St. Marks Place was once a posh New York street

April 11, 2016

StmarksstreetsignIn the 1820s, New Yorkers of wealth began leaving the crowded commercial section of the city.

Where to? The new residential drives going up above Houston Street, specifically on the growing city’s East Side.

StmarkshamiltonhollyBond Street, Washington Square North, Bleecker Street, Fourth Street, La Grange Terrace (today’s Lafayette Place) all became elite addresses.

And for a brief period of time, so did St. Marks Place.

St. Marks Place’s rise began in 1831, when developer Thomas E. Davis purchased property on the south and north sides of Eighth Street between Second and Third Avenues.

This stretch of Eighth Street was recently part of Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie. It had only been an open street since 1826, inside the loose boundaries of a small enclave known as Bowery Village.

But New York was marching northward, and Davis intended to capitalize on it. His plan was to build “superior class” homes that would be set back from the street on large lots.

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And to give the block some pizzazz (and copy fashionable street names like Astor Place), he renamed it after nearby St. Marks Church.

Stmarks271890s“Grand, 3-1/2-story Federal style marble-and-brick-clad town houses with balconies were constructed here in 1831,” states this Landmarks Commission Report.

Soon, noteworthy residents followed. In 1833, 4 St. Marks Place was purchased by Col. Alexander Hamilton, son of the founding father.

Among other family members, he moved his widowed mother, Eliza Hamilton, into the house.

Daniel LeRoy, a member of the Fish family, bought number 20 (top right). Writer James Feinmore Cooper occupied number 6.

St. Marks retained its cachet through the 1840s. But as always in Manhattan, the rich fanned north. The street, as well as the neighborhood, slid out of fashion.

Stmarkschildrensaidsociety1890“The neighborhood of St. Marks Place has become of late a much less desirable location that it was formerly….” wrote the New York Times in 1852, referring to frequent cattle drives passing the corner at Third Avenue.

As the wealthy left, and then the cattle drives disappeared, thousands of German immigrants replaced them.

They remade St. Marks Place into a main street in the city’s teeming Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland.

Eastern Europeans, charity workers, gangsters, bohemians, punk rockers, tourists, and college kids all followed.

Stmarksplacetrashvaudeville2Today, just three of Davis’ Federal-style dwellings remain, including what’s now known as the Hamilton-Holly House—where Eliza Hamilton was foreclosed on in the 1840s (right).

The Daniel LeRoy House, in similar not-so-great shape as the Hamilton-Holly abode, is also still standing.

[Newspaper ad: The Evening Post, April 1832; fourth image: 27 St. Marks Place, a Girls’ Temporary Home operated by the Children’s Aid Society, from King’s Handbook of New York; fifth image: 24 St. Marks Place, a group of boys pose for Jacob Riis in 1890 before heading off on an orphan train sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society, MCNY.]

The story behind three faded ads in Manhattan

April 11, 2016

If you look up enough while walking through the city, you see a fair number of these weathered ads, partly erased by rain and grime.

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Deciphering what they say isn’t always easy. Take this ad at 23 East 20th Street. “Furs” is still legible, but the name of the company is tricky.

It looks like M. Handin & Grapkin—which is close, as sure enough a company with the name Drapkin appears to have gone into the furrier business as early as 1909.

The wonderful faded sign site 14to42.net says that M. Handin and Drapkin were located in this building around 1909, and the faded ad could be more than a century old.

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This building on East 12th Street and University Place is a faded sign spotter’s dream. “Student Clothes” up top is easy enough to read.

Walter Grutchfield’s photo is better than mine, and his caption explains that the company occupied this building from 1924 to 1929.

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To get this view of this faded ad at 324 West 84th Street, you have to stand inside the 15th floor apartment of the building next door.

The address is barely legible—and though 324 is an apartment house today, as early as 1918 it was the Hotel Ramsby.

The left side of the ad must have listed room rates, forever lost to the ages.

Who is the man on a Greenwich Village building?

April 4, 2016

AlabamafacadeManhattan corners don’t get much lovelier than West 11th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. And one especially sweet building on the north side is the wonderfully named Alabama.

