Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

July 2, 2018

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

Excavating Penn Station by fire and lamp light

June 25, 2018

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of the demolition of the original Penn Station from 1963.

Much more inspiring, however, is this painting, which chronicles the building of the Beaux Arts station in 1908. Construction hasn’t begun yet; social realist painter George Bellows gives us the excavation of the land where Penn Station will eventually rise and open in 1910.

There’s magic here—thanks to the lamps ringing the excavation site and tenements across the street. Slightly eerie is the orange glow of a fire deep in the pit and images of nearby figures keeping watch over things, perhaps.

Bellows must have had a fascination with the building of Penn Station, as he painted this daytime image as well.

Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island

June 25, 2018

City officials had good intentions when they built the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841 on Blackwell’s Island.

Rather than confining city residents who were deemed insane to prison cells (which had long been the preferred course of action), this new institution with the octagon entrance was all about “moral treatment,” explains Stacy Horn in her new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

Insanity was to be considered an illness, not demonic possession. And “therapy was focused on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs,” wrote Horn. That meant exercise instead of shackles, work that would build self-esteem, and recreation to lift spirits.

What kind of recreation? Activities included lectures, concerts, magic lantern shows—and a periodic event dubbed the Lunatic’s Ball.

“On special holidays they’d fit up one of the pavilions as a dancing hall and everyone—patients, attendants, and doctors alike—would dance,” explains Horn.

In 1865, Harper’s Weekly covered one of these Lunatic’s Balls in an article titled “Dancing by Lunatics.”

“The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was the scene of a most interesting and remarkable spectacle on the night of November 6,” the article stated.

“The completion of the first of a series of four frame buildings was celebrated by a ball, in which the patients of the Asylum were the dancers, ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’ after a fashion even more fantastic than Milton dreamed of in ‘L’Allegro.'”

The new buildings were necessitated by an increase in asylum residents, causing overcrowding and making the place much less therapeutic and more dangerous than the city had hoped.

“A prominent fiddler, himself a patient, is lost in ecstasy in the sounds which he produces, and in their influence upon his fellows. Every variety of ‘pigeon wing’ is being cut by the active dancers. Now and then there darts out one who enchains the attention of all her acquaintance by her excellent execution of the most difficult pas.”

“Occasions of this sort no doubt tend in a great degree to relieve the sluggish melancholy which too close confinement or too monotonous surroundings are apt to produce in our institutions for insane people. It is often the case that isolation renders incurable diseases of the mind which a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”

This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and “sluggish melancholy” was the least of the problems residents encountered.

Bly’s expose on the terrible conditions there ultimately led to its closing. Residents were relocated to a cleaned-up facility on Ward’s Island, one that didn’t seem to continue the Lunatic’s Ball tradition.

[Top image: Lunatic asylum scene in 1868; second image, the Lunatic’s Ball, Harper’s Weekly; third image: NYPL, 1850s; fourth image: Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s; fifth image: Lunatic Asylum, undated]

An 1877 Park Avenue mansion funded by beer

June 25, 2018

The titans of industry in the Gilded Age built spectacular mansions for themselves on today’s Upper East Side.

George Ehret also built an Upper East Side mansion. But unlike men like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Frick who made their money in steel, railroads, or on Wall Street, Ehret’s showstopper of a home was funded by a decidedly old-world product: beer.

Ehret was the German-born founder of the Hell Gate Brewery, opened in 1866 in a massive brick clock-tower structure on a mostly rural stretch of East 93rd Street between Second and Third Avenues.

(Below, the view from Ehret’s mansion in 1882, with Hell Gate Brewery in the background close to the East River.)

Like thousands of other German immigrants, Ehret arrived in Gotham in the middle of the 19th century, part of the first wave of mass immigration from Europe.

While beer had been a popular beverage in the city since colonial days, this sudden population surge fueled a demand for beer that led to the opening of several huge breweries in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“The Germans who came during and after that period were mostly beer drinkers, and the demand for that mild beverage became so great that the speedy erection of additional breweries proved to be a manifest want,” Ehret wrote in his 1891 history of brewing.

Thanks to all the beer gardens and saloons popping up in the Gilded Age, Ehret made a fortune. In 1877 he bought land on newly landscaped upper Fourth Avenue between 93rd and 94th Streets, then commissioned an architect to construct a fabulous mansion for himself, his wife, and their many children.

Architecture critics may not have loved it, but the brownstone-style mansion built on a hill certainly stood out, especially since the Ehrets didn’t have many neighbors at the time. (Above, from the mansion roof in 1882)

Over the decades that changed, and by the time Ehret died in his home in 1927, Park Avenue was turning into an enclave of tall, stately apartment houses.

His family sold the mansion to a developer who built 1185 Park Avenue on the site (above). Ehret’s brewery ceased production two years later, a casualty of Prohibition.

[Top photo: NYPL, 1928; third and fourth photos: MCNY 2001.72.10; MCNY 2003.26.4]

All that remains of a now-defunct Bronx hospital

June 18, 2018

With their many rooms and spacious lobbies, many hospitals from early 20th century New York City have been repurposed into co-ops and condos.

Think St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, the former French Hospital on West 30th Street, and a turn of the century hospital devoted to cancer on Central Park West.

But Union Hospital (above in 1970), founded in 1911 in the Bronx “for the treatment of all ailments,” continued its mission as a health facility even after closing in 1997.

