Talks and Tours This Month With Ephemeral New York!

November 4, 2022

I’m excited to announce a couple of upcoming events in November—hope to see Ephemeral readers and New York City history fans!

Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek Into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers

Join Ephemeral New York for an insightful look at the 19th century city’s servant class—the people who cleaned the mansions, made the meals, drove the carriages, and managed the households of Gilded Age Gotham.

Using quotes from actual servants, we’ll explore who the servants were, what their lives were like, and the various positions available in the sumptuous mansions and elegant brownstones of the Upper West Side and beyond.

This is a Zoom talk done in conjunction with the historic preservation organization Landmark West! The talk takes place on Wednesday, November 9 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Reserve tickets here.

Exploring the Gilded Age Mansions and Memorials of Riverside Drive

It’s a beautiful time of year to stroll along Riverside Drive’s winding carriage roads from 83rd Street to 107th Street and learn about the avenue’s Gilded Age beginnings—when it rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s premier mansion row.

On this New York Adventure Club walking tour, we’ll look at the mansions that remain as well as those lost to time, plus the families and characters who lived in them. We’ll also explore Riverside Drive’s wonderful monuments meant to inspire the city. Tickets are available here.

[First image: MNCY, MNY204627; second image: NYPL; third image: New York Adventure Club]

Bellevue Hospital’s old-school wrought iron sign

October 31, 2022

When I walk past Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue and 26th Street, I see the Bellevue at the dawn of the 19th century—when the fledgling city began quarantining yellow fever patients on former farmland called Belle Vue far away from the city center along the East River.

I imagine open space, grass and trees, and a bucolic environment to help the sick heal in an era with very little understanding of how diseases spread. I also think of the patients who died and were buried in Bellevue’s former cemetery, located at today’s Madison Square Park.

These wrought-iron gates certainly weren’t part of the hospital grounds back then. I don’t know how old they are, but there’s something very old-school about them, with what look like hand-stenciled cutouts spelling the hospital’s name. Every time I pass them, I think of Bellevue’s ghosts.

The vintage interior of a 1927 bank building that’s now home to a CVS

October 31, 2022

Repurposed buildings are the story of New York City real estate. New businesses moving into and taking over the space of a defunct company is nothing unusual.

But sometimes it can be startling—especially when the old company was housed in a fortress-like brick and limestone building resembling a Greek temple and as tall as a tenement, and the new business is a CVS.

That’s the case with a former bank branch on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street. Opened in 1927 as the East River Savings Bank and enlarged in 1932, the building is the kind of imposing edifice popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries with financial institutions that banks don’t construct anymore.

Neo-Classical in style with columns facing the street on two sides, the sober, solid building was meant to convey that your money and valuable were safe. In an era with fewer financial regulations and more bank failures, this must have been quite reassuring to potential customers.

The inscriptions above the bank’s entrance were meant to reassure customers as well. “Quotations from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln celebrating the virtues of saving decorate the bank’s principal facade, while Theodore Roosevelt’s words graced the West 96th Street facade,” notes the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s report.

The exterior of the bank has had landmark status since 1998, not long after the East River Savings Bank and a subsequent bank closed their doors, leaving the building empty.

The interior, however, is a different story. Off to the sides of the store shelves are some remnants of the former bank—perhaps very decorative entrances, or maybe areas where customers queued up for bank tellers.

A row of vintage wood phone booths (minus the phones, unfortunately) with those iconic folding doors are hidden behind an umbrella rack and halloween candy.

A bank clock with Roman numerals is set inside a lovely iron railing above the ice cream section, under florescent lighting and security cameras.

The CVS moved into the former bank building at least a decade ago, so it’s odd that they never bothered in all that time to renovate the interior. I’m not complaining; it’s a treat to see these remains of early 20th century New York City.

This isn’t the only old bank building repurposed for a drugstore chain. Downtown on Spring and Lafayette Streets, Duane Reade colonized another stunning old-school bank…also once home to an East River Savings Bank branch.

Tracing the owner of a former stable and blacksmith shop in Yorkville

October 31, 2022

Along the side streets of Manhattan, it’s not hard to notice the remains of former horse stables. That’s especially true on specific “stable rows”—designated blocks in the 19th century where wealthy homeowners and livery companies kept their horses and carriages in sometimes fanciful buildings.

