Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head

May 22, 2017

It had an early incarnation on Hudson Street. And even past its heyday, it lingered on as a popular neighborhood bar until the taxman shut its doors in 1996 (left, during last call).

But the Lion Head’s glory days as a legendary Greenwich Village watering hole was during the 1960s.

That’s when the downstairs bar at 59 Christopher Street equally attracted literary types and longshoremen, and drinkers could rub elbows with writers, newspaper reporters, Irish folk singers, politicians, and a pre-fame Jessica Lange, who waited tables.

Pete Hamill, a writer at the New York Post in the mid-1960s, recalled the energy and excitement there in his wonderful 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.

“In the beginning, the Head had a square three-sided bar, with dart boards on several walls and no jukebox,” he writes.

“I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians, and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”

“On any given night, the Clancy Brothers would take over the large round table in the back room. . . . Everybody joined in singing, drinking waterfalls of beer, emptying bottles of whiskey, full of laughter and noise and a sense that I can only describe as joy.”

The Lion’s Head has been shuttered for 21 years; in its place is the Kettle of Fish (below), another old-school Village bar that moved over from MacDougal Street.

Kettle of Fish still packs in crowds, but too many of the regulars who remember the “glorious mixture” Hamill recalls at the Lion’s Head are not with us anymore.

There are accounts like Hamill’s in many books and memoirs, but more and more of the memories of nights at the Lion’s Head are lost to the ages.

[Top photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times; third photo: Petehamill.com]

The many lives of an 1834 wooden Village house

May 15, 2017

With its steeply pitched roof and side staircase, the house at 6 Weehawken Street might be the most Dorian Gray of Village homes.

Built in 1834, it’s almost unchanged from the way it looked in the mid-19th century.

And all of its various incarnations over two centuries reflect the enormous changes that took place in this part of the West Village, just yards from the Hudson River.

The story of 6 Weehawken Street (also known as 392 West Street, as there’s an entrance on this side as well) begins in the 1830s. That’s when tiny Weehawken Street was created on the former site of Newgate State Prison.

Closed in 1829, Newgate was overcrowded and dangerous, and this waterfront area in the booming village of Greenwich made for attractive real estate.

The city decided to turn the property into a produce, meat, and fish market called Greenwich Market (one of many open-air markets along the Hudson River at the time) bounded by Christopher Street and Amos Street, the 19th century name for today’s West 10th Street.

Weehawken Street was paved, and market buildings in the usual style of the era—open in the front and with projecting eaves to protect the goods for sale from the elements—were constructed.

Six Weehawken is “almost certainly a surviving portion” of a market house, states the Weehawken Street Historic District Report, published in 2006.

The market went bust in 1844, and the buildings were left unoccupied. A boat builder named George Munson bought and renovated number 6 in 1848, adapting it for his boat business and according to some accounts, turning it into a saloon too.

Considering the neighborhood at the time—dockworkers, boat builders, and working class folks who made their living in riverfront factories and the fishing industry—business was probably pretty good.

Six Weehawken continued to change hands. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the sketch above on the left shows the building in the 1870s), it housed an insurance brokerage, cigar store, and pool hall, which was the site of a headline-grabbing police raid in 1906 that landed 12 men in jail cells.

As late as 1900 (above right), similar-style wood market buildings still existed on Weehawken Street. Intrigued by their origins, newspapers wrongly claimed they were built in the 1790s.

According to 1905 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article (photo above left):

“Within a stone’s throw of the old prison site stands to-day the original row of frame houses, or shanties, that adorned the same block more than 100 years ago. It is the block bounded by Weehawken, West, Christopher, and Tenth Streets.”

As colorful as it sounds, the Eagle‘s historical information is incorrect.

In the 1920s, with Prohibition in effect, 6 Weehawken became “Billie’s Original Clam Broth House” (above right), which must have been a wonderfully dark and atmospheric place to get a bowl of hot soup on days when those cold Hudson River winds came in.

In the 1940s (at left), a new owner refurbished the building and sold “work clothes, canvas gloves, tobacco, and a strange assortment of odds and ends desired by seafarers and dockwallopers, who constitute his friends and customers,” wrote the Historic District Report.

For the next several decades, 6 Weehawken was occupied by a trucking company and a tire business.

By the 1970s, in a vastly less industrial West Village, gay bars moved in. Choo-Choo’s Pier opened in the 1970s, Sneakers existed through the 1990s.

The latest plan for 6 Weehawken brings it back to the Manhattan of the 17th century.

Last year, the son of artist Louise Bourgeois announced that the building he bought in 2006 for $4 million will be donated to the Lenape Nation and renovated into a prayer house. (An old for-sale listing for the house gives you an interior shot of a loft bedroom.)

