A close-up look down Cortlandt Street in 1908

April 27, 2015

“Cortlandt Street, New York, showing the Singer Building,” reads the caption of this postcard.

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What a time capsule we’re looking at from what appears to be West Street. Not only is there no more Singer Building (brand new in 1908, demolished in 1968), but the small-scale walkups on the right were obliterated to make way for the World Trade Center in the early 1970s.

Cortlandt Street at this time had not yet earned its wonderful nickname, “Radio Row.”

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That’s the platform for the Ninth Avenue El, which ran up Greenwich Street. Compare the postcard to the actual photo it comes from.

Shorpy has the enlarged image here, so you can gaze at old New York in incredible detail.

A tough painter depicts a tender New York

April 27, 2015

George Luks arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1896.

Passionate and energetic, he was one of many young painters (along with artist friends he met in Philly, like Everett Shinn and William Glackens) whose work focused on the tenderness of the city’s underbelly.

[“The Bread Line”]

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“One of the dynamic, young group of American Realists known as the Ashcan School, [Luks] was a tough character who in art and life embraced the gritty side of turn-of-the-century New York,” states the Brooklyn Museum.

Macho and combative, he first worked as an illustrator at the New York World, honing his skills outside of his newspaper job by painting peddlers, poor older women, street kids, and other down and out New Yorkers—as well as impressionist-like scenes of the city at play and at street markets.

[“Madison Square,” 1915]

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In 1908, he’d gained notoriety as a member of the Eight, a group of social realist painters whose dark, gripping work attracted controversy.

Artistic styles change fast, and soon, Luks’ urban realism was out of fashion.

“Ironically perhaps, by the time Luks exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, his formerly radical subject matter and style were overshadowed by the developing abstract movement,” states one gallery site.

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[“Spring Morning in New York,” 1922]

220px-George_Luks_I“Luks would teach at the Art Students League in New York from 1920 to 1924 and go on to establish the George Luks School of Painting in New York,” on East 22nd Street.

His death in 1933, at age 66, was characteristically dramatic. On October 29, Luks (at left) was found in the early morning hours slumped in a doorway, beaten to death after a barroom brawl.

A missing Brooklyn woman transfixes the city

April 27, 2015

JessieMcCannWhen 23-year-old Jessie McCann didn’t return after work to her family’s Brooklyn home on December 4, 1913, newspapers jumped on the story.

After all, Jessie’s disappearance had all the elements that would draw in readers: money, romantic intrigue, and mental illness.

The daughter of a food wholesaler who counted Mayor Ardolph Kline as a friend, Jessie lived with her family in a comfortable home at 438 East 21st Street in Flatbush (21st Street, below).

Like many privileged young women of her era, Jessie pursued work as a teacher and social worker at settlement houses.

McCannheadlinefoundNYTThe day she vanished, she left for work at the Home for Destitute Children on Sterling Place in Brooklyn . . . but never showed up.

“Miss Jessie McCann . . . is 5 foot 7 inches tall, of slender physique, weighing not more than 120 pounds,” wrote the New York Times on December 9, 1913.

“She had a light complexion with brown hair and blue eyes. . . . she wore a brown satin dress with a cutaway coat and a velvet Tam ‘o Shanter hat with an orange plume.”

And also like many of her privileged peers, she was described as having a “nervous” disposition. She suffered from “melancholia,” according to her family, and was being treated by a doctor.

 McCannflatbush21ststreetJessie’s disappearance made headlines for weeks, and the press pounced on every clue. Why was she last seen Thursday afternoon on Wall Street in Manhattan? Could she really have been spotted wandering around Zeller’s drugstore on Coney Island?

The family shot down rumors that she eloped. But a romantic angle emerged: a Columbia student came forward to say that he was Jessie’s fiance.

Her family dismissed the man’s claim, insisting that Jessie thought of men as “nuisances” and was “not of a romantic disposition.”

But police confirmed through her friends that she and the Columbia student were secretly engaged, and that he had sent her a letter the morning she vanished, telling her that they could not get married until he finished his studies in three years.

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The weeks went on, detectives continued to investigate, and her family offered a $1,000 reward. Sightings of Jessie as far away as Chicago didn’t pan out.

JessieMcCannfoundheadlineNYTFinally, on January 5, the headlines changed: Jessie had been found, her body washed ashore on Coney Island.

Based on how decomposed it was, police believe she drowned the very day she went missing, a suicide victim despondent over her fiance’s postponing their marriage.

