Late winter was boot scraper season in 19th century New York City

February 27, 2023

In the 18th and 19th centuries, New York City roads were filthy. Garbage was tossed in gutters (sometimes consumed by free-roaming pigs, who left their own waste behind), dust got kicked up on dry days, and manure from the thousands of horses that pulled streetcars and wagons caked the streets.

Add in the snow and sleet typical of late February and early March, and the cityscape that appears so charming in old black and white photos was actually a muddy, grimy, soupy mess.

No wonder anyone who had a stoop and iron stairway railings also had a boot scraper. Built as a discreet part of the decorative railing, boot scrapers allowed people to scrape the gunk off their shoes before entering a home, business, school, or church.

These 19th century boot scrapers were all found in the West Village. The historic brownstone rows here seem to have more boot scrapers than any other section of the city, and all are still functional and quite lovely in their own old-timey way. But you’ll find them in any neighborhood where brownstones and town houses still have stoops.

Once you start noticing boot scrapers, you’ll see them every time you ascend the stairs, and you’ll realize that many of them are unique, even unusual and decorative. (A few examples can be found in this earlier post.)

Think of boot scrapers as utilitarian relics of an older New York City….right beneath your feet.

Decoding the words on a mystery faded food ad in the Meatpacking District

February 27, 2023

If you’ve been to one of the upper floors of the Whitney Museum lately, you’ve probably found your way to the exterior staircase and taken in the spectacular view of the Meatpacking District.

Looking east, you can see triangular blocks of mid-19th century converted dwelling houses and early 20th century warehouses. Just below you is the beginning of the steel railway that became known as the High Line. Along the remaining cobblestone streets are awnings attached to what were once food stalls when the neighborhood was known as Gansevoort Market.

The view from the Whitney offers another remnant of the Meatpacking District of old: a faded ad on a five-story, flatiron-shaped brick building built in 1887.

“Burnham’s Clam Chowder” it appears to say, on flat end of 53-61 Gansevoort Street. This former loft building was once the headquarters of the E.S. Burnham Company, a manufacturer of clam chowder and clam bouillon, according to the Gansevoort Market Historic District Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

A much clearer image of the ad can be seen in the photo above, taken in the 1930s or 1940s. The clam chowder ad makes sense here, especially considering that on the Gansevoort Street side of the building, the words “clam chowder clam bouillon” can still be seen from the street. (Below photo from 2016)

But wait, on closer inspection of “clam,” it looks like some other letters are mixed in there. According to the LPC report, the clam chowder ad is “superimposed with ‘beet wine.'”

But Walter Grutchfield, whose wonderful website explores the backstory of many faded ads in New York City, seems to think it might be “beef wine,” based on a “great restorative tonic” the Burnham company sold when it was doing business on Gansevoort Street.

Beef wine? It doesn’t sound very appetizing. But I like the idea that one old ad was painted over another, a palimpsest from perhaps a century ago on a brick and mortar New York City building.

The Burnham company left the premises in 1929, according to Grutchfield. Considering the pool on the roof, you’ve probably figured out that 53-61 Gansevoort Street no longer functions as a food manufacturing site. Today, it’s the RH Guesthouse—with rooms once used for canning chowder starting at two grand per night!

[Second image: NYPL]

A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion

February 20, 2023

You’re forgiven if you fail to see it as you rush to make your train: a neglected off-white plaque surrounded by filthy subway tiles at the 157th Street subway station.

But it’s a shame if this curious old sign doesn’t catch your eye, because it clues you in to Presidential history and New York City’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War.

In August 1776, George Washington, the commander of the fledging Continental Army, suffered a bruising defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. In September, he made his way to the Roger Morris mansion—a circa-1765 hilltop country house high above Harlem.

Roger Morris was a British army colonel who had left the city, so Washington made the Federal-style mansion his temporary headquarters before the battle of Harlem Heights. Washington then moved on to White Plains, and the now-vacant country estate became the headquarters of both British and Hessian commanders as the war progressed.

