Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

The “romantic reality” of midcentury Village street scenes

May 2, 2021

Can you feel it? Right now, New York has a vitality that went into a dark sleep in early 2020. People are out on the sidewalks performing the rituals of urban living; the city is emerging dynamic and alive.

What New Yorkers are feeling this spring is hard to describe—but Alfred Mira captures it perfectly in his paintings. Born in Italy in 1900, Mira made his home in Greenwich Village and supported himself as an artist.

His seemingly ordinary street scenes—like this two above of Seventh Avenue South and then a rainy Greenwich Avenue in the 1940s, or below of Washington Square Park in 1930—pulse with New York’s unique excitement and passion.

Mira’s paintings “have a rare skill in suggesting, rather than slavishly and verbosely saying,” wrote one critic reviewing an exhibit of Mira’s work in 1943 Los Angeles. “That accounts for the vibrant movement of his street scenes. The people, the buildings, the buses and passenger cars and other items in his paintings appear more real than the things themselves. They have what in fiction has been called ‘romantic reality.'”

Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

March 22, 2021

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

The 1911 New York fire that changed history

March 15, 2021

On the eighth floor of a women’s garment factory steps from Washington Square Park, a fire broke out in a wood bin filled with fabric scraps. It was about 4 pm on a Saturday, and the workday should have been ending.

Instead, the blaze grew, reaching the ninth and tenth floors of the factory. When workers tried to escape, they encountered locked doors. One fire escape collapsed to the ground under the weight of desperate employees.

Many of those trapped in the upper floors jumped to the sidewalk in front of horrified onlookers, others burned in the flames because firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows. A total of 146 workers were killed in the fire of March 25, 1911—mostly young female immigrants.

As tragic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was, the terrible toll had a profound effect in New York City—leading to stricter workplace safety laws and harsher legislation protecting workers. These new mandates had strong support from an outraged public, whose horror was reflected in piercing illustrations that appeared in newspapers for weeks.

This one above is by John Sloan, published in The Call. The illustrator of the second image is unknown, but that sure looks like the Asch Building, where the Triangle fire occurred.

Greenwich Village from John Sloan’s rear window

February 22, 2021

After John Sloan and his wife left Philadelphia and relocated to New York City in 1904, the couple lived first in Chelsea and then in various places in Greenwich Village, where Sloan also took a studio at Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street to create art that found “beauty in commonplace things and people,” as he once said, per the Whitney Museum.

From one of those Village apartments or out his studio window, Sloan had a view of the shared rear yards of his tenement neighbors on West Fourth Street. “Backyards, Greenwich Village,” from 1914, was born out of that view.

“Here, a private scene of two children building a snowman in a backyard, with a pair of cats and another child watching them from a window above, brings dignity and romance to lives that would otherwise go unnoticed,” states the Whitney.

It’s hardly the only Sloan painting that featured cats—this Ashcan School founder memorialized a few of the dozen cats living at McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in “McSorley’s Cats,” from 1928.

A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

November 9, 2020

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

A Midcentury artist’s muted Manhattan beauty

November 2, 2020

You’ve seen paintings of Washington Square, Greenwich Village markets, and the New York Harbor before. But through the eyes and brush of Bela de Tirefort, these and other city scenes take on a muted, Impressionist beauty.

“6th Avenue El,” 1940

I didn’t find much information about De Tirefort’s early years. Born in Austria in 1894, he made his way to New York City and became instrumental in organizing outdoor art fairs, included something called the Greenwich Village Art Fair (maybe the Washington Square Outdoor Art Fair, which got its start in 1931?).

“Bleecker Square,” 1961

He organized an art fair in Brooklyn outside Grand Army Plaza in 1932, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle seemed to get a kick out of. “Brooklyn is still the city of churches and homes—to artists,” the Eagle wrote. “Neurotic, erotic, exotic, and degenerative ‘art’ may go in Greenwich Village, but Brooklyn likes its art conservative.”

“Evening, Central Park” undated

De Tirefort comes off like a pragmatic artist in his reply to the Eagle: “We are not here to argue with the public. We are here to sell. We are guests. We do not want to offend.”

“Brooklyn Bridge,” undated

It’s not clear where de Tirefort himself lived, but Greenwich Village is a good guess. Many of his paintings focus on Washington Square Park, Bleecker Street’s Little Italy, and other Village icons. He also sold his painting directly from Washington Square, stated 1stdibs.com.

“Hansom Carriage Central Park” 1940

He tended to bathe his scenes in soft tones and thick brush strokes, presenting evocative city scenes that feel dreamlike but with decidedly Modernist touches.

