A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

Chesterarthurhome2

And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

The Manhattan Bridge’s two lost lovely ladies

February 9, 2015

Look closely: in this 1920s postcard depicting the grand Manhattan Bridge approach from Brooklyn, you can make out two statues inside the granite pylons flanking the roadway.

Manhattanbridgeapproach1925mcny

These heroic sculptures—created during the City Beautiful era, when art was meant to inspire and uplift—were known as “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.”

Installed seven years after the bridge opened in 1909 and designed by Daniel Chester French, these 12-foot lovely ladies represented the attributes of each borough.

Manhattanbridgestatues

Impressive, right? But by the 1960s, they were gone—victims of bridge reconstruction in the age of Robert Moses and the automobile.

Luckily, Manhattan and Brooklyn didn’t end up in pieces in a Meadowlands dump, the sad fate of parts of the original Penn Station.

ManhattanstatueInstead, they were brought to the Brooklyn Museum, where they’ve guarded the entrance since 1963.

Interestingly, the attributes of each statue represent the way we view the boroughs today.

For Manhattan, that means hubris. “The pose of the figure of Manhattan typifies splendor and pride, of which the peacock at her side is the emblem,” says a 1915 article.

Brooklynstatue“The right foot of the statue rests upon a treasure-box and a winged ball in the statue’s hand suggests the City’s domination in world affairs.”

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a softer, more artistic and educational vibe.

“Beside the figure of Brooklyn stands a church and the arm of the statue rests upon a lyre, symbolizing music.”

“A Roman tablet which the figure holds on its knee indicates study, and a child at its feet reading from a book typifies the Borough’s well-filled schools.”

[Statue photos: Brooklyn Museum]

New York’s 1849 skyline seen from Union Square

February 2, 2015

The square itself looks different—it’s oval, first of all, and that’s some water spray from the new Croton fountain.

Bachmannlithographunionsquare

But amazingly, the streets are instantly recognizable in this 1849 bird’s eye lithograph by Swiss immigrant printmaker John Bachmann.

There’s Broadway, with that slight bend at Grace Church (built just one year earlier), and Fourth Avenue, which still curves east at about 12th Street.

Steeples and ship masts dominate Lower Manhattan. The George Washington statue has yet to arrive in at the southeast corner of Union Square (that comes in 1856), and the theaters and music halls that made 14th Street the city’s entertainment district are a decade or so away.

The level of detail is amazing and inspiring. And look at how built up New York is compared to this same view in 1828.

The building designed to look like a punchcard

February 2, 2015

4NewYorkPlazaemporisDeep in the Financial District at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets is a 22-story brick citidel known by its mailing address, 4 New York Plaza.

Fortress-like and impenetrable at the tip of Manhatan, it’s not the loveliest building downtown by any means.

But architectural firm Carson Lundin & Shaw, which designed it in 1969 for banking giant Manufacturers Hanover Trust, was apparently inspired by the data processing tool of the era: the punchcard.

You can see the resemblance in the the small windows along the facade, irregularly placed and slot-like.

Supposedly this punchcard design won awards.

4NewYorkPlazaPanoramio

The punchcard era is long over, but 4 New York Plaza remains, surviving massive flooding and damage thanks to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Here’s a more inspiring view of 4 New York Plaza, taken by Lucia M. in 2008, with the walkups on Pearl Street lending it some of their beauty and charm.

[Top photo: Emporis]

Three subway scenes from a 1930s painter

February 2, 2015

The head scarves, newspapers, advertisements, and hats are definitely Depression-era. Substitute the newspapers for iPhones, however, and it’s eerily familiar.

Celentanosubway1935

This 1935 painting by Daniel Celentano, Subway, looks strangely contemporary: a packed car, a cross-section of New Yorkers, and almost everyone minding their own business, looking down or away.

Celentanounderthesubway

Celentano needs more recognition. A WPA muralist born in 1902, he grew up as one of 15 kids in a Neapolitan family in Harlem’s Little Italy.

Celentanostreetscene2

His work captures the rhythms of 1930s life in the city’s immigrant enclaves and beyond: festivals inspired by saints, laborers at work, and a coal stove keeping passengers warm as they wait for the train in an El Station.

CelentanoselfportraitIn the second painting, Celentano gives us a glimpse of the hustle and bustle under the elevated tracks in a working-class New York neighborhood.

Celentano’s New York Street Scene, the third painting here, offers a view of the 1930s elevated train far off in the distance. But what is going on in that green booth with a figure of a woman hanging inside it?

[Above, Celentano’s self-portrait, 1940]

Is this New York’s first motorized snowplow?

January 26, 2015

The caption for this photo, giving us a glimpse of the aftermath of a huge city snowstorm in 1899, doesn’t tell us what corner we’re looking at. But it does show something interesting.

Snowplow1899mcny

“Special snow plow vehicle plowing during the Blizzard of 1899,” it reads. For years, of course, the city got rid of snow by packing it in carts drawn by horses. This looks like an early version of a motorized snow plow.