In 1810, two decades after Washington became the first U.S. President, a wealthy couple named Eliza and Stephen Jumel took up residence—hence the mansion’s current name, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Today, this oldest house in Manhattan is a museum on lovely Jumel Terrace in appropriately named Washington Heights.

I don’t think any museum visitors claim to have seen Washington’s ghost. But Eliza Jumel, an infamous social climber who later married Aaron Burr, supposedly haunts the mansion.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

How Hell’s Kitchen got its rough and ready name

February 20, 2023

There used to be a lot of hell in New York neighborhood names.

Hell’s Hundred Acres was the early to mid-20th century moniker for today’s SoHo, thanks to all the fires that broke out in the cast-iron buildings then used for manufacturing. Hellgate Hill was an East 90s enclave named for the narrow East River channel separating Queens from Ward’s Island, where perilous rocks and currents sunk many ships.

Let’s not forget Satan’s Circus, the Gilded Age vice district that straddled the Chelsea-Flatiron-Midtown borders, and Spuyten Duyvil, the northern Bronx enclave that translates into “spite of the devil” or “spouting devil” due to its treacherous waters.

Today, we’re left with one hell neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Manhattan. The name conveys a sense of danger, depravity, and chaos—fueled by the post–Civil War development here of tenements, factories, elevated trains, slaughterhouses, waterfront activity, and railroads. Poor people and immigrants moved in, and crime was rampant.

So where did the illustrious name actually come from? Several intriguing theories abound.

In the late 19th century, Hell’s Kitchen might have first referred only to the down and dirty block of 39th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. “Legend has it that one rookie cop commented to his more seasoned partner, ‘This place is hell itself,'” explains NYC Parks.

“‘Hell’s a mild climate,’ his partner replied. ‘This is hell’s kitchen.'” Soon, the name spread across the neighborhood—which early on spanned roughly 34th Street to 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue and today runs all the way up to West 59th Street.

Another possibility is that Hell’s Kitchen the neighborhood was named after the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, which in the late 19th century specialized in stealing from railroad yards, breaking and entering, extortion, and “general mayhem,” according to a 1939 book produced by the Federal Writers Project.

A third explanation states that the name was borrowed from Hell’s Kitchen in London, a slum district on the South Side, per New York Architecture. A fourth attributes the name to a local German restaurant called Heil’s Kitchen.

Could a New York Times reporter be responsible for the name? The first appearance of “Hell’s Kitchen” in newsprint dates back to September 22, 1881.

“A Notorious Locality,” is the title of the article, which goes on to describe some of the tenement houses on the blocks between 38th and 40th Streets and Tenth and Eleventh Avenue.

“Within the square are a collection of buildings…known to the police as ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ ‘The House of Blazes,’ ‘Battle Row,’ and ‘Sebastopol.’ The entire locality is probably the lowest and filthiest in the city, a locality where law and order are openly defied, where might makes right, and depravity revels riotously in squalor and reeking filth.” Ouch.

Probably the strangest theory posits that a remark by Davy Crockett—the early 1800s frontiersman—inspired the name.

In 1835, Crockett was touring New York City, and he stopped to see Five Points, the most infamous slum district in antebellum Manhattan. Of his visit to this neighborhood of rum houses, dance halls, and ramshackle homes packed with mostly Irish immigrants, he wrote in his autobiography:

“I said to [my friend]…these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.” Somehow the name was applied decades later to the West Side neighborhood, and it fit.

In recent years, Hell’s Kitchen has lost its once-notorious edge. The gangs are gone; apartments in formerly rundown tenements are now pricey. Bars and restaurants make it a prime nightlife area. An attempt to rebrand the neighborhood the bland “Clinton” years ago never really panned out.

Hell’s Kitchen will continue to be Hell’s Kitchen, albeit a more law-abiding and expensive version.

