Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

Join Ephemeral New York for a Gilded Age talk and tea at the Salmagundi Club!

January 5, 2023

If you were a wealthy and well-connected New Yorker during the Gilded Age, your winter calendar would be packed with balls: assembly balls, charity balls, and of course, Caroline Astor’s annual ball, the highlight of the social season.

And if you weren’t one of the Astor 400? Well, you could read all the details about these swanky events in the newspapers, imagining yourself as a guest or shaking your head at the expense and decadence.

Join Ephemeral New York on January 19 for an intimate look back at Gotham’s winter soiree season during the late 19th century. “Having a Ball: The Gilded Age’s Most Outrageous Parties” is part of the Salmagundi Club’s monthly Afternoon Tea Talks series.

In the parlor at the Salmagundi Club’s beautiful lower Fifth Avenue brownstone (below), I’ll be discussing the social season with Carl Raymond, Tea Talks moderator and host of The Gilded Gentleman podcast.

Carl and I will explore what the season of balls was like and how a ball was organized. We’ll also cover the Gilded Age’s most outrageous and expensive balls, such as Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883costume ball and the 1897 Bradley-Martin ball at the Waldorf—which marked the beginning of the end of ostentatious, over-the-top balls.

The event will be held from 3:30 to 4:30 pm at 47 Fifth Avenue (between 11th and 12th Streets). Tickets are $40 and include a tea reception with sandwiches and cookies following the talk. Click here to purchase tickets!

[Top image: Everett Shinn; second image: Hyde Ball via Find a Gravel third image: Salmagundi.org]

Winter beauty and misery at the arch at Washington Square

January 2, 2023

Dominating Washington Square Park and the imagination of painter Everett Shinn is the majestic marble Washington Arch, standing guard at the end of Fifth Avenue since 1892.

Here’s the spare beauty of a winter’s night at the arch: the gray-blue sky, and silvery, almost spooky tree branches. The low-rise buildings around the perimeter give the park the look of a town surrounding a village green—which makes sense, because Washington Square Park is the village green for the Village.

But then there’s the human misery of navigating cold, wet, windy weather. Shinn gives us a cab driver trying to control his vehicle, a pedestrian using her umbrella like a weapon, and various people with their heads down for protection against the fierce elements of a New York winter.

The one curious thing is the date of the painting: 1929, according to Christie’s, which auctioned it in 2016 for $47,500. The humans in the painting look like people from 1929. The horse-drawn streetcar and cab, however, must have been painted from memory.

[Source: Christie’s]

What happened to the young couple who held an 1896 winter wedding on Washington Square

December 12, 2022

It’s a lovely wintry scene that captures excitement, romance, and the Gilded Age beauty of a snow-covered Washington Square.

As twilight descends on the Square, well-heeled men and women alighting from elegant carriages make their way along the brownstone row of Washington Square North. From the front stoop of one of the brownstones, a man in a top hat and a woman in a stylish ruffled coat watch their arrival.

The people in the image aren’t just passersby—they’re wedding reception guests. This we know from the title of the painting: “A Winter Wedding—Washington Square, 1897.”

The artist is Fernand Lungren. After the turn of the century, Lungren gained fame for his southwestern desert paintings. Early in his career, he made a living in New York by doing illustrations for popular periodicals, such as Scribner’s Monthly and McClure’s.

I’ve always been curious about the scene. Who, exactly, is getting married here? A little digging led me to the names of the bride and groom—and what happened after the vows were recited and the reception ended.

“This picture shows New York’s upper crust arriving at the Square on the afternoon of December 17, 1896, to attend the wedding reception for Fannie Tailer and Sydney Smith held by the bride’s parents in their home at 11 Washington Square North,” wrote Emily Kies Folpe, in her 2002 book, It Happened on Washington Square. (Above, the row containing Number 11 circa 1900)

Fannie Tailer and Sydney J. Smith weren’t just typical new rich New Yorkers. Both came from old and socially prominent families. The Tailers were even part of the “Astor 400″—the infamous list of the highest echelon of society in the city, at least according to Caroline Astor and her social arbiter, Ward McAllister.

