An elegy for a Lower East Side public bathhouse

February 25, 2019

What remains of the Rutgers Place Public Baths and Gymnasium, built in 1909, is not easy to find.

Surrounded by the tidy LaGuardia Houses on Madison and Jefferson Streets a few blocks from the East River, this crumbling building with its windows blown out and bricked in stands like a phantom from the early 1900s.

This was New York’s progressive era, when the city opened several public bathhouses like this one in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

The point was to give tenement dwellers living in sweltering rooms in crowded areas a place to cool off and shower, in an era when having a shower was not always a given.

It’s hard to imagine the bathhouse as it was in its Beaux-Arts glory, when Rutgers Place was still on the map. A New York Times piece from 1907 announced that it would be built, “with a facade of brick trimmed with granite and terra cotta.”

“It will have a roof garden adorned with Ionic pilasters, supporting an ornamental balustrade and cornice,” the Times continued. “The gymnasium will occupy the top story.”

Besides serving as a bathhouse, the Rutgers Place Baths hosted ball games and track and field. The facility’s pool came in at a sizeable 54 by 24 feet. And just like other city bathhouses, men and women attended on separate days.

As the century went on, public bathhouses lost their appeal. In 1957, the tenement blocks near the Rutgers Place Baths were bulldozed, and the 13-building LaGuardia Houses went up in their place.

When the Baths actually closed isn’t clear, but certainly the derelict building has been left to rot for decades. Now, the city has announced plans to tear it down.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not “structurally sound,” reports Bowery Boogie.

Luckily many of the former public bathhouses built during the same era have been better taken care of and are still in use today—as a recreation center on 54th Street, a photo studio on East 11th Street, and even a church not far away on Allen Street.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1909, x2010.7.2.2446; Fifth photo; 1912, via La Voce Di New York]

The end of the Stanton Street gravestone district

February 25, 2019

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Manhattan had its districts.

There was the garment district, the novelty district, the meatpacking district, and even a pickle district, where 80 merchants on a six-block stretch of Essex Street cured vegetables in barrels.

But this is all that remains of the city’s gravestone or monument district, once centered on Essex Street at Stanton Street.

The S. Silver sign in English and Hebrew still hangs off the second floor of the tenement at 125 Stanton Street.

“Silver-Monuments” is still above the storefront in old-school big black letters, and the company name is painted in yellow and black across three stories of the building’s facade.

But the actual monument shop itself, which had been carving granite headstones since 1946? The space where generations of grieving people picked out monuments for loved ones has been gone since 2015.

Today, it’s a yoga store, surrounded by the signage of the previous tenant. Silver Monuments packed up and moved to Queens two years ago, reported The Low-Down in 2017.

Join Ephemeral New York for “Home Sweet Mansion” on March 5!

February 25, 2019

It was good to be a prosperous New Yorker in the late 19th century: beautiful clothing, expensive furnishings, well-kept parlors, and tables laden with food.

But someone had to do the hard work of actually cooking and cleaning, and it certainly wasn’t the prosperous New Yorker.

Join Ephemeral New York on Tuesday, March 5 at 6:30 p.m. for “Home Sweet Mansion: A Peek Into the Domestic Lives of Gilded Age New Yorkers,” in partnership with the Upper West Side historic advocacy organization Landmark West.

This lively talk at 35 West 67th Street will look at how the upper classes navigated the domestic side of life—and how a staff of maids, coachmen, and other servants managed the households inside the Upper West Side’s sumptuous mansions and elegant brownstones.

Details and tickets here! These programs are a lot of fun, and I hope to see Ephemeral readers there.

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

A 1940s handbag store sign comes back into view

February 18, 2019

There’s a handsome building on Lexington Avenue at 73rd Street built in the late 1890s with a ground floor now hidden behind scaffolding.

That’s bad news for the retailers trying to attract street traffic along this slender retail stretch of Lenox Hill.

But it’s good news to fans of old New York store signs, which often reemerge from behind newer signage during construction.

That’s the case with the shop on this corner, which sold handbags—or as the sign painted on the window says, “ladies hand made bags.”

“Custom made,” another painted window sign tells us, hard to see behind the building’s decorative storefront.

How far back does this long-gone bag store date to? Here it is in a 1940 tax photo from the online gallery of the New York City Municipal Archives.

It’s not the best image, but you can make out the same signage that’s at this corner store today, spotted by Ephemeral reader Robert C. Thanks for sending it in!

