Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]

A Village painter’s dynamic 1930s street scene

September 2, 2019

You can practically feel the energy and vitality in painter Alfred S. Mira’s depiction of the daily rhythms of a New York street.

Shops are open, trucks make deliveries, a couple crosses the street, a mother pushes a baby carriage, a father walks with his daughter while a woman walks her dog, and presumably the next day and every day after that, this corner hummed with the same life and dynamism.

But what colorful tenement corner are we on in the the New York of the 1930s or 1940s? (The date of the painting isn’t clear.)

Born in Italy, Mira called Greenwich Village home and tended to paint gritty to enchanting street scenes from his neighborhood.

Though this painting is titled “Greenwich Village New York” by Questroyal Fine Art LLC, a 1943 Los Angeles Times article covering an exhibit of Mira’s in LA printed the painting and called it “Greenwich Ave. and 11th Street.”

The dazzling beauty of New York autochromes

August 26, 2019

When you’re used to seeing 19th and early 20th century New York City in black and white photos, images of the pre-World War II city in stunning color are a revelation.

And few color photos are quite as much of a revelation as the dreamy, ethereal images known as autochromes.

What’s an autochrome? It’s an early form of color photography patented by French filmmakers August and Louis Lumiere in 1907.

“It involved glass plates, a backlight, soot and (oddly) potato starch—and it revolutionized photography,” stated NPR.com, in an article covering National Geographic’s vast archive of autochromes, which include the images here.

“For about 30 years, it was the most widely used process for capturing color.”

“The pointillistic quality of these photographs—small dots of orange, green and purple—gives them a misty, nostalgic tone,” stated NPR.com.

These five autochromes here give us New York in 1929 and 1930: the Hudson River waterfront, two images of Washington Square Park, a view of the Woolworth Building and the demolished Post Office at City Hall, and the street poetry of two men rifling through the wares of a downtown junk shop.

Historically, they’re fascinating—they reveal the spectrum of colors of buildings, signs, vehicles, and clothes of an earlier city, rather than the contrasts of darkness and light most older photographs offer.

Artistically, autochromes don’t just capture color; they create something magical.

[Autochromes: Clifton R. Adams and Edwin L. Wisherd/National Geographic Creative/Corbis]

Alienation and isolation near Washington Square

August 12, 2019

In 1925, Edward Hopper likely went up to the roof of his studio at 3 Washington Square North to complete this painting of the top two stories of an old building.

He ultimately titled it “Skyline, Near Washington Square.”

“The brownstone’s facade is encrusted with Victorian cornices, brackets, arched and square window moulds picked out with heavy shadows,” wrote Gerry Souter in his book, Edward Hopper. “The sides are whitewashed brick seared with sunlight.”

The building is like a dowager of another era, pretty in its day but now isolated, alienated, and stripped of its humanity in the modern urban cityscape.

Or maybe the building is Edward Hopper? Apparently this painting with its “gangly skyscraper” was originally titled “Self-Portrait,” according to Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.

Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop

May 27, 2019

The handsome brick storefront at West Eighth Street and MacDougal Place has been occupied by countless businesses since it went up on this Greenwich Village corner in 1838.

But perhaps it’s best remembered as the home of the Eighth Street Bookshop—one of dozens of booksellers centered around Eighth Street or Fourth Avenue that made the Village a bibliophile paradise in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the Eighth Street Bookshop gained fame as a literary gathering place with close ties to the nonconformist writers of the day, whose works and lifestyle gave rise to the term ‘Beat Generation,’ states the Village Alliance.

While browsing the three floors of books (especially the extensive paperback section), it wouldn’t be uncommon to bump into one of the many writers or poets who lived in the East or West Village at the time, such as Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, or e.e. cummings (who lived a few blocks away on Patchin Place).

Of course, all great bookstores are more than literary haunts. As Publisher’s Weekly recalled in 2001, the Eighth Street Bookshop was also the center of a social scene.

“‘Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s,’ Joan Wilentz [Ted Wilentz’s wife] told PW. ‘It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other’s houses.'”

In 1965, the store relocated across the street to 17 West Eighth Street. In 1976, a fire tore through that location, and the Eighth Street Bookshop shut its doors for good in 1979.

