What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic

March 16, 2020

In February 1947, an American importer named Eugene Le Bar boarded a bus in Mexico with his wife; the two were bound for New York City. That evening, he developed a headache and neck pain. Two days later, a rash developed.

After arriving in Manhattan on March 1, the Le Bars registered at a Midtown hotel.

“Although he was not feeling well, he did a little sightseeing and also walked through one of the large department stores,” explained a New York Times article published later that year and written by Commissioner of Health Israel Weinstein.

Four days later, Le Bar was in Bellevue Hospital, unsure of what he had. He raged with fever and was covered in dark red bumps, similar to chicken pox.

He was transferred to another hospital, Willard Parker Hospital at East 16th Street and the East River (below, in 1935), which treated communicable diseases. He died there on March 10, and it was only during an autopsy did doctors discover he had smallpox—the fearsome scourge that killed up to a third of victims until a vaccine was developed in the 19th century.

Le Bar’s case was the first appearance of smallpox in New York City since 1939. “The occasional case of smallpox had been seen in the area for decades since the last big outbreak in 1875, which had killed 2,000 New Yorkers,” stated a 2004 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This new case wasn’t an isolated one. It quickly spread to two other people, one at Bellevue and the other at Willard Parker.

From there, about a dozen more people who’d been in contact with the first three smallpox victims developed the disease.

Realizing that the outbreak had to be stopped, city officials sprang into action. First, all hospital staffers and anyone who may have had contact with the infected individuals were vaccinated or revaccinated, explained this post from Virology Blog.

And on April 4, “facing the possibility of a genuine epidemic, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered that virtually the entire city, or 6.3 million people, be vaccinated or revaccinated, a process that for three weeks caused enormous lines to snake around every hospital, police precinct, and 60 special health stations,” recalled the New York Daily News in 2001.

New York didn’t have enough doses of the vaccine on hand, so O’Dwyer met with the heads of pharmaceutical companies and asked for their help manufacturing millions of vaccines, which they accomplished.

“When a second person died from the disease on April 13, the Mayor asked all 7.8 million New Yorkers to be vaccinated,” stated Virology Blog.

“At this announcement, the city shifted into crisis mode, with contributions by police, fire, health departments, and hospitals. The campaign slogan was ‘Be sure, be safe, get vaccinated!’”

An estimated 5-6 million people were vaccinated in the city until early May, after which the campaign was halted because the outbreak appeared to be contained.

Is there anything here to learn from to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure; it was a different time, and a vaccine already existed. Let’s hope coronavirus is contained by May, just like smallpox was in 1947.

 

[Top image: Vaccine line in Morrisania, Bronx, by Life magazine; second image: New York Daily News; third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York Daily News; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Broadway showgirls getting jabbed, Life magazine; seventh image: New York Times]

The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

March 9, 2020

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images: Metmuseum.org]

The secret backhouse behind East 38th Street

March 9, 2020

While walking through Murray Hill recently, I cut through the driveway of an apartment building to get from 38th to 37th Street without going all the way to Third Avenue.

What I saw when I peered over the apartment building’s brick fence and into a yard next door surrounded by tidy brownstones made me stop in my tracks and ask myself: is that a backhouse?

Backhouses aren’t uncommon in New York; these are small dwellings built behind a main house. Property owners in the late 18th and early 19th century put up backhouses for various reasons.

Sometimes they served as a stable, but others were cheap houses landlords constructed on a lot to squeeze more tenants into the property and get more rent.

I’d seen backhouses before, mostly downtown in the Village or Chelsea—like this backhouse, now hidden behind tenements in the East Village.

But this was the first I’d spotted in Murray Hill, described as “neo-Federal” by the AIA Guide to New York City. (At left and right, in 1936)

So what is this backhouse’s backstory? Like so many fascinating house histories, there are competing narratives.

One starts in 1857, when a contractor named Patrick McCafferty bought a vacant lot on this site in Murray Hill, which was transforming from a bucolic area to an exclusive urban enclave.

“But while the typical house was positioned at the front of the lot, for some reason Mr. McCafferty built his three-story house almost 60 feet back from the street,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2001.

So this dwelling really wasn’t a backhouse in the traditional sense—it was simply a house set way back from 38th Street.

Another version of the house’s origin has it that the home was originally an 1840s “gatehouse” for an estate owned by a member of President Martin van Buren’s family.

Whatever the story is, the three-story dwelling changed hands several times through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Murray Hill cemented its status as a well-to-do neighborhood.

The house was sold to a real estate agent, a carpet dealer, and a manufacturer of dumbwaiters, wrote Gray.

