New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

Dining “among the rooftops” of New York in 1905

May 29, 2017

Spending a warm evening in a New York rooftop bar or restaurant is one of the city’s sublime summertime pleasures.

New Yorkers in the Gilded Age thought so as well. After the first roof garden opened on top of the Casino Theater at Broadway and 39th Street in the 1880s, other theaters and hotels opened entertainment venues on their roofs, offering cool breezes and panoramic views illuminated by the city’s new electric lights.

“A number of hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria, the Vendome, Hotel Belleclaire, the Majestic, and the Women’s Hotel, all have charming roof-gardens,” states a 1904 article in Leslie’s illustrated magazine.

French artist Charles Hoffbauer was captivated by the roof garden craze too. In 1904, this Impressionist painter created a series of paintings depicting well-dressed men and women dining on a New York City rooftop.

Yet amazingly, Hoffbauer had not yet been to New York. His rooftop paintings, like “Diner sur le Toit” (top) and a second unnamed painting (middle), were inspired by a book of photos of the Manhattan skyline.

He would come to New York in 1909 and paint many enchanting, atmospheric landscapes street scenes that captured the city’s day and nighttime beauty.

But even without having experienced Gotham, his rooftop paintings (third image, a study for “sur le Toit”) accurately reflect the “bigness and bustle” of the early 20th century city, as one critic put it, of its summertime magic and energy and the fashionable urbanites set who populated its roofs.

Wise men once fished at the Gotham Book Mart

May 25, 2017

New York is getting a new bookstore tomorrow—an actual brick and mortar shop run by Amazon on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, the shopping mall at Columbus Circle.

With Amazon about to open, let’s take a look back at a legendary cozy, dusty literary haven that operated at the other end of Midtown—the Gotham Book Mart.

[The photo above shows the store in 1945, with a window display by Marcel Duchamp.]

Gotham Book Mart, with its black and white framed photos of 20th century poets and writers and endless shelves and stacks of books, existed at three different locations in the Diamond District from 1920 to 2007.

It was the kind of place where you could duck in and quietly be transported into the world of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

Browsers were always welcome, and the store’s founder, Frances Steloff, defied censors who banned the sale of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer in the late 1920s and 1930s.

“Wise Men Fish Here” read the iconic sign outside the door. Indeed. Only a handful of these old-school literary paradises remain.

[Top photo: Art-nerd.com/newyork; second photo: Alamy; third image, MCNY: F2012.99.156]

Saluting the last veteran of the War of 1812

May 25, 2017

Hiram Cronk lived a humble life.

Born in 1800 in upstate New York, he became a shoemaker, married in 1825, had seven kids, and spent his life living on a farm in Oneida County, near Syracuse.

But when he died at the age of 105 in 1905, he was treated like a hero. New York City hosted a state funeral in his honor, joined by politicians and military units and watched by thousands of city residents who thronged the streets in appreciation.

Like a dignitary, his body lay in state in City Hall before Cronk was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

So what did Cronk do to land all of this honor and attention? He survived.

Cronk was the last known veteran who fought in the War of 1812. He enlisted at the age of 14 with his father and brothers and served as a private at a naval station in Sackets Harbor off Lake Ontario, according to the New-York Tribune.

His military career wasn’t necessarily distinguished. But Cronk was heralded as a symbol.

In the Gilded Age city, people were still dealing with the aftershocks of the Civil War as well as rapid progress and waves of European immigration. As a result, nostalgia for older wars like the War of 1812 took hold.

“Cronk and other survivors and artifacts of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War became objects of great national fascination and enshrinement,” states the National Park Service. “Cronk’s mere existence created for many a tangible connection to simpler times and great patriotism.”

Cronk himself didn’t seem to have any connection to New York City. But the city has its War of 1812 remnants, some of which still exist today (even though New York was never attacked).

[Video: Library of Congress; third image: Brooklyn Eagle via Tapeshare.com]

Stan’s sprawling sports empire at Yankee Stadium

May 25, 2017

It all started with Stan’s Sports World on River Avenue in the Bronx, across the street from Yankee Stadium (the Yankee Stadium built in the 1920s, that is).

Then came Stan’s Sports Bar, right next door, in 1979. This once rough and tumble place still has its wonderful old-school neon sign, shadowed by the elevated subway tracks.

Stan was Stan Martucci, a Staten Island family man who was more of a sports memorabilia kind of guy than a bar owner, his son (who owns the place now) told a reporter in a 2009 New York Times article.

The Stan’s empire expanded. There’s also Stan the Man’s Baseball Land and Stan’s Pro Cap Dugout, for official fitted MLB caps.