[Top image: Louis Maurer, 1883, “View of 43rd Street West of Ninth Avenue”; second image: Jacob Riis, 1890; third image: New York Times; fourth image: MCNY/Charles Von Urban, 1932; 33.173.319, 1881; fifth image: Jacob Riis, 1890; sixth image: MCNY, 1930, X2010.11.6065]

The wise owls adorning the facade of a 1906 West Side high school

February 13, 2023

The delightful building housing John Jay College of Criminal Justice, on Tenth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, is a confection of gables, parapets, pitched roofs, and terra cotta ornamentation.

But it’s the owls adorning a quiet side entrance facing West 58th Street, above, that give away what this Flemish Renaissance building was originally used for.

Built in 1906, this was DeWitt Clinton High School—an all-boys institution considered to be the largest high school in the nation at the time. (DeWitt Clinton would relocate to the Bronx to an even bigger campus two decades later.)

The H-shaped design (below, in a 2008 photo) is one of the hallmarks of New York City public school buildings constructed in this era, and so are the owls.

These symbols of wisdom can be found on many city school buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th century—when education became a Progressive-era ideal and Gotham embarked on a massive school-building juggernaut.

What makes these owls unique are the fledglings beneath them. Perhaps they symbolize the youngsters walking through these school doors and the knowledge imparted to them in an era when high school was not mandatory, and any boy attending secondary school was probably there to learn.

[Third image: Wikipedia]

The 1872 plan to get around Manhattan via elevated pneumatic tubes

February 13, 2023

In the 19th century, not unlike today, New York City had a mass transit problem.

As the city’s population boomed and the urbanization of Manhattan continued northward, it was clear that the horse-pulled omnibuses and horse-drawn streetcars—which carried thousands of people to their destinations every day and contributed to enormous, epic traffic jams—were not going to cut it.

Enter the Gilbert Elevated Railway (above and below, in proposed illustrations). Introduced in 1872 amid a flurry of other ideas for elevated transit, this railroad would run high above the surface of the city on elegant, decorative wrought-iron archways, ferrying passengers in cars powered by compressed air.

Basically, it would be an elevated railroad shuttling uptown and downtown through pneumatic tubes.

The man behind the much-talked-about idea was Rufus H. Gilbert, a former doctor in the Union Army who was troubled by the high rates of sickness in tenement districts.

“Gilbert’s answer to the cholera, typhus, and diphtheria rampaging among the downtrodden classes was, elliptically, rapid transit,” wrote Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin in an article for The Gotham Center for New York City History.

“He reasoned that fast and cheap public conveyances would allow the poor to flee their teeming, disease-infested neighborhoods, and live in the hinterlands, where they could enjoy clean air and water, and plentiful sunshine,” continued Lubell and Goldin.

The idea of mass transit via pneumatic tube sounds a little crazy, especially if you think of pneumatic tubes as an old-fashioned system banks and department stores used to carry cash and receipts through a vacuum-powered network.

But it had precedent. Two years earlier, a pneumatic-tube underground subway opened for business. Running just one block from Warren to Murray Streets under Broadway, the city’s first subway, built by inventor Alfred Ely Beach, attracted curious riders—but not the funding (or political clout) needed to extend the line any farther. Beach’s subway closed in 1873.

Gilbert (above) may have borrowed the pneumatic tube idea, but he also put a lot of thought into how his railroad would run. He proposed putting his stations roughly one mile apart and providing pneumatic elevators for passengers to ascend to each station, according to Lubell and Goldin, who authored the 2016 book Never Built New York.

“He also planned a telegraph triggered by the passing cars, which would automatically signal arrivals and departures from all points along the line,” they wrote.

Though Gilbert got the go-ahead from the city to start constructing his pneumatic railway along Sixth Avenue, his plans had the misfortune of colliding with the Panic of 1873—a terrible depression that left him without investors. With no capital, he was forced to abandon his idea.