In 1934 the house was leased by Russell Pettingill, who hired the architect son of sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (he designed the bronze statues at Brooklyn’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, among others) to transform the house in the back along with a smaller structure that had been constructed closer to the street.

“In 1936, House & Garden lauded the Pettengill project, which placed offices and a conference room in the front house, 150 East 38th Street, and living quarters in the setback house at No. 152. A one-story wall divided the front yard of 152 in half, permitting direct access to Mr. Pettengill’s office in the front building, through a side door, but screening the setback house almost completely from the street,” explained Gray.

Because of the wall and office building at the front of the property, as well as the fence and greenery, it’s difficult to get a clear view of the set-back house from the street today.

Stand on your toes, though, and you can get a better view of this 19th century beauty,  which has a decorative cornice, clapboard shutters, and red brick facade and chimney.

Rather than beginning its life as a backhouse, this hidden dwelling became one in its maturity.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1936]

Defunct city hospitals and their amazing buildings

March 9, 2020

These days, New York’s hospitals are consolidating and shrinking. But in the late 19th century city, hospital building was on the upswing—inspired by a rapidly growing population, the benevolent spirit of Gilded Age society, and a better sense of how to treat disease and illness.

“There are nearly 80 of these ‘inns on the highway of life where suffering humanity finds alleviation and sympathy,’ and many of them are among the largest and most magnificent buildings in the city.” stated King’s Handbook of New York City in 1892.

Recently the New York Academy of Medicine digitized 118 postcards of New York City hospitals. They’re part of the Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection, which includes about 2,000 postcards—many of 19th and early 20th century hospitals that have either been demolished and forgotten, repurposed for other uses, or are still (partially at least) standing, but with a different name.

Hahnemann Hospital (top image) is one that no New Yorker today would recognize. This spectacular hospital building opened in 1878 at Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets. “In addition to its free beds, the hospital provides a quiet and comforting home for the sick and suffering of all classes under homeopathic treatment,” stated King’s. It was sold in 1919 and an apartment building went up on this site in the 1920s.

City Hospital, on what was then called Blackwell’s Island, is another stunning structure (second image)—built by inmates serving time in the island’s prisons. James Renwick, Jr. designed the building, which opened in 1861. Closed in the 1930s and abandoned, City (later called Charity) hospital was bulldozed in 1994.

In 1874, an English surgeon described The Roosevelt Hospital, at 59th Street and 10th Avenue (third image), as “Without exception the most complete medical charity in every respect,” according to King’s. It owes its existence to James H. Roosevelt, who left his estate to create “a hospital for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons, and for its permanent endowment.”

Today, what eventually became St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital has been rebranded Mount Sinai West. I believe most of these original buildings are gone, but the early surgery theater still remains.

Morningside Heights’ Woman’s Hospital (above) moved to this spot near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1906. It merged with St. Luke’s Hospital in 1952, though this incredible Gothic building remained until the mid-1970s.

Originally located on Madison Avenue and 29th Street and then Park Avenue and 51st Street, Women’s Hospital was founded by surgeon Dr. Marion Sims—whose reputation has been called into question and a Fifth Avenue statue dedicated to Sims removed in 2018.

[All postcards belong to the New York Academy of Medicine/Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection]

The men who took the Fulton Ferry in 1914

March 2, 2020

In 1814, Robert Fulton’s Fulton Ferry Company began regular steamboat ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. A century later, artist Herbert Bolivar Tschudy depicted the ferry and some of its riders in “Fulton Street Ferry, Evening, 1914.”

Tschudy’s ferry riders are men painted like a monolith in dark colors, the Manhattan skyline like a fortress in the distance.

None of the riders look our way or even at one another. It’s the pose all commuters take, whether they’re on a ferry or subway or bus: don’t make eye contact, get lost in your thoughts or the view, and wait quietly until the ride is over.

Tracking the “mousetrap” of Greenwich Village

March 2, 2020

Greenwich Village’s charm lies in its refusal to conform to the city street grid. Who doesn’t get a kick out of former country lanes and cart paths that are now city streets, which intersect and dead-end into each other at strange angles?

This charming confusion confounded New Yorkers in the late 19th century as well, decades after the Greenwich Village of estates and farms was subsumed into the cityscape.

It led one early 20th century New York historian-author to name a section of the Village the “Mousetrap.”

“Some streets are like pages of history, and none more so than those of Greenwich Village; so it is quite a delight to walk among them,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in his 1905 book, When Old New York Was Young.

