The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.

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On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.

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The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.

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Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

Three centuries, four views of a Village tavern

June 13, 2016

Once a country backwater of tobacco farms, Greenwich Village owes its urbanization to lethal disease outbreaks.

Oldgrapevine1851

Residents fleeing late-1700s cholera and yellow fever epidemics in the city center moved up to Grin’wich, as it was then called. By 1840, the population had shot up fourfold.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” states the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Oldgrapevine1905

Streets, businesses, and houses followed—including a three-story clapboard roadhouse at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street. Built in the 18th century as a home, it became a popular tavern by the 1820s called the Old Grapevine, for the vine that ran along the facade.

The first illustration depicts the Old Grapevine in 1851. West 11th Street looks like a rural road, thanks to the trees and paving stones.

Oldgrapevine1914

Two ash barrels are the only street furniture. The small fence at the far left surrounds the second cemetery of Shearith Israel, established here in 1805 by a synagogue of Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

The Old Grapevine wasn’t just any tavern. “During the Civil War it was a popular hangout of Union officers and Confederate spies,” states the NYPL blog.

Oldgrapevine1915

“Later, when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was built the local lawyers and politicians would gather there to talk business. Artists and actors also met there. It was the ideal place to get news and information, or in the case of spies and politicians, the ideal place to spread rumors and gossip, leading to the popular phrase “heard it through the grapevine.”

[The origin of the saying might be a myth, as some comments below explain.]

The second image shows the Old Grapevine in 1905, from under the tracks of the elevated. The third image is from 1914.

The clapboard house is still standing, but 11th Street is paved and the ash barrels are gone, replaced by a Journal American newspaper box.

Oldgrapevine2016

One year later (as seen in the fourth photo), the Old Grapevine was about to be bulldozed, replaced by a six-story apartment building renting rooms for $12 a month.

A New York Times article from 1915 recalled the Grapevine wistfully: “it was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation.”

Here’s Sixth Avenue and West 11th Street today. The Old Grapevine is long gone; only the cemetery on the far left remains.

A spooky old house on traffic-free Riverside Drive

June 9, 2016

Here is a peaceful and placid Riverside Drive at 155th Street around 1910, well before the George Washington Bridge ushered in residential development and crazy car traffic.

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On the left, you can clearly see Trinity Church Cemetery uptown through the trees. On the right is an incredible old house that looks like a country mansion.

Do the signs say it’s for sale—or slated for demolition? Imagine the stories of another New York its walls could tell.

Update: thanks to sharp ENY readers, this house has been ID’d as that of Birds of America author John Audubon, who owned an estate here, called Minniesland, since 1842. The house made it to the 1930s before the tear down.

Here’s a fascinating article from the Audubon Park Alliance on the last person to occupy the Audubon house, via Dean at the wonderful History Author Show podcast.

The luxe apartment building with a rooftop farm

June 9, 2016

Ansonia1904When the Ansonia Hotel (later an apartment building) was going up in frontier territory on Broadway and 73rd Street in the early 1900s, no expense was spared.

The goal was to make it the “most perfectly equipped house in the world,” as colorful and combative developer W.E.D. Stokes proclaimed.

The 340 suites had hot and cold running water, message tubes so staff and guests could communicate, and primitive AC in the form of frozen brine pumped through flues hidden inside walls, states Steven GainesThe Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan.

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The lobby contained a fountain with live seals. The basement held the world’s largest swimming pool. A sweeping interior staircase led to an enormous glass skylight. A curator was on hand to help shape the hotel’s art collection.

But the Beaux-Arts beauty (nicknamed the Upper West Side’s “wedding cake” because of its mansard roof and decorative touches) had an amenity no other luxury apartment house in New York could boast of.

AnsoniaN-YTributeApril121908

It was a rooftop farm—complete with ducks, geese, six goats, a bear, a pig named Nanki-Poo, and roughly 500 chickens, from which bellhops collected fresh eggs every day and delivered them to tenants.

 Ansonia1970mcnyThis “farm in the sky” capped off Stokes’ vision for the Ansonia as kind of a self-sufficient utopia, wrote Gaines.

And while a roof farm would definitely be a plus for today’s well-heeled locavore co-op dweller, the Board of Health back then wasn’t too pleased.

In 1907, officials threatened to raid the farm. It’s unclear what happened to most of the animals.

But Nanki-Poo and the geese, pets that belonged to Stokes’ young son, were safely rounded up before the inspector arrived.

These critters were eventually moved to the Central Park Menagerie. The Ansonia’s roof farm, like other parts of the Ansonia’s long and storied past (its stint as the site of a notorious sex club, for example) passed into history.

Now, what happened to the live seals in the lobby fountain?

