Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

RIP New York’s elevated West Side Highway

October 24, 2016

If you pine for the days of an edgier New York, then you would have loved the city’s “express highway,” as the back of the 1940s postcard below called it.

This was the elevated West Side Highway, which ran above West Street and 12th Avenue from Lower Manhattan to Riverside Drive.


But most drivers hated it. Built between 1929 and 1951, the freeway officially called the Miller Highway was supposed to make the avenues below safer for pedestrians and less congested.


Unfortunately it was poorly designed, too narrow for trucks and with sharp turns at exit ramps. It was also poorly maintained.

westsidehighwaygansevoortstWeakened by years of salt and pigeon poop, a chunk of the highway (left) actually fell into Gansevoort Street in 1973. (Above, at 14th Street, with a piece missing)

Today, a few sections of the elevated remain, but most of it was dismantled in the 1980s—to the dismay of some sun worshippers, bicyclists, and urban adventurers, who enjoyed having the crumbling roadway all to themselves in New York’s grittier days.

[Top photo, Wikipedia; third photo: Preservenet]

Climbing up the Jefferson Market clock tower

October 17, 2016

Once a year, the steep winding staircase leading to the top of the Jefferson Market Library’s Gothic clock tower opens to the public.


It’s worth the almost hour-long wait in line and slight vertigo to ascend the many steps and reach the top of this singular beauty of a building.


As many New Yorkers know, Jefferson Market was built as a courthouse by Central Park co-creator Calvert Vaux and opened in 1877. It’s the subject of frequent Ephemeral posts, as it’s such a spectacular place steeped in history).


The reward for making it up the stairs: magnificent views of Greenwich Village and beyond, and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve been inside a closed-off part of New York that few residents get a peek at.


Thanks to the people of Jefferson Market and Open House New York for making this architectural treasure accessible!

Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements

October 17, 2016

The tenement is a New York invention—typically a six-story residence shoddily constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to capitalize on a surge in population and the need for cheap yet affordable housing. (Below, 10th Avenue and 57th Street)


These “nurseries of pauperism and crime,” as reformer Jacob Riis deemed them in 1890, housed three-quarters of New York’s population in the late 1800s.


Tenements (like the one above at University Place and 13th Street) then were “packed like herrings with human beings,” wrote the city board of health in an 1873 report.


For decades, rows and rows of them filled entire blocks. Yet these days, with developers knocking down old buildings and putting up luxury apartments and offices, there seems to be an uptick in single tenements sticking out of the cityscape with nothing on either side. (Above, Tenth Avenue and 30th Street)


These tenements are ghostly remnants that look eerily out of place and abandoned, even when window curtains and lights make it clear that tenants live there. (West Street, above)

lonetenementbellowsThere’s something haunting about a tenement standing alone. Painter George Bellows realized this.

His 1909 “Lone Tenement” (at left) shows a deserted brick walkup in the shadows under the then-new Queensboro Bridge, a representation of the displaced, cast-off men warming themselves by a fire nearby.

lonetenementgrabachAnother social realist painter of the early 20th century, John R. Grabach, was also touched by the lone tenement.

His 1929 work, “The Lone House,” is a portrait of abandonment—of a tenement and people.

Some of today’s lone tenements might be next in line for the wrecking ball. Others stay up perhaps because their owners refuse to sell to developers.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd others await development to creep in and surround them—like this tenement on East 14th Street, which stood unmoored and alone for a few years and is now encased on either side by the concrete shell of a future apartment building.

Check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, for more on the history of the New York tenement.

What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court

October 10, 2016

New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.


And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.

jeffersonmarketstairsIt’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).

Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.

Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.

This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.


There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.

jeffersonmarketcourtdoorUpstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.

Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.

The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.

Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.


It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.

jeffersonmarketnyplsketchcriminals“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.

“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”

Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”

For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.


This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).


Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.

jeffersonmarketgarden-orgToday, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.

Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?

[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]

The faded, falling apart signs for city laundries

September 30, 2016

I’ve always wondered: why do so many of New York’s laundry places and dry cleaners have store signs that look like they’re about to fall apart or haven’t been freshened up since the Carter years.


This is not a criticism; I love coming across signs that have seen better days and bring us back to a different New York. But while so many other types of businesses update their signage frequently, laundry signs tend to look like forgotten relics.


The French Cleaners on Columbus Avenue is now closed. But the sign feels very space age 1960s. Same with Reliance Cleaners, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.


This launderers sign on Christopher Street is a favorite; it’s colorful and neat with a 1970s vibe. Grand Cleaners in East Williamsburg has the same old-school feel.


This second French Cleaners sign in Fort Greene is hard not to love. The faded blue background! That mini Eiffel Tower! I hope it lights up after dark.


The kindest landlord Greenwich Village ever had

September 30, 2016

strunskywestthirdsignNew York has never been known for its patient and understanding landlords. But the back pages of the city’s history are filled with exceptions, like Albert “Papa” Strunsky.