East 75th Street between First and York Avenues appears to be one of those former stable rows. Both sides of the street feature a handful of storefronts with wide entrances that look suspiciously like stable doors.

One that caught my eye was 428-430 East 75th Street. The two-story brick building with bars on the top windows and an unusual drop-down fire escape isn’t in pristine shape. It doesn’t have the fairytale-like design of the many restored carriage houses that were converted into high-end housing after the horse era came to a close.

Instead, this former home for horses has something more special: a decorative frieze at the top with a name and date. The panel reads Henry Bock, 1895. Who was Henry Bock, and how long did he operate his stable here in rapidly urbanizing Yorkville? (Or Lenox Hill; the southern boundary of Yorkville is defined as either 72nd Street or 79th Street, depending on the source.)

A New York Times article from October 1895 lays out the stable’s beginnings: Philippine Bock, of 406 East 76th Street (one block north), paid $11,000 for the land to build a stable, dwelling house, and blacksmith shop.

Philippine Bock was the wife of Germany-born Henry Bock, identified in the 1900 census as the 33-year-old head of the family who immigrated to the US in 1883. It seems unusual that a wife would be the one to purchase the land, but perhaps Philippine came from a family that lent or gave her the money for the new building.

According to the census record, the Bocks resided at 428-430 East 75th Street with their six young children, two boarders, and one female servant. Space was tight, indeed.

But in the Yorkville of the era—filling up with large immigrant families from Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other European nations, as well as cookie-cutter tenements to house them all—large families crammed into small rooms was probably the norm.

The Bocks may have had things better than their neighbors, many of whom were likely to be unskilled laborers. Henry Bock wasn’t just a stable owner but a shoer, according to the New York City Directory of 1899/1900. With thousands of horses powering New York City, shoes were a necessity. A tradesman who knew how to shoe horses would have had steady income.

Henry Bock left his mark on the block, but the family only lived and worked there for a decade. In 1906, the New York Times recorded the sale for $17,000 of 428-430 East 75th Street by Philippine Bock to Alois Dill, also a blacksmith who made horse shoes. By the time of the 1910 census, Dill was listed as the head of a family that included his wife and two young sons.

The Bocks left New York City and resettled in Seattle. But the third photo, above, brings some family members back: It’s a photo of the shop in 1939, with an inscription by one of the Bock children explaining that he was born there in 1899. The child, now an adult, is posing with another sibling in front of their father’s stable, according to the inscription.

It’s hard to imagine that Dill ran his stable and shoe shop much longer. By the 1910s, the automobile was making its mark on New York City streets. Though horses were still part of the streetscape for a few more decades, their numbers dwindled greatly.

The building at number 428-430 was renovated a few times over the next several decades; it’s unclear when it was converted into a storefront with what appears to be upstairs apartments. The fourth and fifth photos in this post were taken in the late 1930s, before any conversion but clearly after the stable closed up shop.

Today Bock’s former stable has a very appropriate tenant occupying the ground floor storefront: a veterinary clinic.

[Third image: eBay; fourth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

This Brooklyn corner store has one of the last vintage soda signs

October 24, 2022

They used to be all over New York City on practically every block: simple deli or drugstore signs that featured the name of the store along with iconic emblems for national soda brands.

Officially, they’re called “privilege signs,” because by offering the store the free sign, the brand had the privilege of free advertising. The store benefited as well, since the logos for Coke, Pepsi, or another brand brought in thirsty or hungry customers looking for a product they recognized.

Slowly these privilege signs have disappeared, and today, it’s rare to come across one. Which is why I stopped in my tracks when I spotted this vintage beauty for Millys Mini Market on Berry and South Second Streets in Williamsburg. Sadly, it’s one of the last of a dwindling breed.

Over the years Ephemeral New York has featured some last remaining privilege signs. I can’t guarantee any of them still exist, but if you’re an old-school sign enthusiast, check them out here.

The story of the two young faces on an 1861 Turtle Bay row house

October 24, 2022

It’s a charming scene on the facade of 328 East 51st Street: a boxy bas relief sculpture of two short-haired young children. One holds what seems to be a pet, perhaps a kitten, while the other looks on and touches it with tenderness.

Such a sweet depiction in a domestic setting would lead you to assume that the children were part of a family that once resided in the house, built in 1861 between First and Second Avenues.