Her family insisted it had to be an accident, though they admitted “her nerves were unstrung.”

The shadowy corners of a city street in 1930

April 20, 2015

“Corner Shadows,” by printmaker Martin Lewis, depicts a Depression-era city of lamp light, back streets, and regular New Yorkers absorbed in their own thoughts, even in a crowd.

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It’s not clear what corner of the city we’re on, but the drugstore across the way hints that it’s ordinary and nondescript, a working class neighborhood perhaps.

Look close, and you can see ads for Ex-Lax, soda, and seltzer, plus a counter occupied by a few lonely souls.

Much of Lewis’ extraordinary drypoint prints give us a similar New York noir . . . sometimes with a bit of playfulness.

A thief called the “cleverest woman in America”

April 20, 2015

AnniereillybyrnesbookmugshotWith its growing wealth and a police force more focused on patronage than professionalism, New York in the mid- to late 19th century was a thief’s paradise.

One female Irish immigrant was so successful at robbing the homes of the well off, she earned the nickname “the cleverest woman of her line in America.”

Her name was Anne Reilly. Born in Ireland in 1844, she came to New York and worked as a maid and nanny.

Her job made stealing relatively easy. Bright, charming, and able to speak three languages, “. . . she makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good-will of the lady of the house,” before stealing all the valuables, wrote Thomas Byrnes, New York’s notorious chief of detectives in his 1886 in his book Professional Criminals of America.

AnniereillypickpocketUnder the alias of Kate Connelly, Kate Manning, or Kate Cooley, “Little” Annie plied her trade in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other Northeastern cities, falling in with a group of professional con women and sneak thieves headed by Marm Mandelbaum, who lived on Clinton Street.

After small stints in prison, in 1880 she was finally sentenced to doing real time—three years—on Blackwell’s Island for robbing a Second Avenue home of a Mrs. Evangeline Swartz.

Anniereillynytimes1879She went back to her old ways upon release, getting a job as a servant at the New York Hotel and stealing thousands of dollars in jewelry from guests’ rooms. She also tried to make off with a watch from a Macon Street, Brooklyn, jeweler named Charles Jennings.

ThomasbyrnesThose crimes scored her time in the Kings County Penitentiary, where the official record of her life and misdeeds appears to end.

“This woman is well worth knowing,” Byrnes (at left) wrote. “She has stolen more property in the last 15 years than any other four women in America.” The four women include her three aliases.

[Article clippings: New York Times]

Step into the remains of a Gilded Age hotel

April 20, 2015

Hollandhouse“Every window in the Holland House, at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, was glowing with light last night when the doors were opened to hundreds of visitors bidden to see the beauties of the new hostelry,” wrote the New York Times in a gushing review of the newest kid on a luxury block on December 6, 1891.

In a Gilded Age city resplendent with so many sumptuous hotels, the Holland House quickly became the place to live, dine, and enjoy a stretch of Fifth Avenue lined with the mansions of wealthy New Yorkers.

And former mansions, as New York’s richest residents were steadily relocating their residences uptown.

Hollandhouse1905

“The Holland House presents many novelties—and extremely attractive ones too . . .” stated the Times.

“In the main hall, leading from the Fifth Avenue entrance, the walls and the carved staircase are of Sienna marble.”

Hollandhousestaircase“There are 350 guest rooms in the hotel, and from the bridal suites down are all beautifully furnished and decorated,” wrote the Times.

The writer of the article also noted the novel wine cellar, the banquet and drawing rooms, the restaurant, and the staff of 180 employees.

Holland House offered sumptuous accommodations through the teens, hosting president Taft (and an army of Secret Service guards) in 1912.

HollandhouseornamentationBut the hotel was eclipsed not long after it opened when the Waldorf and the Astoria Hotels went up a few blocks north on 34th Street.

In 1897, the two joined forces to become the city’s premier hotel, turning the area into kind of a luxury hotel row which played host to the most exclusive balls and parties, like the legendary Bradley Martin Ball.

Today, unlike the original Waldorf-Astoria, Holland House still stands.

Hollandhouse2015Its facade is remarkably unchanged, and mysteriously there is a marble staircase and ornamental motifs in marble visible in the lobby.

The building manager says they are originals.

If so, they’re some of the last remnants of Gilded Age glamour on this once exclusive stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Glowing beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

April 13, 2015

Now this is enchantment: the globes of light from the bridge deck, the boat lights illuminating the East River, the twinkling skyline of lower Manhattan.