The newish stadium might be a little farther away, but for millions of Yankee fans who went to games in the gritty Bronx of the 1980s and 1990s, Stan’s is synonymous with Yankee baseball greatness.

A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903

May 22, 2017

New York has had its share of gruesome murders. But this case, kicked off early one morning in April 1903 after a scrub woman discovered a man’s body, was especially disturbing.

The corpse—riddled with 18 stab wounds on the neck and a clean cut across the throat—was found stuffed in a wooden sugar barrel (below) that had been left on East 11th Street near Avenue D.

“He was evidently a foreigner—a Greek or Armenian or Italian, and about 35 years old,” stated the New York Times the next day.

The Times article noted the dead man’s manicured nails and “good garments,” indicating that he was probably fairly prosperous.

It didn’t take long for the police to conclude this was likely a mafia hit.

Detectives went door to door in the “Italian Quarter,” as the Times called the Little Italy neighborhood centered below East Houston Street, asking people to visit a station house and try to identify the man’s face (below). No one could.

Even without an identity, police made quick progress on the case.

Three Secret Service agents in New York City who were surveilling a counterfeiting ring swore they saw the dead man in a butcher’s shop on Stanton Street the night before the barrel was found.

Police arrested eight men who had also been in the butcher’s shop with the man. All were Sicilians armed with revolvers and daggers and suspected counterfeiters, the Times wrote in a second article.

The leader of the counterfeiting group was Giuseppe Morello, an early gangster who used Black Hand extortion to terrorize Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

The sugar barrel itself helped cops figure out where the murder was committed. The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street (as it is today, right; in 1903, below).

Morello—known as the “Clutch Hand” for his deformed right hand with only one finger (below)—lived in the tenement above the shop.

While the arrested men were held at Jefferson Market courthouse, the dead man was ID’d, thanks to detective work by Joseph Petrosino, one of the few Italian Americans on the NYPD at the time and an early investigator of Black Hand extortion techniques and the Mafia.

Benedetto Mondania was the man in the barrel. Why he was murdered so brutally wasn’t entirely clear.

“Some say he was a member of the [Morello] gang who wanted out of his lifetime membership, while others say he was the closest relative of a gang member suspected of turning informer,” wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the city went about charging some of the men with murder and preparing for a trial, which proved to be difficult considering the power the arrested men had in Italian neighborhoods.

“There was a forced collection across New York’s Italian communities to pay for the gang’s defense and bail costs,” according to gangrule.com. “Most of the people subpoenaed to be on the jury began to make excuses when they learned of the nature of the trial.”

In the end, the case fell apart because the district attorney’s office didn’t think there was enough evidence or willing witnesses to win a conviction.

It wasn’t the last New York heard from Morello. He was convicted of counterfeiting in 1909 and got 20 years in prison—then was killed in a mafia crime war in 1930.

His crime gang (which evolved into the Genovese family) pioneered the barrel murder style of execution, and Mondania certainly wouldn’t be the last dead man found stuffed into one on New York’s streets.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the Gilded Age city’s most notorious murders.

[Second and third images: the Evening World; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: the Evening World]

Would you do laundry in the Central Park lake?

May 22, 2017

Would you wash your clothes by hand in the lake in Central Park? These three women did it, and they had a reason.

December 16, 1949—the day the photo was taken—was “dry Friday” in New York City. Thanks to a severe drought that left upstate reservoirs at 34 percent capacity, city residents were forbidden to shave, bathe, or do any other activity that day if it required water.

These three women—Copacabana girls, part of the East Side nightclub’s famous chorus girl lineup, per the caption on the photo—are demonstrating their patriotic duty to do laundry without any running water.

The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head

May 22, 2017

It had an early incarnation on Hudson Street. And even past its heyday, it lingered on as a popular neighborhood bar until the taxman shut its doors in 1996 (left, during last call).

But the Lion Head’s glory days as a legendary Greenwich Village watering hole was during the 1960s.

That’s when the downstairs bar at 59 Christopher Street equally attracted literary types and longshoremen, and drinkers could rub elbows with writers, newspaper reporters, Irish folk singers, politicians, and a pre-fame Jessica Lange, who waited tables.

Pete Hamill, a writer at the New York Post in the mid-1960s, recalled the energy and excitement there in his wonderful 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.

“In the beginning, the Head had a square three-sided bar, with dart boards on several walls and no jukebox,” he writes.

“I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians, and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”

“On any given night, the Clancy Brothers would take over the large round table in the back room. . . . Everybody joined in singing, drinking waterfalls of beer, emptying bottles of whiskey, full of laughter and noise and a sense that I can only describe as joy.”

The Lion’s Head has been shuttered for 21 years; in its place is the Kettle of Fish (below), another old-school Village bar that moved over from MacDougal Street.