Turns out the real-life children in the bas relief never lived at number 328; their childhood home was a stunning mansion farther uptown. And while questions remain about their connection to the artist who sculpted it, how it came to be installed above the door in the 1960s is less of a mystery.

First, the identity of the children: They are Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany, the twin daughters of artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, according to a New York Times FYI column from 2000 by Christopher Gray.

The twins were born in 1887 to Tiffany’s second wife. Julia and Louise are two of Tiffany’s eight children, and they resided with their parents in the Tiffany family mansion on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. (Julia and Louise are the granddaughters of Charles Tiffany, founder of the jewelry store.)

Twins Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany as babies in a family photo, 1888

The bas relief of the sisters was made by Mary Lawrence Tonetti, according to Gray. Born into a prominent old New York family, Tonetti was a rare female sculptor of the Gilded Age—studying at the Art Students League under Augustus Saint-Gaudens before becoming his assistant in the 1890s.

How did Tonetti come to sculpt the faces of Julia and Louise? “Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known, but the Tiffany twins appear to be about 10 or 12 in the panel, which suggests it was done around 1900,” wrote Gray.

328 East 51st Street in 1939-1941, without the bas relief on the facade

The connection between Tonetti and the Tiffany sisters appears to be lost to the ages. But Gray has an explanation for how the sculpture ended up on 328 East 51st Street.

The row house was purchased in 1965 by a former stage actress named Katharine Cornell. Cornell’s name might draw a blank today, but she gained fame in the 1930s and 1940s for her many starring turns on Broadway, playing the leads in 1931’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet in 1934.

Cornell’s leading-lady status was so solid, she was dubbed “first lady of the theater” by the critic (and Algonquin Round Table member) Alexander Woollcott, according to her 1974 New York Times obituary.

Cornell had been friendly with Tonetti when the two were neighbors in Sneden’s Landing, a small village on the Hudson River waterfront in Rockland County. Cornell had seen Tonetti’s sculpture of the Tiffany sisters and took a liking to it, according to Gray’s Times piece.

Tonetti died in 1945. When Cornell moved from Sneden’s Landing to East 51st Street in 1965, Tonetti’s daughter-in-law gave her a copy of the sculpture a housewarming present, states Gray.

Cornell passed away almost 50 years ago, and the row house has long since changed hands. But the young faces of Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany remain—an anonymous ode to the innocence and wonder of two little girls.

This isn’t the only bas relief of children on a New York City residence. Outside a Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street, Isaac and Julia Rice installed this frieze of their six beloved children. Though weathered and faded, it still stands today.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Strange carriages on an unpaved, unknown stretch of Seventh Avenue

October 17, 2022

There’s a lot to unravel in this postcard of Seventh Avenue around 1900. First, what stretch of Seventh are we looking at? This doesn’t look like downtown, where Seventh Avenue would be lined with a mishmash of older walkup buildings.

This Seventh Avenue doesn’t look like the section below Central Park, which at the time had transformed into a luxury apartment house district.

Could the view be of Seventh Avenue above the park in Harlem, where rapid residential development at the end of the 19th century would explain the more uniform rows of apartment buildings? It could account for the yet-to-be-paved road as well.

Then there are the unusual vehicles with just a driver’s seat and four small wheels. They’re too small to be considered carriages or coaches, and the formation of them on the road suggests a race of some kind—with crowds on the sidewalk eagerly watching.

[MCNY: x2011.34.385]

Scenes of misery and charity on Gilded Age New York’s most famous breadline

October 17, 2022

The Gilded Age ushered in opulent mansions, ostentatious balls, and very conspicuous consumption. But this era synonymous with wealth also brought us the breadline—where impoverished New Yorkers stood in the shadows night after night, waiting their turn to obtain a free meal.

“Fleischmann’s Bread Line,” by Everett Shinn, about 1900

Breadlines (many of which distributed more than bread) proliferated by the turn of the century at Gotham’s missions and benevolent societies created to serve the poor. But the first breadline, where the term originates, started at a fashionable bakery on Broadway and 10th Street in 1876.

Louis Fleischmann, a prosperous Austrian immigrant, owned the Vienna Model Bakery next door to Grace Church on the edge of the Ladies Mile shopping district. One December night, Fleischmann saw a group of men huddled in front of a steam grate beside the store. He brought the men—or “hungry tramps,” as one newspaper described them—some unsold bread left in the bakery. They accepted it eagerly.