Gilbert persisted over the next few years, modifying his elevated railroad so it would be powered by steam engines, not compressed air. In 1875 he received a charter to begin building. Three years later, the first leg of the Gilbert Elevated opened from Rector Street to Central Park. (Above, the debut of the railroad as it approached Jefferson Market Courthouse.)

By 1880, almost all of New York’s avenues had steam-powered elevated trains roaring and belching overhead. Traffic congestion was relieved—but a decade later, plans for a faster, less obtrusive, and more efficient underground subway would be in the works.

What became of Gilbert? Sadly, after his elevated railroad opened, he was ousted from his own company, which was renamed the Metropolitan Elevated Company. Gilbert threatened to sue his former colleagues, charging that they defrauded him. Ultimately he died in his home on West 73rd Street in 1885.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second illustration: Library of Congress; third illustration: NYPL; fourth illustration: Library of Congress; fifth illustration: Library of Congress]

A presentation about a notorious Gilded Age scandal—free for Ephemeral New York readers!

February 7, 2023

During New York City’s Gilded Age, wealth, power, and scandal tended to go hand-in-hand. But few contemporary New Yorkers could imagine the sensational 1890s drama surrounding the private life of lawyer and politician Robert Ray Hamilton, great-grandson of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

Robert Ray Hamilton, a scion of wealth and privilege, found himself mired in a tumultuous relationship with a beautiful and mysterious female con artist he met in a brothel. Add an abandoned baby, sham marriage, tawdry courtroom testimony, and a voracious press, and you have one of the most lurid, tabloid-ready scandals of the Gilded Age.

Author and New Yorker Bill Shaffer tells the story in his gripping and well-researched new book, The Scandalous Hamiltons: A Gilded Age Grifter, a Founding Fathers Disgraced Descendant, and a Trial at the Dawn of Tabloid Journalism. Shaffer will be giving a Zoom presentation on the drama and its impact on the late 19th century city for Landmark West! on Tuesday, February 7 from 6-7 p.m.

The Zoom presentation is free for Ephemeral New York readers. Sign up here and use the promo code ENY, and your ticket is on the house thanks to the kind folks at Landmark West!

[Photo: Landmark West!]

The pretty peacocks holding court in the Garment District

February 6, 2023

There’s a lot of leftover loveliness in the Garment District—the wide swatch of Midtown Manhattan west of Fifth Avenue between roughly 41st and 28th Streets.

In the early 1900s, the showrooms and factories here made the vast majority of women’s clothes in the United States. These days, the remaining garment-related producers share dingy side streets with ghostly faded ads and signage from long-departed companies.

But things are still looking bright at the Fashion Tower, at 135 West 36th Street. High above the freight entrance of this circa-1922, 17-story Emery Roth–designed building, two terra cotta painted peacocks sitting in the swirly leaves of a tree greet passersby.

Why peacocks? With their beautiful colors and plumage, these gorgeous birds are symbols of fashion—as well as power, strength, and confidence.

A famous writer recalls his boyhood on an 1850s working-class Williamsburg block

February 6, 2023

If you think Williamsburg is popular now, you should have been there in the early 1850s.

At that time, the number of residents had ballooned to 35,000, the riverfront was bustling with industry, and this Kings County town ambitiously incorporated itself into a city (before changing course and becoming part of the neighboring city of Brooklyn three years later).

During these booming years, two real estate investors teamed up to buy and develop parcels of land in the center of Williamsburg, some of it farmland. They hired a surveyor, cut a slender new road they called Fillmore Street after the sitting U.S. President, and planned to construct two rows of mostly three-story homes designed in the elegant Italianate style.

Though they sound like the kind of fine houses upper class residents would be interested in, and they were billed before they were built in a June 1852 edition of the New York Times as future “magnificent dwellings,” the houses weren’t intended for Williamsburg’s wealthy business owners.

