How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan

October 4, 2021

The story begins in 1831, when Samuel B. Ruggles, a New York City lawyer and real estate investor, had an idea.

The metropolis was growing fast, pushing past its Lower Manhattan borders and creeping up to 14th Street and beyond. The builders of all the new houses and commercial buildings didn’t always care much about urban planning, and Manhattan’s naturally hilly topography was being leveled and turned into streets and building lots.

Ruggles knew that elite New Yorkers would pay big to reside in a different kind of setting, even if it was somewhat north of the posh sections of the city. “He recognized the value of centering residences around inviting open spaces within Manhattan’s strict city grid,” stated the National Parks Service.

So Ruggles bought land between today’s 19th Street and 24th Street and Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road) and Second Avenue. This marshy part of the city was known as the Crommesshie, or krom moerasje, a Dutch term later corrupted to “Gramercy” that meant “little crooked swamp,” per the NPS.

Ruggles drained the marsh and planned the new neighborhood of Gramercy (below map, from 1831): 66 lots centered on a two-acre green space for residents only that would be an “attractive inducement for real-estate development in the early 19th century,” according to a 1966 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The idea of a private park on city grounds sounds very undemocratic to contemporary New Yorkers. But it wasn’t all that unusual at the time.

First, the whole idea of a park as we know it today was a new concept; it would be another decade before city officials began seriously considering creating the open urban space that ultimately became Central Park in 1859.

Also, a precedent had been set, as Manhattan already had another private park for elite residents only: St. John’s Park, in view of St. John’s Chapel and many posh row houses in today’s Tribeca.

And since the buyers of the building lots would also pay to maintain the park, it wasn’t unreasonable that the park itself would be off-limits to outsiders, blocked by a wrought iron fence.

The first residents relocated to Gramercy in the 1840s, and two years later, planting in the park began, according to the LPC, adding that the iron gate has been locked since 1844. (The first keys were actually made of solid gold, per a 2012 article in the New York Times.)

Close to two centuries later, some of those original private dwellings remain, joined by elegant and historic apartment buildings. Gramercy Park residents successfully fought an attempt to have a cable car cut through the park in the 1890 and 1912, and the tranquil character Ruggles sought remains to this day, “long after the death of the society for which it was designed,” notes the LPC. (A fountain in the park pays homage to Ruggles.)

And what about the still-private park, the only one in Manhattan—St. John’s Park bit the dust in the 1860s—and one of two in all of New York City? (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, created in 1926, is also members-only.)

According to the New York Times, just 383 keys to the park exist, and they’re reserved for residents of the 39 buildings around the perimeter of the park. (Guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel can also sign a key out and be escorted to the park by a staffer.)

“Any of the 39 buildings on the park that fails to pay the yearly assessment fee of $7,500 per lot, which grants it two keys—fees and keys multiply accordingly for buildings on multiple lots—will have its key privileges rescinded,” notes the Times.

Though Gramercy Park used to open one day every year to non-residents, that tradition has ended. If you really want to enjoy the gorgeous landscaping and the statue of actor (and presidential assassin brother) Edwin Booth yet can’t get a key of your own, you might have a shot on Christmas Eve.

In 2019, the park opened to the public for one hour for a caroling event. But be warned: there’s no word on whether that will ever happen again.

[Third image: 1831, MCNY 29.100.2973; fourth image: early 1900s, MCNY x2011.34.3342; fifth image: 1944, MCNY 90.28.30; sixth image: 1913 NYPL]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]

It’s hard to believe this unspoiled beach is Coney Island in the 1870s

September 27, 2021

Before the Cyclone, before Nathan’s, before the boardwalk, sideshows, amusement parks, bathhouses, mass numbers of beachgoers wading into the surf, Coney Island was an actual island where settlers in the English colony at Gravesend let their animals graze, according to Brooklyn magazine.

Coney’s transformation into the world’s most famous beach resort began in the first half of the 19th century, with the arrival of Coney Island House.

