Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street

July 25, 2021

When Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan trains.”

But some of Brace’s ideas would seem like common sense to contemporary New Yorkers. Later in the Gilded Age, Brace decided to build lodging houses and “industrial schools” in New York’s impoverished neighborhoods, places where children could learn a trade and prepare for adult life.

In an era when options for street kids often meant the almshouse or an orphan asylum, homes and schools like these could be real lifelines.

Sullivan Street Industrial School in 1893

One of these industrial schools still stands on Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets. Opened in 1892, it’s a red brick beauty with Gothic and Flemish touches (that stepped gable roof!) on a South Village block where Italian immigrants dominated in the late 19th century.

Brace ministered to street kids, but he also had famous friends. One was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park as well as the creative genius behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just an elevated train stop away on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Sullivan Street, 1893, on the same block as the school

“Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then,” wrote Brian J. Pape in WestView News.

Vaux designed the Sullivan Street school, as well as the Society’s Lodging House on Avenue B and Eighth Street, the Elizabeth Home for Girls on East 12th Street, and the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, all of which are still part of the cityscape and share the same architectural flourishes.

Sullivan Street, 1895

To fund the school, two benefactors stepped forward with the $90,000 needed: Mrs. Joseph M. White and Miss M.W. Bruce, according to an 1892 New York Times article. Supporting the Society was popular with wealthy Gilded Age families, and both women had long been involved in the Society’s efforts.

Opening day in December was captured in print. “The children, to the number of 420, girls and boys, between the ages of five and thirteen, were marshaled into the audience room under the charge of Mrs. C. Forman, principal of the school, and her nine assistant teachers,” wrote the New York Times. “They were dressed in their new suits of clothing, given to them on Monday last by Miss Bruce.”

The school and a next-door playground in 1939-1941

For decades, the Sullivan Street Industrial School served a community that became one of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhoods. Classes in woodworking, metalworking, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills were offered.

The Society didn’t beat around the bush about the rough and tumble neighborhood, however. “This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities in the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible,” the Society wrote in a 1892 report.

The school was more than just a place of learning. An 1899 report by Principal Forman explains that funds were raised from “generous friends” to distribute food and fuel, as well as hot dinners. An organization called the Odds and Ends Society “furnished many warm and comfortable garments” for the children, and mothers who were considered “deserving poor” with husbands out of work were given money to help with rent.

Today, it looks like this former lifeline is a rental building on a much more affluent Sullivan Street. At least one apartment offers up-close views of that stepped gable roofline.

[Second image: History of Child Saving in the United States; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

A 1970s remnant of a Crazy Eddie record store

June 7, 2021

I have no idea why the original owner of this yellow paper bag from Crazy Eddie’s held onto it for so long. But when it turned up for sale at a vintage shop (pressed in plastic, no less), I couldn’t resist spending a few bucks to own a piece of 1970s/1980s New York history.

If you lived in the New York City area in those decades, then you remember the electronics store and record/tape shop Crazy Eddie—mainly for the commercials, which featured a DJ named Jerry Carroll gesturing and shouting that the store’s prices were insane. (Sometimes in a santa claus cap for the annual Christmas in August sale.)

The original Crazy Eddie was on King’s Highway in Brooklyn. But the store’s TV ad schtick and actual low prices spread franchises to the Bronx, Manhattan, upstate, and Long Island.

Unfortunately it was all over for Crazy Eddie’s owners by the 1990s, thanks to inflating sales numbers and other illegal business practices that mandated store closures and jail time. New Yorkers turned to other electronics stores like (Nobody Beats) the Wiz and J&R Music World, but these too are long gone from the cityscape.

A quick Google maps check shows that the original King’s Highway store is now a bank branch.

[Second image: New York Daily News February 22, 1980; third image: Youtube]

The body of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War comes to City Hall

May 31, 2021

The metal coffin reached Jersey City by train at half past three o’clock on May 31, 1861. It was loaded into a hearse and onto a ferry, and when it arrived in Manhattan it was brought to a parlor inside Astor House—at the time New York’s most luxurious hotel, on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

For several hours there, the coffin lay under a large draped American flag. Family, friends, and National Guardsmen mourned the man inside it, whose “pallid features,” as the The Sun described them the next day, could be seen through a piece of oval glass.

“Few would have recognized in the ghastly features the gallant commander once so full of life and intelligent,” the newspaper wrote.

At 10 pm, the coffin went back in the hearse for the short trip to City Hall, where flags stood at half-mast and black and white crepe hung over the entrance. “Here an immense crowd had assembled on the steps and in front of the building, awaiting the funeral cortege,” wrote The Sun.

