A young socialite goes down with the Titanic

March 30, 2015

EdithCorseEvansTales of incredible heroism mark the sinking of the Titanic, doomed by an iceberg in the North Atlantic 103 years ago next month.

One young New York City woman’s quiet sacrifice, however, has been mostly forgotten.

Edith Corse Evans was born into a wealthy New York family in 1875. She survived the Blizzard of 1888 (years later, her sister recalled trudging to school with Edith after the storm ended, in “an enchanting city with trackless snow”).

By all accounts, Edith became an independent, socially prominent woman.

Edithevansmemorial

In the spring of 1912, when she was 36 years old, she reportedly went to England to attend a family funeral, then embarked on a clothes-shopping trip to Paris.

Accompanied by her aunt and two female relatives, she decided to take the Titanic home to New York, boarding at Cherbourg, Normandy and booking first-class accommodations.

GracechurchpostcardAt 11:40 on April 14, the mighty Titanic was ripped by an iceberg. Over the next few hours, as the ship listed, women and children were lowered into lifeboats.

As time went on and the situation became increasingly grave, Edith and one relative, Mrs. Caroline Brown, remained on deck, according to passenger Archibald Gracie IV.

Gracie (of the Gracie mansion Gracies) survived the sinking and recalled Edith’s last moments in his 1913 book, The Truth About the Titanic.

“I heard a member of the crew, coming from the quarter where the last boat was loaded, say there was room for more ladies in it,” wrote Gracie.

Gracie grabbed Edith and Caroline and rushed them to the last boat. “You go first,” Edith reportedly told her friend, according to Gracie. “You are married and have children.”

EdithevansobitnytWith Caroline safely on the lifeboat, Edith tried to board it as well. But she had difficulty climbing over the ship’s gunwale. “Never mind,’ she is said to have called out. ‘I will go on a later boat,'” wrote Gracie.

There was no later boat, and Edith perished in the sea with 1,516 other passengers. Her body was never recovered.

Shortly after her death, a plaque for Edith was installed under a stained glass window inside Grace Church, where her memorial service was held (above, her New York Times obituary notice).

“Love is strong as death” it reads, a quiet monument to a small act of great bravery.

Easter menus from New York’s restaurant past

March 30, 2015

EasterdinnermenufrontwindsorEaster dinner was a feast at the luxurious Hotel Windsor in 1893, once on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street.

Judging by the cover of the menu (left), the day’s religious significance was front and center.

Starting with “Easter eggs,” this Gilded Age menu details more than seven hefty courses, ending with a delicious strawberries and cream option.

Mutton kidneys and frizzled beef, on the other hand, sound less than appetizing.

Easterdinnerwindsor1893

Fast-forward to 1955. We’re at the Park Lane Hotel (located on Park Avenue and 48th Street until 1971), and Easter Dinner is now Easter Sunday Brunch, its religious significance not referenced.

The menu is a lot smaller and features brunch favorites New Yorkers indulge in today, such as Eggs Benedict and pancakes (okay, wheat cakes) and sausage.

Easterbrunchhotelparklane1955

Looks like only hot buns, filet of sole, and sausage appear on both menus, which are part of the New York Public Library’s fantastic Buttolph Collection of American menus.

If the Park Lane Hotel still hosts an Easter Brunch, I bet it’s no longer $4.50 a person!

Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

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He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

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The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

Hoffbauerrainynightinnyc1912

The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.

Meet the shiny new Port Authority Bus Terminal

March 23, 2015

It’s long been considered one of the city’s ugliest buildings, an “iron monstrosity” and the center of 1970s and 1980s sleaze that just can’t escape its sketchy reputation.

Portauthorityopeningphoto

In 1950, when the gleaming, efficient-looking Port Authority Bus Terminal at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street opened, the place was on the receiving end of lots of love.

Just listen to this promotional newsreel on the new terminal, which raves about the escalators, the shops, the 31 bus ticket windows you can visit for a ticket to “any city of town in the United States.”

According to the reel, the bus terminal stands “among the milestones of the century.”

Well, that’s stretching it. But at the time, the idea was pretty good—up until then, Manhattan had eight smaller bus terminals scattered around Midtown.

[Top photo: PANYNJ; Newsreel: Historic Films via YouTube]

What became of the Triangle factory owners?

March 23, 2015

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.

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From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.

Blanckandharrisfactoryafterfire

“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

The Mall: the only straight path in Central Park

March 16, 2015

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set out to recreate nature when they designed Central Park, laying out windy paths and serpentine walkways that would follow the woods and pastoral settings they had planned.