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[Top photo: Ansonia, 1904; second photo: looking north from the Ansonia roof, 1911, NYPL; third image: New-York Tribune, 1908; fourth photo: Ansonia in 1970, MCNY; fifth image: 1910, NYPL]

The “poet sisters” host a Gramercy literary salon

June 9, 2016

CaryaliceIf you were a writer or thinker of some renown in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, then you likely found yourself on Sunday evenings inside a small house at 53 East 20th Street.

This was the home of Alice (right) and Phoebe Cary, two siblings dubbed “strong minded” (a 19th century put-down for an independent woman) who hosted weekly Sunday salons in their Gramercy Park parlor for the city’s literary and cultural crowd.

Here, newspaper editors, authors, and some of the bohemians who had congregated at Pfaff’s on Bleecker Street came together to “meet and mingle,” according to one biography of the Carys.

“The poet sisters, as they were known, owned a wide, low, old-fashioned house on East 20th Street, near Fourth Avenue, and their informal Sunday receptions were always thronged,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York.

Caryphoebe“They had come to New York from an Ohio farm as young women, without either money or formal education, determined to support themselves by writing.”

Alice Cary wrote poems, ballads, and “little idylls of country life,” stated Morris. Phoebe composed parodies of Longfellow and “astringent verses about love that made old-fashioned readers uncomfortable.”

Considering the guest list, conversation at the Carys’ salon must have been fascinating.

Regular invitees included P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum and the curiosities inside it thrilled the city; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune; publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and other cultural leaders of the day.

Carys50east20th“On Sunday evenings, you found the Carys in their parlor, a large room decorated in red and green, furnished with many comfortable, velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs,” described Morris.

“Later, everyone would cross the hall to have tea in the square, oak-paneled library.” Except Greeley, who drank two cups of sweetened milk and water and then took off to write his Monday newspaper editorial.

The famous male guests were joined by “strong-minded” movers and shakers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

CarystreetaddressThese were women like the Carys, who pursued professional work and “asserted that women ought to think for themselves, ought to get their opinions at first hand—not because this was their right, but because it was their duty,” wrote Morris.

The Carys held their weekly salon for 15 years; both sisters, closer to each other than anyone else and just four years apart, died in 1871.

[Third photo: from MCNY, early 1900s; labeled the “Careys” home and the address is 50 East 20th Street, so it is perhaps the sisters’ home, which no longer exists]

Solitary browsing on Fourth Avenue’s Book Row

June 6, 2016

Manhattan has always had its neighborhoods of commerce and industry, from the Garment Center to the Pickle District.

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And like those two vestiges of the late 19th century city, a booksellers’ district also popped up, this one on the warehouse blocks along Fourth Avenue south of Union Square.

Bookstores4thave10thst1933schultes“That quarter-mile section of Fourth Avenue which lies between the Bible House [at Astor Place] and the vista of Union Square has been for more than forty years the habitat of many dealers of old books,” noted Publishers’ Weekly in 1917.

That means Booksellers’ Row—the fabled enclave where book vendors and lovers came together in dusty storefronts, buying and selling hidden treasures—dates back to the 1870s.

Thanks to the presence of many book publishing offices, “it admittedly is now the ‘Booksellers’ Row’ of the metropolis,” the article proclaimed.

Booksellers’ Row attracted bibliophiles and casual browsers for decades; in the 1950s, more than 40 general and specialty shops lured reader to their mazes of shelves.

boosktorefourthaveessdeross10thst1938These black and white photos, from the 1930s and 1940s, convey mystery and solitude.

Who are these serious-looking readers, picking through bins and piles on tables while the rest of the city thunders along, pursuing progress and profit?

In the 1950s, Booksellers’ Row was on the wane. It was the usual culprit, of course: increasing rents.

“This is their plight: They can exist only in low-rental shops, yet they need tremendous storage space,” wrote the New York Times in a 1956 piece on the dilemma of selling books in New York City.

Bookstores1945fourthave10th11thstsNYPL

By the 1970s, many stores were gone or on the way out, or “scattering” to other parts of the city, as the Times seemed to predict. The article featured a prescient last paragraph:

Bookstoresthestrand1938“The Commissioner [of the city’s department of commerce and public events], something of a sentimentalist, thinks he can prevent this scattering.

“He thinks New York must never go so modern that it must ride roughshod over these mellow places.

“He thinks something essential dies when that happens,” the Times stated.

Today the Strand, opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue and now on Broadway and 12th Street, is the only old-timer remaining.

Bookstores13thst4thave1930snypl

[Top photo: Mosk’s, Astor Place, 1935, MCNY; second photo: Schulte’s, Fourth Ave and 10th Street, NYPL; third photo: browsers on Fourth Ave, NYPL; fourth photo: Books and Stationary on Fourth Ave and 11th Street, NYPL; fifth photo: The Strand, 1938; sixth photo: 13th and Fourth Ave, 1930, NYPL]

The Gilded Age excess of Manhattan’s first mall

June 6, 2016

Did the modern shopping mall get its start thanks to this Beaux Arts beauty?

