Gilded Age extravagance at the Hotel Navarre

October 2, 2017

It was built in 1900 on Seventh Avenue and 38th Street, at the tail end of the Gilded Age, and the Hotel Navarre has all the magnificent ornamentation of the era: it’s a French Renaissance fortress of terra cotta with a delightful roof right out of a European castle.

But in New York City, neighborhoods and architectural tastes change fast. The Navarre met the wrecking ball in 1930, just three decades later.

What happened? In the teens, this stretch of Seventh Avenue north of Penn Station became a “lowly section of the city, infested with second-hand clothing shops, lumber and coal yards.”

By the 1920s it was transformed “as if by miracle, into a great business section of the city,” the New York Times wrote two years earlier.

Today we have the 44-story Art Deco Navarre Building on the site, a tribute to a short-lived hotel with a 19th century design and elegance that was out of style a generation or so later.

For more on legendary Gilded Age mansions and hotels in New York City, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

This is the oldest house in Greenwich Village

October 2, 2017

Imagine New York in 1799: the entire population numbered about 60,000. The British had only vacated 16 years earlier.

State Street near Bowling Green was lined with posh mansions, and the city was riveted by the murder of a young woman whose body was found at the bottom of a well near Spring Street.

And in a leafy suburb called Greenwich north of the city center, a house was built by a merchant named Joshua Isaacs. It still stands—and it’s thought to be the oldest home in Greenwich Village.

The Isaacs-Hendricks House, as it’s called today, sits solidly on the corner of Bedford and Commerce Streets.

Why Isaacs built his home here isn’t known, but perhaps like other New Yorkers, he was fleeing the yellow fever epidemic that hit the post-colonial city hard.

Isaacs didn’t live at 77 Bedford Street for long though. A year later, he gave up the house to creditors, and his son-in-law Harmon Hendricks (right) bought it in 1801, according to the Greenwich Village Historic District Report.

Hendricks owned a copper mill, and he was a leader of New York’s small Sephardic Jewish community.

For the next three decades, Hendricks (and then his daughter Hettie Gomez, who inherited the house) had this stretch of the Village all to himself.

“Old records clearly indicate that the house was a free-standing building with its own yard,” explains the report. “A map of 1835 indicates no other buildings standing on Hendricks-Gomez land.”

That changed in 1836, when a builder put up 73 and 75 Bedford Streets. (75 and 1/2 Bedford, the former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, has the distinction of being the city’s skinniest townhouse.)

Other homes were built in the 1840s and beyond, turning Bedford Street into a residential enclave of red brick and wood frame beauty.

The Isaac-Hendricks house changed with the times.

“Originally the building was a simple frame structure with a gambrel roof,” states the report. “A brick front was probably added in 1836.”

Amazingly, the house—still in the Hendricks family—didn’t get its third floor until 1928. Windows were switched around, and a basement entryway was built in the back of the house. (Fourth and fifth photos, in the 1920s and 1930s)

How did the Isaacs-Hendricks house make it into the 21st century? (above left, in 1975).

In the 1920s, “it was purchased by a group of Villagers to preserve the character of the block and to prevent the erection of an apartment house on the site,” reads the report.

Thanks to these history-minded residents, this lovely home (from the back on the far left of the photo here) is here to delight and inspire New Yorkers.

[Photos one and two: Ephemeral New York; third photo: American Gallery 19th; fourth photo: MCNY; fifth photo: NYPL; sixth photo: MCNY; seventh photo: NYPL]

The Flatiron Building in all of its glittery glory

September 25, 2017

The only thing better than a vintage postcard of the Flatiron Building is a postcard that decorates the Flatiron in glitter—which isn’t as easy to see in this image but makes the actual postcard pop.

The building is 115 years old this year, an icon at the nexus of Fifth Avenue and Broadway is the subject of early photographs and Impressionist paintings.

It’s hard not to look at it and agree with photographer Alfred Stieglitz when he said it “appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster steamer.”

A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen

September 25, 2017

Is there anything quite as enchanting as coming across a quiet hidden courtyard in the middle of a dense Manhattan neighborhood?

It’s especially magical when the courtyard is just a quick walk from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. That was my reaction when I took a walk through tiny Clinton Court in Hell’s Kitchen.