But they did allow one formal concession, the only intentional straight line in the park: a quarter-mile “promenade,” as they called it in the 1850s, where New Yorkers could mingle.

Centralparkmall

The Mall was “specially designed to accommodate the width of carriages passing through its bounds,” explains centralpark.com.

“Around the turn of the century, these carriages would drop off their wealthy inhabitants at the Mall’s starting point, where they could enjoy the natural scenery and mingle with people of lesser status. When these visitors finally reached the Bethesda Terrace, their carriages would be waiting to bring them to their next destination.”

And for the little ones, goat and donkey cart rides!

What remains of the East River’s long-gone slips

March 16, 2015

 Slipold2015Old maps of Lower Manhattan (like the one below, from 1842) list them: the many slips created along the East River to facilitate ship transportation in a city dependent on maritime trade.

 From Gouverneur Street to Whitehall Street, 12 slips offered “access to the shoreline by small craft such as ferries and farmers’ market boats,” states oldstreets.com. “There were markets at most of the slips at one time or another.”

Slipsmap1842

Today, some exist in name only. Eleven were gone by the middle of the 19th century, early victims of the city’s valuable real estate. The last one disappeared by 1900.

Slipmarket2015“It was the need for additional land that caused the passing of New York’s historic slips,” states a 1924 New York Times article.

“Those alleyways of water were two blocks long and as many wide, flanked about by rocking wharves at which tied up the small boats belonging to mother vessels further out, or the mother vessels themselves if not too large.”

“And with the passing of these slips passed also the romance of the clippers, our country’s first sailing vessels.”

What wonderful names they had! Some were derived from prominent Dutch-born landowners, like Coenradt and Antjie Ten Eyck (Coentje—later Coenties—Slip).

Slipsnyt1924

Others were named for the businesses nearby, like Coffee House Slip, once at the end of Wall Street where several coffee houses had popped up in the late 18th century (above, in a New York Times sketch).

Slipburling2015

There was also Fly Market Slip, a corruption of the Dutch vly, meaning valley, according to oldstreets.com.

The rest were Gouverneur, Rutgers, Pike, Market, Catherine, James, Peck, Burling, and finally, Old Slip.

The most sensational actress of the 1860s

March 16, 2015

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.

Adahmenkenmazeppa

She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.

Adahmenkennapoleons

Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

A settlement of shacks on upper Fifth Avenue

March 9, 2015

Recognize this block, which is less of a block and more of a hilly, rocky lot?

It’s Fifth Avenue at 101st Street in 1894, when this stretch of the future Museum Mile was still the province of the poor and vulnerable.

Shack18945thand101st

“A semi-rural hilly area with modest row houses and shanties at the end of the 19th century, Carnegie Hill was really discovered by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who purchased land on Fifth Avenue around 90th Street in 1898 and built a 64-room mansion,” states the New York Times in a 1994 article.

A Times article from 1905 appears to describe one of these shanties.

Shacks5thave1895116th

“Within a stone’s throw of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion . . . stands a gabled shanty within 20 feet of Fifth Avenue of such scant dimensions and poverty-stricken appearance that it would be despised among the hovels that house some of the poorest of the city’s residents.”

Upperfifthave2015Shanty settlements like these seemed to dot Fifth Avenue farther north, like the ones seen in this photo, dated 1895.

A cross street is not listed on the photo, unfortunately. But note the lamppost; it wouldn’t be long before developers rush in, ushering in an upper Fifth Avenue of hospital buildings and stately apartment residences that still exist today.

[Top two photos: MCNY]

A wood telephone booth hides on 54th Street

March 9, 2015

After an 88-year run in a townhouse on East 54th Street, Bill’s Gay Nineties closed in 2012.

Billsphonecloseup

The shuttering of the former speakeasy turned saloon and restaurant was a big loss for New Yorkers who love a time warp and a mahogany bar.

BillsphoneboothReopened and rechristened Bill’s, it’s a cleaned-up version of the old place, with much of the same decor, framed old photos, and finishings (and the silver dollars long embedded into the floor).

And luckily, the old wood telephone booth (with a phone with separate coin slots for quarters, dimes, and nickels!) off to the side of the front doors is still in place as well.

Sightings of wood phone booths are rare in Manhattan, so it’s a relief that this one wasn’t turned into a coat check or closet.

But why in the world does the staff keep one of those yellow wet-floor warning signs in there?

Billsbar


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