Model tenements named for a forgotten bishop

August 5, 2019

Few modern-day New Yorkers recognize the name Henry Codman Potter. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Potter was a towering public figure.

Born in 1834, Potter (right) became the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 1883. He served as a rector at Grace Church, the city’s elite house of worship, and laid the cornerstone at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1892.

In such a prominent position, his name was regularly in newspapers. Yet Potter made headlines not for proselytizing but for tackling the city’s social ills and assisting the “lowest and the least cared for classes.”

“Potter not only believed that the wealthy were responsible for using their resources to meet the needs of the poor; he also believed that they should do so in a way that decreased the dependence of the poor on help from others,” wrote Michael Bourgeois in his book about Potter, All Things Human.

Potter visited midnight missions and ministered to inmates on Blackwell’s Island.

He took on temperance by recognizing that the saloon was the “poor-man’s place of resort and recreation.” Rather than shutting down bars, he advocated reforming them so they served no alcohol. (That didn’t work, as his Subway Tavern experiment proved.)

He also addressed the problem of housing, leading the fight “of providing comfortable, healthful homes to the poor of the city,” according to the New York Sun.

So it makes sense, then, that four years after Potter’s death in 1908, “his friends raised money to erect the City and Suburban Homes Company’s Bishop Potter Memorial, a pair of model tenements on East 79th Street,” wrote Andrew Dolkart.

City and Suburban Homes was a housing company with prominent backers dedicated to building livable, affordable apartments for working-class families in the early 1900s—in contrast to the airless, cramped firetraps that passed for housing at the time.

The model tenements they built along with the Bishop Potter Memorial buildings stand between York Avenue and the FDR Drive. Each 2-4 room flat has windows in every room, fireproof walls and doors. The 6-story buildings feature wide, dignified courtyards that let in light and air. (Average weekly salary for each family who rented one of these apartments: $15.73.)

Codman may be forgotten, but these model tenements, now landmarked and perhaps simple and plain by our standards today, remain.

[Second photo: Wikipedia]

How people dressed at Coney Island in 1896

July 29, 2019

What would you be wearing if you visited the beach at Coney Island 123 years ago? Wool bathing suits down near the ankles on women; boys in striped tops and knee-length pants.

Straw hats and suit coats for men (like the vendor selling something for a penny each), and sailor tops for boys, as seen on the little kid in the lower right of the photo.

Somehow, this mass of humanity overdressed by our contemporary standards seems to be enjoying the sand and gentle waves at “Sodom by the Sea” as the 19th century comes to a close.

[MCNY Byron Collection 93.1.1.18311]

The last daughter to live in a 14th Street mansion

July 29, 2019

There’s a modest white fountain topped with an angel (bottom image) on Second Avenue near 10th Street, where two sides of the iron fence surrounding St. Mark’s Church come together.

Below the angel is a faint, undated inscription: “To the Memory of Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren.”

Who was Elizabeth? She was born in 1831 in New York and died in 1908.

Never married, she was one of the last descendents of the wealthy Spingler-Van Beuren clan, who maintained a fabled farm-like homestead at 21-28 West 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue.

Her family’s story echoes the story of Manhattan.

An island dotted with farms and estates in the late 18th century became a metropolis by the early 20th century.

This sleek, modern city had no room for the “curious relic” that was Elizabeth’s lifelong home—on a large plot of land shaded by gardens and poplar trees, where a cow grazed and chickens wiled away the days.

Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Henry Spingler (above), was the one who launched the family farm.

A successful shopkeeper, Spingler bought 22 acres of farmland in 1788 centered around today’s 14th Street and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, according to a 1902 New York Times article.

At end of the 18th century, this really was farmland. The city street grid had yet to be created. Union Square, at the “union” of Broadway and the Bowery, wouldn’t officially be established until 1839.

Henry lived in what’s described by a newspaper article as a “quaintly built Dutch structure” until his death in 1811. (The top image and drawing above show what that Dutch farmhouse supposedly looked like.)

In 1830, a granddaughter of Henry’s who married into the prominent Van Beuren family constructed a handsome double-size brownstone mansion on a large piece of family farmland on West 14th Street. (Above image, about 1910.)

The granddaughter was Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth and her siblings grew up in the mansion when 14th Street was the center of a fashionable, refined neighborhood.

Not much is known about how Elizabeth spent her days. Like other elite young women in the mid-1800s, she probably had tutors or attended a day school. Her family worshipped at St. Mark’s Church; the Spinglers had a burial vault there.

During the Civil War, she may have also helped raise money for hospital care for wounded soldiers or served in another volunteer capacity, as many socially prominent women of all ages did.

By the end of the war, 14th Street changed. The street became a commercial strip and Union Square itself a theater district. Rich New Yorkers escaped the crowds and noise by moving uptown to posh Madison Square and beyond.

The elite departed—but the Van Beurens remained. Elizabeth’s sister, Emily Van Beuren Reynolds, lived in another brownstone mansion across the garden from hers at 29 West 14th Street.

Together the mansions were known as the Van Beuren Homestead, which stretched to 15th Street, where a stable was maintained.

