The nurse watching over West 12th Street

September 9, 2016

stvincentsnursedoorwayThe scaffolding is gone and the construction vehicles have departed.

Now, the gleaming new condos (collectively called Greenwich Lane and fetching multimillion dollar prices) carved out of the former St. Vincent’s Medical Center on West 12th Street and Seventh Avenue are ready for occupancy.

Yet amid the landscaped courtyard, new bronze accents, and the cool marble lobby, a few lingering bits of the old Catholic hospital remain.

Take this nurse, carved into the facade above a doorway. Paying homage to the thousands of nurses who tended to St. Vincent’s patients from its opening in 1849 to its demise in 2010, she continues to look out solemnly for passersby on the West 12th Street side.

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With St. Vincent’s gone, this faded subway sign in the 14th Street IRT station is even more of a relic.

Join Ephemeral New York for upcoming events!

September 8, 2016

Ephemeral New York would like to announce a few public events focused around the upcoming release, THE GILDED AGE IN NEW YORK, 1870-1910. Hope to see everyone there! More talks and tours are in the works too.

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BOOK LAUNCH TALK: October 5, 2016 at 6:30 PM at the Museum at Eldridge Street
Join me for a reading/Q&A on New York City’s Gilded Age, an era of incredible wealth, poverty, corruption, invention, and rapid social change. Fee: pay as you wish

AUTHOR @ THE LIBRARY: November 7, 2016 at 6:30 PM at the New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan Branch
This illustrated lecture tells the story of how New York transformed from a small-scale post-Civil War city lit by gas and powered by horses into a mighty metropolis of skyscrapers and subways. Free

The magic of Coney Island’s Dreamland at night

September 5, 2016

Dreamland’s tower, illuminating the summer sky with the help of a million light bulbs, looks like a magnificent cathedral in this 1905 image.

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Beach season is almost over, so a postcard reminder of this pleasure paradise will have to suffice until next year. Of course, there’s always September’s Coney Island’s Mardi Gras festival.

[Image: Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal; x2011.34.4375]

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.

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The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”

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Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

First day of school in New York: then and now

September 5, 2016

On September 8, public schools across the city will reopen their doors after summer break.

That’s about a week earlier than opening day in 1915, when kids headed back to “elementary, high, and training schools” on September 13.

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A moved-up first day isn’t the only difference between opening day in 2016 and opening day today.

In 1915, about 800,000 kids attended public school in New York City. Department of Education stats from 2015 put that number at just over a million students.

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Unlike their contemporary counterparts, teachers in 1915 were not unionized. Most were female, and once they became pregnant, they were fired.

This was actually an improvement over the previous longstanding, perfectly legal practice of booting teachers once they married. That rule was challenged in court in 1904.

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One thing hasn’t changed: overcrowding. In 1915, school “congestion” was so bad, thousands of kids were forced to go part-time while some schools, like Morris High School in the Bronx, held two sessions a day to accommodate everyone, according to the New York Times.

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Oh, and (most) kids look just as excited on opening day 1915 as they typically do at back to school time—with what look like new clothes, hair ribbons, school bags, and caps for the boys, as these Library of Congress/George Bain images reveal.

A Yorkville deli’s wonderful vintage soda sign

September 2, 2016

New York has thousands of corner delis and bodegas. But how many sport one of these vintage soda-themed store signs?

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York Deli on York Avenue and 79th Street is one of the last. Worn and grimy, it’s not the prettiest sign in Yorkville. But it sure has authenticity. (Still, this is 2016, and the deli also has a four-star Yelp page.)

YorkdeliYelpTechnically these signs with soda or ice cream logos are called “privilege signs,” promotional signs paid for by food corporations for small groceries, lunch places, and delis.

They used to be on just about every city block. Now, handfuls remain.

You can see more disappearing privilege signs here and read about their history in David Dunlap’s excellent 2014 New York Times piece on these relics of mid-century cities.

[Second photo: Yelp]

An “almost accurate” map of the Village in 1925

September 2, 2016

By 1925, Bohemian Greenwich Village had been declared dead, killed off by tourists and college kids.

But the neighborhood of curio shops, theaters, tea rooms, and speakeasies still attracted painters, writers, poets, and illustrators.

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One illustrator was Robert Edwards, who drew this playful and personal map of his Greenwich Village for Quill, a short-lived monthly “little magazine” steeped in satire.

GreenwichvillagequillEdwards describes his hand-drawn map as “almost accurate.” It looks pretty on target. Washington Square North is marked “aristocrats,” while south of the park is Italia and west of Christopher Street is Erin, for its Irish population.

Romany Marie’s, the (Bruno’s) Garret, and the Crumperie on Washington Place are in history’s dustbin. So is the speakeasy Club Fronton and the Sixth Avenue El, memorialized by John Sloan and e.e. cummings.

