Hudson River vs. North River: which is right?

July 31, 2017

Anyone familiar with old New York maps and guidebooks has probably seen it: the river running along the western side of Manhattan is referred to as the North River, not the Hudson, as we know it today.

I always believed that North River was an old-school name for this body of water that fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century.

But then I came across this plaque from 1960, affixed to Pier 40, the massive site built as a terminal for the Holland America cruise ship line that now serves as a recreational facility for Hudson River Park.

The plaque refers to the “Pier 40 North River.” As far as I can tell, most people by 1960 were calling it the Hudson. So which name is right?

Turns out the part of the Hudson parallel to Manhattan is actually the North River.

“The North River is that section of the mighty Hudson River which runs from the tip of Manhattan Island, at the Battery, northward to approximately beneath the George Washington Bridge—a distance of 11.3 miles,” states one 2008 book, Railroad Ferries on the Hudson.

“It is always called the North River by people in the shipping industry, with the name Hudson generally reserved for that stretch above Yonkers where Hudson River pilots are taken on board.”

The Dutch apparently named the river the North River to distinguish it from other rivers in the fledgling New Netherlands colony, like the East River and the South River (today’s Delaware River).

Nevertheless, a century later, there must have been some confusion over what to call it. Both names were in use even in colonial times—as this 1781 British map on the left shows.

The Gramercy mansion in a John Sloan painting

July 24, 2017

He often came across subjects for his work near Washington Square, or Union or Madison Squares.

But in 1912, after moving from Sixth Avenue to 155 East 22nd Street, John Sloan trained his outsider’s eye on Gramercy Park (fellow social realist painter George Bellows’ territory), where he painted two women tending to a baby in a carriage on a warm, lush day.

Sloan “found his subjects in his immediate surroundings; the streets he traveled and the people he encountered were immediately translated to canvas,” wrote Margarita Karasoulas on Questroyal.com.

“He typically captured New Yorkers going about their routines from the perspective of an outside observer, painting intimate scenes with a window-like viewpoint in order to focus closely and observe the subject undetected.”

I’m curious about the red brick townhouse to the right of the park. This is 1912, and it certainly could have been torn down.

But I wonder if Sloan is giving us a look at the Stuyvesant Fish House at 19 Gramercy Park South.

Built in 1845 for a Whig politician, it was expanded and redone in the 1880s for Old New York scion and railroad magnate Stuyvesant Fish and his party-loving society hostess wife, Mamie.

Sloan’s depiction doesn’t look exactly like the house, seen here in 2010. Artistic license, perhaps?

[Photo: Wikipedia]

Grotesque faces staring at you at Hunter College

July 24, 2017

The East 68th Street campus of Hunter College doesn’t look very collegiate, with its skywalks and square modernist buildings.

But there’s a wonderful exception to all those concrete boxes: Thomas Hunter Hall at 934 Lexington Avenue.

(Thomas Hunter was the first president of this former all-female teachers college founded in 1869, when it was known as Normal College.)

Designed in 1912 by Charles B.J. Snyder, the architect of so many of New York’s elementary and high schools at the turn of the century, this English Gothic castle of a college building features cathedral windows and rooftop turrets that give the impression of a Medieval fortress.

And if you look closely, you’ll see plenty of Gothic-style faces staring back at you.

The facade and twin spires flanking the entrance are packed with grotesques—some scary, some goofy with a sense of humor (like the guy in the glasses above, who has a pencil behind his ear).

Hunter College is part of the City University of New York, and it’s not the only CUNY building decorated with unique, cheeky grotesques.

Visit CUNY’s campus on 137th Street in Harlem—a Gothic architecture lover’s dream—and you’ll encounter the same kind of fun and mischievous characters, like this one, appropriately reading a book. (This is a college, after all!)

[Top photo: Hunter College]

The tenement between two elevated train lines

July 24, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th century, thousands of New Yorkers lived in tenements bordered by elevated train tracks.

Trains thundered so close to living rooms and kitchens, one observer in the 1880s described the elevated as “so near to the houses you might shake hands with the inhabitants and see what they had for dinner.”

Having a train outside one window was one thing. But what in the world was it like living in a slender building at the juncture of two elevated lines, with trains lurching and screeching day and night on both sides of your home?

The curtains in the windows of this tenement, at the Battery Place stop where the Sixth Avenue El and Ninth Avenue El meet in Lower Manhattan, tell us people did make their homes here.

Both elevated lines were dismantled in the late 1930s. At some point, the Flatiron-like tenement had its date with the wrecking ball as well; I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere in the downtown streetscape.

[Photos: MCNY/Wurtz Bros.]

A magical garden nobody knows in Central Park

July 17, 2017

Like many features of the 1858 “Greensward” plan for Central Park, the flower garden that was supposed to be built at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue never made it off the blueprint.

But in the 1930s, when the glass conservatory and greenhouses (below, in 1900) that were erected at Fifth Avenue and 105th proved too costly to maintain, parks director Robert Moses had them torn down—and plans for a European-style garden were drawn.