Politicians, such as mayor Fernando Wood, paid their respects. Soon the public was allowed to enter, and over the next few hours 10,000 New Yorkers passed by the coffin that contained Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, 24, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

“Remember Ellsworth” was a popular rallying cry among Union supporters during the War Between the States. Today, Col. Ellsworth, who commanded a funeral cortege similar to that of Abraham Lincoln’s four years later, has largely been forgotten. Who was he, and why did the death of this young lawyer from upstate earn such an elaborate farewell in New York City?

Part of it had to do with his status as a dashing young law clerk and National Guard Cadet who took a job in the Springfield, Illinois office of future President Lincoln. “The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him,” stated Smithsonian magazine.

Ellsworth also had a deep interest in military science. When President Lincoln put out the call for Union troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War, he responded by “raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops,” according to the NPS.

The 11th New York Volunteers were also known as the First Fire Zouaves, since many members of this unit—with their distinctive flashy uniforms and billowy pants—were recruited from New York’s volunteer fire departments.

In May 1861, Ellsworth returned to Washington with his Fire Zouaves. On May 24, the unit went to Alexandria, Virginia to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flying from the roof of a hotel called Marshall House, which could be seen from the White House roof 10 miles away.

The next day, “Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest,” wrote the NPS.

Jackson, a “zealous defender of slavery,” Smithsonian magazine stated, was then shot to death by one of the fire zouaves, Cpl. Francis Brownell.

The death of Col. Ellsworth so shook President Lincoln, he reportedly said, according to a PBS.org article on Ellsworth, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” Before Col. Ellsworth’s body came New York’s City Hall, Lincoln had it lay in state at the White House.

Col. Ellsworth became something of a folk hero, his image and actions reproduced in lithographs and sheet music. His story stuck in New York City’s memory through the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, an Ellsworth memorial was dedicated in Greenwich Village: It’s the flagpole at Christopher Park, the triangle across from Sheridan Square. (Above, a marker on the flag pole.)

[First image: Billy Hathom/Wikipedia photo of a portrait; second image: whitehousehistory.org; third image: Currier & Ives lithograph/Wikipedia; fourth image: Musicology for Everyone; fifth image: Corbis via Smithsonian magazine; sixth image: The Historical Marker Database]

Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village

May 24, 2021

The Village has always had dive bars that attract locals and luminaries. But The Golden Swan, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, might have been the first—and the most notorious in its day.

Inside this Irish tavern dating back to at least the 1870s, writers, artists, activists, and assorted Village characters of the 1910s gathered to drink. (National prohibition was looming, after all.) While the front of the tavern may have catered to locals and Hudson Dusters gangsters, bohemians made the back room—aka, the Hell Hole—their own.

Charles Demuth was a fan of the Swan. Demuth, who gained fame as a precisionist painter, captured the mood and mannerisms of the Swan’s nightly denizens in a visceral portrait from 1919 entitled “At the Golden Swan, Sometimes Called the Hell Hole.”

Here he “depicts himself and Marcel Duchamp, the acclaimed French Dadaist, seated at the left table of the popular meeting spot for young artists and bohemians,” wrote Christie’s in 2007.

“Other patrons included the artist John Sloan, who produced an etching of the bar in 1917 (above), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who incorporated it into some of his plays, including The Iceman Cometh,” stated Christie’s. Social activist Dorothy Day, journalist John Reed, and anarchist Hippolyte Havel were part of the crowd.

Sloan, whose studio was across the street on the other side of the Sixth Avenue El, depicted O’Neill (on the upper right) in his sketch. Both works give viewers a good idea of what the Golden Swan and Hellhole looked like. But Demuth’s feels rawer; you can feel the isolation among all the people packed into the small back room of a bar together, none of them looking at the person they’re sharing their table with.

Christie’s included an excerpt about the Golden Swan from the biography O’Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb: “The Hell Hole was a representative Irish saloon. It had a sawdust covered floor, rude wooden tables, and was filled with the smell of sour beer and mingled sounds of alcoholic woe and laughter. Its barroom was entered from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street the ‘front room,’ in which women were not allowed.

“Above the doorway swung a wooden sign decorated with a tarnished gilt swan. Farther east, on Fourth Street, was the ‘family entrance,’ a glass door that gave access to a small, dank, gaslit chamber known as the ‘backroom.’ Wooden tables clustered about a smoking potbellied stove, and it was here that respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer…”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928 to make way for the subway. But at the corner today is a patch of greenery known as The Golden Swan Garden.

[Top image: Christie’s, second image: Metmuseum.org; third image: New York Post/Getty]

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]