A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls

August 27, 2018

There’s an unusual red brick building at 307 East 12th Street that has Victorian Gothic bells and whistles mixed with a Flemish-style gabled roof.

A home? A school? Turns out this four-story beauty originally served as both when it opened in 1892 as the Elizabeth Home for Girls.

Run by the Children’s Aid Society, one of many organizations dedicated to benevolence in the Gilded Age city, the Elizabeth Home took in girls whose families were either too poor to take care of them—or who didn’t have families at all.

“The handsome structure was designed as a home and training school for destitute girls, and is well adapted to the needs of the inmates,” a New York Times article stated on dedication day. (“Inmate” meant anyone living in an institutional setting.)

“Elizabeth” was the name of a deceased sister of Emily Wheeler, a New Yorker who first used her wealth to fund the earliest day nurseries for the kids of working mothers before purchasing the land on East 12th Street and turning her attention to the plight of homeless girls.

The goal was to help girls avoid the “evil influences of the streets,” according to an 1893 Times article.

Dormitories and bedrooms were on the upper floors, along with a dressmaking workroom. The first floor and basement consisted of a laundry, typing room, dining room and kitchen, and sewing machine area.

By “school,” the Children’s Aid Society didn’t mean reading and writing so much as preparing the girls who lived here to earn a living.

“The statistics of the home showed that in the last year 22 girls had been trained in the dressmaking department, 99 in the machine room, 24 in the laundry, and 35 in housework, while 108 had been sent to situations, 28 to employment, 44 returned to friends, and 44 to various institutions.”

The building’s architecture might look familiar.

It’s the work of Calvert Vaux, co-creator of Central Park, who decades later helped design several homes for boys and girls put up by the Children’s Aid Society, such as the Lodging House for Boys on Avenue B and the Mott Street 14th Ward Industrial School, both still extant.

Destitute girls continued to exist in New York, but the Elizabeth Home was sold in 1930, only to be reopened as a girls’ home in the 1940s by the Florence Crittenton League, which had its roots saving “fallen women” in the Gilded Age city.

By 1982, the unusual building became a co-op. Last year, a two-bedroom on the ground floor—where the “inmates” learned typewriting and sewing—sold for $1.3 million.

[Second photo: via GVSHP)

The mortar and pestles of a former city pharmacy

August 27, 2018

Today, 1209 Lexington Avenue is the home of a Warby Parker store, part of the trendy national eyewear chain.

But from 1899 to 2012, this was Lascoff Apothecary, a pharmacy on the corner at 82nd Street that was so old-school, they used to sell leeches.

Lascoff’s was a New York pharmacy at its finest, the kind of place with a pharmacist-owner running the show that every neighborhood had, before the era of Rite-Aid and Duane Reade (which have their benefits but are low on charm).

“The space was known and admired for its large, arched windows, cathedral ceilings, wrap-around mezzanine and hanging blade sign,” stated DNAInfo four years ago.

The sign has been replaced, the exterior painted over, and the apothecary jars, flasks of poison, and pharmaceutical scales that decorated the interior long removed.

But the facade still tips passersby off to the drugstore that used to be here.

Just look up at the mortar and pestles carved above the entrance.

At least we still have C.O. Bigelow on Sixth Avenue, with its vintage chandeliers and wood ladders—and a handful of other independent holdouts.

The last days of a Victorian mansion in Harlem

August 27, 2018

The beginning of the end of the Victorian mansion at Fifth Avenue and 130th Street commenced in August 1936.

“Civic and fraternal organizations, individuals of prominence, as well as private citizens of Harlem have separately and in groups given voice to their objections to the City of New York, through the department of Parks, to use the site of the MacLean residence and property at 2122 Fifth Avenue for a playground,” wrote the New York Age on August 8.

“Popularly called the ‘Pride of Harlem,’ it is certainly one of the most beautiful of the old landmarks in the city.”

Beautiful it was: A red brick, three-story Victorian confection with a mansard roof, lacy ironwork, and a wide, welcoming front porch surrounded by lovely gardens.

Built in the 1870s when Harlem was still a village dotted with the country mansions of the city elite, it spanned the block and had been occupied since the 1880s by the family of Jordan Mott.

