Rushing by the relics of the Union Square subway

March 26, 2018

The concrete maze that is the Union Square/14th Street subway stop is a patchwork of what was once three subway stations built in 1904, 1918, and 1930.

It doesn’t have a lot of charm, but it does have subway history—especially in the form of the six crumbling pieces of masonry, tile, and terra cotta all in a line on the mezzanine level that bridges the various train lines.

These are the remnants of the original walls of the 1904 IRT station. Long thought to have been lost to the ages, they were unearthed during a 1997 renovation and then incorporated into a permanent art exhibit the following year.

Next time you’re rushing from the L to the 6, stop and take a look at them, and behold subway history.

“Artist Mary Miss created standalone panels using historic architectural elements recovered during the renovation of the 14th Street/Union Square station complex,” states the always-informative nycsubway.org.

“The six ’14’ eagles were original elements of the 1904 station construction but most were hidden in disused side platforms along the Contract One IRT route.”

The photo above, from Joseph Brennan’s Abandoned Stations site (originally included in the Board of Rapid Tansit Railroad Commissioners’ year-end report for 1903), shows the eagles against a station wall.

Miss’ urban archeology exhibit includes dozens of other subway remains scattered across the staircases, passageways, and platforms of the station, all of which have the same red border as the subway walls.

These relics, “offer a sense of intimate engagement: to look into one of the framed spaces is as though a secret is being sought and slowly revealed,” states Miss on her website. It’s something to think about next time you’re transferring trains.

[Third Photo: Abandoned Stations by Joseph Brennan]

The lion and unicorn clock above William Street

March 26, 2018

New York needs more street clocks, those lovely public time pieces that people in a pre-smartphone world relied on to let them know they were late for an appointment.

Or maybe we just need to refurbish the ones that already exist—like this lion and unicorn themed clock four stories up above the entrance to 84 William Street, at Maiden Lane.

In 1907, this breathtaking 17-floor building—a confection of Georgia marble, red bricks, and terra cotta—was the brand-new headquarters of the Royal Life Insurance Company.

An article that year in American Architect and Building News reported that the clock reproduced, “the lion and unicorn which form a part of the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, and replacing the shield by a marble and bronze clock-face eight feet in diameter.”

Lion heads decorate a ribbon of trim around the facade on the third floor. The image of a crown on the clock is a nice royal touch too.

At left is the building and clock as they originally looked; it’s virtually unchanged today in this shadowy corner of Lower Manhattan.

It’s unclear how long the company lasted here, but today, 84 William Street is an extended stay hotel.

Street clock hunting in New York can turn up some beauties, like this colorful terra cotta clock space on Avenue C and this cast-iron clock at an old shoe store on Duane Street.

And of course, no avenue in the city has more street clock loveliness than Fifth Avenue.

[Third Photo: MCNY]

This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

March 19, 2018

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]

What remains of two downtown colonial streets

March 19, 2018

The financial firms of Lower Manhattan help fuel the global economy of the 21st century.

But in the middle of their cathedrals of commerce, the remains of some humble streets that were instrumental in powering the economy of the 17th century still linger.

Take Marketfield Street, for example. You can just make it out on the circa-1797 map below; “market” is on the far left and “field” picks up on the right.

This narrow stretch between today’s Beaver and Broad Streets is anglicized from its original colonial Dutch name, Markveldt (which loosely translates into “market field”).

Almost 400 years ago, here stood New Amsterdam’s cattle market, opened in the 1650s—and there’s still a cowpath-like bend in the middle of today’s Marketfield Street, harkening back to its livestock days.

Marketfield Street once extended farther west, as this colorful 1642 map below also shows. It’s unclear how long the cattle market survived the city takeover by the British in 1664.

By 1695 the street went by a racier name: Petticoat Lane: “for it was here that, at the western end of the street near the fort which guarded the harbor, New York City’s prostitutes gathered,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1983.

Every country town has a Mill Lane, and Manhattan does too. This slender alley hides between South William and Stone Streets. (On the map at the top, it’s just a faint curvy footpath with what could be a mill illustrated beside it.)

“It was in existence by 1657; the present name dates from after 1664,” states the LPC report. “Mill Lane ran from a mill built in 1628 to grind bark used by tanners.”

Mill Lane today, thought to be one of the city’s shortest streets, is unfortunately covered by scaffolding. Lets hope it survives this latest wave of development in the oldest part of New York City.

[Second map: Keren Wang’s Personal Website; third map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

This office tower helped guide Battery tugboats

March 19, 2018

They don’t make office buildings as enchanting and beautiful as the Whitehall anymore.

Completed in 1904, architect Henry Hardenbergh (of Plaza Hotel and Dakota fame) created a 20-story beauty with a limestone base and decorative touches like entwined serpents—the building overlooked New York Harbor at the Battery, after all.

The Whitehall Building isn’t on Whitehall Street, curiously. So where did the name come from?

Whitehall was the nickname the British reportedly gave to Peter Stuyvesant’s former home (left), which was constructed in 1655 when Stuyvesant was director general of New Amsterdam.

Mosaics of Manhattan’s Whitehall can be seen at the Whitehall Street N/R station, but they’re too grimy to photograph well, sadly.

As the city’s tallest office tower for a brief moment in the early 20th century, the Whitehall Building was a huge success—and almost a decade later, a taller annex was built, called the Greater Whitehall.