Right now, the house appears to be empty, more shabby than chic—a silent sentry whose Hudson River side is marred by graffiti (above), waiting for its next generation of occupants.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on some of the city’s most iconic 19th century residences and commercial buildings.

[Third image: Harper’s Magazine, 1870s; fourth photo: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.3687; fifth photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1906; fifth photo: MCNY, 1920, x2010.11.3690; sixth photo: NYPL]

The loneliness of a New York all-night cafe

May 8, 2017

Lamb, beef, and eggs are on the menu board on the sidewalk. Inside, the room is lit up, and people appear to be sitting together, or at least in close proximity to one another.

But this lone figure standing on the snowy sidewalk outside an all-night cafe in New York circa 1900 isn’t part of it. He’s an emblem of the 24-hour, modernized city, a New York with more than three million residents divided and isolated.

Maybe he can’t afford to go in; perhaps it’s not his class or crowd. Painter Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School — artists who focused on the grittier side of urban life — isn’t letting us read the man’s face for clues.

Shinn had a studio on Waverly Place. Could the current occupant of this cafe be Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly?

A faded Greenwich Village sign goes back in time

April 24, 2017

Has this metal sign advertising a land auction really been posted on a building at Greenwich Street and West 12th Street since 1963?

Considering the faded lettering and typeface, it certainly seems to have been.

It’s easier to read in person, but the sign appears to notify the public about some real estate being auctioned off at the Statler Hilton — aka, the Hotel Pennsylvania — on February 7, 1963.

Apparently real-estate auctions there were regular events held by the city. A New York Times notice of one on March 8, 1862, explains that 182 city-owned properties found new owners during a two-day auction.

If only we could go back in time and buy New York property on the cheap, wait out the next few decades, and enjoy what today would likely be a real estate goldmine.

What remains of the other end of the High Line

April 24, 2017

High Line Park stretches along the West Side from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, following the original tracks of the 1934 elevated railway — which trucked raw materials and finished goods in and out of Manhattan’s once-bustling factories.

Then at Gansevoort Street, right beside the gleaming new Whitney Museum, the park suddenly ends in a steep drop.

But the High Line itself never ended here. It continued south to Spring Street, zipping in and out of factories along Washington Street until it reached St. John’s Terminal at Pier 40.

What happened to this southern end of the High Line — which could have extended the park another mile or so?

As Manhattan’s manufacturing base shrank and rail shipping declined, the steel trestle was demolished starting in the 1960s bit by bit. Most of the factories that relied on the line were bulldozed to make way for the West Village Houses.

(A shame, sure, but it would have been inconceivable to New Yorkers back then that anyone would want to keep the rundown elevated railway and turn it into a beautiful park overlooking Tenth Avenue).

More than three decades since the entire line ceased in 1980, almost nothing of the southern end of the High Line survives.

But take a walk down Washington Street, where a few of the surviving factories have been turned into housing. You can easily see where the rail cars went in and out of 812 Washington Street, once part of the Manhattan Refrigerating Company (top two photos).

Same with the enormous, block-long building a few blocks down the street at Bethune Street (above).

Before it was transformed into the artists’ housing complex known as Westbeth in 1971, this handsome building was part of Bell Laboratories.

Bell Labs was established here in the late 19th century; the company refitted their second floor to accommodate the High Line in the 1930s.

[Second photo: GVSHP; fourth photo: Friends of the High Line]

Tiny Jewish cemeteries hidden in busy Manhattan

April 10, 2017

They’ve been there for centuries, just steps away from traffic lights and the rush of crowds: three small burial grounds tucked behind iron fences and shaded by untended trees.

They’re not in the best shape. Some of the headstones are broken or knocked askew, as this photo of a cemetery on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue shows. The Hebrew lettering on the stones has been worn down by the elements. Graffiti marks a brick wall.

But the story behind how these cemeteries came to be starts with the story of the first Jews to live in New York City.

That means going back to the 17th century. In 1654, a ship carrying 23 men, women, and children docked in Lower Manhattan. They were refugees fleeing Brazil, which the Portuguese had just recaptured from the Dutch.

This little group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews felt that New Amsterdam might be a more welcoming place.

Eh, not exactly. Peter Stuyvesant tried hard to throw them out. The refugees wrote letters to Holland to solicit support so they could stay.

A year later, the Dutch West India Company gave them the go-ahead to remain as long as they “do not become a burden.”

Free to build new lives here, the group quickly founded the continent’s first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. And though the synagogue had no permanent space until 1730, space for the deceased was established in 1656.

