The lost ritual of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade

April 14, 2017

It started as an informal promenade in the 1870s, when New York’s most prestigious churches—like St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas, both on Fifth Avenue—began decorating their interiors with beautiful floral displays in honor of Easter.

Churchgoers dressed in their Easter Sunday best would visit different houses of worship to admire the flowers, explains author Leigh Eric Schmidt in Consumer Rites.

By the 1880s, this post-service visiting transformed into a loosely structured parade, with the fashionable and well-to-do strolling in the early afternoon on Easter Sunday up and down Fifth Avenue, from Madison Square to Central Park.

New Yorkers loved the spectacle. “Fashion bursting from its sack-cloth and adorning itself in new and beautiful garments,” the New York Times front page read on April 11, 1887, the day after Easter.

“Everybody and his cousin were on the pavement yesterday. For was it not Eastertide, Fifth Avenue’s brilliant day of days in all the length of the year?”

The Easter Parade was partly a ritual shaking off the chill of winter, but it was also the Gilded Age version of a fashion show, with Fifth Avenue sidewalks as the runways.

“The men were all in sober black save when at times the irreverent dude lit up the street with a gridiron shirt and a sonorous necktie,” the Times continued.

“But the ladies? They were as a flock of butterflies that, for a time locked within the church, had fluttered outward far and wide to try the Springtime sunlight on their glittery wings.” (You have to love that 19th century journalistic style.)

While you can’t tell from the black and white photos, these female parade-goers were decked out coats and dresses covering every color of the rainbow.

The crowds moved at a crawl all afternoon, dissipating as the temperature rose only to swell again in later in the day as the sun began to set, the Times reported.

“[As] the crowd reappeared, and hour after hour, the well dressed, motley pilgrims from all the wealthy quarters of a great city sauntered slowly along, from Delmonico’s to the Park . . .”

“[And] when night fell tailor and milliner had no cause to complain that full publicity had not been given to the long-studied creations of their fruitful hands.”

New York actually still has an official Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, and it’s open to everyone, not just the upper crust.

But it doesn’t command the attention it did until the 1940s and 1950s, when the tradition was mostly replaced—by real spring fashion shows, egg hunts, and the beloved New York tradition of long Sunday brunch.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the humble beginnings of New York’s favorite holidays.

[Top photo: LOC/Bain Collection; second photo: MCNY 90.28.51; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.18452; fourth photo: LOC/Bain Collection; fifth photo: MCNY 2010.11.10601; sixth photo: LOC/Bain Collection

This is the coolest coffee sign in New York City

April 14, 2017

In a city with almost as many coffee places as bank branches and most of them bearing chain store logos, it’s hard to believe that this wonderfully generic plastic sign hasn’t been replaced . . . or fallen off.

It’s on West 21st Street west of Fifth Avenue, advertising a slender coffee house that consists of basically a long counter and chairs—the kind a different New York used to have on almost every block.

Except for the ATM machine by the door, nothing about this storefront seems to have changed in half a century; it’s a sliver of the city frozen in time.

The most spectacular roofs are in Union Square

April 10, 2017

On a walk around Union Square, it’s impossible not to look up, thanks to the number of gorgeous roofs—stacked, sloping, multi-tiered roofs that top off the Gilded Age buildings like the elaborate feathered hats worn by stylish women of the era.

The four-story mansard roof crowning 201 Park Avenue South is perhaps the most impressive. This gorgeous building—close to the heavily German East Village back in the day—was once the headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company, built in fashionable French Renaissance style in 1911.

On the north side of the square at 33 East 17th Street is the Century Building, with it Queen Anne bells and whistles and two-story gambrel roof. Opened in 1881, the first tenant was a music publisher—and there’s a publishing link today, with Barnes & Noble occupying four floors.

A little farther up Broadway at 20th Street is a mansard roof like no other. Lord & Taylor built this Victorian blowout in 1870, when this stretch of Broadway was nicknamed Ladies Mile. The enormous store featured one of New York’s first steam elevators, and the company installed the first Christmas window decorations.

A detour to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street puts this double-decker Addams Family–esque roof in view. This is the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods store, also part of Ladies Mile.

Constructed between 1869 to 1877, the monster emporium spanned 19th Street from Broadway to Fifth Avenue.

Tiny Jewish cemeteries hidden in busy Manhattan

April 10, 2017

They’ve been there for centuries, just steps away from traffic lights and the rush of crowds: three small burial grounds tucked behind iron fences and shaded by untended trees.

They’re not in the best shape. Some of the headstones are broken or knocked askew, as this photo of a cemetery on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue shows. The Hebrew lettering on the stones has been worn down by the elements. Graffiti marks a brick wall.