But things really ramped up once the railroads arrived in the 1860s, and then when Ocean Parkway was completed in the 1870s, states westland.net by Jeffrey Stanton.

By the end of the 1870s, the big hotels came in, and pretty soon, thousands of New Yorkers every summer headed out by rail, road, or steamboat to what was dubbed the People’s Playground and Sodom by the Sea. After the turn of the century, Coney became even more popular.

Its era as a “spit of sand” that had been “lonely with rabbits” was long gone. But perhaps these 1870s beach photos, from the collection of the Brooklyn Public Library by George Bradford Brainerd, were taken at a pivotal moment in time.

That moment would have been after Coney Island had become a destination but before the great hotels ushered in the era of bathing pavilions and amusement parks, of cheap food and curiosities like disaster spectacles, exotic animals, and infant incubators.

[Photos: Brooklyn Public Library]

This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park

September 27, 2021

When Ulysses S. Grant succumbed to throat cancer on July 23, 1885, the entire country, and New York City in particular, mourned a man considered to be a national hero.

Though he passed away at an upstate resort near Saratoga, the former US President and Civil War General had made Manhattan his home since 1881. He resided in a handsome brownstone with his wife, Julia, at 3 East 66th Street.

In the months before his death, as Grant finished his memoirs and battled a painful cancer, the press had something of a death watch going—writing front page articles about the doctors who came in and out of the brownstone, how well Grant had slept the night before, and what medications he was taking.

Crowds formed outside his brownstone all the way to Central Park, as this Harper’s illustration shows. “Expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand, and every one thought it marvellous [sic] that the General was able to continue the struggle for so long,” reported the New-York Tribune in April 1885.

Those same crowds were likely among the estimated 1.5 million people who lined city streets from City Hall through the Upper West Side to witness Grant’s funeral procession (above, at Bryant Park).

Before his death, Grant decided New York City would be his final resting place. “Mayor William R. Grace (who would later serve as president of the Grant Monument Association) offered to set aside land in one of New York City’s parks for burial, and the Grant family chose Riverside Park after declining the possibility of Central Park,” states grantstomb.org.

Riverside Park was a wise choice. The park, with its natural rock outcroppings and sloping hillside, had recently been developed, and the winding drive alongside it, then called Riverside Avenue, was to be a peaceful carriage road leading to the 18th century inn known as Claremont at 124th Street and beyond.

The problem was, the magnificent Grant’s Tomb we recognize today at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street—with its Doric columns and a circular cupola that can be seen from miles away—was not yet in the planning stages.

So a first tomb for Grant was built in Riverside Park a few blocks north (top two images). Much less grand, the original Grant’s tomb ended up housing his remains for 12 years.

The temporary vault was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, chief architect of New York City’s Department of Public Works. “With outside dimensions of 17’ x 24’, it consisted primarily of red bricks with black brick trim and a semi-cylindrical asphalt-coated brick roof,” wrote grantstomb.org.

The site chosen for the vault was described in The New York Times on July 29 as “a spot of rare natural beauty away from the noise and turmoil of the great and busy city.”

While Grant’s coffin rested there, the city worked on the design and financing of the spectacular permanent tomb, which opened with great pomp and fanfare on April 27, 1897—a city holiday named Grant Day.

Grant’s remains were quietly transferred inside. Meanwhile, the first tomb was being dismantled, and the bricks became souvenirs.

“In 1897, when Grant’s coffin was transferred to the permanent tomb, the bricks from the dismantled structure became a hot item,” wrote Michael Pollack in a 2006 New York Times FYI column. “As many as 1,000 were acquired by the mayor’s office and distributed to former generals, dignitaries and others.”

And about the old joke about who is buried in Grant’s tomb, the answer is…nobody. Grant’s remains, as well as his wife’s, are entombed (but not buried) in the sarcophagi, viewable from the main entrance.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY, 93.1.1.7829; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL]

When rich New Yorkers and their horses took to Central Park’s new carriage drive

September 20, 2021

Central Park was a work in progress when Winslow Homer produced this richly detailed scene in 1860. But that didn’t stop New York’s fashionable set from coming out to the park in stylish carriages to see and be seen in a daily ritual known as the “carriage parade.”