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“This view shows the well known Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground, and the most prominent of New York’s skyscrapers in the distance,” reads the back of this postcard.

“This scene is probably more familiar than any other to the multitude of people living in Greater New York.”

The fate of two brothers watching Lincoln’s funeral procession

April 13, 2015

While researching a book about Abraham Lincoln, writer Stefan Lorant uncovered this April 25, 1865 image of Lincoln’s funeral procession passing Broadway at 13th Street.

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The photo is one of many taken on that solemn afternoon. And it contains an amazing coincidence.

The building on the corner was the mansion of Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt. Peering out the second-floor window are his seven- and five-year-old grandsons, Theodore and Elliott Roosevelt.

Elliottrooseveltadult“Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” confirmed Edith Carow Roosevelt, Teddy’s widow. A childhood friend of the Roosevelt boys, she too was at the mansion that day.

We know how Teddy Roosevelt’s life unfolded: he attended Harvard, became a state assemblyman and then reform-minded city police commissioner, colonel of the Rough Riders, New York governor, vice president, and in 1901, at age 42, the youngest president in history.

TR was dynamic, combative, robust, and moralistic—a family man who found his greatest happiness in his home life with his wife and five children.

But what about Elliott?

As Teddy’s life was marked by achievement and success, Elliott’s took the opposite direction.

Anna Hall RooseveltWell-liked and amiable, Elliott (above) was supposed to be the academic and athletic star of the family.

But while Teddy went to Harvard, Elliott used his inheritance to travel, enjoy society, and drink, developing the alcoholism and drug addiction that would plague him his entire life.

In 1883, he married a beautiful socialite named Anna Hall (left). Elliott and Anna had three children, including first-born Eleanor (below).

By all accounts, Elliott was adored by Eleanor. But sickly and overwhelmed by life, he continually sought escape, and his behavior was erratic and disturbing.

ElliottandfamilykidsStints in the business and real-estate world didn’t last. By the early 1890s, his drinking was out of control. He fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant, and he spent time in a European sanitarium.

Disgusted with his brother’s behavior, TR sought to have him declared insane, so his money could be put in a trust for his children.

More misfortune fell. Anna, estranged from her husband, died of diphtheria in 1892. Son Elliott Jr. succumbed to scarlet fever in 1893.

Separated from his children, he wrote letters to Eleanor, who lived with her maternal grandmother on West 37th Street.

Elliottrooseveltnyt“Elliot, as his daughter Eleanor was to note later, now had ‘no wife, no children, no hope,'” according to this 1988 article.

In 1894, Elliott jumped out of the window from his house on West 102nd Street, either attempting suicide or in a delirious state.

He died in his bed on August 14, 1894, the year before Teddy would become New York’s police commissioner and be launched toward a life on the national political stage.

West Village modern brownstone makeovers

April 13, 2015

A big part of the New York’s beauty are the rows and rows of brownstones, with classic 19th century features such as a high front stoop and enormous parlor floor windows.

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But every so often you come across a modernized version of the iconic city residence. The futuristic redesign or unique facade can be creative and impressive . . . or leave you wondering what the designers were thinking.

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That’s the case with this former brownstone on Greenwich Street east of Gansevoort Street, with a front made of glass and what looks like a sheet of steel stretching down the facade. It’s a novel way to block out the sun.

West13th8thave1929Around the corner on Horatio and Greenwich Streets is this three-story residence.

The brick gives it a 19th century feel, but the cutouts on the second and third floor are an interesting touch.

Then there’s this modernized home on West 13th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, near where West Fourth Street ends.

In its earlier life, it was a three-story walk-up, not a brownstone, as this 1929 photo from the New York Public Library reveals (it’s taken the place of the first building on the left).

Now it’s very New York in the 21st century, sleek and trendy . . . and fittingly with a blow-dry bar right downstairs.

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Check out other bizarre brownstone makeovers across Manhattan.

Hanging laundry on a New York tenement roof

April 6, 2015

John Sloan sure had a thing for painting rooftops.

“Red Kimono on the Roof,” from 1912, is just one of many Sloan paintings depicting the view from a roof, or featuring women hanging laundry or catching a breeze from the top of a tenement.

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“This unglorified glimpse of a woman hanging laundry was probably painted from Sloan’s studio window,” states the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s website.


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