Fleischmann’s Vienna Model Bakery during the daytime, 1898

More men showed up the next night, forming a quiet line at the back door. Touched by their plight, Fleischmann decided that anyone who queued up by midnight would be given half a loaf of leftover bread, no questions asked. For the next four decades, Fleischmann distributed bread (as well as hot coffee) to sometimes hundreds of men per night on his “breadline,” as it became known.

City newspapers covered Fleischmann’s breadline heavily, some with sympathy and others with a hint of disdain. “Here are men whose lives are not running well—400 small worlds gone to shipwreck,” reported the New York Press in 1902. The New-York Tribune wrote in 1904, “The picturesque and pitiful line of men in the early hours of every morning has become one of the features of the city’s life.”

At the head of Fleischmann’s breadline, 1904, photographer unknown

While New Yorkers debated whether the breadline helped the hungry or instead contributed to “pauperism” and encouraged men to accept handouts, painters, illustrators, and photographers were drawn to Fleischmann’s, where they captured scenes of charity and misery.

Whether painted by social realists such as Everett Shinn and George Luks or shot by news photographers like George Bain, these images depict anonymous men in black hats and coats awaiting their half a loaf and cup of coffee. The humanity of the often faceless men is the focus; the argument as to whether such handouts were helpful or hurtful doesn’t factor in.

George Bain’s view of a snowy night on the breadline in 1908

The one curious breadline painting comes from George Luks. Like Everett Shinn, Luks was a member of the Ashcan School, and his work typically reflected a gritty early 20th century city.

In 1900, Luks painted children on a bakery breadline, even though there’s no documentation that young people ever came to Fleischmann’s or any other nighttime breadline. The kids in Luks’ painting have baskets to fill with stale bread, which they may be bringing home to hungry family members.

“Breadline,” by George Luks, 1900

Or perhaps putting kids on his breadline was Luks’ way of drawing attention to the thousands of homeless children who lived on the streets or in lodging houses, working in legitimate jobs or joining criminal gangs. Access to a breadline could have kept these “street arabs,” as they were dubbed, from going to bed hungry.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: MCNY; third image: National Gallery of Art; fourth image: Alamy; fifth image: George Bain Collection/LOC]

Take a Walk up Riverside Drive with Ephemeral New York This Sunday!

October 15, 2022

On Sunday October 16, I’ll be leading another relaxing and insightful walking tour that explores the Gilded Age mansions and monuments of Riverside Drive—and there’s still room for more guests.

We’ll begin at 1 p.m. on Riverside and 83rd Street, dip into Riverside Park, and then stroll up to 108th Street. In between, we’ll delve into the history of this beautiful avenue born in the Gilded Age, when the Drive became a second “mansion row” and rivaled Fifth Avenue as the city’s “millionaire colony.”

The tour explores the mansions and monuments that survive, as well as the incredible houses lost to the wrecking ball. We’ll take a look at the wide variety of people who made Riverside Drive their home, from wealthy industrialists and rich business barons to actresses, artists, and writers.

Though we cover a lot of territory, the tour goes at a breezy, conversational pace. Fall is the best time to walk New York’s streets and neighborhoods. All are welcome! Tickets are available here via the New York Adventure Club.

[Top image: MCNY, 26908.1F; second image: MCNY, F2011.33.73; third image: NY Adventure Club]

Boot scrapers are a hidden relic of 19th century New York City

October 10, 2022

Late season hurricanes, mean nor’easters, and regular rainy days: all this wet weather makes autumn boot-scraper season in New York City.

If you routinely look down when you walk though New York City, then you’ve seen boot scrapers. These charming remnants of a dirtier Gotham can often be found on the iron railings of brownstone stoops. Before entering his own or someone else’s home, a gentleman would scrape his boots against the blunt end, so he wouldn’t track mud and dirt into the house.

It wasn’t just wet weather that necessitated boot scrapers. Think of what Gotham’s streets looked like before asphalt paving and automobiles: dirt and mud on the streets and sidewalks, debris from toppled ash barrels, and piles of horse manure from the thousands of equines who pulled wagons, carriages, and streetcars.

Some boot scrapers are quite fancy, like these on West 67th Street outside a former home for Swiss immigrants and these outside a school in Yorkville. I spotted this fairly utilitarian boot scraper between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. In such a posh and lovely neighborhood in the 19th century city, I’m sure it got lots of use!