Every afternoon between 4-5 p.m., the east side carriage drive from 59th Street to the Mall came alive, explained Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “In the continuous procession of equipages you saw everyone who counted: the aristocracy, the new smart set, the parvenus, the celebrities, the deplorably notorious.”

Perhaps Homer isn’t capturing just the carriage parade but the various ways Gotham’s wealthy and their horses used new park. Take the woman in the foreground, for example. Thanks to the carriage drive, riding was now socially acceptable for ladies, according to Morris.

“The fashionable hour for equestriennes was before breakfast,” he wrote. “You could see them elegantly togged out in silk hat draped with a flying veil, tight buttoned bodice and flowing skirts….A lady riding alone was invariably attended by a liveried groom or a riding master.”

Men in positions of power indulged in the trotting fad, riding expensive fast horses to Harlem Lane and back to the park. “When General Grant visited the city at the end of the Civil War, one of his first requests was to be taken out to Harlem Lane,” stated Morris. “He shared New York’s passion for trotters, and agreed that ‘the road’ of a late afternoon was one of the most thrilling sights in the country.”

[Lithograph: up for auction at Invaluable]

Everything you need to know about the Greenwich Village of 1961 in one map

September 20, 2021

“Geographically speaking, the Village is only a small part of New York City,” so states the copy on the side of this remarkable map of the Greenwich Village of 1961 (click the map to enlarge it), which details the restaurants, bars, cafes, apartment buildings, and other notable spots from Washington Street all the way to Cooper Square.

“Map of the Greenwich Village section of New York City,” by Lawrence Fahey, cartographer

This extraordinary illustrated map, drawn and published by cartographer Lawrence Fahey, seems to be aimed at visitors.

“What is it about the Village that provokes such widespread interest? It stems primarily from the fact that the Village has long been a focus of youthful rebellion and Bohemian life and as such has been the cradle of many innovations in American art, drama, literature, and poetry, the current example of which is ‘Beat’ or ‘Hip’ writing,” the copy reads.

The text on the map reflects its era, containing comments about the relaxed vibe of Village blocks and parks, the shopping options, and why certain adjacent streets were excluded.

“While making the field survey for this map, it was found that the Hudson River waterfront with its wharfs and warehouses lacks the charm of the ‘Old Village’ and the rest of Bohemia,” per the text. “The same is true of the area south of Prince Street where depressing loft buildings and dark streets would hardly appeal to any visitor.”

Ha! By 1971, the warehouses of the far West Village would undergo conversion to housing, the “depressing” streets south of Prince would be rebranded Soho, and the area east of Cooper Square would transform into the East Village.

It’s a fascinating visual trip back to the Village of the early 1960s. West 14th Street was once Little Spain (second image); today, none of these restaurants or shops remain.

The Village Nursing Home (third image) is still a nursing home, not a luxury residence. The Women’s House of Detention boxes in Jefferson Market Courthouse, which hasn’t been repurposed as an NYPL library branch yet.

St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street has a school. The Sixth Precinct is still at the end of Charles Street, not in the circa-1970s new precinct house between Perry and Charles Streets. There’s a fair number of gas stations and lots of antique shops. NYU isn’t everywhere.

A surprising number of spots from the Village of 60 years ago are still with us: Caffe Reggio, Julius, Seville, Gene’s, plus Rocco’s and Faicco’s on Bleecker Street. The Waverly still plays movies, but it’s the last Village movie theater left.

[Map: NYPL Digital Collections]

A West Side apartment house that transports you to Renaissance England

September 20, 2021

So many of the side streets of the Upper West Side are lovely architectural time capsules, with uniform groups of townhouses and majestic apartment buildings reflecting the fashionable styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But sometimes you come across a building that feels like a design unicorn. Case in point is Red House, on West 85th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.

