A Lower East Side artist who painted the city

January 6, 2020

You might not know of Samuel Halpert, who was born in Bialystok, Russia (now Poland) and moved with his family to live among other Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1890 when he was five years old.

[“The Flatiron Building,” 1919]

But you’ll recognize the New York City he painted in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of his subjects—new skyscrapers, steel bridges—foretold that the 20th century would be big and bold.

Other subjects, such as the East River waterfront, downtown neighborhoods, and the poetic view from tenement rooftops, were more intimate glimpses of the moods of the modern city.

[“Sheridan Square, New York,” 1920]

Halpert’s art education consisted of classes at neighborhood settlement houses, then the National Academy of Design as well as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, and also painted figures, interior scenes, and murals (for the money, according to a biography from the Spellman Gallery).

[“Downtown,” 1922]

But perhaps the New York he came of age in was his main inspiration and most popular subject matter—which he took on in a style that blended Post-Impressionism and Fauvism (in the style of “wild beasts,” according to one source).

[“City View,” date unknown]

Halpert’s talent was immense, and he attracted attention. But his life was brief. He moved between New York and Paris in the teens, came back to New York for a spell, then took a teaching job at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit in 1926.

[“A View of the Brooklyn Bridge,” date unknown]

Halpert died in 1930. While his name is mostly forgotten, his colorful, sometimes dynamic and sometimes somber paintings remain…and deserve a wider audience.

What became of the first, short-lived Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2020

When the Plaza Hotel finally opened its doors on October 1, 1890, the debut of this elegant, long-awaited hotel (construction began seven years earlier, but the developers needed more financing to finish it) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South was heralded across the city.

This “magnificent” new building “was inspected by an immense number of people, and illimitable appropriation was bestowed upon the management for the almost perfect arrangements, elegance of decorations, etc,” wrote Brooklyn’s Standard Union newspaper.

King’s Handbook of New York City also gushed praise. “It is a palatial establishment…and it is sumptuously furnished,” stated the 1892 book. “There are 400 rooms…it is one of the grandest hotels in the world.”

Ads for the Plaza painted a luxurious image, like the one above. “Absolutely fireproof…Overlooking Central Park…the pioneer in the new hotel centre.”

Sounds a lot like the Plaza Hotel that’s been an icon of New York City for more than a century, right?

Except this isn’t the 19-story Plaza Hotel holding court on Fifth Avenue today, the one that was designed to be a skyscraper-high chateau in French Renaissance style.

These rave reviews actually describe the first Plaza Hotel—a more modest eight-story building that only stood at this elite corner of Manhattan for 15 years.

Why was it demolished, especially considering the swooning reception it received? Basically, “it was unprofitable,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition.

The design of the first Plaza Hotel—called neo-Classical and Italianate by Inside the Plaza, by Ward Morehouse—also quickly became dated in a city of newer, more fanciful hotel buildings.

So the first Plaza Hotel was bought by a new developer, who had it demolished in 1905.

The second Plaza Hotel, “with three stories composed of rusticated marble, the rest white glazed brick, all topped by a three-story mansard roof,” according to Morehouse (those small windows peeking through the roof were for the servants rooms), went up in just two years.

The new Henry Hardenburgh-designed Plaza Hotel (which served more as a longterm residence than a per-night kind of place) opened to equally rabid fanfare and acclaim on October 1, 1907.

 Here it is at the end of 2019, still stunning in a transformed city.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.31.9; second image: New York Times, 1894; third image: MCNY 2010.28.15; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.6467; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.3.1529; sixth image: Ephemeral New York]

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

The solemn story of Park Avenue’s holiday trees

December 30, 2019

Uptown Park Avenue is an almost unbroken line of stately, impeccable apartment buildings. And every December, it’s also a miles-long line of sparkling holiday trees.

Each year since the end of World War II, the fir trees on Park Avenue’s traffic islands are strung with lights that glow like white or amber jewels in the crisp winter night, a “glittering necklace,” as one 1987 article called it, bathing this stretch of Park in a soft winter glow.

The story behind the trees (and the annual tree-lighting ceremony) is less celebratory and more solemn: “The tradition of lighting trees on Park Avenue began in 1945 when several Park Avenue families wanted a special way to honor those men and women who had died in World War II,” states the website for the nonprofit Fund for Park Avenue, which administers the event.

