The $20 million jewel in Grand Central Terminal

February 6, 2017

brassclockwikiSince Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, “meet me under the clock” has always meant one place: the magnificent four-faced brass timepiece on top of the information booth in the main concourse.

This iconic clock isn’t Grand Central largest or most commanding. That might be the Tiffany clock on the 42nd Street facade, the largest stained-glass Tiffany clock in the world.

But the “golden” concourse clock, as it was called in a 1954 New York Times story about the clock’s restoration, might be the most valuable, to the tune of $20 million.

grandcentralclock

It’s not the brass that makes it so pricey. The four 24-inch wide faces are made out of opal glass.

grandcentralclocktwilightThat, as well as its history and the workmanship of the clock (built by plainly named Self-Winding Clock Company of Brooklyn!) have reportedly led appraisers from Sotheby’s and Christie’s to value it at $10-$20 million.

The clock also features an acorn on top—a symbol representing the motto of the Vanderbilt family (they built Grand Central, of course): “from a little acorn a mighty oak shall grow.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

Holdout buildings that escaped the wrecking ball

February 6, 2017

If most developers had their way, contemporary New York’s skyline would probably consist of an unbroken chain of modern monoliths reaching into the sky.

holdoutwestendave

Luckily, thanks to real estate owners who refused to sell their smaller-scale carriage houses, tenements, and humble 19th century walkups, the cityscape is filled with lovely low-rise reminders of a very different Gotham.

The slender, circa-1893 beauty (above) at 249 West End Avenue beat the wrecking ball because the widow who occupied it refused to sell—even as the four identical homes on either side of hers were demolished in the 1920s, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

holdoutricci

Streeteasy says that this dollhouse-like carriage house (above) at 407 Park Avenue was built in 1910. The tie shop on the ground floor is dwarfed by its Midtown neighbors.

holdoutsuttonplace

This wide, four-story yellow row house was probably the prettiest home on East 57th Street near Sutton Place when it was built. Now, it’s sandwiched between two handsome apartment towers.

holdouteast57thstreet

Also on East 57th Street but closer to Midtown are these two very typical 19th century tenements, nestled inside a 1960s white brick apartment house.

holdoutsoho

This little red charmer on West Broadway looks like it comes from the 19th century. According to Streeteasy, it was actually built in 1950. That’s okay—it keeps the two modern monsters on either side of it at a nice distance apart.

What Economy Candy looked like in the 1980s

January 30, 2017

Sweets emporium Economy Candy, a beloved time machine of a candy store, got its start on Rivington Street in the 1930s (hence the very Depression-friendly name).

economycandysign

Today the shop has one of New York’s most recognizable old-school signs (above), and its maze of candy bins and shelves of nostalgia brands draw big crowds on weekends—a testament to its reputation as well as the Lower East Side’s revival.

economycandy1980sBut things at 108 Rivington looked very different in the 1980s, when this NYC Department of Records photo was taken.  (Click the thumbnail to see it larger.)

How it looked inside, I have no idea. But outside are boarded-up upper windows, graffiti near the facade—and a sign noting Israeli specialties and Halvah, reflecting the tastes of the neighborhood 30-plus years ago.

Finding beauty and poetry in a cold, snowy city

January 30, 2017

Not a fan of the chilly wet days that characterize a New York winter? Let these shimmering images from Saul Leiter of the city in the 1950s and 1960s give you a different perspective.

saulleiterbusinsnow

Leiter, a longtime East Village resident who died in 2013 at age 89, was one of Gotham’s greatest (and mostly unheralded) street photographers, capturing the color of the mid-century metropolis in a subdued, tender glow.

saulleiternewspaperkiosk1955

His soft-focus photos show us seemingly random, ordinary street scenes: pedestrians at a newsstand, a worker taking a break on the sidewalk, the visual poetry of people and buildings reflected in glass, around corners, and through a misty lens.

saulleitersnow1960

Perhaps his most evocative photos showcase New York during wintertime. In a season when shades of gray typically mark the sky and sidewalks, Leiter’s camera manages to draw out the magnificent colors of the winter city.

saulleiteryellowscarf

Yellow taxis, red umbrellas, and the white and red signage on a city bus contrast with snowed-in and rained-out streets.

saulleiterlldairy

“I may be old-fashioned,” Leiter says in a 2014 documentary about his art and life, In No Great Hurry. “But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

saulleiterredumbrella1958

He found that beauty in the slush, snowfall, and puddles of New York’s anonymous streets.