Instead, the walkups on what was later renamed Fillmore Place were multi-tenant “flats” meant to be owned or rented by the working-class folks who came to Williamsburg to fill jobs and enjoy a lower population density than that of New York across the East River.

Who were the early residents of this brand-new enclave, which soon had gaslights installed and sewer hookups? “In the mid-19th century, most of the owners were English, Irish or German, and worked as artisans or were petty merchants,” states the Brooklyn neighborhood association WGPA. “The residents renting apartments on Fillmore Place at this time were of a similar background, usually artisans, clerks and laborers.”

Life on Fillmore Place appears to have been a step above the options available to most working-class New Yorkers.

While the buildings “were erected as multifamily dwellings and occupied by working-class tenants, their architecture has more in common with the fashionable middle- and upper-class single-family row houses of the period than with the substandard tenements that were becoming more common in the poorer sections of the city,” states the Landmarks Preservation Commission Report for what’s now known as the Fillmore Place Historic District.

Though the houses weren’t large and only one flat existed on each floor, each room likely had a window facing “either the street or a generously sized rear yard,” per the LPC report—which is more than the typical tenement offered in an era before tenement reform laws.

As a result of this apparently decent quality of life, Fillmore Place’s residents tended to stick around. Even the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, which brought in thousands of new residents and saw the tearing down of row-house neighborhoods in favor of tenements, didn’t drastically alter the fabric.

The houses along Fillmore Place, “were not directly affected by the opening of the bridge and remain perhaps the most intact enclave of buildings erected during Williamsburg’s initial period of urban. development,” states the LPC report.

More than a century later, this slightly slanted street still retains a small-scale 19th century feel. No wonder it became an official historic district in 2009. While one-block Fillmore Place is bounded by Driggs Avenue, Roebling Street, Grand Street, and Metropolitan Avenue, the historic district extends to include a row of walkups from 662 to 676 Driggs Avenue.

One of those walkups was home in the 1890s to Henry Miller—author of Tropic of Capricorn, among other novels. Though Miller only spent the first nine years of his life at 662 Driggs (below), his description of Fillmore Place, his “favorite street,” as he called it in a 1971 New York Times essay, can give you an idea of what life was like here at the tail end of the 19th century.

“The house I lived In was between North First and Metropolitan Avenue, then called North Second Street,” Miller wrote in a 1971 essay for the New York Times. “Opposite us was Dr. Kinney, the veterinarian, and on the rooftop next door to his place Mrs. Omelio kept her 20 to 30 cats. Diagonally opposite us was Fillmore Place, just one block long, which was my favorite street and which I can still see vividly if I close my eyes.”

In his 1936 short story collection Black Spring, “Miller wrote “’there were three streets—North First, Fillmore Place, and Driggs Avenue. These marked the boundaries of the known world,’” via the neighborhood website Greenpointers.

“His description of Fillmore Place in Tropic of Capricorn perfectly captures many people’s love for the historic little block: ‘[it was] the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life. It was the ideal street—for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician,’” wrote Miller, excerpted by Greenpointers.

[Third image: New York Times; seventh image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

A “wonderfully gaudy” Fifth Avenue chateau for a Gilded Age financier’s large family

January 30, 2023

Many of the Gilded Age mansions built on or around Fifth Avenue carried unhappy backstories. Residents of these marble and limestone palaces navigated disappointing marriages and disappearing fortunes. Intended to be monuments to wealth and grandeur, their homes were often reduced to rubble within a few generations.

But the still-extant mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street is the rare home on Millionaire Mile built for a close-knit clan that valued art and philanthropy. Within these ecclesiastical-like walls lived two parents who modeled for their children what it meant to give back.

The story of the mansion, at 1109 Fifth Avenue, begins with Felix Moritz Warburg. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1871 into a family of bankers, Warburg immigrated to America in 1894 and became a partner in the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.