Well, maybe. This pioneering temple of commerce stood at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street for just a decade, from 1901 to 1911.

Windsorarcade1905

But what a building the Windsor Arcade was, a three-story gem that epitomized Gilded Age excess, from the sculptures and columns decorating the facade to the carriage drive leading to the center courtyard to the ornate details inside its shops.

Windsorarcade19052An arcade was a place that contained several stores, and the Windsor Arcade is thought to be the first modern-style shopping mall in New York City, writes Marcia Reiss in Lost New York.

“Considered one of the most beautiful retail buildings ever constructed in the city, it was modeled on the enclosed streets of small shops in London and Paris,” states Reiss.

The Windsor was “the only modern arcade in the city; this enterprise is not a department store but a gathering together under one roof of leading retail merchants in their respective lines,” according to one magazine in 1907.

Windsorhotel1898Among the stores inside were Steinway & Sons Pianos, art galleries, a milliner, china and glass sellers, and a photo portrait studio—all catering to the city’s well-off, who took part in the relatively new indulgence of shopping for fun and pleasure.

For such an ostentatious commercial venture, however, the Windsor Arcade has a tragic past.

It rose from the ashes of the Windsor Hotel (above left, in 1898), the site of a horrific fire on March 17, 1899 that killed dozens of people, many who had gathered in front of the opulent hotel to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Windsorarcade1902

By 1911, the city’s first mall was on its way out, replaced by office buildings by the 1920s.

The owner had only put up the arcade as kind of a place holder until he had a more profitable use for the property, which happened to be in a very fashionable stretch of the city.

[Top photo: 1905, MCNY; second photo: 1905, MCNY; third photo: Windsor Hotel, 1898, MCNY; fourth photo: 1902, MCNY]

Darkness and light in Central Park in 1905

June 6, 2016

Dark trees, pinkish city buildings, shadowy carriages and tribes of people, and a wide, warm lawn are all part of George Bellows’ interpretation of Central Park on a temperate day in 1905.

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This is one of Bellows’ earliest New York paintings; he left his native Ohio in 1904 to study art in the city under Robert Henri.

The magic of old Cooper Square by moonlight

June 2, 2016

Here is a moonlit Cooper Square under a starry sky looking north around 1905.

It’s not a square but a triangular park, a juncture of elevated train routes and avenues, a place where old neighborhood boundaries shifted (like the early 19th century Bowery Village) and new ones (Noho, anyone?) popped up.

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It’s a carnival of history. On the right are modest Federal-style homes with dormer windows, built in the 1820s. Cooper Union’s 1858 Great Hall hosted presidential hopefuls going back to Abraham Lincoln.

A sketchier, pre-boutique hotel Cooper Square in late 1980s was also the site of a peddlers’ market of sorts, where the desperate put out anything they could find (or steal) for sale in an empty parking lot.

A Coney Island pie maker invents the hot dog

June 2, 2016

Feltmans1890swestland.netLike so many wonderful New York stories, this one comes from Coney Island.

It was after the Civil War, and this spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean was fast becoming a summer resort favorite for the city’s middle class.

Enormous hotels opened; a boardwalk was built with bathing pavilions and restaurants to accommodate crowds.

FeltmantheconeyislandblogSupplying pies and other baked goods to those restaurants was a German immigrant named Charles Feltman, who ran a bakery on Coney Island.

Feltman, who is also described as a butcher (like most things in history, the details are a little fuzzy), wasn’t the first person to mix a slender sausage called a frankfurter with bread and sell the concoction from a cart.

“By the 1870s, small [sausage] stands were to be found along the beach, to the dismay of conventional restaurant owners who regarded them as unsanitary, fire hazards, and a competitive threat,” explains Savoring Gotham.

Feltman’s genius, the story goes, is that he pioneered the elongated bun that fit the frankfurter perfectly and made it the top-selling street food for hungry beachgoers.

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“Feltman and a wheelwright named Donovan conceived the idea of installing an oven in Feltman’s pie wagon, which enabled him to sell boiled sausages wrapped in pastry rolls up and down the beach,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

Nathans1939andrewhermanmcnyAs Coney boomed, he replaced his cart with Feltman’s, a beer garden–like restaurant on Surf Avenue, selling his hot dogs for a dime a piece.

By the 1920s, Feltman was undercut. A former employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened his own hot dog stand a few blocks away and charged a nickel per dog.

Feltman’s survived until 1954. Nathan’s—like hot dogs all over the city—is still going strong.

[Top postcard: westland.net; second image: the Coney Island blog; third postcard: New York World’s Fair Carousel; fourth photo: Andrew Herman/Federal Art Project/MCNY (1939)]


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