The most magical place in the eyes of city kids

January 30, 2017

Today’s equivalent might be an afternoon at an Imax theater, or a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar or to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.

sleighnewyorkmcny185545-271-1

But for New York City kids growing up in the antebellum 19th century, the greatest treat of all was a visit to Barnum’s American Museum.

barnummuseum1858“Sometimes my mother and father would take me to P.T. Barnum’s Museum—on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street,” wrote James Edward Kelly, who as a small child in 1860s New York recalls Barnum’s as the promise land “for all good boys and girls.”

“As I remember it, it was a large, light colored building, five stories high. It had a balcony over the first floor, and facing Broadway was an expansive banner on which was painted the latest wonder of the world, and behind it a band was constantly playing,” remembered Kelly in his memoir, Tell Me of Lincoln.

It’s not hard to see the appeal. From 1842 to 1865, Barnum’s was a menagerie (below), circus, theater, and freak show all under one heavily decorated roof.

barnummenagerienypl

For 25 cents (15 cents for kids under age 10), parents and their offspring could gaze at exotic animals, view exhibits of scientific discoveries, watch historical plays, and be entertained by magicians and musicians in what was cheekily called the “Lecture Room.”

barnumannaswan“[At Barnum’s] I found the people of my fancy realized: giants, in the person of Miss Anna Haining Bates Swan (at left), eight feet high, and dwarfs, such as Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt” (below).

“Here I also saw Barnum’s white whale, and Ned the trained seal, who had an almost uncanny intelligence,” recalled Kelly.

barnumcommodorenuttBarnum’s was famous worldwide, a must-see for tourists. At its peak the museum was open almost around the clock, entertaining crowds in the millions.

“The country people, so as to get all they could for their money, used to bring their lunches and stay all day, thus filling up the building,” stated Kelly.

While kids were enthralled, many proper adults found Barnum’s appeal decidedly lowbrow, catering to the “vulgar gaze,”  as one English visitor put it in 1854.

barnumsmuseumadBarnum’s occupied “a gaudy building, denoted by huge paintings, multitudes of flags, and a very noisy band,” the visitor wrote.

“The museum contains many objects of real interest . . . intermingled with a great deal that is spurious and contemptible.”

The museum burned down in 1865 in a spectacular fire that killed many of the animals. Though Barnum rebuilt it in farther north on Broadway, the operation ceased in 1868.

But Barnum’s remained alive in the imaginations of kids like Kelly, who remembered the excitement of watching a show in the lecture room (below).

“Then came the delicious moments of suspense, when the audience waited for wonders that were behind the curtain….”

barnumslectureroomnypl

“Then with a crash from the band, the curtain rolled up and we soon got goose flesh over the blood-curdling play, unsurpassed by any in the Old Bowery Theatre.”

[Images: NYPL]

Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River

January 27, 2017

Jara Henry Valenta was a Czech-born American artist who made his way to New York City in 1934. Here he painted this scene of a lonely East River power generating station, with New York Hospital and the Queensboro Bridge in the background.

eastriverjaravalenta

His waterfront—we’re on the Manhattan Brooklyn side—feels stark and remote. Off to the right are two small figures holding shovels beside a pile of coal, a coal company truck parked beside one.

This is a waterfront without the usual hustle and bustle, perhaps a comment on the Depression-era city’s change in fortune from a vibrant metropolis of trade and shipping to one of economic stillness.

[Note: this post was updated to reflect the background information and history provided by the commenters below. Thanks everyone for their insight. Now, if only I could find out more about the painter.]

[From the Smithsonian American Art Museum/Renwick Gallery]

The bloody gang history of two Bowery houses

January 27, 2017

Thimble factory, bakery, oyster house, hotel, barroom, Faro bank, shooting gallery: the twin buildings at 40-42 Bowery, built in 1807, have had lots of occupants throughout the 19th century.

4042bowery

Reminiscent of other Federal-style houses constructed nearby, numbers 40 and 42 feature “Flemish-bond masonry, steeply pitched roofs with single peaked dormers on the front and back, gable-end chimneys and some stone lintels,” according to the Historic Districts Council.

