A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

Let the Brooklyn Bridge show you the way

June 8, 2020

The Brooklyn Bridge (or the East River Bridge, as this 1920 postcard charmingly calls it) is many things.

It’s a display of engineering might, a graceful web of wire over water, a symbol of New York’s unity, the embodiment of promise and possibility. Let it be a source of inspiration during this time when our city has been tested.

[MCNY F2011.33.1882]

An 1871 stable hiding on a modern Midtown block

June 8, 2020

East 40th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington is a stretch of East Midtown right out of Hollywood casting—a block of gleaming glass office towers dwarfing modest hotels and apartment houses.

Laying low on the south side of the street is an unlikely post-Civil War survivor: a colorful, confection-like former stable complete with dormer windows, a slate mansard roof, and red brick entryways.

How did this dollhouse of a stable end up here?

It helps to imagine this Midtown block back in the 1870s, when the upper reaches of fashionable Murray Hill attracted wealthy men like Jonathan W. Allen.

Allen, a broker (presumably of real estate, as these ads suggest), lived on East 42nd Street, according to the Historic Districts Council (HDC). At the time, 42nd Street close to Fifth Avenue consisted of rowhouses, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In 1871, Allen wanted a private carriage house close to his own home, a place where he could keep his horses and also have upstairs living quarters for a groom.

In the later 19th century, private stables were usually built on less pricey side streets near (but not too near) a rich owner’s home, often grouped together so some blocks became stable rows, per the LPC.

A builder named Charles Hadden constructed the delightful stable for him. We don’t know much about Allen, but it’s hard to imagine that the lilliputian carriage house didn’t bring a smile to his face.

“This unusual, two-story building with its mansard roof, large dormers, and delicate iron cresting is a rare survivor from that period of New York’s history when horses were a vital part of everyday life and their care and housing were an integral part of the development of the city,” stated the HDC.

The stable stayed in Allen’s family until 1919; it remained a stable until at least 1928, per the LPC. (Top right, 1928)

By the 1940s it was converted to commercial use. Though today it’s a little rough around the edges, this burst of color and energy deserves to be celebrated simply for evading the wrecking ball that decimated similar carriage houses in the shadow of Grand Central Terminal.

[Third image: MCNY x2010.7.1.3387]

The “Croton bug” infests 19th century New York

June 8, 2020

They began appearing in New York City in large numbers in the 1840s, and newspapers described them as “miserable pests,” the products of “slovenly housekeepers,” and “filthy and destructive insects.”

“Never in all New York’s history has such a plague of vermin visited us,” wrote an anonymous “apartment dweller” in The New York Times in 1921.

What was this hated creature?

The common house cockroach, which was dubbed the “Croton bug” and known by that misnomer throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The name comes from the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842 (above, a celebration in City Hall Park) and brought fresh water from upstate to New York City residents.

The appearance of  these roaches (technically known as German cockroaches) in the city coincided with the advent of the Croton water system—leading New Yorkers to associate the bugs with Croton and blame the system for infesting Gotham.

The Croton aqueduct itself wasn’t to blame, but the water pipes installed in many homes to access the water was.

“The new water system not only supplied New York with cheap and abundant water, it also provided the cockroach with warm water pipes that were dank, dark conduits from apartment kitchen to apartment kitchen,” wrote John Leland in Aliens in the Backyard.

With Croton bugs popping up in kitchens across the city, efforts to get rid of them were introduced. Ads for poisons and powders filled newspapers. One doctor even advised that “stale beer” could kill them, as it’s “the cockroach’s favorite drink.”

Guides for housekeepers were also published. “Use pulverized borax, which they do not like,” one 1903 manual for servants advised. “Sprinkle it into their haunts, especially under and around sinks and stationary washstands.”

This manual went on to describe them “like Noah’s weary dove, seeking human companionship, or perhaps, still more like another scriptural type, going to and fro and walking up and down seeking something to devour….They do not leave town for the heated term.”

No, roaches don’t leave for the heated term, aka summer…in fact they apparently don’t leave New York at all, considering how many city residents still deal with them.

Perhaps changing their name back to “Croton bugs” will make them more endearing?