The map was part of an exhibit on Greenwich Village staged in 2011 by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Check out more maptastic views of 1920s and 1930s Greenwich Village.

[Quill cover: Printmag.org]

One of the worst jobs in 19th century New York

September 2, 2016

As the 1800s went on, New York was bursting at the seams with new residents. By 1850, the city had a population of a little over 500,000. By 1890, the number was 1.5 million.

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That’s a lot of bodies—and a lot of bodily waste. Though flush toilets existed in the late 19th century, they were generally installed in the houses of the rich.

Going to the bathroom for tenement dwellers meant using an outhouse (until the Tenement House Act of 1901 mandated private indoor toilets). Needless to say, waste piled up.

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Enter the night soil cartmen. These men made a living after dark, entering tenement districts and removing the “night soil”—a creative euphemism for excrement—from outdoor privies.

The guy who actually picked up the waste (using a cart probably similar to this garbage cart above) apparently worked for a company, which was awarded a city contract take care of unsanitary things like dead animals, trash, and tons of human waste.

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Where did they take the night soil? “In New York, the reeking loads were sometimes carted off to country farms to be used as fertilizer,” states a piece from Atlas Obscura.

“But more often they were hauled through the night to a designated pier and dumped into the Hudson or East Rivers (and sometimes mistakenly onto the private boats below), creating a stinking, festering shoreline. The waste would settle into the slips and city workers would periodically have to dredge the excrement so that boats could actually dock.”

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The job must have been deeply unpleasant, but it was an important one. Trucking away the night soil certainly helped cut back on disease and made poor neighborhoods packed with people slightly more habitable.

Like the blacksmith and streetcar conductor, the night soil cartman disappeared after the turn of the century in New York and other U.S. cities. Think about his job this Labor Day. Working in a cube farm won’t sound like such a bad thing after all!

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYPL; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fourth photo: MCNY collections/Robert L. Bracklow, 93.91.281]

Fifth Avenue’s most insane Gilded Age mansion

August 29, 2016

On the avenue dubbed the “Millionaire’s Colony” in the late 19th century thanks to its unbroken line of ornate mansions, one house stood out as the most insanely overdone: William A. Clark’s 7-story Beaux Arts monster at 77th Street.

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Finished in 1907 after eight years in the making, “Clark’s Folly,” as it was called, broke all records. It cost $7 million to build, featured 121 rooms, and had its own rail line for the delivery of coal.

WilliamclarkhousesideviewAmazingly, this monument to money was out of style by the time the final ornament was attached, and it only stood for 20 years.

William Clark (below, with his youngest two daughters) was a copper baron who made a fortune in mining and helped found Las Vegas.

He did a stint as senator from Montana in 1899. Forced to resign after a bribery scandal, the deep-pocketed titan who was highly disliked in Washington (even Mark Twain called him out for corruption, describing him as “the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time”) got himself elected again in 1901.

Meanwhile, he began building his mansion in New York. This captured the attention of city residents and the press, who estimated Clark’s worth at $150 million.

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After Clark left Washington in 1907 with his new wife (a much younger woman who used to be his ward!) and two young daughters, he took up residence in his finally finished marble palace.

WilliamclarkmansionmcnyThe amenities boggled the mind: repurposed pieces from a French chateau, oak panels from Sherwood Forest, Turkish baths, vaulted corridors lined with Gustavino tile, 11 elevators, a pipe organ, 20-plus servant rooms, and galleries for Clark’s extensive art collection.

By the time Clark and his family moved in, however, this Gilded Age “pile of granite,” as the New York Times called it, was out of fashion. Architectural critics loathed it.

How Clark felt about this is unclear, and in any case, in 1925, the 86-year-old died inside his citadel (at left, in 1927).

Williamclarkhuguette1917His art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery, and his wife and surviving daughter (her sister succumbed to meningitis in 1919) sold the mansion to an apartment house builder—then decamped for a full-floor apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue down the road.

There the two remained. Decades after his wife passed on in the 1960s, Clark’s daughter made headlines for an entirely different reason than her father did.

She is Huguette Clark (on the right side of the photo with her father and sister, about 1917), the reclusive heiress who died in 2011 at the age of 104 after many years of living in Beth Israel Hospital.

Huguette Clark left a $300 million fortune, and many mysteries.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverGilded Age excess may have gone out of style by 1910. But every financial titan or old money heir staked their claim to the Millionaire’s Colony in the late 19th century, intent on building a marble castle.

See the amazing photos of this palaces in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), X2010.7.2.5452; second image: MCNY, X2010.7.2.21088; third image, via Shorpy; fourth image: MCNY/Phillip G. Bartlett, X2010.11.4911; Fifth image: Wikipedia]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

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One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]