Kettle of Fish still packs in crowds, but too many of the regulars who remember the “glorious mixture” Hamill recalls at the Lion’s Head are not with us anymore.

There are accounts like Hamill’s in many books and memoirs, but more and more of the memories of nights at the Lion’s Head are lost to the ages.

[Top photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times; third photo: Petehamill.com]

A lovely day to relax in Green-Wood Cemetery

May 15, 2017

It might sound a little macabre to our modern sensibilities.

But in a city with almost no public parks until the late 19th century, what better place was there to take in the fresh air and views of New York Harbor and enjoy the natural landscape than a burial ground?

Which is why half a million Brooklynites and tourists a year flocked to Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.

Green-Wood was one of the new “rural” cemeteries that allowed people to stroll the grounds, ride 17 miles of carriage drives, and picnic inside a necropolis of 150,000 souls by 1870, according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“[T]he sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar,” wrote author James D. McCabe, in wonderfully flowery Victorian-era prose.

Green-Wood “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”

[Top photo: Green-Wood Cemetery; bottom photo: NYPL]

The many lives of an 1834 wooden Village house

May 15, 2017

With its steeply pitched roof and side staircase, the house at 6 Weehawken Street might be the most Dorian Gray of Village homes.

Built in 1834, it’s almost unchanged from the way it looked in the mid-19th century.

And all of its various incarnations over two centuries reflect the enormous changes that took place in this part of the West Village, just yards from the Hudson River.

The story of 6 Weehawken Street (also known as 392 West Street, as there’s an entrance on this side as well) begins in the 1830s. That’s when tiny Weehawken Street was created on the former site of Newgate State Prison.

Closed in 1829, Newgate was overcrowded and dangerous, and this waterfront area in the booming village of Greenwich made for attractive real estate.

The city decided to turn the property into a produce, meat, and fish market called Greenwich Market (one of many open-air markets along the Hudson River at the time) bounded by Christopher Street and Amos Street, the 19th century name for today’s West 10th Street.

Weehawken Street was paved, and market buildings in the usual style of the era—open in the front and with projecting eaves to protect the goods for sale from the elements—were constructed.

Six Weehawken is “almost certainly a surviving portion” of a market house, states the Weehawken Street Historic District Report, published in 2006.

The market went bust in 1844, and the buildings were left unoccupied. A boat builder named George Munson bought and renovated number 6 in 1848, adapting it for his boat business and according to some accounts, turning it into a saloon too.

Considering the neighborhood at the time—dockworkers, boat builders, and working class folks who made their living in riverfront factories and the fishing industry—business was probably pretty good.

Six Weehawken continued to change hands. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the sketch above on the left shows the building in the 1870s), it housed an insurance brokerage, cigar store, and pool hall, which was the site of a headline-grabbing police raid in 1906 that landed 12 men in jail cells.

As late as 1900 (above right), similar-style wood market buildings still existed on Weehawken Street. Intrigued by their origins, newspapers wrongly claimed they were built in the 1790s.

According to 1905 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article (photo above left):

“Within a stone’s throw of the old prison site stands to-day the original row of frame houses, or shanties, that adorned the same block more than 100 years ago. It is the block bounded by Weehawken, West, Christopher, and Tenth Streets.”

As colorful as it sounds, the Eagle‘s historical information is incorrect.

In the 1920s, with Prohibition in effect, 6 Weehawken became “Billie’s Original Clam Broth House” (above right), which must have been a wonderfully dark and atmospheric place to get a bowl of hot soup on days when those cold Hudson River winds came in.

In the 1940s (at left), a new owner refurbished the building and sold “work clothes, canvas gloves, tobacco, and a strange assortment of odds and ends desired by seafarers and dockwallopers, who constitute his friends and customers,” wrote the Historic District Report.

For the next several decades, 6 Weehawken was occupied by a trucking company and a tire business.

By the 1970s, in a vastly less industrial West Village, gay bars moved in. Choo-Choo’s Pier opened in the 1970s, Sneakers existed through the 1990s.

The latest plan for 6 Weehawken brings it back to the Manhattan of the 17th century.

Last year, the son of artist Louise Bourgeois announced that the building he bought in 2006 for $4 million will be donated to the Lenape Nation and renovated into a prayer house. (An old for-sale listing for the house gives you an interior shot of a loft bedroom.)

Right now, the house appears to be empty, more shabby than chic—a silent sentry whose Hudson River side is marred by graffiti (above), waiting for its next generation of occupants.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on some of the city’s most iconic 19th century residences and commercial buildings.

[Third image: Harper’s Magazine, 1870s; fourth photo: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.3687; fifth photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1906; fifth photo: MCNY, 1920, x2010.11.3690; sixth photo: NYPL]