[Top image: science text 1915; second image: New York Daily Herald, 1852; third image: MCNY 0.13.4.154; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1908; fifth image: Evening World]

The mystery manhole cover on Central Park West

June 1, 2020

The most interesting manhole covers are the ones that tell us who made it and when it was put in place: the name of an ironworks company, the initials of a city department, a date.

This cover, on Central Park West south of 86th Street, doesn’t offer much in the way of clues.

The two decorative stars feel very 19th century. “Water Supply” could certainly mean it was part of the Croton Aqueduct system; its location outside Central Park could be evidence that it had something to do with the receiving reservoir that existed in the park.

It looks like no other manhole cover I’ve encountered in Manhattan. But there is an identical one in Brooklyn (above). It’s on Eastern Parkway near Prospect Park.

An 1897 building and a changing West 57th Street

June 1, 2020

When Lee’s Art Shop closed in 2016, New Yorkers lost an interesting and unusual place to buy art supplies and crafts.

What was also lost? An excuse to visit interesting and unusual 220 West 57th Street.

Lee’s occupied the four-story building since 1975. Completed in 1897, the building reflects the rise and fall of this stretch of 57th Street as both a cultural hub and a point along Manhattan’s “Automobile Row.”

It’s not easy to recognize now, as 57th Street is undergoing luxurification with new offices and residential towers. But in the late 19th century, the street first took shape as an artistic center.

Early apartment residences that catered to artists and musicians went up, such as The Osborne across the street.

Studio buildings were also built, joined by the Art Student League (also across the street), Carnegie Hall (a half-block east), and numerous galleries and music showrooms.

So it made sense when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which included architects, decided to build their headquarters in the late 1890s on West 57th Street, a budding center of the arts and creativity.

The ASCE clubhouse, complete with reading rooms, a library, and an auditorium, opened its doors in November 1897. (Above left, in 1897, and at right, in 1903.) Reviews lauded the building as interesting, artistic, and harmonious.

One reviewer called it “a beautiful example of French Renaissance in Indiana limestone richly carved,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission report in 2008.

In 1917, after an annex had been added, the ASCE moved to West 39th Street and began leasing 220 West 57th Street.

The businesses that rented and altered the space in 1918 were also a reflection of the industry that encompassed Broadway and West 57th Street: cars.

Early in the century, Broadway between roughly Times Square and West 66th Street was the city’s “automobile row.”

“By 1910, there were dozens of automobile-related businesses, including many small automobile or body manufacturers, lining Broadway particularly between West 48th Street and Columbus Circle,” stated the LPC report.

Ajax Rubber Company, which made tires, moved into 220. The ground floor was renovated with big showroom windows, and then the ground floor was subleased to Stearns-Knight Automobiles, a luxury car maker based in Cleveland.

Automobile Row lasted into the 1980s. But by the late 1920s, 220 West 57th changed hands again.

It became a Schrafft’s, the casual lunchroom-restaurant chain with franchises all over the city (and such a storied New York business in the 1940s and 1950s, it even made it into a J.D. Salinger story).

Schrafft’s served its much-loved sandwiches, ice cream, and even alcohol (after Prohibition was lifted) for almost 50 years here, catering to shoppers and theater-goers until the chain’s better days had passed and stores shut down in the 1970s.

Lee’s took the space in 1975, later expanding to all four floors. Remnants of the previous tenants remained, according to Christopher Gray, who visited the space in 2000.

“But all around there are tattered fragments of the 1897 building: delicate plaster friezes of floral ornament, wooden trim and gilt decoration,” wrote Gray in The New York Times. “And a Schrafft’s devotee could recognize the restaurant’s 1928 brass and iron staircase, and the marble trim around the second-floor elevator.”

Twenty years after Gray’s visit, Lee’s is gone, and the building sits empty. What’s to become of the delicate limestone structure designed to fit into West 57th’s artistic and then automobile ethos? There’s been talk of new development, but it remains to be seen.

[Third image: American Architect and Building News via Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; fourth image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; sixth image: Alamy; seventh image: LOC]

What did this old NYC phone exchange stand for?

June 1, 2020

You see these two-letter old phone exchanges around occasionally—often on old signs off the beaten path, even though New York City phased out the letter exchanges in the 1960s.

In the East 80s of Yorkville, I spotted a mysterious one: a parking garage sign with a phone number that begins with “TW.”