As the Gilded Age accelerated and 14th Street was colonized by the new department stores like Macy’s (becoming part of the Ladies Mile Shopping District), the Van Beuren Homestead took on almost a mythic quality.

“After 14th Street had grown up about the old home and its gardens, when Macy’s red star was in its ascendency at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, there were always groups of people standing staring at [the] farm, with a cow and a vegetable garden, flower beds and hens, in the midst of the blooming city,” recalled one man in a 1922 New York Herald article.

“In the heart of New York’s retail shopping district, the old Van Beuren mansion has presented the spectacle of a huge family mansion standing alone in its own grounds, with large gardens, stables, chicken coops, dove cotes, arbors, and grass plots,” the New York Sun wrote in 1902.

“There was nothing modern about the place. It had all the marks of a true homestead inhabited by an old and long-wealthy family who could afford to throw away the enormous profit they could make by turning this valuable land over to business purposes….Artists, poets, and lovers of the picturesque have long feared the destruction of this quaint structure.”

When Elizabeth Van Beuren’s demise was announced in newspapers in 1908, the days were numbered for 21 West 14th Street.

Her sister’s death also put another nail in the coffin for the Homestead. which spent its final years unoccupied.

In 1927, the two mansions met the wrecking ball. (Above, in 1925)

Today, 21 and 28 West 14th Street is occupied by a one-story retail building. What would Elizabeth and the rest of her family, interred in their vault at St. Mark’s, think of the building that replaced their homestead?

[Top image: Fifth Avenue Old and New; second image: Geni.com; third image: 1913 painting by Charles Mielatz; fourth image: MCNY, 1906, X2010.11.5832; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: New-York Historical Society; seventh image: New York Sun; eighth image: MCNY, 1925, X2010.11.58021925; ninth image: ENY]

Mystery monuments on the “East River Drive”

July 29, 2019

It towers above the FDR Drive at about 93rd Street: a rectangular monolith facing the parkway.

A forgotten Yorkville war memorial or monument to a long-gone neighborhood leader? I went to the end of East 93rd Street on the grounds of the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses to take a look.

Composed of stone blocks and set inside a small garden, the monument reads, “East River Drive” and then “Triborough Bridge Approach.”

The East River Drive part makes sense; this was the original name of the FDR Drive, built in the 1930s to run along the length of Manhattan’s East Side.

The “Triborough Bridge Approach” is more of a question mark. The bridge, opened in 1936 under the auspices of legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, connects Manhattan to Randalls Island via 125th Street.

So why a sign announcing the approach to the bridge at 93rd Street?

It might be because the Triborough (now called the RFK Bridge), was supposed to be built at 103rd Street and be a direct conduit to Queens, according to NYCRoads.

“Moses originally proposed that the Manhattan arm of the Triborough Bridge be constructed at East 103rd Street so as to avoid the mental institutions on Randall’s Island,” the site explains. “However, the East 125th Street location that was previously procured for the Triborough Bridge was used instead.”

Why? Because of William Randolph Hearst, according to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of Moses.

“William Randolph Hearst had owned deteriorating real estate there [at 103rd Street] and he had wanted the city to buy it,” Mr. Caro wrote. Not willing to tangle with Hearst or his newspaper empire, Moses “left the terminus at 125th Street.”

The FDR Drive monuments, then, may have been built with 103rd Street in mind.

Where is this rough rock wall in Central Park?

July 22, 2019

This is the story of an 1889 painting, a mysterious stone wall, and a religious institution that occupied part of today’s Central Park in the mid-19th century—before the park was even in the planning stages.

It starts with Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase. He was dubbed the “artistic interpreter” of Central Park and Prospect Park in an 1891 Harper’s Weekly article, owing to his many evocative landscapes of these and other city green spaces.

One Chase painting that stands out as darker and more mysterious than most of his park landscapes is this one (above) from 1889, “In the Park (a By-Path).”

A child under a watchful nanny wanders away from a park bench and follows a stone wall, “one of those sections of rough rock-work which give character to the many nooks and corners of the Park at the same time that they serve a useful end,” wrote Charles De Key in Harper’s Weekly.

Where was—or currently is—this “rough rock-work,” and what was its useful end?

According to various sources, this impressive stone wall is what remained of a convent and school called the Academy of Mount St. Vincent (above in 1861), the first institute of higher learning for women in New York.

Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, Mount St. Vincent had the misfortune of setting up shop East of Fifth Avenue at about today’s 105th Street, in what would become Central Park a decade later.

The school relocated in the 1850s to Riverdale, where it continues its educational mission today. The college buildings left behind in the park burned down in 1881.

That rough rock wall, apparently a retaining wall from one of the original buildings, still stands behind the Conservatory Garden not far from a stone that marks the former site of the college (above left).

I went looking for the wall in this hilly, rocky section of Central Park. The mosquitos and thick brush kept me from finding it.

Luckily some other intrepid New Yorkers did locate it, like Michael Minn, whose 2007 photograph of the retaining wall is above. It doesn’t look exactly like the wall in Chase’s painting—artistic license, or the effects of time?