Affiliated with the nearby Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Alabama dates back to the mid-19th century, going through various incarnations as a hotel, apartment house, co-op, and now a dorm, it seems.

There’s nothing unusual about the building at all. It has typical period detailing and decorative elements . . . except for the very late 20th century–looking man’s face above the front entrance.

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Gargoyles, the Green Man sculptures, griffins—these are all pretty normal for a 19th century New York residence.

But who is this cool person in sunglasses and a cowboy hat, and why does he look a little like Tom Petty?

A Little Italy painter’s colorful, complex city

April 4, 2016

In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.

[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]

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“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”

[“New York City,” 1957]

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The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.

[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]

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But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.

His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.

[“Stickball”]

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“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.

[“New York Going to Work”]

Fasanellanewyorkgoestowork

“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.

FasanellacoverHis depictions of Italian festivals, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and other New York icons burst with color, energy, and authenticity.

“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.

“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”

Spring comes to brownstone Brooklyn in 1949

March 28, 2016

This is Brooklyn just four years after the end of World War II.

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In 1949, when Brooklyn on the north side of Prospect Park was still a collection of working-class and middle-income neighborhoods and urban decay had yet to take hold, a Life photographer went out and took some photos.

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In a Life spread titled “Spring Comes to Brooklyn,” Ralph Morse captured street life in the neighborhoods located in the shadow of the Williamsburgh Bank Tower.

Liferalphmorseteenagers

The images look like simple snapshots. Backyard gardens are planted. Kids play in the (strangely car-free) streets. Teenagers hang around corner candy stores and newsstands.

Liferalphmorsemangardenbackyard

Women clean off stoops while minding babies and toddlers. Neighbors stop to chat at the front door. Laundry hangs between buildings.

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It’s almost the 1950s, and the modern era has begun. But what’s interesting is how unguarded residents seem. It’s as if there’s no element of danger to worry about or shield their kids from.

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This part of Brooklyn would change dramatically in the next few decades. And of course, the brownstones of Brooklyn would then become some of the most sought-after housing in the entire city.

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But here is Brooklyn before all that, depicted by a very talented photographer in one moment in time. Many more photos are available to scroll through at the Life archives.

[Photos: Life/Ralph Morse]

The prewar mailing address on a Village window

March 28, 2016

ZipcodestorefrontThe eclectic antiques and furniture store at 80 East 11th Street in Greenwich Village is so discreet, it has no store sign above the entrance.

What the store does have, though, is its mailing address painted in the lower right corner of the store window—with the old school–style one-digit postal code rather than the five-numeral ZIP code we use today.

Zipcodestorecloseup

Seen all the time on old letters and ads, these postal codes, pioneered in the 1940s as a way to speed mail delivery, are a rarity in the contemporary city.

They were replaced by the five-digit zip codes in the 1960s. Clearly some businesses in contemporary New York prefer their mailing address the old-fashioned way.

The tearjerker Titanic Memorial inside Macy’s

March 28, 2016

StrausportraitWhen the Titanic met its end in the icy Atlantic early in the morning of April 15, 1912, many very rich passengers went down with the ship.

Among them were Ida Straus and her husband, Isidor, the German-born department store magnate who had owned Macy’s since the late 1800s.

Ida and Isidor had an exceptionally loving marriage. After an iceberg ripped the ship and women were being urged into lifeboats, Mrs. Straus refused. “As we have lived, so will we die together,” she reportedly said.

Strausplaquemacys

“They expressed themselves as fully prepared to die, and calmly sat down on steamer chairs on the glass-enclosed Deck A, prepared to meet their fate,” wrote wealthy New Yorker Archibald Gracie, who was with the couple that terrible night.

StraussunheadlineIsidor Straus’ death hit his Macy’s employees hard—which is almost impossible to imagine today, when CEOs are not exactly beloved by their underlings.

“‘Mr. Isidor,’ as he was known, regularly walked the shop floor, a pink carnation boutonnière stuck in the lapel of his dark suit jacket as he greeted workers by name,” according to a 2012 article in The Jewish Daily Forward.

Straus felt a sense of responsibility to his employees. He created a mutual aid society, offered basic health insurance, and built a cafeteria that served up hot (and subsidized) meals.