“He established a reputation as a financier, bon vivant, art collector, philanthropist, and leader within the Jewish community,” noted the Expanded Carnegie Hill Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Warburg was also becoming a family man. A year later he married Frieda Schiff (below, in 1894), daughter of Jacob Schiff, the philanthropist and financier who was a senior partner in the firm.

In the next eight years, the Warburgs would have five children—one girl and four boys. Though they lived in a posh townhouse on East 72nd Street, they needed a larger space to fit their growing family (as well as Felix Warburg’s growing art collection).

So amid the Panic of 1907, Warburg bought a corner lot at Fifth and 92nd Street a block from Andrew Carnegie’s mansion on 91st Street. Warburg admired the style of the 1899 Fletcher-Sinclair mansion at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street (today’s Ukrainian Institute), and he commissioned that mansion’s architect, C. P. H. Gilbert, to create a similar residence for his family.

Gilbert was already at work designing a home for Felix Warburg’s brother, Paul. It probably wasn’t difficult for Felix to ask the highly acclaimed architect to create one for him as well.

Jacob Schiff, however, tried to dissuade Felix and Frieda from going with such a showy, fanciful style, thinking it might foment envy and encourage anti-semitism, according to Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs. But Schiff’s objection didn’t change the Warburgs’ plans.

In 1908, the Warburg mansion was completed (above, early 1900s): a massive French Gothic home with its main entrance on 92nd Street and a lawn along the side. It was not dissimilar to the many ostentatious chateaus wealthy New Yorkers were building at the time.

“Made of Indiana limestone, with steep slate mansard roofs and ogee-arched windows with crocketed gables, this wonderfully gaudy edifice fit into the row of extravagant mansions that lined Fifth Avenue in the aftermath of the Gilded Age,” wrote Chernow.

Inside, the house (above, around 1940) reflected the family’s interests. A second floor room and conservatory were filled with Felix Warburg’s art collection, which included works by Botticelli and etchings by Rembrandt, Durer, and Cranach, noted Chernow. The third floor contained an office for Felix and a space for Frieda to host friends for tea.

The children’s rooms were on the fourth floor, where “a miniature electric railroad snaked from room to room,” noted the 1981 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission declaring the mansion to be a historic landmark. The fifth floor contained squash courts, and the sixth floor was given over to the 13 live-in servants.

While their “bright, smart-alecky, irreverent children,” as Chernow described them, grew up and began adult lives, the Warburgs became deeper involved in philanthropic efforts. The scope of these efforts is almost impossible to describe.

Felix Warburg (above) became “involved with hospitals, aid to children, to the blind, and to the immigrant poor, ” stated the 1981 LPC report. “He organized 75 separate charities into the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and served as its president and later chairman of the board.”

Warburg also established the first children’s courts in New York City, brought nurses into public schools, funded playgrounds and settlement houses, and lent his financial support to museums while helping to establish Juilliard School of Music.

His philanthropy extended overseas as well. “During World War I when Central Europe endured desperate privations, Warburg became a founder and chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, of which he remained head until 1932,” per the 1981 report.

After the Nazis seized power, Warburg helped thousands of Jewish residents flee, according to a Time article from 1937. Ultimately, he gave millions to assist Jewish causes around the world.

The Warburgs’ biggest and most personal act of charity was also the one that kept their mansion from meeting the wrecking ball.

Both Felix and Frieda served on the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Seven years after Felix died in his Fifth Avenue home in 1937—he had a heart attack at age 66—Frieda decided to donate the home to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Thirty-nine years after its erection as a private home for a German-born banker, the Warburg Mansion opened to the public as the Jewish Museum in 1947,” states the website for the Jewish Museum.

Considering the Warburgs’ deep involvement in educational and cultural philanthropy, not to mention Jewish causes, we can assume that they both would enthusiastically approve of the ongoing use of their magnificent former family home.

[Third image:; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; fifth photo:]