This secret space is about halfway down the busy tenement block between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s accessible through a long slender walkway behind a heavy iron door, which you can find to the right of the residence at 422 West 46th Street.

The door is locked, of course. But it’s worth the trip if you can catch a glimpse of the courtyard from the street through the door.

And if you can convince a resident to let you in and see Clinton Court up close, you’ll want to grab your camera.

Clinton Court is an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens. The courtyard is steps from the back entrances for 420 and 422 West 46th Street (with their ivy-covered walls).

And right in the center is an entirely separate carriage house, with a facade right out of New Orleans or Paris, or a fairy tale.

The carriage house has an unclear history. It was probably built in 1871 by the builder who put up the tenement at number 422.

This was approximately 20 years after 420 West 46th Street went up in the 1850s—before Hell’s Kitchen filled up and became a poor Irish neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and small businesses in the decades after the Civil War. (And long before the neighborhood got its colorful nickname.)

The carriage house “had horse stalls on the ground floor, but occupancy of the upper floors at this time is unclear—in the 1880’s a milkman, Jacob Michels, occupied the entire structure,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1992 New York Times piece.

Yet some sources have it that the carriage house dates back to the 1820s and was owned by George Clinton, governor of New York at the turn of the 19th century and a descendant of DeWitt Clinton, who has a park named after him in the neighborhood.

With Halloween coming up, it might be worth mentioning that a couple of sources claims the place is haunted either by Governor Clinton himself, one of his kids, or by an executed British Revolutionary War sailor named Old Moor, as the site of Clinton Court occupies an former potter’s field cemetery.

The carriage house’s history becomes clearer in the 20th century. “In 1919, Raffaello and Frank Menconi, prominent architectural sculptors, purchased both 420 and 422 and merged the lots,” wrote Gray.

The Menconis are the designers behind the flagpole bases outside the New York Public Library, among other city sculpture icons.

“They added a one-story studio with a skylight on the rear lot of 420 and occupied the entire rear building for their business.”

[ALL PHOTOS © EPHEMERAL NEW YORK]

In 1958, the tenements at 420 and 422 West 46th Street, the carriage house, and the studio became one single apartment complex entity, says Gray—serene seclusion steeped in New York history and mere steps from Midtown.

Why was this ghost sign in Chelsea covered up?

September 25, 2017

Ephemeral reader Steven O. recently sent me a photo of ghostly signage above a storefront at 180 Ninth Avenue.

Fika, the Swedish coffee chain, had occupied the spot and then moved—leaving behind the faded lettering of what appears to be a 19th century store advertising oils, glass, varnish, and other supplies possibly sold by a ship chandler.

The lettering reminded me of the faded outline of the old sign for Utah House, a hotel from the 1850s at Eighth Avenue and 25th Street—which came back into view briefly in 2013 during a building renovation.

Intrigued that the Ninth Avenue sign could also be from the 1850s, I visited the storefront, which is in a red-brick tenement building . . . only to see the lettering covered by black boards.

A little research looking into this address during the 19th century didn’t turn up any store that sounded like they would be selling these items. A poultry dealer, a fruit stand, and possibly a merchant selling corn salve all occupied the site.

But whatever business this was, what a shame that a remnant of New York history is once again out of view.

The Facebook group Ghost Signs has more on this and other old signage in New York and other locations.

[Photo credit: Simone Weissman]

The Ninth Avenue El curving by Morningside Park

September 18, 2017

These are the tracks of the Ninth Avenue Elevated making an S curve beside Morningside Park—which is what this 1908 postcards says.

To my eyes, it’s difficult to recognize the park of 2017, which is one of the city’s least appreciated but most beautiful. (The bear and fawn statue, the rock formations, the turtles….sigh.)

Here’s a photo very similar to the image in the postcard. RIP Ninth Avenue El, which ceased operation in 1940.

This alley was once an exclusive New York street

September 18, 2017

These days, it’s a dark, narrow footpath between Laight and Beach Streets in Tribeca, with Belgian block paving yet no streetlights or street signs telling you where exactly you are.

But in the 19th century, this was St. John’s Lane, a rich and fashionable residential street that faced the back of St. John’s Chapel (below) on adjacent Varick Street.