Mott was a descendant of the Mott Haven Motts; a prominent businessman who ran his family’s Bronx-based iron works.

After the turn of the century, Harlem became urbanized, and the mansion increasingly surrounded by apartment buildings.

By the 1930s, only Mott’s widowed daughter, Marie MacLean, remained.

Upon hearing the news about the demolition of her house, MacLean tried to fight back.

She spoke out through reporters, asking city officials that her home be converted “into a museum for Negro history,” stated the New York Age on October 10, and the gardens “be maintained intact for [the] benefit of aged women and small children.”

She also asked that she be allowed to “spend the remainder of her aging days in the reminiscent atmosphere of the home given to her by her father,” stated one letter to the editor published by the New York Times.

But her wishes were ignored. By October, she was forced out, moving south to 1081 Fifth Avenue as her house was condemned. The mansion soon met the wrecking ball.

A playground was built and named after Courtney Callender, Manhattan’s first African-American deputy commissioner of cultural affairs.

These days it’s a lovely respite of trees, swings, and jungle gyms—all of which hide the destruction of an old woman’s Victorian-era home and a neighborhood point of pride 80 years ago.

[Top three photos: Library of Congress, 1933]

Why a West Side park is named for an Italian poet

August 20, 2018

New York City parks and playgrounds don’t just honor the usual city founders and war heroes—they’re named for artists, singers (Diana Ross Playground, anyone?), even vaudeville comedians.

But unless you count the Shakespeare garden in Central Park, not many are named for poets.

So how did a postage stamp of green on the Upper West Side in 1921 become a monument for Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet of the Middle Ages best known for the Divine Comedy, completed in the 14th century?

It wasn’t just a concession to the growing Italian-American population in Manhattan at the time. But the growth of this immigrant group was instrumental in naming the park and erecting the bronze statue of Alighieri that still stands.

“The New York branch of the Dante Alighieri Society had intended to erect a Dante monument on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912,” states the New York City Parks Department website.

“Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso (the first Italian daily newspaper in the United States), urged subscribers to contribute towards the creation of the statue.”

Barsotti had already helped erect monuments honoring other Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi in Washington Square, Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, Giovanni Verrazano in Battery Park, and composer Giuseppe Verdi in Verdi Square—not far from the soon-to-be site of Dante Park, which was then known as Empire Park at 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue.

Money was raised, but according to NYC Parks, the sculptor didn’t finish the imposing bronze statue of a robed Alighieri wearing a garland and holding a copy of the Divine Comedy until 1921.

Another source has it that the original monument was too big and in too many pieces, so the city rejected it. Funds were again collected, and a second statue arrived in 1921—past the anniversary of Italian unification yet marking the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Whatever happened, the dedication was held that year. The statue (described as “dour and grumpy” by the AIA Guide to New York City) was officially “a gift of citizens of Italian descent.”

[Second photo: MCNY X2011.34.3603; third photo: Wikipedia]

Food and lonely figures at old Washington Market

August 20, 2018

It’s hard to imagine that some of the wide, quiet, clean streets of today’s Tribeca once formed a loud, stinking, open-air food hub called Washington Market.

Opened in 1812, Washington Market boomed, with more than 500 vendors and 4,000 wagons crisscrossing the food stalls and tenement-fronted alleys in the 1880s.

The market continued to attract buyers, sellers (and vermin, among other unpleasant things) through the 20th century, as artist David Burliuk reveals in this 1931 painting.

“The work is thought to depict Reade Street and the Washington Market area of Tribeca; the view is towards the Morse building which was designated a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Committee in 2006,” states Art Knowledge News, in an article on the painting going up for auction. (Bids were estimated to start at $40,000.)

“The market itself was razed in the 1970s, and a small park by its name is all that remains of what was once New York’s principal produce market.

Crossing the street on the right, is that a cat or a rat?

The sea motifs of the East Side co-op River House

August 20, 2018

River House, the white-glove Art Deco co-op built in 1931 at the eastern end of 52nd Street, has a lot going for it.

There’s the appealing prewar design, rare privacy behind an iron fence and long driveway, and airy apartments with many rooms.

And of course, the biggest selling point might be the extraordinary views of the East River and beyond for the wealthy and famous who live there.