The Whitehall annex (towering over the first Whitehall at the right) had a second purpose: It  helped guide tugboats in New York Harbor.

“With its singular top, this building was visible from the dozens of piers that once lined the Hudson River,” states New York for New Yorkers. “It functioned as a control tower; tugboats received their instructions from offices in this building.”

The city’s once mighty shipping industry is long gone, of course. But the Whitehall still soars over the harbor.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC-architecture.com]

A lonely newsstand at an empty subway entrance

March 12, 2018

“Read The Sun,” the banner across this shack-like newsstand states, of the stories 19th century newspaper that met its demise in 1950.

It’s 1933 in the photo. I like to think that it’s early in the morning, and these two news sellers are all ready for a new day, waiting for people to come out of the tenements and grab a paper on their way into the subway.

I just wish I knew where this newsstand was, and if these two vendors made a decent living.

[MCNY: 93.1.1.17720]

The twin wood houses time forgot in Turtle Bay

March 12, 2018

It’s 1866 in the Turtle Bay neighborhood in Manhattan.

What was once verdant farmland bisected by Eastern Post Road far from the city center was now humming with new houses and industry. Soon, the Second Avenue Elevated would start clanging nearby on enormous iron trestles.

And two men listed as “builder-carpenters” decided to build twin clapboard houses on the old Eastern Post roadbed, getting these wood frame homes up at today’s 312 and 314 East 53rd Street just before the city passed a law banning wood houses up to 86th Street.

(Wood tended to go up in flames, and fire was a major concern of the 19th century city, of course.)

Amazingly, these wood homes have remained here for 152 years, as Turtle Bay shifted from a mixed-use neighborhood with factories, tenements, and slaughterhouses to one with lots of quiet enclaves and posh residences.

From the outside, these sister houses are like the homes time forgot. Built in the French Empire style (very fashionable after the Civil War), they feature mansard roofs, bracketed cornices, and round-hooded dormer windows.

While they match each other nicely, they’re startling to see on the block—it’s like coming across a country house in the middle of the city.

Brooklyn has its share of wood houses, especially in Brooklyn Heights. But these simple beauties are two of just a handful surviving in Manhattan, like this one in the West Village and this farmhouse wedged into 29th Street.

“Relatively few wooden buildings survive in Manhattan, and the majority are found in the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, particularly in Greenwich Village,” states the Landmarks Preservation Committee Report from 2000.

“The Upper West Side has only one frame building, and no. 314 East 53rd Street and its twin, no. 312, are among only seven frame houses of note on the East Side.”

The interior isn’t quite as shabby chic. Check out these photos from a recent Streeteasy listing at no. 312.

[Second photo: MCNY; 33.173.350; Third photo: NYPL]

Art Nouveau flower petals on a Chelsea factory

March 12, 2018

It’s not a factory anymore, of course—working-class Chelsea has long since bit the dust.

But outside the former Hellmuth printing ink building at 154 West 18th Street, the company name still decorates the entrances, with lovely Art Nouveau floral ornamentation in terra cotta above on beside the doorways.

It’s hard to imagine a time when industrial businesses commissioned architects to build inspiring factories and work spaces.

And though the rest of the 8-story Hellmuth building may seem like a pretty typical loft building turned co-op, the two entrances on 18th Street near Seventh Avenue still inspire.

Art Nouveau’s naturalism and curvy lines didn’t take hold in New York the way it did in other major cities in the early 20th century.

But this design style can be found in small pockets of the city, like this Park Row building and this low-rise holdout on a Midtown corner.

[Third photo: Condo.com]

An old Bronx phone number on a wood milk crate

March 5, 2018

It was up for sale at a New Jersey antiques market: a vintage wood milk crate stamped “Hygrade Milk,” a Bronx milk company founded in 1914, according to data from Bloomberg.

But the best part of the crate is the phone number beneath it, with the old two-letter phone exchange “LY.” But what’s LY?

The Hygrade Milk and Cream Company apparently existed at 2350 Hermany Avenue, in the southeast Bronx.

This in depth guide to old phone exchanges only lists a LY in Manhattan; it stood for “Lyceum” and covered part of the Upper West Side.

Longwood? That’s a nearby Bronx neighborhood. Or Lafayette Avenue, a street not far from Hermany? Someone must be able to solve this vintage phone exchange mystery.

In the meantime, here are more of these old timey two-letter phone exchanges spotted on signs and in ads around the city, which were all replaced by digits in the 1960s.

The magic of indoor ice skating on the East Side

March 5, 2018

In the 1860s, New Yorkers were crazy about ice skating, and there were plenty of daytime and moonlit places to hit the ice, including Central Park and Union and Washington Ponds in Brooklyn.

But to experience the enchantment of (temperature controlled) indoor ice skating, city residents laced up their skates and donned skating costumes at the Empire City Skating Rink, which spanned 62nd and 63rd Streets between Third and Second Avenues.

It must have been quite an experience gliding around this football stadium-size rink. “Skaters exclaim, ‘how do they do it? Is not this splendid music and illumination?'” stated ads for the rink, which invited visitors to come see “the splendid sheet of ice like a mirror with thousands skating on it.”

Before winter 2018 ends, consider what New Yorkers did for amusement in 1868 and see the Museum of the City of New York’s “New York on Ice” exhibit, which runs through April 15.

[Top image: MCNY 29.100.1544; second image: New York Herald 1870]