These families paid for the cost of bringing in fir trees, buying lights, putting together a crew of electricians, and holding the annual ceremony that always included a bugler playing “Taps,” according to a 2005 New York Times article.

It’s since continued every year with the help of other donors. Lovely as the trees are, it’s not an easy venture to organize. Some changes have been made since the early days, when Boy Scouts manually turned on all the lights.

For starters, the holiday lights used to be red, white, green, and blue, but that made it hard for drivers to see traffic lights, so only white remained, stated the Times.

Interestingly, people have tried to steal the trees…which is why each one is now attached to the ground with cables, the Times wrote.

The number of trees and the exact streets they span appears to change as well. And in recent years, service members who fought in other wars haven’t been left out. A Daily News article (above center) from 1963 mentions that soldiers who served in Korea were honored.

“Today the illuminated trees—which appear on the malls between 54th and 97th Streets—remain a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made to attain it,” states the Fund. The playing of “Taps” before the trees are lit continues.

[Last photo: Park Avenue in 1964, MCNY X2010.11.14131]

A downtown neon candy store sign is falling apart

December 30, 2019

What in the world is going on with this Loft’s Candies sign? Faded and falling apart, it’s been hanging on for dear life at 88 Nassau Street for several years, after another store sign came down and brought it back into view.

I’m not sure how long it’s been visible again, but it seems that it reappeared long after what remained of the once-renowned Loft Candies company closed its existing stores for good in the mid-1990s.

Not only have the neon red letters long gone dark, but the small, unusual building—at the edge of the Financial District—looks like it’s coming apart at the seams.

An Ephemeral reader who worked downtown for years snapped this recent photo (at top) of the sign; it’s the first time the reader spotted it and was astounded enough to take a picture.

The sign is in worse shape since I captured it in a photo in 2017 (at left). And while I don’t know when the store closed, it didn’t occupy this space until after 1940, since it doesn’t show up in the Department of Records 1940 tax photos database.

As dilapidated as it looks, imagine the Loft company in a sweeter time, say the first half of the 20th century—when its candies were popular all across New York City and ads for their holiday sweets appeared in all the city papers as Christmas approached.

Just think about how wonderful it was to get the “De Luxe Round Gift Box” as a gift, pictured above in the New York Daily News ad from holiday season 1941.

Or imagine the thrill of being a kid and finding a pound of “glass candies” in your stocking on December 25, as the 1914 ad in the Evening World suggested!

[Thanks to NA for snapping the recent photo!]

How New York celebrated Christmas in the 1910s

December 23, 2019

If you like to browse photos of early 20th century New York City, then you’ve seen the work of George Grantham Bain.

Bain wasn’t just a talented news photographer who started one of the first photo agencies. He was also a poetic chronicler of street life in the city, a man with a knack for creating visual narratives of how life was lived in New York—especially when it came to lives of the working men and women, the down and out, and kids.

The Christmas season was a prolific time for Bain, who captured dozens of images in the 1910s showing all the ways the holiday was celebrated in the city by the down and out, the young, and the forgotten.

The top two photos were taken outside a Salvation Army Christmas Dinner held at Grand Central Palace, an exhibition hall on 42nd Street. It was an annual event where 4,000 people, “found places at 60 long tables set on the main floor of the hall and extending practically from one side of it to the other,” wrote the New York Times in 1903.

Some people didn’t sit; they took home their holiday meal in baskets—like the woman in the center of the photo.

The third and fourth images show women and kids posing in front of a Christmas tree at what’s likely the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the end of 25th Street on the East Side.

We’re at one of the Newsboys’ Houses in the fifth image, above. Facilities for street kids who worked as newsies, bootblacks, flower sellers, and other jobs children often took were built in the late 19th century and funded by benevolent societies.

Some New Yorkers celebrated Christmas by peddling everything from trees to cheap toys to food, like these vendors under an elevated train.

Meanwhile, others spent the holiday delivering all the gifts picked out of toy stores and department stores. The ropes holding these boxes into the back of this delivery wagon don’t look very secure!

[All photos: Bain Collection/LOC]

The missing 1824 row house on Spring Street

December 23, 2019

Toward the western end of Spring Street, between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in Soho, stand two humble red-brick row houses.