TW? It’s one I’d never seen before, and I can’t figure out what local landmark or old neighborhood lent its name to a phone exchange that could be as old as the 1920s.

Of course, the garage door company that used the number might have been located in any part of New York City. If anyone knows or wants to throw out a guess as to what TW stands for, I’d love to hear it!

A Downtown plaque for a soldier who died at sea

May 25, 2020

It’s a simple marker inside the dog run at Stuyvesant Square, the leafy park on either side of Second Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets.

“In honor and memory of Pvt. Moses Miller, who died at sea January 26, 1944.” The plaque was dedicated in 1946, it says.

The dog run is currently closed, unfortunately, but a photo of the plaque, taken by Larry Gertner, is on the Historical Markers Database—a site that keeps track of markers and memorials across the country.

Who was Moses Miller? His exact fate remains a mystery, but the Brooklyn Eagle in March 1944 included him on a list of men from Brooklyn and Queens who were deemed missing in action by the War Department.

Private Miller’s address was listed as 417 South Fifth Street, making him a Williamsburg resident. He was lost at sea in the Mediterranean, according to the Eagle.

New York City has many elaborate war memorials. But sometimes it’s the simple plaques in out-of-the-way spots that really hit home what it means to die for your country.

[Photos: Larry Gertner/Historical Markers Database]

The most famous summer house in Manhattan

May 25, 2020

You might not immediately recognize this elegant, two-story wood mansion, with its large windows and wide porches—perfect for capturing cool East River breezes.

But in the post-colonial New York of the early 19th century, the house stood out among the other posh summer estates built in the bucolic countryside of today’s Yorkville.

This was the summer home of Archibald Gracie. Born in Scotland in 1755, Gracie (at left) arrived in New York in 1784 with a cargo of goods that netted him enough money to invest in a mercantile.

By the 1790s, he was a very rich merchant and shipowner. His regular residence was a State Street townhouse so impressive it was known as “The Pillars,” according to a 1973 New York Daily News article.

But like other wealthy city residents, he wanted a summer house, too.

For $3,700, “he bought 11 acres of rolling land at Horn’s Hook, facing the Hell Gate,” a 1981 Daily News explained, referring to the treacherous section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Island that claimed hundreds of ships by the late 19th century.

The house, built on a high bluff facing the East River next to a towering cottonwood tree used as a landmark for sailors, was designed for the enjoyment of his family, elite friends, and notable guests.

“In 1799, Gracie began construction of his mansion, a sumptuous building of 14 rooms and eight bathrooms, replete with hand-carved fireplaces and priceless furniture,” wrote the Daily News. “There was a large dining room and a broad, white pillared porch that overlooked the East River—in all ways, an ideal site for holding large receptions.”

At the time, it took an entire day to sail from the Battery to reach his house at today’s East 88th Street.

But Gracie and his family made the trip often, entertaining political and literary figures such as Alexander Hamilton (a business partner of Gracie’s and the owner of a lovely summer estate in Harlem), James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and Washington Irving.

Irving, in particular, was struck by the beauty of the house and Gracie’s hospitality.

“I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I found this retreat, pure air, agreeable scenery, profound quiet,” Irving (below left) wrote in 1813 in his diary, according to the Daily News.

Of the Gracies, he wrote, “Their country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

The summer house wouldn’t stay in the Gracie family. Gracie lost much of his fortune by 1819. “The craggy-faced Scot,” as the Daily News called him, died at age 94 in 1829.

Through the mid- to late-19th century, the house changed owners at least twice. As the area’s summer estates were sold off and parceled out and Yorkville became more urbanized, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1894, the city took possession of Gracie’s house and built East End Park—now Carl Schurz Park—around it. The dwelling was home to the Museum of the City of New York from 1923 to 1936, when the museum decamped to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.

It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who suggested revamping the house and turning it into the official residence of New York City’s mayors.

Gracie Mansion, as it’s known to New Yorkers, is probably the city’s best-known summer house. Once a country retreat for one of New York’s richest men, it now serves as the designated home for city mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia was in office…and sadly is hard to see behind an ugly tall fence.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1923; second image: Wikipedia; third image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; fourth image NYPL, late 19th century; fifth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; sixth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; seventh image: Wikipedia; eighth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”