The tragic story behind Harlem’s St. Clair Place

June 3, 2019

St. Clair Place is one of Upper Manhattan’s forgotten little roads; it cuts through a few low-rise blocks between the Henry Hudson Parkway and West 125th Street.

The street isn’t very pretty. But it’s a lovely name, and you might imagine that it belonged to a former church or old hotel in this once-bucolic stretch of the city once known as Manhattanville.

But the street name probably comes from something distressing: the death of a beloved young boy.

St. Clair (also spelled St. Claire) Pollack was a 5-year-old who lived in the late 1700s with his family on a large estate called Strawberry Hill.

On July 15, 1797, the child fell to his death from the bluffs onto the shore of the Hudson River. (The riverside as it looked in 1814, at left)

St. Clair’s family, prominent merchants in the area, buried this “amiable child,” as it said on his tombstone, on their estate.

The family didn’t stay long. In 1800, they sold the estate to a neighbor, Cornelia Verplanck. St. Clair’s father (or uncle, it’s not clear) requested in writing that his son’s grave not be disturbed.

“There is [a] small enclosure near your boundary fence within which lies the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument,” he wrote, according to a 1917 New York Sun article.

“You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey this enclosure to you, so that you will consider it a part of your estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn prepared to place on the monument which will not lessen its beauty.”

Verplanck did honor Pollack’s request, and so did later owners of the property. Eventually the land became part of Riverside Park.

Here, in a grassy stretch of park north and west of 122nd Street, the tomb of St. Clair Pollack—now the Amiable Child Memorial, under the care of NYC Parks—remains as his family wished two centuries ago.

The grave sits behind an enclosure. (At right, in 1897; left, in 1920). A newer funeral urn and tombstone replaced older ones that suffered under the elements.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh like a flower and is cut down he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not,” reads the stone.

In the late 19th century, with the construction of Grant’s Tomb nearby, there seemed to be great interest in finding out who St. Clair was. An account from the New York Times in 1900 presents a different family background.

The street was officially renamed St. Clair Place in 1920.

[Second photo: NYC Parks; fourth photo: NYH-S; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3159; sixth image: New York Times 1900]

Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat

May 27, 2019

The last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and much-heralded slices of pie a try.

Instead, I’ll have to suffice with memoirs and stories from old-timers, who happily recall the more than 40 Automats scattered across the city in the middle of the 20th century—their steel and glass sleekness, their comfort, and how sitting in one made a newcomer feel a little more like a real New Yorker.

[Sixth Avenue and 57th Street Automat postcard from 1935: MCNY F2011.33.1809]

When summer meant the Brighton Beach Baths

May 27, 2019

Imagine an urban beach club spread across 15 acres, with country club amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, and live music and dancing—all accessible via the D train.

That was the Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet Club, known simply as the Baths.

This “subway Riviera” on Coney Island Avenue opened in 1907, when dozens of beach clubs lent an air of exclusivity to the public beaches from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. (Below, in 1920)

You could say the Baths really had its heyday from the 1930s and 1960s, when the handball courts hosted national champions and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman entertained the crowd.

In the 1960s, a record 16,000 members played mah-jongg and rummy and heard Borscht Belt comedians yuk it up on stage.

As postwar Brooklyn changed, other beach clubs disappeared. Soon the Baths was the only one left—catering to a loyal community of Jewish Brooklynites who didn’t decamp for the suburbs or Florida.

What a scene this “happy anachronism” was, as the New York Times put it in a 1984 article.

“Enjoying the tennis, paddle-ball and handball courts, swimming pools, areas for canasta, pinochle and penny ante, a miniature golf course and an outdoor tent that is a regular summer performance stop for such Borscht Belt comics as Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, Red Buttons and Pat Cooper, is a membership seemingly composed of about 5,000 comedians, all of them indefatigable exponents of the one-liner,” the Times noted.

“Some 20 years after this world of sports, card-playing, dancing, eating, social badinage and variants of courtship was supposed to have been replaced by high-rise apartment houses, it is still flourishing, with more than 10,000 members and a $175 fee for a 10 month season,” an earlier Times story in 1976 stated.