StraushebrewAfter the news emerged that he was lost at sea, Macy’s employees “contributed what little they could afford to create a memorial plaque for their boss,” and his wife, reported the Forward.

The plaque was ceremoniously unveiled in June 1913 in the Macy’s cafeteria Isidor Straus built.

In attendance were 5,000 employees and the Straus’ surviving family members. A century later, the bronze plaque is still on display at Macy’s in an entrance on 34th Street.

“Their lives were beautiful and their deaths glorious,” reads the inscription on the tablet, described as “a voluntary token of sorrowing employees.”

[Third image: carnegiehall.com; fourth image: a Yiddish songbook “Sacrifices of the Ship Titanic”]

Hauling clothes in the Garment District in 1955

March 21, 2016

Around the time this 1955 photo was taken, the vast majority of clothes for sale in the United States was made in the states too.

Specifically, they were made in the square mile south of Midtown long known as the Garment District.

Garmentdistrict1955

Today, only 5 percent of clothes are made in America. And while you still see factories and showrooms in the Garment District, the narrow, dark streets here compose a ghost town compared to what they were 60 years ago.

At least some faded ads continue to hold their own on former factory buildings.

[Photo: LOC/Al Ravenna]

New York’s most charming holdout buildings

March 21, 2016

Amid New York’s soaring skyline are some lilliputian-size gaps—the low-rise, 19th century buildings whose owners refused to sell when a developer had plans to bulldoze and rebuild next door.

Holdoutbuildingupperwestside

These holdout buildings, now in the shadows of giants, are fun to come across—especially when the architectural style is so vastly different from its newer neighbor.

Holdoutbuildingromanesque

That’s what I love about this photo of a Romanesque Revival former soap shop on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, dwarfed by a contemporary high rise.

HoldoutbuildingsSuttonplace

Same goes for these two stately townhouses on Sutton Place. Perhaps they were mansions in their day, but now clearly overwhelmed by the two pre- and post-war luxury apartment houses were built on either side.

Holdoutbuildinglexington

This townhouse on Lexington and 57th Street looks like it’s being subsumed. The bigger building is the former Allerton Hotel for Women, built in 1923.

The banner advertisement on the townhouse suggests it’s the property of the larger hotel.

Holdoutbuildingflatiron

A lovely three-story remnant of old New York has withstood the test of time in the East 20s off Broadway, sandwiched between two 1920s loft-style buildings. What stories it must have to tell!

Stopping at the Buckhorn Tavern on 22nd Street

March 21, 2016

Imagine that it’s the early 19th century.

You’re a farmer coming from the vast countryside of Manhattan or a traveler from Albany or Boston, and you’re trying to get to the actual city of New York, which is concentrated below Canal Street.

Buckshorntavern2

Roads aren’t so great, and travel by wagon or stage takes a long time. Good thing that when you need to eat, rest, or take a bed for the night, there are taverns that will welcome you.

One of those taverns is the Buckhorn (or Buck’s Horn), which since 1812 stood on once-bucolic Broadway and 22nd Street. (Below, today, not so bucolic)

Bucksheadtavern20162Described by one 1911 book as “an old and well-known tavern,” this rustic outpost “was ornamented with the head and horns of a buck and was set back a short distance from the street about ten feet higher than the present grade.”

This short description of the tavern also offers a glimpse of the few roads surrounding it.

“It was a favorite road-house for those who drove out upon the Bloomingdale Road (Boston Post Road) … the drivers of the day used to come as far as the Buck’s Horn, then turn through the quiet and shady Love Lane to Chelsea, and thence by the River Road through Greenwich Village and back to the city across the Lispenard meadows.”

Buckhorntavernfire

Buckhorn Tavern “was the stopping-place for the butchers and bakers,” reminisced one New Yorker in 1866, who recalled the cock fights there.

MadisoncottageOh, and it had a ten-pin alley for bowling, a popular pastime in the post-Colonial city.

The Buckhorn met its end in an early morning fire, which consumed the entire building in 1842 along with four stabled horses.

Luckily another popular roadhouse, Madison Cottage (above), was just a few blocks away at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street—by 1850 a much more populated area.


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