This delightful six-story confection of English and French-inspired Gothic details feels more like an Elizabethan manor house, with its white terra cotta, crown cartouche, and red brick—which gave the building its name, according to The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Why architects Herbert S. Harde and R. Thomas Short were inspired by Renaissance-era England and France isn’t clear. But Red House is the first upper-class residence the two collaborated on, and it serves as something of an advertisement for their work—which departed from the stately Beaux-Arts style and offered delight and whimsy. “A six-story romantic masterpiece,” the AIA Guide to New York City calls it.

Harde himself lived at Red House with his wife through the 1910s. The building can boast of another notable tenant: a young Dorothy Rothschild—the future Dorothy Parker, states Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York.

“An early example of Harde & Short’s elaborate and luxurious apartment buildings, Red House established many of the recognizable elements which were to become the firm’s calling card,” stated the 1982 Landmarks Preservation Commission report, designating the building a historic landmark.

“The building indicates the acceptance of the apartment building as a desirable housing form, and reflects the impact of this change in the physical development of the Upper West Side.”

After completing Red House in 1904 (above), Harde & Short went on to design the Gothic renaissance-inspired 44 West 77th Street. They’re also the creative geniuses behind 45 East 66th Street as well as Alwyn Court, at Seventh Avenue and 55th Street. All three buildings still grace the cityscape with lots of visual eye candy, such as cathedral-like flourishes and flamboyant detailing.

There’s one unusual design feature that both Alwyn Court and Red House share, courtesy of Harde & Short: both buildings have terra cotta salamanders on the facade. The Red House salamander wears a crown.

Why a salamander? It’s the emblem of Francois I, the king of France from 1515 to 1547—another Renaissance-inspired touch.

[Third image: MCNY; X2010.7.1.395]

What happened to the big whale at the Central Park Children’s Zoo?

September 16, 2021

If you were young in New York City in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, then you probably remember the thrill of visiting Jonah’s Whale at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, with that smiling open mouth you could practically walk into.

Jonah’s Whale had been part of the Children’s Zoo since its 1961 opening, according to The New York Times. But this star zoo attraction got the boot in the mid-1990s, after the zoo fell into disrepair and the whale was “derided as kitsch,” as the Times put it.

“A new generation of sober-minded zookeepers, trained to re-create natural habitats, questioned its educational value,” the Times wrote. “And critics wondered whether a sculpture depicting the biblical tale of Jonah, who spent three nights in the belly of a whale, was appropriate in a public park.”

In the mid-1990s, Jonah’s Whale was carted away to the Rockaways, where it was supposed to live in a happy retirement. But apparently the whale was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, per a 2014 article in Rockawave, which covered an attempt to raise money to rebuild it.

The fate of Whalemina, as the whale was renamed in the Rockaways, isn’t clear. But Baby Boomer and Gen X New Yorkers surely are hoping that this zoo icon is safe and in one piece again somewhere.

[Top image: eBay; second image: NYC Parks]

A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children

September 16, 2021

When Isaac Rice and his wife, Julia, decided to build a mansion at Riverside Drive and 89th Street for themselves and their young family in 1901, they turned to builders who gave them a house with lots of architectural elegance.

The four-story dwelling, completed in 1903, was a mix of Georgian and Beaux-Arts styles, with an arched second-floor entrance, Spanish roof tiles, doric columns, and a porte chochere—likely for Mr. Rice’s new electric vehicles, according to a 1979 Historic Preservation Commission report.

But the couple also commissioned something especially unique on the facade: a bas relief sculpture that portrays six children as unique individuals playing, reading, and otherwise looking happy and engaged.

Though the identities of the children aren’t known for sure, it’s almost certain that they are the six kids of Isaac and Julia Rice. This marble ode to their offspring on such a visible part of the facade reflects the pride and joy they took in their large family.