The couple met at the annual horse show, one of the events that marked the opening of the social season in Gotham. Tailer was an accomplished rider, while Smith was the scion of an old New Orleans family.

Their engagement hit the papers in 1895. Tailer “is justly considered not one of the prettiest but one of the handsomest young women in the ultra-fashionable set,” wrote the New York Times. About Smith, the Times stated that he had “sufficiency of worldly goods, is popular, [and] is more than well endowed with good looks.”

The wedding itself took place at 3 p.m. at Grace Church, at Broadway and 10th Street. Though many rich families had moved to elite neighborhoods like Murray Hill and upper Fifth Avenue in the 1890s, Washington Square North was still an acceptable place for a prominent family to live. Grace Church remained the choice place for these Greenwich Village residents to worship.

“The wedding, one of the largest and most fashionable of the season, brought out New York society—Astors, Belmonts, Havemeyers, Cooper-Hewitts, and others,” wrote Folpe. “Lungren seems to have observed the scene from the doorstep of his lodgings at 3 Washington Square, a row house converted into artists’ studios in 1879.”

After the swirl and excitement of this much-anticipated wedding, the couple mostly stayed out of the newspapers. Early on, they secured their own house on Washington Square. At some point they took up residence at Four East 86th Street.

And then, in 1909, came the split. “Sydney Smith’s Wife Sues for Absolute Divorce,” one front-page headline screamed. “Mrs. Smith did not take her usual place in the fashionable life of Newport last summer, but lived quietly with her children at a boarding house, and stories of marital unhappiness were revived in August when she and her husband [were part of] different parties at the Casino tennis matches, and did not speak to each other,” the story explained.

After the divorce, Mrs. Smith married C. Whitney Carpenter, a “broker” according to the New York Daily News. Still active in society, she seemed to live out her life in privacy, though she divorced a second time. She passed away in 1954, and her estate of $80,000 was divided between her two sons.

Sydney Smith also married again, to Florence Hathorn Durant Smith. He died in 1949 at age 81. He held the distinction of being the oldest member of the Union Club, which he joined in 1881, according to his New York Times obituary.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: Brooklyn Citizen; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: Baltimore Sun]

John Sloan’s “obvious delight” with Jefferson Market Courthouse

December 5, 2022

As a prolific painter living on Washington Place and working out of a high-floor studio at West Fourth Street, John Sloan had a wonderful window into the heart of the Greenwich Village of the 1910s—its small shops, bohemian haunts, immigrant festivals, and all the life and activity of the elevated trains up and down Sixth Avenue.

[“Jefferson Market, Sixth Avenue,” 1917]

He also had a view of Jefferson Market Courthouse. Once the site of a fire tower and market that opened in 1832, the Victorian Gothic courthouse with its signature clock tower replaced the original structures at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street in 1877.

Like contemporary New Yorkers, he seemed to be enchanted by the Courthouse, which functions today as a New York Public Library branch. He was so entranced by it, Sloan put it in several of his works, either as the main subject or off to the side.

[“Sixth Avenue El at Third Street,” 1928]

“Sloan obviously delighted in the irregular rooftop patterns and the spires of several other structures beyond, contrasting the soaring tower and the gables of the courthouse with the swift rush of the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad below,” explained William H. Gerdts in his 1994 book, Impressionist New York.

His interest wasn’t just in the building’s architectural value. Sloan, a keen observer of what he described as New York City’s “drab, shabby, happy, sad, and human life,” regularly visited the notorious night court there to witness the human drama that appeared before judges—men and women typically brought in for drunkenness, prostitution, and petty crime.

[“Jefferson Market Jail, Night,” 1911]

“This is much more stirring to me in every way than the great majority of plays. Tragedy-comedy,” he said about the night court, per Gerdts’ book.