This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York

February 18, 2019

If you were a typical New Yorker in the 19th century who didn’t own your own home (as most residents didn’t, same as it is now), February was the month you might be forced to start the torturous hunt for a new place to live.

Why’s that? Because February 1 was unofficially known as “Rent Day.”

That’s when New York landlords were required to tell their tenants how much their rent would increase starting on May 1, which marked the beginning of the new lease year in the city real estate market.

With no rent control laws or any legal limit on what a landlord could charge, many New Yorkers found themselves priced out of their current digs (or shop or office).

That meant spending the next three months searching, bargaining, signing a lease, and then actually moving (at left, in the 1930s)…only to possibly start the same process all over again next February.

“The first of February is notice-day between landlord and tenant…the house, or shop, or office not secured at this time, passes into new hands at the close of the quarter,” wrote the New York Times on February 13, 1854.

“When rents are going up, the poor tenant shakes in his shoes—or boots, if rent-day has left him the luxury—at the prospect. When they are going down, the gouty landlord shakes in his purse. The good day has not come for the former, this year,” continued the Times.  (Below, an East Side eviction, 1913)

In February 1869, the Times noted Rent Day again. “From now until the first of May those who contemplate a change will be anxiously on the lookout for new places of abode. With these, as with those who propose to remain where they are, the first inquiry of importance is as to the probability of a further rise in rents.”

So how did February 1 become rent day—thus making May 1 the city’s hectic, overwhelming Moving Day? (At left in the 1850s; above right in 1935)

The origins are unclear. It’s been attributed to an old Dutch tradition from the 17th century; The Encyclopedia of New York City (via Wikipedia) ties it to a May Day-related custom in England.

Rent Day became less of an event as the 19th century wound down. A rash of new housing—primarily tenements—gave renters more options, and railroads made it easier for people to live outside of the city in cheaper locales and commute every day.

“The inducements to live in the towns and villages in the vicinity of this City grow year by year greater,” the 1869 Times article stated wistfully.

[Top image: Moving Day in Little Old New York, 1827; second image: moving in the 1936 illustration by Don Freeman via MCNY 2013.13.12; third image: an eviction in 1935 via MCNY 43.131.11.119; fourth image: Bain Collection/LOC 1913; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York, 1915]

Upper Manhattan once resembled a country town

February 11, 2019

It looks like a country scene: a slender iron bridge, green bluffs across the river, groups of women strolling while shielding themselves with straw hats and sun umbrellas, a couple wheeling a child in a stroller, two men in a carriage led by a single horse.

A Midwestern village? Actually it’s 155th Street on the Harlem-Washington Heights border circa 1900, after the Macombs Dam Bridge opened in 1895 and before this section of Manhattan attracted industry, traffic, and a tidal wave of new residents looking for space and better housing.

The wonderful thing is that Macombs Dam Bridge still stands today, flanked by the same stone sentry towers.

The “bobbed-hair bandit” on the run in Brooklyn

February 11, 2019

Like other working-class girls in 1920s Brooklyn, Celia Cooney had big dreams.

Celia (at right and below) was a 20-year-old newlywed who toiled in a laundry. She and her husband, Ed, shared a furnished room on Madison Street in a neighborhood then called Bedford, today’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Celia and Ed were very much in love. But like many young couples, they had a hard time saving money. Ed didn’t make much as a welder, and Celia enjoyed nice things, like the sealskin fur coat Ed bought for her.

So when Celia found out she was pregnant, the Cooneys decided they needed to shore up their finances. How? By committing armed robbery.

That’s the genesis of the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit,” as Celia was dubbed by the press. Together the couple (below, in their wedding photo) would stage holdups of Brooklyn groceries and drugstores and become Roaring Twenties tabloid icons.

Their first robbery was at a Roulston’s, a grocery chain in Park Slope. On the evening of January 5, the two drove to the store on Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street.

Wearing her fur coat, Celia went in first and asked for a dozen eggs, according to the 2005 book, The Bobbed-Hair Bandit, by Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson.

As the clerk readied her purchase, Ed entered the store. Celia pulled an automatic out of her pocket, pointed it at the clerk, and yelled, ‘Stick ’em up, quick!’ just as the bad guys in the detective stories and pulpy novels she devoured would say.

Ed then whipped out a gun in each hand and cleaned out the cash register. The two took off with more than $600.