Completed in 1807, St. John’s Chapel and nearby St. John’s Park (or Hudson Square, as it was supposed to be called originally) were the centerpieces of the booming city’s new St. John’s Park neighborhood.

By the 1820s, what was once a swampy area called Lispenard’s Meadows in colonial times had become a posh, genteel English-style enclave for Knickerbocker merchants and other well-heeled professionals whose fortunes rose in the first half of the 19th century.

Trinity Church owned the land, and church officials sold lots surrounding the private park to upscale buyers. (They tried to rent them at first, but New York’s wealthy didn’t like that arrangement.)

Those buyers in turn built Georgian-style row houses surrounding the park and chapel. They also fenced in the park and planted beautiful gardens.

“Catalpas and cottonwoods, horse chestnut and silver birch trees were planted throughout, and gravel paths wound among them and the ornamental shrubs and flower beds,” wrote Charles Lockwood in Manhattan Moves Uptown.

St. John’s Park had a well-deserved reputation as a polite and refined neighborhood with a peaceful green space. But its standing changed when Cornelius Vanderbilt put down railroad tracks on one side of the park. In the late 1860s, Trinity Church sold the park to Vanderbilt, who built a railroad station where once were flowers and trees.

The rich left, and their homes became boarding houses and tenements. Commercial enterprises and poorer New Yorkers moved in.

St. John’s Lane still survives in a once-again-posh Tribeca, unmarked and unknown. A plaque at Albert Capsouto Park on Canal Street recalls St. John’s Park as well.

The gorgeous chapel itself hung on until 1918, when it was bulldozed. You can still see images of it at the Canal Street 1 train station, where it’s memorialized on the subway mosaics opposite the platform.

[Second image: unknown; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

The understated 9/11 memorial few people know

September 11, 2017

It’s just a simple plaque, mostly bronze with a bright red, white, and blue American flag, four sentences plus a bas relief image of the skyline before September 11, 2001.

Unless you regularly walk up First Avenue in Kips Bay, you probably wouldn’t even notice it. The understated plaque is affixed to the side of a VA Hospital building on First Avenue near 23rd Street.

I don’t know when the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System put it up.

But in a city filled with sizable memorials and monuments commemorating the immense bravery and tragedy of 9/11, there’s something to be said for a small quiet plaque that sits off to the side.

On another note, is this an archaic use of “hale” as a verb in the second sentence below?

In the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag is “hailed.”

Painting prewar New York from the outside in

September 11, 2017

Art that captures a single moment of beauty and activity on New York’s streets is always captivating. But there’s something to be said for images that reveal something about Manhattan from a far away vantage point, showing a city not in the center but on the sidelines.

Leon Kroll, born in New York in 1884 and a contemporary of George Bellows, Robert Henri, and other social realists, gives us that sidelined city.

Kroll, who studied at the Art Students League and exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, was known for his nudes and country or seaside landscapes, and he also painted Central Park, Broadway, and other city locations.

But he also depicted New York in the early 20th century from the outside in, illustrating the city’s rhythms from across the East and Hudson Rivers.

“Queensboro Bridge,” from 1912, the painting at the top of the page, is one such example. The majesty of the relatively new bridge (only three years old here) takes center stage, but the monolithic city looms behind it.

I’m not exactly sure where Kroll was when he painted the second image, 1920’s “Manhattan Rhythms,” the second image.

He presents us with a solid, impenetrable city high above the wharves and docks of the river, a metropolis that dwarfs the men who work there.

“View of Manhattan Terminal Yards From Weehawken” (1913) puts industry and commerce on display. The train tracks may be on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, but they and the boats sending smoke into the sky work to enrich Manhattan across the water.

“Terminal Yards,” the fourth painting (also 1913) gives us another, snow-covered view.

I love that the city skyline is barely in “Manhattan From Hoboken” (1915), another painting of the metropolis from the heights of New Jersey.

The vibrant colors and web of tree branches—not to mention the thick clouds and smoke coming from boats and trains beside the river—almost obscure the Empire State Building and the rest of the cityscape.

If you’re not there in the middle of it, New York is far enough away to feel like another country.