“Sloan was obviously drawn to the building’s. picturesque mass as well as its physical and symbolic situation with Greenwich Village, and no other New York structure, not even the Flatiron Building, enjoyed such distinctive monumental rendering by him,” wrote Gerdts.

“Snowstorm in the Village,” an etching from 1925, shows Jefferson Market Courthouse’s gables and turrets covered in snow and is worth a look here.

[Top image: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; second image: Whitney Museum; third image: paintingstar.com]

Boot scrapers are a hidden relic of 19th century New York City

October 10, 2022

Late season hurricanes, mean nor’easters, and regular rainy days: all this wet weather makes autumn boot-scraper season in New York City.

If you routinely look down when you walk though New York City, then you’ve seen boot scrapers. These charming remnants of a dirtier Gotham can often be found on the iron railings of brownstone stoops. Before entering his own or someone else’s home, a gentleman would scrape his boots against the blunt end, so he wouldn’t track mud and dirt into the house.

It wasn’t just wet weather that necessitated boot scrapers. Think of what Gotham’s streets looked like before asphalt paving and automobiles: dirt and mud on the streets and sidewalks, debris from toppled ash barrels, and piles of horse manure from the thousands of equines who pulled wagons, carriages, and streetcars.

Some boot scrapers are quite fancy, like these on West 67th Street outside a former home for Swiss immigrants and these outside a school in Yorkville. I spotted this fairly utilitarian boot scraper between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. In such a posh and lovely neighborhood in the 19th century city, I’m sure it got lots of use!

Once an 1880s public library, now a private home in the West Village

October 3, 2022

When you pass the three-story red-brick beauty at 251 West 13th Street—with its elegant arched windows and Dutch-style gabled roofline—you just know it was built for something special.

That special purpose was a noble one in Gilded Age New York. The building, near Eighth Avenue and at the end of Greenwich Avenue, served as a free public library—one of the city’s first.

The story of what became known as the Jackson Square Library began in 1879, when a teacher and other women affiliated with Grace Church formed the New York Free Circulating Library.

New York City was already home to many fine research libraries, such as the Astor Library (now the Public Theater) on Lafayette Place. But in 1879, these libraries were largely private and didn’t lend books.

“The New York Free Circulating Library was established to serve every New Yorker, especially the poor, and to allow them to not only read a wide range of literature, but bring it home and share it with their families,” states Village Preservation. 

The library in an undated photo

The original library room founded by the Grace Church group held just 500 books and was only open two hours a week. But according to Village Preservation, “the free public reading room was so popular there were often lines around the block.”

This is where a member of the Vanderbilt family comes in. George Washington Vanderbilt II, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and brother of the socially prominent W.K. Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, decided to continue his family’s tradition of philanthropy by building and stocking a free circulating library for the people of New York City.

Another undated photo, but note the remodeling of the neighboring house’s front door

“The youngest of eight children, [George Vanderbilt] was a quiet person with a strong interest in culture and the life of the mind, who had created and catalogued his own collection of books beginning at age 12,” states Village Preservation. “The growing desire for a free circulating library in New York was just the sort of worthy project that captured the bibliophile’s imagination.”

Vanderbilt tapped architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed Vanderbilt’s breathtaking North Carolina estate, Biltmore). In 1888, the Jackson Square Library, with more than 6,000 books, opened to readers.

The Adult Reading Room in the 1930s

“The walls of the library on the ground floor are tinted a robin’s egg blue, while the book shelves and other woodwork are of walnut, which sets off the bright bindings of the books,” wrote The New York Times in a preview the library’s interior. A second-floor reading room was described as “light and airy.” To become a member of the library, applicants had to be at least “twelve years of age and able to give proper reference.”

After the New York Public Library system formed in 1895, the Jackson Square Library continued to operate as a NYPL branch. By the early 1960s, the library was “decommissioned,” per Village Preservation. The Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street took over as the NYPL branch for Greenwich Village in the 1970s.