The 1920s-era building the hospital once occupied still sits on East 188th Street and Valentine Avenue. Stripped of prewar details, Union was remade into Union Community Health Center, part of nearby St. Barnabas Hospital.

A few remnants of the old hospital remain. First, there’s the entrance sign, in a typeface that feels more Victorian than Roaring 20s.

Then there’s a cornerstone with the hospital name engraved on it, as well as the year the building opened: 1922.

That’s just a decade after Bronx County was formed, and in the middle of a time of enormous urbanization and expansion in what was once a rural part of the city.

[Top photo: Union Community Health Center]

Summer among the tenement houses in 1879

June 18, 2018

“Among the tenement-houses during the heated term—just before daybreak” reads the caption to this 1879 illustration of New York’s poverty-stricken slums in the summertime.

Under a gaslight, adults and kids try to catch a breeze and sleep on the front steps of a rundown grocery, as well as on the roof and beside open windows.

In July and August, any New Yorker who could left the city for cooler weather in the country. These residents remained behind to deal with the oppressive heat made worse by the airless rooms of tenement flats.

They don’t even have fire escapes to sleep on, which 20th century city residents used as beds for hot summer nights.

A teen swims from Manhattan to Coney Island

June 18, 2018

Most contemporary New Yorkers would think twice about swimming in the city’s waterways.

But a century ago, marathon swim contests captivated the city, with thousands of fans cheering on competitive swimmers who tested their endurance in New York Harbor and the city’s rivers.

One of these competitors was 17-year-old Rose Pitonof. Born in 1895, the “swimming marvel,” as the New York Times later called her, won swim races in her home city of Boston.

That was pretty impressive in an era when most people didn’t know how to swim, and it was still controversial for women to pursue any kind of athletics.

On September 19, 1910, Pitonof attempted to swim the 17 miles from East 23rd Street in Manhattan to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier.

According to the New York Sun, she completed the course—which took her down to the harbor and then to Norton’s Point on the western end of Coney Island (where Sea Gate is today) in five hours and six minutes.

She did the same course a year later and won again, swimming 21 miles as she navigated three bridges amid choppy East River waters while doing the breast stroke.

“Coney Island never held a more enthusiastic or demonstrative crowd than that which welcomed the girl swimmer at Steeplechase Pier yesterday afternoon,” wrote the New York Times on August 14, 1911.

“From the time she first made her appearance around Norton’s Point thousands gathered along the shore to watch her progress and cheer her on to victory, and all bathing was suspended for practically the last hour of her swim.”

“At the finish of the swim she appeared in no way fatigued, and her only nourishment was a cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich.”

Pitonof wasn’t just an athlete—she was a performer too, and she worked the vaudeville circuit demonstrating high dives and other tricks.

She attempted a few more long-distance swims in the 1910s, including an English Channel swim (which another teen swim sensation from Manhattan completed) and a route from Sandy Hook to New York, but was unable to finish either.

She died in 1984, a generation before the launch of the Rose Pitonof Swim, an annual event that recreates her record-breaking journey from the East 20s to Coney Island.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

The church wall that protected Irish immigrants

June 11, 2018

Manhattan has no shortage of beautiful and historic houses of worship.

But walking by St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which spans Prince Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets in what was once working-class Little Italy and is now a neighborhood of boutiques and coffee spots, makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the early 19th century.

The Gothic Revival church building, the weathered tombstones, the black cast-iron fence surrounding a yard of grass and trees all give off a quiet, ghostly feel.

And then there’s the 10-foot brick wall surrounding the churchyard, which doesn’t say keep out as much as it feels like a protective moat around the church and the worshippers inside.

Apparently that protective function is exactly why the wall was built.

In the decades after the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in 1815 (it was the city’s second Catholic church), an orphanage and parochial school opened as well.

Soon, a tide of Catholic immigrants fleeing poverty and later famine across the Atlantic made their way to the city.

It wasn’t as if Catholics were welcomed to New York with open arms before then. But the multitudes of Irish coming to the city in the 1830s and 1840s spurred on a nativist movement against them that resulted in lethal gang brawls and the burning of Manhattan’s third Catholic church on (now defunct) Sheriff Street by arsonists.

In response, church leaders built the 10-foot brick wall that still stands today.

“Although the exact date of construction is unknown, stories suggest that in 1835, Bishop John Hughes was compelled to station parishioners on already-extant walls so as to protect the cathedral from a fire-wielding anti-Catholic mob,” stated Place Matters.

Bishop Hughes was John Joseph Hughes, an Irish-born priest who was consecrated as a bishop at St. Patrick’s in 1838—and eventually became the first archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.

wall

“In the following years, nativist mobs had advanced on St. Patrick’s several times but were turned back after receiving reports that armed Irish defenders—posted by Bishop Hughes—were stationed along Prince Street and behind those brick walls which had been specifically constructed to protect the Cathedral,” proclaimed the church website.

After the Civil War, the Irish were still scorned, but the nativist movement lost steam. The inside of old St. Patrick’s burned in an accidental fire in 1866; it was rebuilt two years later.

The church walls were undamaged, so the same walls we walk by today, where vendors park their wares and fashionable people stroll and window shop, are the ones that helped protect vulnerable immigrants 175 years ago.

[Second image: NYPL, 1880; fourth image, NYPL, 1850s; fifth image, NYPL 1862]