That original burial ground has disappeared. But what’s considered the first Jewish cemetery in the city still remains in Chatham Square (above), in a pocket facing St. James Place behind several tenements (below right, in a 1900 photo).

This cemetery opened in 1683. It once contained 256 graves, including those of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. The above sketch of what Chatham Square looked like marks the “Jews Burying Ground” at the top right.

Speaking of the Revolution, the cemetery made an important appearance. In 1776, Major General Charles Lee wrote to George Washington:

“The East River, I am persuaded, may be secured in such a manner that [British] ships will scarcely venture into it…A battery for this purpose is planned at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground.”

An expansion of the Bowery cut the burial ground down in size to closer to 50. Some of the lead epitaph plates are missing because during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers melted them down to make bullets.

In 1805, a second cemetery opened on the outskirts of the city, at Sixth Avenue and what was then Milligan Place (below). The expansion of the city grid chopped its size as well to a tiny triangle.

“Initially, this graveyard was the burial site for victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, for recently immigrated Jews who did not have strong ties to Shearith Israel, and for those who died at their own hand through suicide,” states the Shearith Israel website.

After the city banned burials below Canal Street in 1823, the Sixth Avenue cemetery became the main Jewish burial ground — until a third cemetery opened in what was then the bucolic country fields of Chelsea and is now a big-box shopping mecca (below).

“The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750,” wrote Tablet magazine. “The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street.”

Shearith Israel operates out of a majestic synagogue building on Central Park West with some spectacular history of its own; the wood floorboards under its reader’s desk are the same floorboards from the first permanent synagogue built in 1730 on Mill (now South William) Street.

The congregation maintains these three burial grounds, and near Memorial Day, members hold a ceremony at the Chatham Square cemetery, honoring the Jewish Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

Each cemetery has a story to tell about Jewish life in the city and the development of New York as a whole. Look for these ghostly reminders of Gotham’s first residents next time you’re nearby.

Manhattan is a necropolis of other little-known burial grounds, especially in the East Village.

[Fourth photo: NYPL; Sixth photo: MCNY: 93.91.359; Tenth photo: NYPL]

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

Vintage matchbooks of defunct city restaurants

April 6, 2017

Now this is what I call an old New York eatery: Ye Olde Chop House began its run in 1800 on Cedar Street before moving to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway next door to Trinity Church.

The matchbook could be as old as the 1960s or 1970s, when New York addresses still used single-digit ZIP codes.

Apparently the food was quite good, the atmosphere old school. In 1946, when the chop house was still on Cedar Street, the New York Times called out the “mutton chops as thick as your fist” and “split chickens and lamb kidneys with bacon.”

The Times also noted the host, Harry Kramer. “Happily, Mr. Kramer is antiquarian and, except for introducing air-conditioning, has done little in the way of modernization. The original bar, worn almost white with shrubbing, still stands; the floors are the same old pine boards covered with sawdust and upstairs there are two fireplaces with carved mantles that were constructed when the house was built.”

Does anyone remember Asti? This West Village restaurant was famous for 75 years for its opera-singing waiters and theater-world customers.

Shuttered in 1999, Asti now only lives on in vintage ads, like this matchbook cover from 1975. Look at the old two-letter phone exchanges: AL for Algonquin, according to this guide, and CH for Chelsea or Chickering.

In June 1972, New York announced that the Upper East Side restaurant Camelot not only had “sumptuous buffet brunches on Saturdays and Sundays ($5.50 for all you can eat and all the Bloody Marys, champagne and rose you can drink), but now there’s a sumptuous buffet dinner every Monday night for $6.95.”

Looks like a Dallas BBQ is in this space now.

Spring flowers arrive on a rainy Village sidewalk

March 27, 2017

Few artists painted the moods, rhythms, and rituals of the seasons like John Sloan, who moved to New York from Philadelphia in 1904 and spent the early 20th century in Greenwich Village—living and working for almost a decade at 88 Washington Place.

His windows facing Lower Sixth Avenue “gave Sloan a view of street life from an elevated vantage point, which he frequently incorporated into his paintings,” states the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

A real-life wagon loaded with vibrant flowers was the inspiration for his 1924 painting “Flowers of Spring,” which belongs to the MFA.

As Sloan (at left in a self-portrait from 1890) himself recalled in his book Gist of Art:

“This picture has, in a very direct, simple way, handed on the thrill that comes to everyone on a wet spring morning from the first sight of the flower huckster’s wagon. The brilliant notes of the plants surrounded on all sides by wet, city grays.”

Sloan’s beloved wife, Dolly, is the woman on the left with the umbrella.

[Hat Tip: Kathy van Vorhees]