Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

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.

Firemarkwashingtonplace

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.

MurrayHallBrooklynEagle

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

Four ghost store signs in the Village and Brooklyn

July 7, 2016

In a city that changes as rapidly as Gotham, ghost signs abound. You know these phantom signs, left behind by a building’s previous tenant and never replaced by the new one—if there even is a new tenant.

Ghostsignmarinerepair

That seems to be the case with this wonderfully preserved Meier & Oelhaf Marine Repair sign on Christopher and Weehawken Streets. The company occupied 177 Christopher from 1920 to 1984.

It’s been an empty and eerie presence for 30 years, a clue to Christopher Street’s maritime past. Maybe it won’t be unoccupied for long; a different sign says the ground floor is for rent.

Ghostsigncoffeeweststreet

Around the corner on a lonely stretch of West Street, this coffee sign remains high above two empty, rundown storefronts—one of which was presumably a lively coffee shop not long ago.

Ghostsignsschoolsupplies

A store solely devoted to school supplies? The old-school signage can be seen behind the new awning for the Pure Perfection Beauty Salon on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights.

You don’t come across these too often anymore, a store name spelled out in tile amid a geometric design at the entrance. But it’s a charming old-timey New York thing.

Ghostsignshecht's

The people who ran Hecht’s, once at 363 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, must have agreed. The antique store there now, Sterling Place, luckily didn’t do away with it.

A Village eccentric’s popular 1920s speakeasy

June 23, 2016

BarneyGallant1920s1930smetBarney Gallant (standing, at right) was many things.

He was a Latvian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1903; Eugene O’Neill’s first New York City roommate, sharing a rundown Sixth Avenue flat with the playwright for $3 a week; and manager of the Greenwich Village Inn in Sheridan Square (below left).

He was also a colorful rebel so convinced that Prohibition was idiotic, he became the first New Yorker ever prosecuted under the Volstead Act in 1919 when his waiters served booze to undercover cops (he spent 30 days in the Tombs for this misdeed).

After his stint behind bars, Gallant—now a hero and celebrity—decided he would keep serving liquor, but only to customers in the know.

BarneygallantgreenwichvillageinnSo he opened his speakeasy, Club Gallant, in 1922 at 40 Washington Square South.

It was a hit, attracting “youngsters with strange stirrings in their  breasts, who had come from remote villages on the prairie; women of social position and money who wanted to do things . . . businessmen who had made quick money and wanted to breathe the faintly naughty atmosphere in safety, and ordinary people who got thirsty now and then and wanted to sit down and have a drink,” stated Stanley Walker in 1933’s The Night Club Era.

BarneygallantwashsquarenorthClub Gallant moved to Edgar Allan Poe’s old digs at 85 West Third Street. Gallant then decamped to 19 Washington Square North (right), where he opened his ritzy speakeasy Speako de Luxe (below).

The key to his success, besides his eccentric personality and reputation for having more friends than party-loving mayor Jimmy Walker?

He made his speakeasies exclusive, and he asked customers to adhere to some rules. (Rule 10: “Please do not offer to escort the cloakroom girl home. . . . “)

After Repeal in 1933, the “mayor of Greenwich Village,” as he was dubbed by the press, opened a restaurant at 86 University Place.

BarneyGallantspeakodeluxo

He wrote an article for Cosmopolitan in 1946 called “The Vanishing Village” and worked on his memoirs in the 1960s, supposedly.

What stories he must have had to tell! He died in a Miami retirement home in 1968.

[Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alamy]

Three centuries, four views of a Village tavern

June 13, 2016

Once a country backwater of tobacco farms, Greenwich Village owes its urbanization to lethal disease outbreaks.

Oldgrapevine1851

Residents fleeing late-1700s cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the city center moved up to Grin’wich, as it was then called. By 1840, the population had shot up fourfold.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” states the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Oldgrapevine1905

Streets, businesses, and houses followed—including a three-story clapboard roadhouse at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. Built in the 18th century as a home, it became a popular tavern by the 1820s called the Old Grapevine, for the vine that ran along the facade.

The first illustration depicts the Old Grapevine in 1851. West 11th Street looks like a rural road, thanks to the trees and paving stones.