It’s from the wonderful photo collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?

January 26, 2015

The opening paragraph from a New York Times story published on May 26, 1977 sums it up well.

“In Central Park, the once-green lawn of the Sheep Meadow is wearing away, gradually becoming a dust bowl with overuse,” wrote the Times.

Centralparkgreatlawn1970s

“At the Bethesda Fountain, drugs are sold routinely, and the Duck Pond at night becomes a receptacle for beer and soda cans.”

 

Centralparkbelvaderecastle1970s

Crime, graffiti, and decay are the buzzwords of 1970s New York City. And just because Central Park was the city’s jewel didn’t mean park structures and landscapes were immune.

Just look at this image of Belvedere castle. In the 1970s, meteorologists who read data from the weather instruments there (it was the highest point in the park and a prime spot to measure temperature) were planning to move because thieves kept stealing or destroying the equipment.

Centralparkdanacenter1970s

The park had deteriorated before, just after the turn of the century, and was brought back to life by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the 1930s. But the 1970s level of decay is hard to fathom today.

Centralparkthemaine1970sThe ancient Egyptian obelisk was spray-painted in white with the words “do it.” The fountain statue of the flutist in the Conservatory Garden was missing its flute.

Above, a boathouse from the 1940s was falling apart and defaced by graffiti. The statues of the monument at Columbus Circle were missing fingers, and the base was also graffiti-covered, at left.

One of the park’s lovely 19th century bridges is closed in this photo, a danger sign posted before it.

Centralparkbridge1970snytFinally in 1980, after studies were funded to help figure out how to save the park, an administrator was appointed. And two park advocacy groups combined to become the Central Park Conservatory, a “board of guardians” to help restore the park to its former glory.

[Photos: the Central Park Conservatory; New York Times]

A piece of the 1830s city on West Fourth Street

January 26, 2015

In 1894, New York University tore down the 1835 Gothic Revival beauty that was the school’s main building.

Foundersmemorial

This lovely structure on the east side of Washington Square had housed all of the college’s functions.

Foundersmemorialbuilding1850sFor six decades, it anchored the college community and watched the neighborhood go from posh and stylish to more bohemian and rougher around the edges.

By the 1890s, NYU had decided to move its undergraduate school to the Bronx, and the main building had outlived its usefulness.

Lucky for us, when the building met the bulldozer, NYU officials saved one architectural detail: a small spire, complete with a handful of grotesques.

Foundersmemorial2015They ceremoniously named it the Founder’s Memorial and brought it to the new Bronx campus, where it spent most of the 20th century.

But the Bronx campus was sold off in the 1970s, and NYU once again concentrated its educational offerings in Greenwich Village. When the school came back, the spire came returned as well.

Today it sits off West Fourth Street between Bobst Library and Shimkin Hall, a modest sliver of the 1830s hiding in the shadows of the modern city.

Looking down Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village

January 19, 2015

Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street looks about the same today, right? Well, except for the notorious women’s prison building hiding behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse turned Library.

Walterbrightwell

Walter Brightwell painted this scene, according to Artnet, naming it “Looking Down Sixth Avenue Towards the Jefferson Market Library Building.”

The painting looks like it was done in the 1940s, but interestingly, Jefferson Market didn’t became a NYPL library branch until the 1960s.

A Times Square neon sign through the years

January 19, 2015

Bondtimessquare1950sFans of old-school New York neon know the Bond Clothes billboard and sign, the enormous and spectacular signage that lit up Broadway and 45th Street in different forms from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Captured in countless photos (at left, on New Year’s Eve 1950), the sign that stood from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s—with a clock in the O of the Bond name—has become an emblem of Times Square’s postwar glory years.

“This sign was 50 feet tall and 200 feet wide, spanned two streets, and featured a 50,000 gallon waterfall,” states this page from the Sign and Billboard Blog.

Bondsignnighttime

“Surrounding this waterfall were two classical-style figures of a man and woman who were nude during the day, but clothed in neon togas and dresses at night.” (Electric lights turned on at night gave the impression the figures were wearing clothes.)

Bondtimessquare1979By the late 1950s, Bond began leasing the billboard space to other brands, like Pepsi, which turned the two human statues into giant soda bottles.

As Times Square slid into decay (above, in 1979), part of the Bond sign continued to live on—even after the store went out of business in 1977.

Bondclashposter

The venue became the Bond’s International Casino, a nod to the International Casino, a 1930s-era nightclub that existed on the site.

Bond’s was a short-lived disco and rock venue that featured dancing and live acts, most famously the Clash.

Bondeyewitnessnews2

The Clash played 17 shows in 15 nights there in 1981 (opening acts: Grandmaster Flash and the Dead Kennedys, among others).

This made the news because concert promoters oversold tickets, which led to the fire department getting involved, as Channel 7 reported live from the scene the night of one of the planned shows.

Today the site is the location of the restaurant Bond 45, which continues the neon sign tradition. (Second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: Bow Tie Partners)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,671 other followers