It’s run wasn’t long, but Villagers of a certain age still remember it well.

[Top photo: Robert Otter, 1965; second photo: Katherine Knowles via ArtNerd]

What’s left of a Greenwich Street boarding stable

April 15, 2019

The remains of New York’s horse and wagon past are all over Gotham’s side streets and outer edges, where delivery companies often owned stables to house their working horses.

The far West Village still has many of the carriage houses and stables built in the neighborhood in the late 19th century, when the area was rougher and more working class.

One lovely example is this red brick and stone stable, built in 1893 at 704-706 Greenwich Street. It was used by various delivery firms who relied on horses and wagons (and later trucks) to pick up and drop off goods.

The “Boarding Stables” signs have faired pretty well over the decades.

It’s right at eye level for riders of the Ninth Avenue elevated, which used to run up Greenwich Street (below on the left side of the photo, in 1940).

But the letters across the facade of the building (now apartments) are too faded for me to make sense of. Is “Greenwich” the word on the left?

[Second image: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photo]

The mysterious mosaic at 88 University Place

March 25, 2019

University Place is only seven blocks long—but this Greenwich Village street has its share of historic plaques.

One marks the Hotel Albert, the spectacular Victorian Gothic “French Flats” opened in 1887 between Tenth and Eleventh Streets that was a haven for creative types before becoming a co-op in the 1980s.

At 113 University Place is a bronze tablet dedicated to the New York State Militia’s Ninth Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. And at number 90, a sign marks the walkup building where poet Frank O’Hara lived in the 1960s.

But there’s another, more unusual marker in front of the 1900s-era loft building at 88 University Place (at left) that carries some mystery.

This one is a mosaic. “Kaliski & Gabay 88” it reads, in a funky blue and white tile typeface.

Who were Kaliski and Gabay? Fine arts auctioneers who operated their business here auctioning paintings, rare books, rugs, and other items as early as 1914; that’s the earlist reference I found of the fine auction house Arthur Kaliski and Richard Gabay founded.

The place was really rocking in the first half of the 20th century. Kaliski died in 1946 at age 63, but his Brooklyn Eagle obituary stated, “his performance every Friday and Saturday, except holidays, was regarded as a good show and drew crowds of more than 200 persons at a time” to the University Place auction house.

This 1947 newspaper ad makes note of their auctions (and a GR phone number!).

At some point around 1950, it seems the auction house shut down. Today, it’s a WeWork, and I wonder if the workers here ever think about the names they have to step past to enter the building.

[Fourth image: New York Herald, December 1922]

A lawyer-turned-artist’s moody Greenwich Village

December 3, 2018

Until recently, I’d never heard of Greenwich Village painter Anthony Springer. But I’ve found myself captivated by his colorful, textural images of a less dense, less luxurious Village and other surrounding neighborhoods.

Born in 1928, Springer, a native New Yorker, worked as a lawyer before deciding to make painting his vocation at the age of 40, according to friend and fellow artist Robert Holden in 2013 on his blog, Painting Life Stories.

“Tony was a wonderful, quietly mysterious kind of guy, who played poker all night long, slept until the late morning, and then grabbed his half-box French easel and 16×20 inch stretched linen canvas to go paint the narrow side streets of the Village in the dusty afternoon light, a habit he kept up for 20 years or more,” wrote Holden.

When he died in 1995, Springer left behind “hundreds of his beautiful, moody gray cityscapes,” he wrote.

More than two decades or so have passed since Springer’s death, and his evocative work serves as a reminder of the very different pre-2000s Greenwich Village.

Springer’s “Meatpacking District,” at top, takes us to the Belgian block intersection of Greenwich and Gansevoort Streets.

When Springer painted it, this was a daytime corner of trucks, garbage carts, and pigeons before it became an pricey restaurant playground.

His image of a gas station amid tenements is a reminder that downtown used to actually have gas stations. Could this be the one Eighth and Greenwich Avenues?

“Downtown Street” shows a quiet scene of a narrow side street and empty sidewalks. Maybe Mercer Street, or Greene Street?

The last image, “Townhouses and Naked Trees,” feels appropriate for the current season with winter approaching. Hmm, Tenth Street?

[First and last images: Doyle; second and third images: mutualart]

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]