Oldgrapevine1914

Two ash barrels are the only street furniture. The small fence at the far left surrounds the second cemetery of Shearith Israel, established here in 1805 by a synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

The Old Grapevine wasn’t just any tavern. “During the Civil War it was a popular hangout of Union officers and Confederate spies,” states the NYPL blog.

Oldgrapevine1915

“Later, when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was built the local lawyers and politicians would gather there to talk business. Artists and actors also met there. It was the ideal place to get news and information, or in the case of spies and politicians, the ideal place to spread rumors and gossip, leading to the popular phrase “heard it through the grapevine.”

[The origin of the saying might be a myth, as some comments below explain.]

The second image shows the Old Grapevine in 1905, from under the tracks of the elevated. The third image is from 1914.

The clapboard house is still standing, but 11th Street is paved and the ash barrels are gone, replaced by a Journal American newspaper box.

Oldgrapevine2016

One year later (as seen in the fourth photo), the Old Grapevine was about to be bulldozed, replaced by a six-story apartment building renting rooms for $12 a month.

A New York Times article from 1915 recalled the Grapevine wistfully: “it was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation.”

Here’s Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street today. The Old Grapevine is long gone; only the cemetery on the far left remains.

Escaping the day in the Bleecker Street Cinema

May 26, 2016

These days at 144 Bleecker Street, you’ll find a Duane Reade. But quite a different world existed there between 1960 and 1990.

Bleeckerstreetcinema

For 30 years, the two 1832 row houses at this address housed what used to be called a revival theater or art house theater—a place to catch offbeat, experimental, and foreign films before these categories were lumped together as independent cinema.

There was no surround sound or seats with cup holders. Yet the marquee in this 1960s photo looking toward LaGuardia Place hints at the treasures that awaited viewers who ducked inside to escape a dreary New York day.

[Photo: Robert Otter]

A hidden Village memorial to a 1930s sports hero

May 26, 2016

HankgreenberghomeOn the slender stretch of Barrow Street just west of Sheridan Square is a typical old-school city tenement.

Blending in discreetly on the outside of 16 Barrow Street is a weathered plaque honoring an early occupant: baseball all-star Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (below in 1933).

The Hebrew Hammer, as one of his nicknames went, lived there for a year after his birth in 1911, after which his family moved to a tenement on Perry Street.

Greenberg never played for a New York team; he spent his long career through the 1930s and 1940s slugging it out for the Detroit Tigers.

Hankgreenberg1933He made a name for himself not just as an excellent ballplayer but as the first Jewish superstar (his parents were Romanian-born Orthodox Jews).

In his memoir, The Story of My Life, he recalls the Village back in the 1910s.

“Baseball didn’t exist in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The neighborhood kids played one-o-cat, or stickball, or some other game that could be played on a city street.

“There was no place to play baseball, and nobody thought about the game, or missed it. Kids down in the Village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities.”

Hankgreenbergplaque

The Greenbergs decided the neighborhood was too rough and relocated to the Bronx. At Monroe High School, Hank began playing the game that earned him fame and fortune.

A Gilded Age painter’s springtime New York

May 23, 2016

I used to think that Frederick Childe Hassam’s most evocative paintings were his moody, poetic winter scenes of turn of the century New York.

HassamLowerFifthAvenue1890

But his Impressionist renderings of Manhattan in springtime—lush parks, rainy blue twilight, and exaggerated pastel skies—are just as striking.

Hassamfifthavenuenocturne1895

“Lower Fifth Avenue,” at top, depicts the lights and shadows of what appears to be an early spring day in 1890, warm enough to do without overcoats and for leaves to appear on fledgling trees.

Hassamunionsquarespring1896

“New York is the most beautiful city in the world,” Hassam reportedly said, citing Fifth Avenue as the city’s loveliest street. “Fifth Avenue Nocturne,” from 1895, gives us sidewalks slicked with rain and illuminated by electric lights.

Union Square is an oasis of lush greenery amid the backdrop of a gray city in 1896’s “Union Square in Spring.”

Hassamwashingtonsquarearch1890

The stretch of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Washington Square was Hassam’s milieu; no surprise, as he had studios at Fifth and 17th and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Washington Arch, Spring,” from 1890, shows what Hassam called “humanity in motion,” which he considered his primary subject and theme.


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