George Washington Vanderbilt II by John Singer Sargent, with book in hand

It’s hard to fathom, but after it closed, the Jackson Square Library was headed for the wrecking ball. In 1967, painter, sculptor, and performance artist Robert Delford Brown acquired it for $125,000, according to a New York Times story in 2000. That saved the former library, which had hosted notable patrons like James Baldwin, Gregory Corso, and W.H. Auden, among others.

Brown gave the building a “radical renovation,” according to the Times, and the results weren’t necessarily successful. The former library was purchased in the 1990s by TV writer and producer Tom Fontana. Intending to use it as a residence and work space, Fontana brought 251 West 13th Street back to its Gilded Age grandeur, at least on the exterior—making it a delightful sight for passersby.

[Third, fourth, and fifth photos: NYPL; sixth photo: Wikipedia, by John Singer Sargent]

The bookseller at the door in 1940s Greenwich Village

June 27, 2022

The photo, by Berenice Abbott, invites mystery. “Hacker Book Store, Bleecker Street, New York” is the title, dated 1945. Who is the pensive man at the door—and where on Bleecker Street is this?

The answer to the latter question is 381 Bleecker Street, near Perry Street in the West Village. As for the pensive man, it’s likely Seymour Hacker, a bookseller well-known enough in a more literate New York City that he merited a detailed obituary in the New York Times in 2000 when he died at age 83.

“A small, bright-eyed man fluent in four languages, Mr. Hacker was one of the last booksellers to learn his trade from the bookmen whose stores and stands once lined Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street,” wrote Roberta Smith. “Born on the Lower East Side in 1917, he grew up in the Bronx and began haunting Fourth Avenue when he was 12.” 

Hacker opened his first bookstore in 1937. “Noting that fine art books were in especially great demand, he opened Hacker Art Books at 381 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1946, moving uptown in 1948. Customers included Delmore Schwartz, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mr. Hacker’s friend Zero Mostel,” stated Smith. “Uptown” took Hacker to 57th Street.

Another mystery: why Abbott chose Hacker and his store as the subject for one of her photographs.

[Photo: MCNY: 2014.90.1]

Upcoming Talks and Walking Tours with Ephemeral New York!

May 6, 2022

I want to let everyone know about three events happening this month, May 2022, featuring Ephemeral New York. All are open to the public, and it would be great to meet readers of this site!

Photo: Salmagundi Club

On Thursday May 19 at 3:30 pm, I’ll be speaking at the Salmagundi Club as part of their Afternoon Tea Talks monthly series. Inside this art and social organization’s beautiful brownstone parlor at 47 Fifth Avenue, host Carl Raymond and I will be talking about Gilded Age New York City, as well as how Ephemeral New York got its start, insider info about the site, and more.

After the talk, tea, sandwiches, and cookies will be available to cap off this casual and fun event. Many of you probably know Carl through his popular podcast, The Gilded Gentleman, plus his historical talks and tours exploring Gotham. Click the link for tickets!

Image: New York Adventure Club

On Sunday May 15 at 1 p.m. and again on Sunday May 22 at 1 p.m., I’ll be leading a walking tour through the New York Adventure Club, “Exploring the Gilded Age Mansion and Memorials of Riverside Drive.” The tour starts at 83rd Street and ends at 107th Street. In between we’ll walk up Riverside and delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, which became a second “mansion row” and was set to rival Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.” The tour will explore the mansions and monuments that still survive as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball.

Tickets for May 15 can be bought here, and tickets for May 22 at this link. Hope to see a great turnout on a lovely May day!

[First image: Salmagundi Club; second image: New York Adventure Club]

What John Sloan saw on the night before Easter

April 18, 2022

Easter Sunday has just passed, so I wish I came across this painting earlier this week in time to write about it. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because through the eyes and Impressionist brush of John Sloan, this 1907 work is a timeless nocturne of a seemingly ordinary transaction.