“Whenever I do so I am sure to end up in one particular spot. It is a part that I have christened the “mouse-trap”—a labyrinth of quiet, narrow streets.”

 

“It is curious to note the different ways in which the streets of the ‘mouse-trap’ disappear. Sometimes they end abruptly in a court; sometimes they twist out of sight around a row of houses against which they are brought to a sudden halt; sometimes they slip into another street and become one with it; sometimes they are cut short by little open spaces which are called parks, and which in are a few decaying trees.”

The main street of the mousetrap, according to Hemstreet, is Bleecker. While Bleecker does in fact end at a park (Abington Square Park), today’s version of Bleecker doesn’t have that twists and stops it may have had in Hemstreet’s day.

Instead we’re left with mousetrap-like streets such as West Fourth, which oddly intersects with West 10th, 11th, and 12th Streets. Greenwich Street meanders nowhere near Greenwich Avenue. Hidden alleys like Milligan Place and Grove Court add to the confusion.

I’ve found only one contemporary reference to the Greenwich Village mousetrap. In a 1996 New York Times article about traffic issues in the Village, Andrew Jacobs quotes residents who call the triangular intersection of Christopher, Grove, and Waverly Streets as the “mousetrap.”

[Top image: Taunton’s Pocket Edition map, 1879/NYPL; second image: Washington Place at Grove and West Fourth Streets, MCNY x2010.7.1.6719; third image: West 12th Street at Greenwich Avenue, MCNY c 2010.18.222; fourth image: Milligan Place, MCNY 89.2.1.62]

When Lenny Bruce hit the stage at Carnegie Hall

February 24, 2020

Fifty-nine years ago in February 1961, thousands of avid fans trudged through 20 inches of snow to Carnegie Hall to see comedian Lenny Bruce—in a show that was recorded and released in a three-record set, The Carnegie Hall Concert.

This famous show, “was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career….The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age,” wrote Albert Goldman in the subsequent LP’s liner notes.

The Carnegie Hall concert was one of this Long Island native’s most iconic New York City moments, perhaps only surpassed by his arrest at Cafe au Go Go on Bleecker Street in 1964 on charges that “his nightclub act was obscene,” reported the New York Times.

Bruce had already been arrested in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago, thanks to this “sick comedian’s” profanity-laced act.

He went on trial in Manhattan Criminal Court and was found guilty…only to be pardoned by New York State in 2003, which was 37 years after his death by speedball.

Bruce’s voice and style inspired a generation of comics. But would a so-called indecent, free-form comic like Bruce be seen as a free speech icon if he was making the rounds of clubs today?

[Top photo: YouTube; second photo: Wikipedia]

A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

February 24, 2020

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

The elegant carriage houses of East 66th Street

February 17, 2020

Wherever rich New Yorkers built their homes in the 19th century, they also built private stables for their expensive horses and carriages—with upstairs living quarters for a coachman or groom.

So when Upper Fifth Avenue along Central Park became the city’s new Millionaire Mile during the Gilded Age, certain Upper East Side blocks to the east of Park Avenue were turned into unofficial stable rows.

East 66th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues is one of these former stable rows, with three spectacular restored carriage houses surviving today.

The twin beauties at 110 and 112 East 66th Street (at top and above, in 1934) off Park Avenue are stunning examples.

Built in 1890, these two Romanesque Revival carriages houses were purchased eight years later by William C. Whitney, who lived a few blocks away in a mansion at East 68th Street at Fifth Avenue (at left).

Whitney was a financier and secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland, according to the Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report made by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1981.

Down the block at number 126 East 66th Street is what remains of another delightful carriage house, also with a Whitney connection. This one is three stories, and it too reflects the Romanesque Revival style, according to the LPC report.

Number 126 was commissioned in 1895 by sugar baron Henry O. Havemeyer, whose mansion residence stood at One East 66th Street.

After it was completed, Havemeyer sold it to businessman, yachtsman, and Standard Oil trustee Col. Oliver Hazard Payne, who happened to be Havemeyer’s neighbor as well as the brother-in-law of William C. Whitney.

A 1902 article in Outing magazine called the Havemeyer-Payne carriage house “always as clean as a new pin, with space enough for every style of pleasure vehicle that a gentleman’s fancy can picture.”

More than a century later, 110 East 66th Street is home to a plastic surgeon’s office, while 112 appears to be a single-family dwelling.

Number 126 was partly demolished at some point in the 20th century. Even without its other half, what remains is still something special.

The Upper East Side is home to more former stable rows with enchanting carriage houses, such as East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.

[Second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: MCNY; fifth photo: Google]