Strunsky (below) was a portly Russian immigrant who got his start in Greenwich Village selling wine to restaurants before leasing several walkup buildings between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets south of Washington Square.

albertstrunskygvny-comIn the years following World War I, as Bohemia flourished in the Village, Strunsky rented flats to many struggling artists and writers.

And when they had trouble coughing up the rent, he didn’t send an eviction notice.

“Strunsky was a character,” recalled one former tenant, Henrietta Stoner, in an undated interview with the Greenwich Village Gazette.

“But he was the most wonderful man in the world. If you could not pay the rent, he’d settle for a radio, for a painting if you were an artist and he liked your work.”

A reporter writing about the Village in a New York newspaper in 1936 had this to say about broke Villagers’ favorite landlord: “A rent collecting scene with Papa Strunsky is a memorable event. . . . First there is the initial ultimatum: ‘Either pay or get out.'”


“Then, the letdown when Papa asks, ‘Have you finished that book or that painting yet?’ Be the answer negative, it will not be necessary to pack up. Papa Strunsky will stake his tenant to another month—and frequently, to another year.”

Strunsky wasn’t just a Village landlord—he lived in the neighborhood himself at 44 Washington Square South near Sullivan Street (the block above, in 1922; West Third Street west of Sullivan Street today, below).


His wife ran a pay-as-you-wish cafeteria on West Eighth Street, and his children traveled in artistic circles; one married Ira Gershwin.

But for all his generosity, perhaps his heart was a little too big. Because Strunsky wasn’t able to collect all of the money he was owed, the company he leased his buildings from took them back, leaving him struggling.

He died at 75 in 1942, apparently broke but beloved by former tenants.

strunskynytobituary1942Of his landlord days, the New York Times wrote in his obituary: “Mr. Strunsky shunned reporters in those days, for as he explained, each public mention of his name and charities brought fresh waves of hopeful squatters to his door.”

“But ‘they,’ as he described the artists, and ‘they,’ living rent free until his patience was exhausted, would dedicate their pictures, symphonies, and statues to him but pay no money.”

[Second image:; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth image: New York Times]

The nurse watching over West 12th Street

September 9, 2016

stvincentsnursedoorwayThe scaffolding is gone and the construction vehicles have departed.

Now, the gleaming new condos (collectively called Greenwich Lane and fetching multimillion dollar prices) carved out of the former St. Vincent’s Medical Center on West 12th Street and Seventh Avenue are ready for occupancy.

Yet amid the landscaped courtyard, new bronze accents, and the cool marble lobby, a few lingering bits of the old Catholic hospital remain.

Take this nurse, carved into the facade above a doorway. Paying homage to the thousands of nurses who tended to St. Vincent’s patients from its opening in 1849 to its demise in 2010, she continues to look out solemnly for passersby on the West 12th Street side.


With St. Vincent’s gone, this faded subway sign in the 14th Street IRT station is even more of a relic.

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.


The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”


Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

An “almost accurate” map of the Village in 1925

September 2, 2016

By 1925, Bohemian Greenwich Village had been declared dead, killed off by tourists and college kids.

But the neighborhood of curio shops, theaters, tea rooms, and speakeasies still attracted painters, writers, poets, and illustrators.


One illustrator was Robert Edwards, who drew this playful and personal map of his Greenwich Village for Quill, a short-lived monthly “little magazine” steeped in satire.

GreenwichvillagequillEdwards describes his hand-drawn map as “almost accurate.” It looks pretty on target. Washington Square North is marked “aristocrats,” while south of the park is Italia and west of Christopher Street is Erin, for its Irish population.

Romany Marie’s, the (Bruno’s) Garret, and the Crumperie on Washington Place are in history’s dustbin. So is the speakeasy Club Fronton and the Sixth Avenue El, memorialized by John Sloan and e.e. cummings.

The map was part of an exhibit on Greenwich Village staged in 2011 by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Check out more maptastic views of 1920s and 1930s Greenwich Village.

[Quill cover:]

A Salvation Army Art Deco fortress on 14th Street

August 29, 2016

In 1880, eight missionaries sent to the U.S. by the British-based Salvation Army disembarked at Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan.


Ridiculed at first, the group’s presence and influence grew, particularly in New York, where “officers” ran rescue homes, soup kitchens, and lodging houses and the evangelical mission turned into what founder William Booth later dubbed “social salvation.”

SalvationarmywikiAnd of course, they launched the tradition of setting up kettles on busy corners, asking for Christmas dinner donations for needy families.

So when it came time to build national headquarters in the 1920s, Gotham got the nod.

In 1930, a concrete and steel Art Deco complex consisting of offices, an auditorium, and Centennial Memorial Temple opened.

A women’s residence hall was also part of the complex, its entrance on 13th Street.

Though no longer the Salvation Army’s national HQ, the fortress-like structures of 14th Street stand as examples of streamlined Art Deco beauty and perfection.


The complex was designed in part by Ralph Walker, the architect behind New York Art Deco masterpieces such as the Verizon building (now the pricey residential Walker Tower) in Chelsea.


New York is resplendent with Art Deco: movie theaters, offices, apartment residences, and even subway entrances.

[Second photo: Salvation Army Headquarters from 14th Street, Wikipedia]