The next day, the brazen heist made by a slight, five-foot woman and her male partner ended up in the Brooklyn Eagle, with the headline “Woman With a Gun.”

Celia and Ed went on to commit several more robberies. The newspapers giddily wrote up each hit, making much of Celia’s bobbed hair—a daring style popular with flappers and other women who saw themselves as modern and liberated. Ed was dubbed her “tall male companion.”

After the first robbery, the couple immediately rented a two-story frame house at 1099 Pacific Street. They bought pricey furniture, and Celia made her husband a special dinner of porterhouse steak, states The Bobbed-Hair Bandit.

But they quickly spent their loot…and had to commit more robberies to keep up their new higher-end lifestyle.

With so much tabloid exposure, the police were under pressure to capture the “girl robber.” That led cops to arrest and charge a 23-year-old bobbed-haired Brooklyn actress named Helen Quigley for the crimes.

Angry that the police had arrested an innocent young woman, Celia left a note for them after she and Ed robbed a Clinton Hill drugstore.

The note was addressed to the “dirty fish-peddling bums” and ordered them to let Helen Quigley go—which eventually the police did.

Celia and Ed’s stick-up spree finally ended in early spring, after a warehouse worker at the National Biscuit Company on Pacific Street was wounded during a holdup.

“Panicked, the couple fled, leaving behind $8,000 in an open safe,” wrote the New York Times in 2015. “A warehouse employee recognized Ed from the neighborhood, and the couple was soon identified.”

By then, they had taken off for Florida, where Celia gave birth to her daughter on April 12, who sadly died days later.

After the couple was arrested and brought back to New York (above, mobbed by crowds at Penn Station), they pleaded guilty and landed 10 to 20 years in prison.

Paroled after seven years, the couple went on to have two sons. (Finally free and reunited with their lawyer, above.)

Ed died of tuberculosis in 1936. As for Celia, she reportedly was a “dutiful and selfless mother, working to support her boys, one of whom became a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church,” continued the Times.

“It was not until a few years before she died in 1992 that her middle-aged sons learned about the Bobbed Hair Bandit.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second image: Newspapers.com blog, Fishwrap; third image: Brooklyn Eagle; fourth image: Library of Congress; fifth image: Buffalo Commercial; sixth image: author collection; seventh image: New York Daily News; eighth image: Getty Images]

The writing on the wall of an East Side tenement

February 11, 2019

Sometimes in New York you come across a building that’s trying to tell you something. Take this red-brick tenement on the corner of Second Avenue and 109th Street.

At some point in the past, ads were painted on the facade—designed to catch the eyes of Second Avenue El riders and pedestrians in a neighborhood that was once a Little Italy, then became Spanish Harlem by the middle of the century.

Now, perhaps nine decades later, enough faded and weathered paint remains to give us a clue as to what the ads were about.

The ad on the right side of the facade might look familiar to faded-ad fans; that familiar script used to be painted all over the city.

Fletcher’s Castoria was a laxative produced by Charles Fletcher all the way back in 1871. The company promoted the product until the 1920s with ads on the sides of buildings, a few of which can still be seen today.

This photo taken by Charles von Urban (part of the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York) shows a similar ad on East 59th Street in 1932.

The ad—or ads—on the left side of the tenement are harder to figure out. “Lexington Ave” is on the bottom, and it looks like the word “cars” is on top.

A garage? A gas station? For a while I thought the word in the middle might be Bloomingdale’s, a good 60 or so blocks downtown on Lexington. There was—and maybe still is—a very faded Bloomingdale’s ad on a building at 116th Street and Lexington.

Exactly what riders and walkers saw when they passed this corner is still a mystery.

[Third image: MCNY 3.173.367]

Magnificence and magic at 1920s Columbus Circle

February 4, 2019

Since last week’s Columbus Circle painting turned out to mislabeled (it was actually Madison Square), I thought I’d make up for the error with this Impressionist kaleidoscope of the Circle, as it was called, by Colin Campbell Cooper.

This must be around 1920. The trolleys circling the Columbus monument are joined by automobiles, and pedestrians seem to cross wherever they can—though it looks like a police officer is directing traffic. (Has Columbus Circle ever been pedestrian friendly?)

The streets look slicked with rain, giving them a soft, magical quality. But blue skies peek through the clouds, perhaps a nod to the magnificent early 20th century city.