The result was the Conservatory Garden, which opened in 1937, a six-acre expanse of fountains, walkways, and lush and enchanting gardens in every direction.

Stepping into it feels like walking into a secret, a hidden oasis where the only sounds are the chorus of singing birds and the occasional human gasp at the sight of a curious raccoon.

To get in, you pass through a cast-iron gate designed in France for the Vanderbilt mansion down Fifth Avenue on 58th Street; when the mansion was torn down, the Victorian-era gate ended up here.

Past the gate is a rectangular landscaped lawn, and the garden splits into three distinct styles: one English, one French, and one Italian. Flowers in a kaleidoscope of colors greet you on the walking paths.

“Thousands of hardy perennials, leafy shrubs, clinging vines and countless varieties of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers are planted in symmetrical designs,” wrote the New York Times on the garden’s dedication day.

Two fountains in the park will trick you into thinking you’re in a time warp. “Three Dancing Maidens” was designed in 1910 and presented to the Conservatory Garden in the 1940s.

The Burnett Fountain of a bronze boy and girl surrounded by real water lilies under which koi goldfish swim is based on the characters in “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Why it’s so sparsely visited is a mystery. Maybe it’s too far uptown, or the Lexington train is too long a walk; perhaps the Fifth Avenue entrance makes it difficult for people already in the park to stumble upon it and fall in love with its beauty.

But for serenity, shade, and the scent of magnolias, or just to get lost in another world for a while, this is the loveliest spot in the city.

[Third photo: MCNY; X2010.7.1.79]

How New York’s horses handled heat waves

July 17, 2017

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, summer heat waves were deadly for people—as well as for the horses who powered the city by pulling street cars, delivery wagons, and fire engines, rain or shine.

To prevent these working animals from dropping in the streets on a sweltering day, the ASPCA and other organizations concerned with horse welfare came up with ideas.

First, they built and supported horse fountains and horse showers, and they brought buckets filled with water to sidewalks, so thirsty equines could get a cool drink.

Second, they advocated that horses be outfitted with sombreros! Really, this was an actual idea at the turn of the last century, designed to help shield horses eyes from the sun and prevent them from getting overheated. It was adopted from France; apparently working horses in Paris were sporting the sombreros during the summer.

The sombreros didn’t catch on in New York, but this horse in a 1911 photo seems to be wearing some kind of soft woven sun hat.

[Photo: George Bain Collection/Library of Congress]

Buffalo Bill’s wild west show thrills 1894 Brooklyn

July 17, 2017

Part circus, part vaudeville act, part patriotic celebration of a mythic American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a huge summer draw when this traveling extravaganza booked time in New York in the late 19th century.

The show first visited Erastina, a park on the north shore of Staten Island, in 1886. “The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26,” states the blog for the Museum of the City of New York.

“Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper.”

After a turn at Madison Square Garden, the show moved to Brooklyn for the summer of 1894, thrilling audiences at Ambrose Park, a 24-acre parcel of land on Third Avenue and 37th Street in today’s Sunset Park.

And while it might seem corny to New Yorkers today, this kind of spectacle was great family fun for the growing middle class of the Gilded Age, when ferries and elevated trains made day trips to Ambrose Park easier.

William Cody “truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman,” states the MCNY blog.

“His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish.”

Get a load of the map of Greater New York in the poster! Whoever drew it managed to get the Brooklyn Bridge in there, but the city seems to stop at Chambers Street. And what’s the rectangle land mass off Brooklyn?

[Second image Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1894; third photo: Green-Wood Cemetery]

All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

July 15, 2017

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]

Riding an elephant at Coney Island’s Luna Park

July 15, 2017

If rides like Helter Skelter, Shoot the Chutes, and the Witching Waves weren’t enough excitement for you, you could always take advantage of another thrill offered at Luna Park: elephant rides.

Opened in 1903, Luna Park was the Surf Avenue pleasure pavilion that entertained millions of Coney Island fun-seekers every summer with the kinds of rides and spectacles no amusement park could get away with today.

This postcard dates to 1906—those women don’t look like they’re enjoying Brooklyn on an elephant, do they?

What remains of a Gansevoort Street restaurant

July 15, 2017

In 1938, the short, unremarkable building at 69 Gansevoort Street was home to R & L Lunch—a luncheonette that I imagine primarily fed the men who worked in the Meatpacking District (but hey, ladies invited, per the sign!).

Forty-seven years later, Florent Morellet turned what became R & L Restaurant into Florent, the legendary 24-hour haunt of late nighters, club kids, sex workers, and New Yorkers who enjoyed eating brunch in a place that often felt like a party.

Below, Florent in the mid to late 1980s; note the pink neon Florent sign in the window.

Florent closed in 2008. The space housed a couple of short-lived restaurants, if I remember correctly, and now this time capsule of a storefront has recently transformed into a branch of a national fashion chain.

At least they kept that wonderful aluminum sign, which these days is one of the last authentic pieces of the days when the Meatpacking District actually was home to meatpacking plants.

[Top photo: Sol Libsohn via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York; second photo: New York City Department of Records Photo Gallery]