Like many of the Federal-style homes that sprang up in the early 19th century, as the rapidly growing city burst beyond Canal Street, the two houses at 188 and 190 Spring Street have been altered considerably over the years.

The dormers sticking out of the peaked roofs were combined, lintels removed and replaced, and new first-floor windows added, according to the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District Designation Report from 2016.

Still, their resemblance is easy to see; they look like twin refugees of low-rise 1820s New York, when the opening of the Erie Canal turned New York into the financial and manufacturing capital of the nation.

But there was at least one more house just like them next door at 186 Spring Street, and it looks like it was literally ripped at the seams from its companions.

According to one 1857 street map, 186, 188, and 190 Spring were a trio of similar-size houses smaller than their neighbors yet reflecting the uniformity of a formerly tidy residential block.

Today, only the outline of the third house in a row of triplets is eerily visible.

So what happened to 186 Spring? The house, also altered over the years (at right in 1940), met the wrecking ball in 2012.

Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz was the owner; he sold it for $5.5 million to a buyer who promptly knocked the house down after the Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed it ineligible for landmarking, according to a 2013 post on Curbed.

(Why was it ineligible? Too many of its historic features had been wiped away, reported David W. Dunlap in a 2012 New York Times article.)

The developer apparently planned to also demolish 182-184 Spring (the 2-story building constructed in 1921 on the corner of Thompson that’s now boarded up and empty) and put up condos, to the dismay of preservation groups like the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

It’s been several years since demolition occurred and the condo project was announced, and legal problems reportedly have stalled development. The lot where 186 Spring Street once stood is empty and behind boards.

The impression of the house, including what look like two chimneys, rises above the boards and refuses to let passersby forget that it was once there.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photos 1940]

Was the Brooklyn Bridge really painted green?

December 23, 2019

Vintage postcards of the Brooklyn Bridge get me every time—especially postcards like this one, which show the bridge not as a symbol of New York’s might but as a reflection of the solitary and personal.

As much as I like this postcard, which is actually a reproduction of an older version, one thing stands out to me: Was the Brooklyn Bridge’s web of steel beams and cables ever really painted green?

Apparently not. The original color was either red or something dubbed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan,” according to a 2010 New York Post article.

This postcard is undated, but I’d place it in the 1920s—and so far I haven’t found any evidence that the bridge underwent a green paint job during that decade. But it sure makes for an enchanting postcard!

Knitting for soldiers in an upper Manhattan park

December 16, 2019

When Ashcan painter George Luks completed this painting of a group of women knitting in Highbridge Park on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River, he gave it the one-word title “Knitting.”

But it was 1918, and amid the war effort, “critics naturally assumed that the scarves and gloves were being made for soldiers,” notes terraamericanart.org. Hence the amended title, “Knitting for the Soldiers.”

It’s an unusual piece of art from Luks, who tended to focus on the gritty realism of the city’s poorer pockets. A move from Greenwich Village to Upper Manhattan, however, changed his focus.

“While taking advantage of the expressive possibilities of paint, Luks suggested details of costume and gesture with a sharp reporter’s eye: the women’s garments are simple, yet fashionable enough to mark them as comfortably middle-class. Varying in age from young to elderly, they work in silent camaraderie,” states terraamericanart.org.

A remnant of the Drama Book Shop from 1962

December 16, 2019

Like so many other New York City specialty bookstores, the Drama Book Shop has a long history of moving around.

First established in 1916 inside the West 42nd Street offices of the New York Drama League, according to a 2017 New York Times article, the shop then moved to 47th Street, and by the late 1950s it occupied a brownstone and then a commercial building on West 52nd Street.

That’s where this relic of one of the 52nd Street stores comes in.

Thumbing through an old catalog of plays, I noticed the front cover had this Drama Book Shop decal across it—displaying not just one of the best store logos ever but also an old 2-letter postal code (used in the days before 5-number ZIP codes) and a two-letter phone exchange, JU for Judson.

(There’s nothing like coming across bits and pieces of the city’s literary glory days while browsing old books, right?)

The catalog, from the Samuel French company, dates back to 1962; twenty years later, the store hopscotched over to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street, then to 250 West 40th Street in 2001.

Forced from the 40th Street location earlier this year, the Drama Book Shop was bought by Lin-Manuel Miranda and three others Hamilton collaborators. An updated New York Times piece from last month says the new store will open on West 39th Street next spring.