and fountain pen and topped by a torch, represent a very different West 13th Street.

[Top image: Glassdoor.com]

The mystery of a Tammany Hall “good fellow”

July 14, 2016

MurrayHallSmithsonianmagimageBy all accounts, Murray Hall (at left) was a typical Gilded Age politico affiliated with Tammany Hall, the city’s corrupt Democratic political machine.

Hall, who worked as a bail bondsman for Jefferson Market Police Court and lived at 453 Sixth Avenue (below) with his second wife and daughter, was captain of his election district.

He voted the party line, worked the polls on election nights, and wasn’t above securing political gigs for friends who had proven their Tammany loyalty.

Hall was was considered a “man about town,” a bon vivant who drank whiskey, smoked cigars, and played poker with the city’s bigwigs.

And during his entire 25-year Tammany career, no one had any idea that Murray Hall was actually female.

Murrayhallhousesixthavenue

“Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men,” blared the New York Times on January 19, 1901. This was shortly after Hall’s death, when his secret had finally gotten out.

Murrrayhallvotingsmithsonian“The discovery of ‘Murray Hall’s’ true sex was not made until she was cold in death and beyond the chance of suffering humiliation from exposure,” wrote the Times.

“She had been suffering a cancer in the left breast for several years, as Dr. William C. Gallagher of 302 West 12th Street, who attended her in her final illness, discovered; but she abjured medical advice for fear of disclosing her sex, and treated herself.”

Hall passed well, according to a friend, State Senator Bernard F. Martin. “Suspect he was a woman? Never,” stated Martin. “He dressed like a man and talked like a very sensible one.”

“The only thing I ever thought eccentric about him was his clothing . . . he [wore] a coat a size or two too large, but of good material. That was to conceal his form.”

MurrayHallTimesheadlineOther friends told reporters that Hall had a falsetto voice, was always smooth-shaven, and was very small in stature.

Still, his clothing, his short black bushy hair, plus his fondness for drinking in neighborhood saloons and fighting must have come off as convincingly masculine.

Most surprised of all was Hall’s 22-year-old adopted daughter, Minnie, who said she had no idea and that her mother never mentioned anything about her “foster father” being female.

So who was Hall? “Murray Hall was Mary Anderson, born circa 1840 in Govan, Scotland, an orphan who fled to Edinburgh and eventually to America, wearing her dead brother’s clothes,” wrote Smithsonianmag.com.

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[First image: smithsonianmag.com; second image: Google; third image: smithsonianmag.com; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle]


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