The folks from Untapped Cities also have a photo of the wall from 2017.

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: Copyright © Michael Minn]

The gods of good health on a Fifth Avenue facade

July 22, 2019

You could spend hours taking in the visual feast that is the New York Academy of Medicine building on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

Completed in 1926, it’s a blend of Romanesque and Byzantine styles with an exterior complete with Latin quotes, figures of gods and goddesses, and some impressive gargoyles and bas reliefs—all apparently relating to health and medicine.

“The exterior features a panoply of medical symbolism, including figures of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health standing watch together over the front door,” states one online source.

Asclepius and Hygeia (top image) are carved into the grand entrance on 103rd Street. They’re united by a medical caduceus with a single snake wrapped around it, a symbol of healing.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with some of the other reliefs—or the cheeky gargoyles. They animals could symbolize medicinal treatments; the figures may be other gods and goddesses.

But all of these symbols, figures, and grotesques were certainly added to the facade with intent.

The New York Academy of Medicine got its start in 1847, founded by a group of prominent city physicians in an era of rampant disease outbreaks, poor nutrition, and a 50 percent mortality rate for babies under age one.

The Academy pioneered the idea of public health—and today they continue to advocate for public health education and reform, particularly with their impressive library.

A sweet remnant of a Lenox Hill ice cream shop

July 22, 2019

The northwest corner of First Avenue and 66th Street looks like an ordinary Manhattan intersection, with a Dunkin’ Donuts inside an old tenement building.

But what a treat to see that the entrance to the shop continues to say “Peppermint Park” in tile!

It’s all that remains of the Peppermint Park Cafe, once a kid-friendly restaurant serving crepes, ice cream, and other goodies and then in the 1980s just an ice cream parlor churning out its own additive-free flavors.

I couldn’t find any information about when Peppermint Park started or what year it closed up shop. I bet Upper East Side old timers know.

Of course, you can still get ice cream at the Baskin Robbins part of Dunkin’ Donuts…but I’m guessing it’s not quite the same.

These tile sidewalk signs at store entrances are fast disappearing in New York City; here are some others still marking their territory.

Other ice cream store ghosts remain around New York, too.

The delightful Gothic mash-up building in Tribeca

July 15, 2019

Gothic architecture usually brings to mind shadowy vaulted ceilings and cathedral spires, and there are plenty of examples of this all over New York City.

But there’s a mashup of a building on a tiny Tribeca block that’s such a fascinating kaleidoscope of Gothic details, it suggests something light and frothy, not dark and Medieval.

The 5-story slender building is at 8 Thomas Street, between Broadway and Church Street. This architectural confection was completed in 1876 by a young designer named J. Morgan Slade.

“It was built as a store for David S. Brown Company, a soap manufacturing firm, and as such is a reminder of the first large-scale commercial development in the area following the Civil War,” explained the Historic Districts Council.

Brick, stone, cast iron, ionic columns, arched windows, a gabled roof, and one single fanciful oculus on the top floor, it has all the bells and whistles that makes coming across the building such a treat.

The Historic Districts Council calls it Venetian Gothic.

“This building is a rare New York example of Venetian Gothic, a Victorian style popularized by the British architecture critic John Ruskin,” the group wrote.

Other sources describe it as Victorian Gothic, Romanesque, and Ruskinian Gothic.

To me, it feels similar to Jefferson Market Courthouse, an architectural leap of faith but on a smaller scale.

After the soap company departed in the late 19th century, other manufacturing concerns moved in, including a wool company. A French restaurant was tried in the early 20th century.

By 1990, it was described in a New York Times article on Tribeca as “a giddy mix of Romanesque, Venetian Gothic, brick, sandstone, granite and cast-iron elements that stands alone, a little forlornly, beneath a giant construction project.”

Originally, 8 Thomas Street was flanked by two larger late 19th century cast-iron buildings, as the 1940 Tax Photo from the NYC Department of Records shows.

Sadly, both were lost—leaving number 8 to stand out on its own between a 2-story restaurant on one side and a modern residential tower on the other.

It’s now a 4-unit condo, a luxury building like so many of its Tribeca neighbors. What would the folks at the David S. Brown soap company think of this stylish pad which sold for $2.9 million in 2018?

[Fourth image: 1940 Tax Photos/Department of Records and Information Services]

The earlier name for Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway

July 15, 2019

While browsing old postcards of Brooklyn recently, I came across this lovely image from 1905, which features a bicyclist on the then-new cycling path on Ocean Parkway.

Then I looked closer at the postcard. Ocean Boulevard? This was apparently the name for the street in the late 19th century.

Newspaper articles in 1869 announced that the “Grand Ocean Boulevard” from Prospect Park to Coney Island was in the works. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was to be modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe, with a pedestrian path on the grassy median.

Thanks to the popularity of cycling in the late 19th century, the bicycle path came into the picture in 1894.

Ocean Boulevard? The term seemed to fall out of favor, and by the 1890s, most news stories called it Ocean Parkway.

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.