We’re probably in Greenwich Village, where Sloan lived and worked. Easter lilies are laid out in front of a shop for passersby to inspect, pick through, and make their selection. These sidewalk shoppers are shrouded in darkness, practically obscured by the black umbrella one carries.

But as they touch the flowers, you can feel the softness of the petals and sense how bright they must have looked illuminated by the artificial light of the store window. The rain-slicked sidewalk and the warm light from the cafe next door makes it an even more potent, sensuous image of the simple act of purchasing flowers on a rainy spring night.

Two decades later, Sloan painted another scene of spring flowers and a wet sidewalk that is equally evocative.

The story of the bride-to-be brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital after surviving the Titanic

April 11, 2022

The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 brought deep grief to New York City, the great ship’s intended destination. This incredible story of one third-class survivor made it into the city tabloids a week later, and it was something of a bright spot amid a terrible tragedy.

Sarah Roth (left) and Daniel Iles on their wedding day, April 1912

The passenger’s name was Sarah Roth. She was born in the 1880s in what is now Poland, but her family moved to London when she was young, and she worked as a seamstress. There she met Daniel Iles, and the two became sweethearts, then got engaged.

Wanting a better life for himself and his intended bride, Iles immigrated to New York City in 1911. He found work as a clerk at Greenhut, Siegel & Cooper, the colossal department store on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street (where Bed, Bath & Beyond is today) and rented a room at 321 West 24th Street.

A crowd at Pier 59 awaits the RMS Carpathia

The next year, he sent Roth passage money to come join him in Manhattan, and she bought a steerage ticket on the ill-fated Titanic. “Sarah managed to secure one of the last third-class tickets on the maiden voyage of White Star Line’s new flagship,” wrote The Guardian in a 2000 article.

On April 10, 1912, Roth boarded the liner with a wedding dress she made herself. Four days later, asleep in her cabin, she woke with the realization that the ship wasn’t moving, according to encyclopedia-titanica. She got out of bed and soon found herself among a glut of people in steerage, prevented by an officer from going to the deck.

St. Vincent’s Hospital’s Elizabeth Seton Building, where Titanic survivors were taken

Another officer who was smitten by her, according to a 2010 Daily News article, helped her get to one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship. Picked up by the RMS Carpathia after the Titanic went down, Roth arrived with fellow survivors at Pier 59 in Chelsea. Iles was waiting, hoping his fiancee would be among the survivors.

She was brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital along with more than 100 others in various states of health. Roth was suffering from “shock and exposure,” according to an Evening World article.

Titanic survivors recuperating at St. Vincent’s

“At St. Vincent’s, Roth and the others were welcomed by doctors and nurses who were the passionate opposite of the attitude manifested by those deadly class-dividing gates aboard ship,” wrote Michael Daly in the Daily News.

Roth told hospital staff about her engagement. “The hospital now saw an opportunity to bring some cheer amid tragedy,” stated Daly. “Iles was contacted at his room on W. 24th St. and declared himself ready. Father Grogan of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary was willing to officiate. A fellow Titanic survivor named Emily Radman agreed to be maid of honor. The Women’s Relief Committee provided a new trousseau and a bouquet.”

The headline in a front page Sun article, April 23, 1912

A week later in the hospital meeting hall, Roth and Iles tied the knot. Fellow Titanic survivors and other patients came to watch the ceremony. “Some of the sick who were able to leave their wards were put in wheel chairs and moved down the corridor so that they could enjoy the wedding. Perhaps 200 were in the crowd, and among those were black gowned Sisters of Charity, young physicians in white, and priests,” wrote The Sun.

Roth and Iles went on to have a son, and like other Titanic survivors, she disappeared into obscurity. She died in 1947, but a legacy of her trip—a Third Class menu card she kept in her purse the night the Titanic met its fate—went up for auction in 2000. The winning bid: $44,650, per Bonhams, which has reproduced the menu card here.

[Top image: NY Tribune via Encyclopedia-Titanica; second, third, and fourth images: LOC; fifth image: The Sun]