A massive menu at the Manhattan Beach Hotel

August 18, 2016

Despite the hopes of its Gilded Age developer, the spectacular oceanside resort of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn never developed the cachet of old money Newport or elegant Long Branch.

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But the upper-class guests who made the Queen Anne–style Manhattan Beach Hotel a premier sand and surf destination after it opened in 1877 certainly dined well.

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This menu from the 1905 summer season reveals hundreds of dishes, from shellfish to soups to salads to “Long Island vegetables,” perhaps a nod to Kings  County’s vegetable-producing past.

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Calf’s head, calf brains, sweetbreads—the hotel guests liked their organ meats. Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. Look, they offer charlotte russe, a much-missed lost food of New York City.

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By the time this menu (view it in its four-page entirety) was printed, Manhattan Beach’s glory days were behind it.

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The enormous resort was demolished in 1912, not long before its rivals, the Brighton Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel, also met the wrecking ball.

[Menu: NYPL; photo: Getty Images]

A peek inside Grand Central Terminal in 1939

August 15, 2016

From the New York Central Railroad comes this cool cutaway poster into Grand Central Terminal circa 1939, when train travel reigned supreme.

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The zodiac ceiling in the main concourse looks beautifully blue. There’s the main waiting room, now called Vanderbilt Hall, as well as a restaurant concourse, plus various lower levels connecting passengers to commuter trains and subways.

What happened to the art gallery on the third floor above the main waiting room?

A robber baron gunned down in a Broadway hotel

August 15, 2016

JimfiskwikiIf ever a New Yorker could be described as an unscrupulous, gaudy vulgarian, it would be “Jubilee” James Fisk.

“He was a striking figure, tall, florid, very fat,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “His light brown hair was pomaded and carefully waved, his mustache waxed to fine points, and huge diamonds blazed on his frilled shirt front and pudgy fingers.”

Fisk was a financier, unprincipled and notorious even in a Gilded Age city that celebrated greed and showiness.

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In 1868 he and his business partner, Jay Gould, were responsible for the Black Friday stock market crash, the result of their plan to manipulate the price of gold.

They made millions off the scheme, though, just as they profited handsomely after they joined forces with Boss Tweed to gain control over and loot the Erie Railroad.

“He never pretended to be governed by anything but expediency and self-interest,” wrote Morris. “And he conducted his life in full view of the public.”

JImfiskgrandcentralhotelThat may have been Fisk’s fatal mistake. Because when another business partner decided to kill him, he knew exactly where to find him.

That would be Edward Stokes, who entered the picture in 1869. The flashy son from a well-off New York family, Stokes convinced Fisk to invest in a deal to reopen an oil refinery in Brooklyn.

Stokes got money from Fisk—and he also ended up with Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield (below), a would-be actress who had “an exquisite figure and perfect features, large black-lashed eyes, magnificent glossy black hair,” wrote Morris.

Mansfield and Stokes were now the talk of the town; everyone, including Fisk, eventually knew about their affair.

JimfiskjosiemansfieldMeanwhile, by 1871, Fisk’s and Stokes’ refinery deal went sour. Unless he paid him an additional $200,000, Stokes threatened to release a series of love letters between Fisk and Mansfield that presumably reveal Fisk’s shady business practices.

After some legal maneuverings, Fisk had Stokes and Mansfield indicted for extortion.

When Stokes found out about the extortion charges on January 6, 1872, he packed his pistol, went to the Grand Central Hotel—a new hotel on Broadway and West Third Street popular with Fisk’s posh and powerful crowd—and waited for Fisk, who was due to meet friends there.

“He knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so Stokes went in first and waited on the second floor landing,” states Murder by Gaslight.

Jimfiskfranklesliesweeklycover“When he heard Fisk climbing the stairs Stokes started down saying: ‘now I’ve got you.’”

Stokes fire point blank. Fisk cried out in pain, and Stokes shot again. Fisk collapsed on the staircase leading to the lobby but gave a dying declaration that Stokes was his killer.

His life ended the next morning at age 36. Stokes served four years in prison.

Fisk was the consummate Gilded Age robber baron, yet he had his admirers, many of whom paid their respects in the foyer of the Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where Fisk had his offices and his body lay in state.

JimfisklayinstateBrooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher had disparaged Fisk as “the glaring meteor, abominable in his lusts and flagrant in his violation of public decency.”

But younger New Yorkers who came of age as the Gilded Age began seemed to admire his “smartness and shrewdness,” explained Morris.

“In refusing to be bound by the traditional moral code, in declining to become the prisoner of convention and decorum, in rejecting the easy compromise of hypocrisy, Jim Fisk had shown an intrepidity that compelled their admiration,” he wrote.

Power, greed, lust, corruption—the Gilded Age was one of notorious crimes and murder trials, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available now for pre-order, lays out.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, MCNY, 1910; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: via Minneapolis Star Tribune; fifth and sixth images: covers of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 1872, NYPL]

The 1872 “horse plague” cripples New York City

August 15, 2016

HorsefluhorsespullingstreetcarIt started in Toronto in the summer of 1872, then spread to New England and Michigan before finding its way to New York in the fall.

“The Horse Plague,” read the headline of the New York Times on October 25. “Fifteen thousand horses in this city unfit for use.”

New York had seen outbreaks of disease among horses before, most recently in 1871. But this epizootic of equine influenza was different, sickening (but rarely killing) nearly all horses exposed to it.

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This was a big problem in New York at the time. In a city powered by horses—pulling stages and street cars filled with people, hauling heavy wagons and drays of raw materials and merchandise—business and travel were all but shut down.

Horseflunytoctober271872Stage lines on almost all avenues were suspended or put on greatly reduced schedules. The express companies that handled business deliveries within the city were closed or scaled back.

In a city without horsepower, men were forced to do the labor horses usually did (above sketch).

“People were forced to transform into beasts of burden, using pushcarts and wheelbarrows to transport the merchandise that was piling up at docks,” wrote Nancy Furstinger in Mercy.

HorsefluhenryberghOxen (above) were even brought in to take over some of the work, their handlers charging $10-$12 a day for their use.

Not every horse owner allowed his teams time to rest and recover. The New York Herald on October 26 reported that one street car line “is running the horses as long as they will stand up, and the result promises to be fearful in the extreme, as many of them have dropped down in the street from overwork.”

That angered Henry Bergh (left and checking street car horses in the illustration at top), who headed the recently formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh stood outside of Cooper Union and personally “ordered the brutes to stop driving the gasping beasts.”

MCNY1913The conditions horses lived in were partially blamed for the outbreak. “The car and stage horses of this city suffer invariably from all possible forms of equine disease . . . badly fed, worse housed, overworked, and never groomed, they are ready victims of disease,” commented the Times.

The outbreak was over in New York by December, and horses went back to work, doing their duty as the “mute servants of mankind,” as Bergh called them, until they were largely replaced by automobiles.

[Top image: Harper’s Weekly; second image: NYPL; third image: NYT story October 27, 1872; fifth image: MCNY]

Taking a spin on Coney Island’s “Witching Waves”

August 12, 2016

The variety and creativity of amusements at turn-of-the-century Coney Island was astounding. This 1910 postcard shows one of the most popular rides, the Witching Waves.

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Invented by the same man who patented the revolving door and installed at Luna Park, “it consisted of a large oval course with a flexible metal floor whose hidden reciprocating levers could induce a moving wave-like motion,” explains Coney Island site westland.net.

“While the actual floor didn’t move, the continuously moving wave propelled two seated small scooter-like cars forward while patrons steered.”

[Postcard: MCNY]

The 1852 stable-turned-synagogue in the Village

August 12, 2016

In a neighborhood filled with architectural anomalies, the little house with the front yard at 11 East 11th Street has a curious 164-year history. In that time, it went from stable to brothel to garage to private home before becoming a synagogue half a century ago.

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First things first. The house was built in 1852 as a carriage house for George Wood, a wealthy lawyer who that same year constructed a stately mansion next door at 45 Fifth Avenue.

11east11thstreetsideIn that antebellum era, lower Fifth Avenue was a cream-of-the-crop street lined with freestanding mansions.

The families who occupied these impressive homes needed places to keep their horses, so they put up stables nearby set back from the road with a front yard for hitching.