With the annual fee climbing past $700 and not many old-timers remaining in a neighborhood now populated by Russian immigrants, the Baths shut down in the late 1990s. (Above, the crowd in 1983)

Like Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes and the Oceana movie theater, the world of the Baths disappeared—replaced by a pricey condo community called Oceana that now commands the same beachfront real estate.

[Top photo: screen grab from “Brighton Beach Baths #1”; second photo: MCNY, 1920, 2001.35.1.235; third photo: Brooklyn Public Library, 1987; fourth photo: New York Daily News 1983; fifth photo: Getty Images]

Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop

May 27, 2019

The handsome brick storefront at West Eighth Street and MacDougal Place has been occupied by countless businesses since it went up on this Greenwich Village corner in 1838.

But perhaps it’s best remembered as the home of the Eighth Street Bookshop—one of dozens of booksellers centered around Eighth Street or Fourth Avenue that made the Village a bibliophile paradise in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the Eighth Street Bookshop gained fame as a literary gathering place with close ties to the nonconformist writers of the day, whose works and lifestyle gave rise to the term ‘Beat Generation,’ states the Village Alliance.

While browsing the three floors of books (especially the extensive paperback section), it wouldn’t be uncommon to bump into one of the many writers or poets who lived in the East or West Village at the time, such as Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, or e.e. cummings (who lived a few blocks away on Patchin Place).

Of course, all great bookstores are more than literary haunts. As Publisher’s Weekly recalled in 2001, the Eighth Street Bookshop was also the center of a social scene.

“‘Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s,’ Joan Wilentz [Ted Wilentz’s wife] told PW. ‘It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other’s houses.'”

In 1965, the store relocated across the street to 17 West Eighth Street. In 1976, a fire tore through that location, and the Eighth Street Bookshop shut its doors for good in 1979.

It’s run wasn’t long, but Villagers of a certain age still remember it well.

[Top photo: Robert Otter, 1965; second photo: Katherine Knowles via ArtNerd]

The mystery of an East Village lager beer sign

May 20, 2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street.

Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too.

“S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the faded outline reads on the left side of the store, over a large window supported by what appears to be a Corinthian-like column.

Looks like the same words appear on the right side of the storefront, which is divided by the building’s stoop.

Apparently workers who were recently renovating this ground floor storefront between First and Second Avenues uncovered evidence of this old East Village liquor store.

Or was Cort’s actually a bar—one that poured many a growler for locals as well cops from the Ninth Precinct a few doors down?

The tenement was constructed in 1867, but the basement-level store wasn’t put in place until 1893, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation via an update at EVG.

But it’s still a mystery when this establishment operated.

Considering the fact that Cort is a German name, it wouldn’t surprise me if S. Cort’s dates back to the turn of the century, when today’s East Village was 19th century New York’s Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany stronghold.

An apartment house rises out of this 1893 school

May 20, 2019

In the late 19th century, New York City went on a public school building spree, constructing several handsome new schools across Manhattan to educate all children, but especially those of the poor and working classes.

One of these schools, completed in 1893, was a spectacular romanesque building that resembled the Dakota—trimmed with brownstone and brick and tricked out with arched windows and gabled roofs.

Public School 35 (above, in 1920) occupied the northwest corner of First Avenue and 51st Street (the former site of the 18th century Beekman mansion) for the next 70 years.

What was it like attending school here?

One New York Times letter writer summed it up this way in 1987: “My fellow-students, although by no means an assemblage of miniature angels, had been cautioned by hard-working parents to derive maximum benefits from the free education denied their European-born parents.”

By the 1960s, PS 35 was no longer. For the next few decades it was a mostly empty neighborhood eyesore. The old school even did a stint as a homeless shelter for women.

In the 2000s, however, this striking building took on a new role: as the lower-floor facade of a 20-story condo designed by Costas Kondylis.

The interior walls were knocked out and a modern apartment tower was built inside the facade. (Above, before the apartment building was started).