The bas relief, carved into the first floor beside the porte cochere, is thought to be the work of Louis St. Lanne, a French-born sculptor who also designed a statue of a boy outside Isaac L. Rice Memorial Stadium in Pelham Bay Park, states the HPC report. The stadium was a gift to the city from Julia Rice after Isaac died in 1915.

Isaac and Julia Rice made many headlines in their day. Mr. Rice was a financier, inventor, and diehard chess enthusiast (he had a chess room in his mansion and is the genius behind a move called the “Rice gambit”).

Mrs. Rice, a non-practicing medical doctor, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and campaigned in the early 1900s to put a stop to tugboat horns, factory whistles, and other sources of noise pollution in the Gilded Age city.

It seems that their children stayed out of the limelight. But a 2012 article about the Rice mansion by Marjorie Cohen in West Side Rag prompted a comment from a reader who said the Rices were her great-grandparents.

“Their six children were comprised of two boys and four girls,” the reader wrote. “The girls were nicknamed Dolly, Polly, Molly, and Lolly. My grandmother was Lolly, the youngest of the daughters. The six children were quite interesting in their own right!”

The Rices moved out of their mansion and into an apartment in the nearby Ansonia, on Broadway and 73rd Street, after the panic of 1907 forced Isaac to sell his house, according to Cohen.

Amazingly, the family only lived in their Riverside Drive mansion for about four years. More than a century later, it’s one of only two surviving freestanding mansions on a curvy former carriage drive that once featured dozens of them. Through all the changes over the years, their marble memorial to their children remains.

[Fourth image: Rice Mansion, about 1905; MCNY X2010.7.2.25109]

Two mystery initials on a 125th Street building reveal a former department store

September 16, 2021

Sometimes the ghosts of New York City put clues about Gotham’s past right under your nose.

That’s what happened on a recent walk down busy 125th Street, between Seventh and Lenox Avenues. On an empty building partially hidden behind scaffolding and a blue tarp are two letters, entwined like a logo: KC.

The initials can be seen from the sidewalk, and they pose the question: What’s KC?

Turns out these initials stand for Koch & Co., a once-heralded department store with its roots in the city’s Gilded Age, when mass consumerism was born and the idea of shopping for leisure took hold.

Henry C.F. Koch, an immigrant from Germany, founded his eponymous emporium with his father-in-law in 1860, according to Walter Grutchfield. Their first store opened at Carmine and Bleecker Streets, then made the jump the Sixth Avenue and 20th Street in 1875.

At the time, the Sixth Avenue location put Koch & Co. squarely in New York’s burgeoning Ladies Mile Shopping District, which roughly spanned Broadway to Sixth Avenue and 10th Street to 23rd Street.

Koch & Co.’s competition on Ladies Mile would have been B. Altman’s on Sixth and 19th Street, Hugh O’Neill & Co. on Sixth and 21st, and Macy’s at Sixth and 14th Street. These and other department stores sold everything from fashion to furniture to food to women who were free to browse and buy without being accompanied by male escort, as was the usual custom at the time.

In 1892, perhaps taking note of population shifts and the elevated railroads that opened uptown Manhattan to residential development, Koch relocated his store to a new building at 125th Street.

“At that time the street was residential in nature, and H. C. F. Koch & Co. were pioneers in leading the changes that converted 125th St. into a shopping street,” Grutchfield wrote.

Koch & Co. certainly got good press. In a New York Times article from 1893, a reporter wrote: “The great store of H.C.F. Koch Co. in One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, is, par excellence, the emporium of the far uptown district, and consequently the announcement of its Fall opening is attracting thousands of buyers and seekers after the styles of the season.”

Still, it may have been hard at first to lure shoppers so far uptown, as this ad in The New York Times (above) from 1893 hints. Koch himself had moved to Lenox Avenue, and in 1900 he died, passing the business to his sons.

The department store continued until 1930, when it was bought out and closed. The stately building remains, with those CK initials and the name “Koch and Co” carved in stone high above the cornice.

[Third image: NYPL, 1936; fourth image: King’s Views of New York City, 1903; fifth image: New York Times, 1893]