The 19th century went on, and the richest residents moved northward. By the 1860s, Wood’s former carriage house had become a “disorderly house” raided a few times by the police, reported New York Times.

11east11thstreetnytjuly211867At the century’s end, development changed the face of lower Fifth Avenue. Most of the grand mansions were remodeled or replaced by apartment residences; the carriage houses were demolished.

Yet Wood’s stable, with its tidy front yard, survived. With the arrival of the automobile era, it was turned into a garage with a loft, reported the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

11east11thstnypl195111 East 11th Street “now has window arrangements typical of the 1920s,” the GVSHP wrote.”It has been roughcast in stucco with diamond-shaped tile patterns set in the parapet, which is crowned by a stone coping stepped up at the ends above small, square blocks.”

In the next decades, the little house served as a private residence and a “light protector” for the bigger Van Rensselaer Hotel next door.

In 1959, the Conservative Congregation of Fifth Avenue—which had been holding services in a hotel—made the former stable with the ginko tree out front its synagogue.

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This year, looks like the house and property have been approved for a renovatation.

[Newspaper article: NYT July 21, 1867; fourth photo: 1951, NYPL]

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.

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But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.

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Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.

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A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.

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I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.

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Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

Two enchanting views of New York’s High Bridge

August 8, 2016

It’s New York’s oldest bridge—a Roman-inspired graceful span completed in 1848 as a crucial link of the Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to city spigots.

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At 140 feet above the breezy Harlem River, it was (and is—it’s now open to the public) a favorite place for strollers as well as artists.

Ernest Lawson was one of those artists. “High Bridge—Early Moon” (above) from 910 “dates from Lawson’s early period . . . when he lived for a time in Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan,” states the website for the Phillips Collection, which owns the painting.

Highbridgeharlemriver

“Having left the area in 1906 when he moved to Greenwich Village, the artist often returned to paint his favorite sites until about 1916.”

“High Bridge—Early Moon” looks toward the Bronx side of the bridge. In the more somber “High Bridge, Harlem River,” Lawson looks toward Upper Manhattan, the site of the circa-1872 High Bridge Water Tower.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“The motif of the bridge . . . takes on added significance in American art as a symbol of movement and change. As cities grew, bridges were often among the first structures built, their spare designs helping to transform the face of the American landscape from rural to urban.” continues the Phillips Collection caption.

“Lawson’s carefully observed paintings documenting this change conveyed his delight in commonplace views and objects—an old boat, a frail tree, grasses growing along the river’s edge.”

Read more about the High Bridge and how the bridge and the riverfront below it became a favorite recreation area in the late 19th century in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

Discount store Korvettes lives on in the subway

August 8, 2016

Remember the faded and forgotten Gimbels sign inside the 33rd Street PATH station? Turns out another relic of New York’s department store past is hidden away there as well.

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Inside a closed-off construction area along a walkway connecting the PATH to the Herald Square subway station is this sign for the underground entrance to Korvettes.

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What was Korvettes? New Yorkers who lived in the metro area anytime between the 1950s and the early 1980s know: it was a popular discount retailer with several locations in the city, including one at Sixth Avenue and 34th Street (top photo).

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Korvettes went bust in 1980—but this Reagan-era sign was never taken down, even as new retailers moved into its former site, now called the Herald Center.

saks34thstreet1920sThe Herald Center has quite a retailing history. Before Korvettes moved there in the 1960s and the building was sheathed behind a Brutalist facade, it was a lovely Beaux-Arts building constructed in 1902 for Saks’s Herald Square store (left).

(Part of the old Saks facade came back into view last year during construction—a sweet site to behold.)

Korvettes had a strong run—I’d put it above Crazy Eddie but below its Herald Square neighbors like Gimbels and Abraham & Straus in the rankings of defunct city department stores.

This 1970s TV commercial will take you back to the days when Korvettes was big. Thanks to ENY reader B.R. for alerting me to the sign!

[Top photo: John J. Meola/Wikipedia; second photo: Alamy; third photo: Getty Images; fifth image: Staten Island Advance, 1971]

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

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Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

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Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

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La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

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By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

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To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.


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