Don’t give too much credit to the developer, though, for preserving the facade. The school earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Presumably the facade of PS 93 couldn’t be totally leveled, so the sleek condo building now rises inside the school—a curious mix of old and new New York on a Turtle Bay block.

[Third photo: NYPL; Fourth photo: Turtle Bay Association]

This is how to decode any Manhattan address

May 20, 2019

These days, New Yorkers need only to whip out their phones to figure out the cross street for any Manhattan address.

But in the pre-Google Maps era, city residents had another way of deciphering cross streets. Not to scare you, but it involves a little math.

This guide, the size of a business card, sums up the formulas, which varied depending on what street address you wanted to decode.

Ephemeral reader Rich L. found this old-school gem while going through old papers and thinks it was printed in the 1960s. Try it, it really works!

Two beautiful mystery signs on a Flatiron facade

May 13, 2019

Lots of older New York buildings have stylized signs that contain the building’s street address.

But none are as unusual and mysterious as the two signs affixed to the facade of 144 Fifth Avenue, a four-story, late 19th century walkup near 19th Street.

“One Hundred Forty Four” the first one playfully proclaims. “Fifth Avenue” reads the second sign.

Both signs look like medallions or shields, yet the numerals and letters seem inspired by Art Nouveau—a type of design popular in the early 20th century in Europe that didn’t quite take off the same way in New York.

Art Nouveau borrows its twists and curves from nature, and each sign has what looks like flowers drooping at the bottom.

Who added these to the building? It’s a mystery. (At left, 144 Fifth Avenue in 1940.)

However, at the turn of the century the building was occupied by a furniture dealer and decorator, according to the Evening World. Later it housed an art gallery called Cottier & Co.

Perhaps one of these artistically minded occupants thought to create the signs, which blend in behind the fire escape and are almost impossible to see.

[Third photo: NYC Tax Photo Department of Records]

A midcentury artist’s New York from her window

May 13, 2019

Born in 1887 in Vienna, Emma Fordyce MacRae grew up in early 20th century New York—attending the private Chapin and Brearley Schools before enrolling in the Art Students League in 1911 and studying with John Sloan.

She made a name for herself as a member of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of female artists who exhibited together.

As the 20th century went on, MacRae married and moved to 888 Park Avenue. She apparently never stopped painting, keeping a studio at 12 West 69th Street, according to her New York Times obituary in 1974.

“New York From My Window” was painted between 1957 and 1962. It’s a deceptively simple work depicting a streetscape under blue skies almost empty of traffic and people.

What I want to know is, where exactly is the window she painted from, and what sliver of New York did this artist who should be better known immortalize?

The 1868 rowhouses built into Bloomingdale’s

May 13, 2019

Stand at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue and look up at the Art Deco main entrance of Bloomingdale’s.

As you take in the enormity of this low-rise, black and gray department store, you might think it consists of one uniform building extending all the way to Third Avenue.

But halfway down 60th Street, you’ll see a modern-day time capsule connecting the Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue ends of the store.

Here is a stretch of cream-colored rowhouses with fanciful details and the kind of mansard roofs that were all the rage in the Gilded Age city.

These rowhouses, once known as 162-170 East 60th Street, were built in 1868 and actually predate the Bloomingdale’s store by 18 years.

“The five buildings, a picturesque side-street surprise that has escaped demolition at least once, were developed as a tide of post-Civil-War rowhouses swept up the East Side,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

The rowhouses “were probably like others on the street shown in later views: high-stooped brownstones in the Italianate style, three windows wide, with a low fourth floor under a modest mansard roof,” wrote Gray.

Bloomingdale’s acquired the rowhouses the way they acquired the land on the rest of the block from Third to Lexington Avenues and 59th to 60th Streets—in pieces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the 1880s, three were turned into a store annex, and at some point they may also have served as a loading dock.

Today, these five former upscale residences sandwiched in the middle of Bloomingdale’s go unnoticed by most shoppers, even with the old “Bloomingdale Brothers” sign over the street-level windows.

[Second image: pdxhistory.com]