But the story behind how these cemeteries came to be starts with the story of the first Jews to live in New York City.

That means going back to the 17th century. In 1654, a ship carrying 23 men, women, and children docked in Lower Manhattan. They were refugees fleeing Brazil, which the Portuguese had just recaptured from the Dutch.

This little group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews felt that New Amsterdam might be a more welcoming place.

Eh, not exactly. Peter Stuyvesant tried hard to throw them out. The refugees wrote letters to Holland to solicit support so they could stay.

A year later, the Dutch West India Company gave them the go-ahead to remain as long as they “do not become a burden.”

Free to build new lives here, the group quickly founded the continent’s first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. And though the synagogue had no permanent space until 1730, space for the deceased was established in 1656.

That original burial ground has disappeared. But what’s considered the first Jewish cemetery in the city still remains in Chatham Square (above), in a pocket facing St. James Place behind several tenements (below right, in a 1900 photo).

This cemetery opened in 1683. It once contained 256 graves, including those of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. The above sketch of what Chatham Square looked like marks the “Jews Burying Ground” at the top right.

Speaking of the Revolution, the cemetery made an important appearance. In 1776, Major General Charles Lee wrote to George Washington:

“The East River, I am persuaded, may be secured in such a manner that [British] ships will scarcely venture into it…A battery for this purpose is planned at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground.”

An expansion of the Bowery cut the burial ground down in size to closer to 50. Some of the lead epitaph plates are missing because during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers melted them down to make bullets.

In 1805, a second cemetery opened on the outskirts of the city, at Sixth Avenue and what was then Milligan Place (below). The expansion of the city grid chopped its size as well to a tiny triangle.

“Initially, this graveyard was the burial site for victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, for recently immigrated Jews who did not have strong ties to Shearith Israel, and for those who died at their own hand through suicide,” states the Shearith Israel website.

After the city banned burials below Canal Street in 1823, the Sixth Avenue cemetery became the main Jewish burial ground — until a third cemetery opened in what was then the bucolic country fields of Chelsea and is now a big-box shopping mecca (below).

“The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750,” wrote Tablet magazine. “The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street.”

Shearith Israel operates out of a majestic synagogue building on Central Park West with some spectacular history of its own; the wood floorboards under its reader’s desk are the same floorboards from the first permanent synagogue built in 1730 on Mill (now South William) Street.

The congregation maintains these three burial grounds, and near Memorial Day, members hold a ceremony at the Chatham Square cemetery, honoring the Jewish Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

Each cemetery has a story to tell about Jewish life in the city and the development of New York as a whole. Look for these ghostly reminders of Gotham’s first residents next time you’re nearby.

Manhattan is a necropolis of other little-known burial grounds, especially in the East Village.

[Fourth photo: NYPL; Sixth photo: MCNY: 93.91.359; Tenth photo: NYPL]

Old subway signage of a less complicated city

April 10, 2017

It’s always fun to come across vintage subway signs at stations across New York—and often they can tell us something about how people got around underground in a very different 20th century city.

Take a look at this entrance at the Fulton Street Station downtown. The contemporary signage is functional and color-coded.

But it’s so much lovelier the old-school way, when the sign above the stairs simply tells you this will take you “down town.”

At the Lorimer Street stop in Williamsburg you can switch to the “crosstown line,” a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use when they say they’re about to jump on the G train.

It makes Brooklyn sound like one big town (or city, as it once was, of course) rather than collection of very different neighborhoods it is today.

“Subway Entrance” above this stairwell attached to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway is done up in wonderful serif style. No train names or letters; its simplicity tells you everything you need to know.

Here’s one modern touch to get a kick out of: the stairs first lead you to a Subway sandwich shop.

A final elevated train shines on Ninth Avenue

April 6, 2017

You can almost hear this elevated train grinding against the tracks as it makes its way up (or down?) Ninth Avenue.

The Ninth Avenue El (which traveled along Greenwich Street to Ninth Avenue and then to Columbus Avenue) was the city’s first elevated railroad, ferrying passengers since 1868.

Andreas Feininger captured the solitary steel beauty of the tracks as they glisten under the sun in this photo in 1940, the year the line shut down.

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

Vintage matchbooks of defunct city restaurants

April 6, 2017

Now this is what I call an old New York eatery: Ye Olde Chop House began its run in 1800 on Cedar Street before moving to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway next door to Trinity Church.

The matchbook could be as old as the 1960s or 1970s, when New York addresses still used single-digit ZIP codes.