But you don’t have to be a shareholder to be enchanted by the co-op, built on the site of a former cigar factory.

That’s because anyone can walk down 52nd Street past First Avenue and see the whimsical sea motifs built across the facade on along doorways.

Seahorses are abundant on the building (and have actually been found in New York’s waters, amazingly). Two gilded seahorses decorate the entrance to what might have been the River Club, the co-op’s exclusive club overlooking the water.

Anchors decorate the facade too. They’re the perfect symbols for this luxury dwelling, which once boasted that residents could dock their yachts behind the building, so they had easy access to depart the city via the East River.

The creation of the FDR Drive a decade later unfortunately put an end to this perk.

Even this fountain built into the side of the building along the driveway appears to be designed like a shell. And is that Neptune or Poseidon, gods of the sea, guarding it?

[Top photo: MCNY 1931, 88.1.1.2083]

The apartment rooftop that hosted Henri Matisse

August 13, 2018

French Modernist painter Henri Matisse has many of his still lifes, figures, and landscapes on display in New York’s most distinguished museums.

But there’s only one place in Manhattan where a little-known framed photo of Matisse is always on display, with the Depression-era city skyline behind him.

You can see it yourself if the doorman decides to give you a peek.

The black and white photo, from 1930, is in the small lobby of 10 Mitchell Place, a charming 13-story prewar apartment house built in 1928 that was originally called Stewart Hall.

Never heard of Mitchell Place? It’s a secret sliver of a street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place in a quiet neighborhood of old world charm—perfect for an artist more accustomed to Nice than New York.

In the photo, Matisse is sitting in a chair on the building’s brick roof terrace. With his left hand holding his bearded chin, the artist looks contemplative amid a backdrop of apartment buildings, water towers, and the Queensboro Bridge.

What brought Matisse to Mitchell Place? I wonder if he’s in New York visiting his son.

Pierre Matisse moved to New York in the 1920s to become an art dealer and opened a renowned art gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street.

Apparently Matisse came to Mitchell Place often, according to a 2014 New York Times article on one-block streets.

“The painter Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the charming roof deck at 10 Mitchell Place, a.k.a. Stewart Hall. There, a framed 1930 photograph in the 1928 co-op’s equally charming lobby, which has a large fireplace, shows him resting on a canvas deck chair, pondering the East River views.”

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

The four-faced street clock of East 79th Street

August 13, 2018

Few things are as charming in New York as an old-fashioned street clock, and this four-faced brass beauty with the beehive-like knobs on the top and bottom is a sight to behold.

It’s affixed to a four-story building on First Avenue and 79th Street, an unusual place for such a lovely street clock.

They’re typically found anchored to stately or elegant buildings—hotels, luxury stores, and insurance headquarters.

Clocks are emblems of stability and certainty, like the 1853 clock carried by Atlas at the entrance to Tiffany & Co on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. There’s also the 1909 cast-iron sidewalk clock on Fifth and 23rd Street, once at the front of the posh Fifth Avenue Hotel.

But the one on 79th Street is in a low-key neighborhood, and the little building it hangs off of looks like a former tenement. Who put it there?

A bank did, and it dates to at least the 1930s. This 1951 photo above reveals that the building was a branch of Manufacturers Trust Company, a bank that began in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

Manufacturers Trust Company still had the bank in 1982, per this ad from New York magazine that year. In the 2000s it was a short-lived restaurant spinoff of Agata & Valentina, the specialty food store across the street. At some point it was also a rug store.

Today, it’s a Vitamin Shoppe franchise. Amazingly, the clock has managed to remain a lovely jewel on this quiet corner that still tells the time.

This page of street clocks contains an image from 2011 of the clock that’s clearer than mine.

[Third photo: MCNY 1951, x2010.7.1.9746]

Surf Avenue lit up by electricity and moonlight

August 6, 2018

It’s a full moon on this summer night along Surf Avenue at Coney Island. It’s the late 1920s, electricity is illuminating restaurant and theater marquees; cars and trolleys cruise the road.

There’s a Nedick’s, the old hot dog chain, and a chop suey place, serving that invented Chinese dish. The moon shines bright over the Cyclone, which must have been just built; it dates to 1927.

[Postcard: MCNY; X2011.34.2119]