“Park View, New York City” 1961

Through the 1940s and 1950s, de Tirefort exhibited his paintings in galleries and made a living as a working artist. In 1966, he moved to South Florida, where he died at age 99 in 1993, according to his obituary in the Tampa Bay Times.

“New York Harbor From the East River” 1951

“Using muted tones, strong silhouettes, and incisive textures, his paintings capture the structure of the city in the decades between the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the growth of the New York art scene,” wrote 1stdibs.com.

De Tirefort in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, 1932

De Tirefort’s work, often up for sale at auctions, commands the kind of prices you’d expect from a chronicler of Midcentury New York’s poetic moments and elusive beauty.

[Images 1-7, mutualart.com; eighth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1932]

The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony

October 19, 2020

West Village blocks don’t get any lovelier than West 11th Street (below) and Perry Street (bottom photo), two slender old streets lined with mostly well-tended brownstones and brick houses—particularly the stretch west of Seventh Avenue South.

West11thstreet

As picturesque as they are, there’s a secret hiding between these parallel blocks: Go through the horse walk between them (which is private, so you need access from a resident), and you’ll come upon a backyard garden with winding paths, places to sit, and a romantic, artsy vibe.

West11thstreetgarden

What’s the backstory? The garden and the brownstones surrounding them were christened in the early 20th century by a real-estate savvy reverend as “St. John’s Colony.”

West11thstreetgardenchurch

In the early 1900s, the reverend, John Armstrong Wade, led the church that still occupies the corner of Waverly and West 11th Streets, St. John’s in the Village.

Established in 1853, St. John’s built a church with ionic columns (below, in 1970), and the congregation grew along with the neighborhood through the 19th century.

But neighborhoods change, and what were once more middle-class, single-family brownstones were chopped into apartments, which became rundown.

With Rev. Wade at the helm, St. John’s decided to buy up some of the neighboring houses on West 11th and Perry Streets (below, in 1930), with the idea of renovating them to attract more stable residents and keep the parish from having to relocate uptown, like so many downtown churches did at the time.

West11thstreet1930nypl2

“Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony,” states the website for St. John’s.

Soon, properties on Perry Street were also purchased by St. John’s, and the development of the backyard garden was underway.

“Thus, St. John’s Colony began,” states an unidentified article from 1927, reproduced on St. John’s website. “One by one the houses were acquired. One by one under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm.”

Wset11thstreetmarycantwellbook“Fences and rubbish were cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one—a large, open space where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New York.”

In the 1950s, writer Mary Cantwell and her husband moved into 224 West 11th Street, which she recalls in her beautifully written 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

“Between West 11th and Perry Street, “and hidden from passersby, was perhaps the most secret of all the Village’s secret gardens,” wrote Cantwell. “It was very large, with two fountains, a small stone alter, private sitting areas at the rear of each basement apartment, a towering catalpa tree which in spring had a haunting, peppery scent, rose of Sharon bushes and spirea and a community of box turtles, invisible in winter and shy in summer.”

Wset11thstreetgardenfacingperry

“Once there had been peacocks, too, spreading their tails along the paved pathways,” wrote Cantwell.

In 1971, the original St. John’s church was destroyed in a fire. A new building replaced it in 1974 and still stands today (below). In the 1980s, St. John’s began selling off some of the houses of St. John’s Colony, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

Sthjohnschurch

By the mid-1990s, St. John’s wanted to “relinquish its rights and responsibilities” regarding the garden, the Times wrote, because it was costly to maintain.

Today, does St. John’s still have a stake in St. John’s Colony? I’m not sure, but the garden seems to open to the back of the church. Perhaps church leaders decided that the peace and beauty there was worth the price of upkeep.

Perrystreet

[Fourth photo: St John’s Church, 1970, MCNY 2013.3.2.1623; Fifth photo: NYPL 1930; Sixth image: “St. John’s Gardens-Greenwich Village,” 1945, by Josephine Barry/MCNY 75.43.89; seventh image: Publishers Weekly]

Hanging laundry in a tenement backyard, 1912

August 17, 2020

John Sloan painted many rooftop scenes, typically depicting the ordinary activities he would see on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea roofs of his neighbors.

In 1912, a woman hanging her laundry to dry apparently caught his eye, and the painting “A Woman’s Work” is the result.

It’s Sloan at his best: her face is turned away while she secures the garments to the rope, and the laundry lines and tenements in the background seem to isolate her from the rest of the city.

The painting belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. “With its generally sunny mood, the painting lacks the nightmarish qualities of contemporary photographs of slum conditions in New York by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” the museum states. “Nevertheless, it offers a window view on how poor and working-class residents lived in America’s biggest city — and how laws and regulations shaped their world.”

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]