40-42boweryad1826theeveningpost

Even at the dawn of the 19th century, housing wasn’t cheap. In 1826, renting one for a year ran you a cool $1000, according to this Evening Post ad (right).

But you did get to live a few doors down from the Bowery Theater (below, in 1828), once a high-class, gas-lit establishment that began featuring lowbrow entertainment as the Bowery devolved into the eastern border of the Five Points slum.

It’s during Five Points’ heyday when these two buildings earned their notoriety. In 1857, 40-42 Bowery functioned as a gang headquarters and was the site of one of the city’s bloodiest gang fights.

40-42bowerybowerytheater1828

Number 42 “was once a clubhouse for the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards, two of the warring factions memorialized in the book and film, The Gangs of New York,” wrote David Freeland in his book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

40-42boweryboysnyplThe Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards were havens for Nativists, who despised the Irish immigrants pouring into Five Points and forming gangs of their own, like the Dead Rabbits.

“Early in the morning of 4 July 1857, a rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, attacked the house and its immediate neighbor, the saloon at number 40, with what the Times described as ‘fire arms, clubs, brick-bats, and stones,'” wrote Freeland.

The action spilled over into Baxter Street and consumed the neighborhood. An estimated 1,000 men fought—and eight to 12 died.

40-42bowery1881

The Bowery Boys gang eventually fell apart, and the Five Points slum district was broken up by the late 19th century.

But the twin houses on this section of the Bowery survived into the era of the elevated train (above in 1881, with the old Bowery Theater renamed the Thalia) and beyond.

They serve as shabby reminders of a more rough-and-tumble Bowery as well as the promise of a genteel Bowery in early 19th century New York.

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

A 1940s poem’s dark and ominous Varick Street

January 23, 2017

elizabethbishopkingstreetIn 1944, Elizabeth Bishop, then 33 and with a published book of poems under her belt, moved into a tiny flat at 46 King Street (from which she painted this watercolor of 43 King Street, at right, across the street).

She’d already lived in various downtown apartments since graduating from Vassar in 1934, among them 16 Charles Street and 61 Perry Street.

elizabethbishopcollegeyearbook1934Unlike so many other artists and writers of her generation, Bishop (left, in her Vassar yearbook) had an uneasy relationship with the city. She spent much of her early years traveling, living in Manhattan only in short stints.

One poem in particular, “Varick Street,” published in 1947, offers a surreal glimpse of what put her off about New York.

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work.
Try to breathe,
the elongated nostrils
haired with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

elizabethbishopfactoryIn the 1940s, Varick Street—the widened extension of Seventh Avenue South, which plows through the West Village’s meandering cow path streets—was a hub of manufacturing.

Bishop seemed to view the factories (perhaps this one at left, on the corner of King and Varick) right outside her King Street window as mechanized and ominous threats to love.

The poem alludes to the unnatural, the “pale dirty light” and “mechanical moons” of the factories.

The industry and commercialism of the city’s manufacturing world appear to threaten the narrator’s love for the unnamed person sleeping in bed beside her.

Our bed shrinks from the soot
and hapless odors
hold us close.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me

Bishop’s work is not confessional, and though her poems are intimate, they tends to avoid the personal.

But one can imagine Bishop lying in bed next to her beloved, in a relationship complicated if not doomed by an industrial and commercialized city that to her doesn’t recognize love and encourages betrayal.

Here is text of the poem in full, originally published in The Nation.

[Top photo: Tibor De Nagy Gallery; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: 47-49 King Street in 1975 by Edmund Gillon, MCNY: 2013.3.2.2211]

The unusual art in the Old Chelsea post office

January 23, 2017

chelseapostofficewikiPost office branches in New York can be drab and cramped, and the vibe inside not exactly inviting.

But the Old Chelsea station on West 18th Street off of Seventh Avenue is a lovely relic.

Built in 1934, it’s wide and drafty, with carved eagles and doric columns. The facade has a colonial feel—connecting the building back to its colonial-era Old Chelsea neighborhood, when the streets were mostly farmland.

chelseapostofficeart2

But what to make of these cast stone panels of woodland creatures above the main entrance inside? Created by an artist named Paul Feine, perhaps they’re supposed to remind letter mailers of the way Chelsea looked before Manhattan was chopped down and paved over.

chelseapostofficeart1

I hope they stay through the post office’s renovation—reports say the USPS is selling the air rights to developers to build condos.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]