Apparently the food was quite good, the atmosphere old school. In 1946, when the chop house was still on Cedar Street, the New York Times called out the “mutton chops as thick as your fist” and “split chickens and lamb kidneys with bacon.”

The Times also noted the host, Harry Kramer. “Happily, Mr. Kramer is antiquarian and, except for introducing air-conditioning, has done little in the way of modernization. The original bar, worn almost white with shrubbing, still stands; the floors are the same old pine boards covered with sawdust and upstairs there are two fireplaces with carved mantles that were constructed when the house was built.”

Does anyone remember Asti? This West Village restaurant was famous for 75 years for its opera-singing waiters and theater-world customers.

Shuttered in 1999, Asti now only lives on in vintage ads, like this matchbook cover from 1975. Look at the old two-letter phone exchanges: AL for Algonquin, according to this guide, and CH for Chelsea or Chickering.

In June 1972, New York announced that the Upper East Side restaurant Camelot not only had “sumptuous buffet brunches on Saturdays and Sundays ($5.50 for all you can eat and all the Bloody Marys, champagne and rose you can drink), but now there’s a sumptuous buffet dinner every Monday night for $6.95.”

Looks like a Dallas BBQ is in this space now.

The crowds inside a 14th Street subway station

April 3, 2017

Reginald Marsh painted everything in his New York of the 1930s and 1940s: Bowery crowds, showgirls, forgotten men, Coney Island beachgoers, tugboats, panhandlers, and shoppers.

So of course he would take his sketchpad and chronicle New Yorkers using mass transit underground. In 1930 he painted “Subway, 14th Street,” showing a crowd of city residents rushing en masse to or from the train, each absorbed in his or her own world.

If only the newspaper headlines were a little easier for viewers to read!

The many lives of two Chelsea carriage houses

April 3, 2017

Certain old buildings in New York are so enchanting, they hijack your imagination. Who lived in them, you wonder as you pass by, and what stories can they tell us about their neighborhood?

This is what happens to me whenever I walk by 461 and 463 West 18th Street, just off Tenth Avenue.

These twin carriage houses were built in the 1880s, when the area known today as West Chelsea was a working-class industrial district of low-rise flats and factories.

The earliest image I could find of the twin stables dates to 1932 (above). You can see them tucked behind a corner restaurant. Cyrus Rheims, the name on a building sign on Tenth Avenue, rented and sold draft horses. Maybe the stables were built for Rheims.

Or perhaps the stables housed the horses used by the West Side Cowboys. These were the men hired to ride in front of the street-level freight trains that roared up Tenth Avenue from the 1850s to the mid-1930s, warning pedestrians out of the way (not always successfully; hundreds were killed over the years).

By 1938, when Berenice Abbott took this photo of the carriage houses for her exhibit and subsequent book Changing New York, number 463 “was attached to a corner liquor store at 130 Tenth Avenue,” the book notes in an updated index.

With curtains in the windows of number 461, it was likely a residence—maybe the man and woman on the right made it their hideaway. “These businesses, and the junk shop at number 461, served the seamen and dockworkers of the still-active West Side waterfront.”

Here’s a 1941 photo of the corner, with the two carriage houses (now painted white, along with 130 Tenth Avenue) in the center. Deliverymen unload their trucks; a tire business has taken over three tenements.

The freight trains on Tenth Avenue are gone, replaced in 1934 by elevated trains running along the new High Line. The gleaming New York of modernity, symbolized by the Empire State Building, appears far away.

By the 1970s, with industry in decline and the Hudson River waterfront all but abandoned, Tenth Avenue and 18th Street was a desolate place, judging from this 1975 photo by Edmund V. Gillon.

The shipping industry on the waterfront was gone, though the freight trains on the High Line were still running. Small businesses like Congo Tires, however, continued to hang on.

By 2000, twenty years after the High Line’s abandoned rail tracks were reclaimed by weeds, the carriage houses were looking better.

French restaurant La Lunchonette had opened on the corner in 1988, taking over the ground floor at number 463. But note the bars on the door of number 461—a holdover of a more crime-ridden West Chelsea.

Here we are in 2017, and the two carriage houses are prime real estate (take a peek inside the second-floor former hay loft at number 461, courtesy of these listing photos from 2012) in a revitalized, wealthier West Chelsea—thanks in part to the new High Line Park.

La Lunchonette is gone, though. This locals favorite was a casualty of a suddenly trendy neighborhood where landlords can command the kind of sky-high rents no one who lived on West 18th Street when a freight train belched up the avenue could have ever imagined.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: Berenice Abbott, Changing New York; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: MCNY by Edmond Gillon; 2013.3.2.141; sixth photo: mrjumbo.com]